Bushy ringlets drawn back in a ponytail, socked feet tucked behind him as he kneels, a young man bends gingerly above a cloth altar placed on his Brooklyn living room floor. He grasps a jug of brown, vinegary liquid drawn from the belly of the Amazon. Warm lamplight bathes him as he tips the bottle, and ayahuasca—a hallucinogenic tribal potion gleaned from jungle vines—drips into a teacup inscribed with Hebrew letters.
“The word L’chaim means ‘to life,’ and that’s a very appropriate message for an ayahuasca ceremony,” the ponytailed man, who goes by the name Turey Tekina, tells me of the Hebrew salutation. The cup was inherited from his Orthodox Jewish family—and used by his father, who died 20 years ago last month.
Tekina denounced Judaism immediately following his father’s death, but he uses this relic each time he leads the indigenous Quechuan ceremony in an unlikely location—a cozy, tidy apartment (where all shoes must be removed at the door) with wooden floors, white walls, and burgundy drapes, tucked between the factories of Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood best known for artist studios and hipster bars.
Tekina is an established ayahuasquero—a shaman-like figure who serves ayahuasca in ceremonies filled with music, chants, and incense. He began holding the rituals overnight in his apartment three years ago, after the drink—which sparks hours of hallucinations, vomiting, and self-realizations—delivered him spiritual fulfillment in ways Judaism never could.
“Growing up I always heard talk about sacredness and holiness, but I never felt it,” Tekina, now 33, tells me. “But in my first ayahuasca ceremony, I had a direct interaction with sacredness. I was enveloped in an energetic embrace of pure love.” We’re sitting cross-legged and encircled by pillows, a xylophone, a piano, a ceiling-high shelf of New Age books, and carved wood sticks Tekina whittles as a hobby.
Tekina first tried the ancient tincture eight years ago in Williamsburg, a time when ayahuasca ceremonies were largely confined to Latin America. The ceremonies date back to prehistory in the Amazon Basin and have remained prevalent in Brazil and Peru. Today, an increasing number of foreigners flock to the jungle for the mystical experience.
But in the past couple of years the DMT-containing liquid (DMT is a psychedelic compound found in dozens of plant species, and in small doses in the human body), known for offering “ten years of therapy in one night,” has exploded in the U.S. Marie Claire called it the newest juice cleanse. The New York Times featured it in their style section as the next rung above yoga. And in Bushwick, healing centers and “shamans” send out constant emails offering a chance to experience an ayahuasca ceremony.
The drug is not legal in the U.S.—Tekina asks that I not publish his real name to protect him from law enforcement—except if offered by the church of Uniao de Vegetal (meaning “union of the plants”), which originated in Brazil and uses the plant in rituals. But to Tekina, ayahuasca serves the most critical need in urban American centers.
“The jungle needs to come to people,” Tekina says of ayahuasca, which he literally receives shipped from Peru. “This is a way to remind people—we’re in nature right now, everywhere in the universe is in nature. I like serving it to people in New York so it can be integrated into their lives, rather than compartmentalized as ‘that trip to Peru.’”
For Tekina, ayahuasca has helped him overcome a traumatic youth, which began with his father’s death from cancer.
“I always had religious questions, and once he died I didn’t have many role models and was in a lot of pain. I hit rock bottom,” Tekina recalls of his teenage years. He went to boarding school at age 13, where he took and sold drugs, and then dropped out at age 15 to move to Israel. There, he sold weed and fell into a deeper drug addiction. He ended up overdosing after taking ketamine intravenously and says he nearly died.
“I went to rehab, and it was get clean or die,” Tekina tells me, his brown eyes wide.
Tekina considers the plant-induced vomiting a psychological purging
He got clean and started taking music classes and doing yoga. He first tried ayahuasca at age 25 in a Williamsburg photo studio at his yoga teacher’s recommendation. He says that mystical, holy sensations filled him so deeply that he felt moved to continue the practice. Many people consider ayahuasca a drug, but to him it’s pure medicine. Tekina considers the plant-induced vomiting a psychological purging of past troubles.
He began traveling to ayahuasca retreats in the jungle of Brazil, Peru, and other Latin American countries. He fell in love with and married a woman who also deeply connected to the ritual. But after a few years together, their relationship fell apart. In an attempt to heal from the divorce, he ventured to a ceremony on a Caribbean island. An icaros (a mystical song chanted during the ritual) “spontaneously arrived” in his mind right before he flew to the island.
That night, in a tropical rainforest with no house in sight, he sang the icaros as the potion took hold, until the whole group of seekers passed out from exhaustion. The next morning the ayahuasquero had him clean and organize a heaping pile of large, evergreen chacapa leaves on the land, and then he presented them to Tekina. Chacapa leaves are waved to make shaker-like rhythmic sounds and to “move energy around” during ayahuasca ceremonies, Tekina explains.
“Not everyone can carry these leaves, but you can,” the ayahuasquero said of the symbolic rite. “I’d like you to work with ayahuasca in New York, and I will help you. Do you agree?”
“Yes,” he replied.
The next day was the initiation. Face painted with black and white stripes, he climbed to a boulder—the only rock in sight—surrounded by hills and lush rainforest trees. The ayahuasquero gave him cohoba, an even stronger hallucinogenic plant.
“It wrung me out. There was the initial purge of my stomach, and then this white mucusy foam, that took me to another level. It was a purification,” he recalls. “There were colors and shapes flying at me.”
Once he felt no more matter or energy could leave his body, the ayahuasquero bestowed him with his own spiritual title: Turey Tekina, Quechua for “Sky Singer.”
Tekina returned to Brooklyn, and turned his apartment into a temple for the ceremonies. He has a steady flow of regular and new clients, all who learn of him through word of mouth.
I learned about Tekina, in fact, in the fall of 2013, through a friend who tried to persuade me to try ayahuasca, but when I called Tekina to ask questions we got in a dispute. He insisted the vomiting (the part that made me most nervous) was purely psychological, not physical. “That’s bullshit,” I replied, perhaps undiplomatically, and he calmly said “now is not the right time for you to do the ceremony.”
When I approached him again to learn his story, I was careful to leave my judgment at the door, and he invited me to participate. But when I declined to take ayahuasca, he rejected my request to watch a ceremony. (I’m still considering taking him up on the offer.)
He did describe the ritual, however. Tekina begins by lighting sage or the holy wood palo santo, to relax people and purify the air. Each person drinks their first cup of the tincture—including Tekina—and he sings and plays icaros throughout the night, with a few pauses for moments of silence. Finally at the evening’s end, he blows tobacco over each person’s crown “to seal the medicine in and to clear the aura.”
Sean, one new ayahuasca devotee, met Tekina in Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez dog park, where they casually chatted about their interests. Sean (who asked that his last name be withheld) had always wanted to try ayahuasca, and he appreciated Tekina’s humility.
“He’s not there to be dogmatic about any of this. For him it’s an experiment and comes from a good place—he’s not trying to convert people into the ‘church of ayahuasca,’” Sean tells me. “He’s also a musician so he’s attuned to the sort of music that needs to happen at given moments, whether darker or lighter.”
Sean, a freelance photographer getting his masters in philosophy, started the sessions in June and plans to continue indefinitely, with Tekina.
“It’s an experience of self centering… a mystical experience,” Sean says. Tekina “is there to guide your experience and help you give birth to a new revelation.”
Tekina preaches no set credence, because he does not have one.
“With all this work it is mystical, but I try not to form many beliefs. I’m fine to engage with the mystery,” Tekina tells me. Over the years, he says he has evolved to “self knowledge, to self acceptance, to self love, to unconditional love, to joy” through his ayahuasca trips.
“It’s not easy for me to do this and it’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s had such a profound impact on my life and I’ve become a better person working with it,” he says. “I tell people the reason we do the ceremony is to improve our lives in this three-dimensional world.”
Over the years, Tekina has reconnected with his Orthodox family in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. Some even know he administers ayahuasca, and they quietly tolerate it—just as he’s learned to be more accepting of his own Jewish roots.
“The belief system is not something I live my life by, but having grown up in that culture the connection is inescapable,” he tells me, drawing his gaze back to the L’chaim teacup. “I just like to sit with this cup and feel the meaning.”