Does Salvia Divinorum Have Therapeutic Potential?

By Michelle Janikian

Like many teens in the mid-2000s, I took a bong rip of Salvia divinorum extract in a group of laughing friends, and didn’t feel the need to touch the plant again. The 5 to 10-minute trip completely took me out of my mind, body, and surroundings in what I’d still, to this day, categorize as one of the most intense psychedelic experiences of my life. In the dreamlike state, I was walking on clouds and then found myself stuck in a cave where I had to move boulders aside to escape. As the cave slowly faded away and I drifted back to reality, I found that I was on my hands and knees in the corner of my best friend’s room, moving scissors and other art supplies around. I looked back to see my wide-eyed friends still sitting on the bed, bong in hand, staring at me, simultaneously giggling and relieved to see that I had returned.

When Psychedelics Today co-founder, Joe Moore, asked me to look into salvia for my next article nearly 15 years later, I laughed out loud, recalling that cave and the thrashing, ripping-apart-of-the-body feeling that salvia can give in high doses, and said something along the lines of “that shit is crazy.” But through researching this piece and talking to experts, I’ve learned there’s so much more to Salvia divinorum than smoking that weird black extract that was easier to get than booze or weed when I was 17- that there are people both in indigenous communities in Mexico and psychedelic societies in San Francisco who are developing deep and healing relationships with this purple flowering plant that contains the strongest naturally occurring psychedelic on our planet.

The oldest standing Salvia divinorum tradition is held by the same indigenous community that still practices magic mushroom ceremonies, the Mazatec of Oaxaca, Mexico. “For us Mazatecs, salvia is very sacred,” says Inti Garcia Flores, Mazatec professor and archivist. Over WhatsApp, he explains to me the Mazatec legend of the origin of Salvia divinorum, or “La Pastora” (Spanish for “the shepherdess”) as he refers to it during our conversation. Essentially, salvia was one of the first three plants in existence. Tobacco was the first plant, who is a male spirit and the father. Then came salvia, who is a female spirit and the mother. Lastly, the mushrooms were born, who are the children.

Oaxaca highlighted in map of Mexico

To prepare for such a powerful encounter, part of the Mazatec tradition is a 40-day cleansing period before the actual ceremony. When it’s time for the ceremonial encounter with La Pastora, prayers are said while leaves are picked from salvia plants that grow around the Sierra Mazateca mountain range. Notably, it’s the only region in the world where this psychedelic strain of sage grows, and it has likely been propagated by indigenous people of the land for hundreds of years and possibly longer.

Salvia Divinorum

Salvia is consumed in ceremonies which are held at night, in the home of a curandero (Spanish for “healer”), and in front of an altar that typically faces the west. Then, the leaves are either chewed and swallowed in pairs, or drunk in what’s called an agua de salvia, but the plant is never smoked. Mushrooms are also consumed in pairs in Mazatec ceremonies to represent the duality of life: the masculine and feminine energies- a necessary balance, which, as I understand it, is a core concept in their spirituality. Garcia tells me that approximately 40 leaves are eaten for a Pastora ritual, sometimes more. It really depends on the curandero and the purpose of the ceremony. “Every curandero has their own style,” explains Garcia.

And to my surprise, ceremonies last about four to five hours, approximately the same amount of time as the effects of mushrooms. Then, the ritual is to be followed by another 40-day cleansing period. As far as the purpose of these ceremonies, healing and divination are two of the main reasons for seeking out La Pastora, and it’s especially common to use salvia when mushrooms aren’t in season (mushrooms only grow in the rainy season in Mexico, which is generally May through September. Garcia tells me that salvia, on the other hand, grows year-round).

Learning about the sacred power of La Pastora got me thinking about the bad rap salvia has gotten in the west as a crazy and unpleasant, short-acting psychedelic. By smoking it, especially in extracted form, are we disrespecting the delicate plant spirit, and therefore missing its healing potential? But not everyone outside of the Mazatec community are teens like my friends and I were, tricking each other into smoking salvia. In fact, there are some folks using Salvia divinorum in a ritualized manner for healing trauma and other psycho-spiritual matters, like spiritual emergence coach and marriage and family counselor, Michelle Anne Hobart.

For Hobart, who’s also the author of Holding Sacred Space, salvia came to her in a time of need. She was recovering from trauma when she was guided to salvia, and the plant had a message for her: “Let go of all other practices for a year and work with me alone.” So that’s exactly what Hobart did. She formed a relationship with salvia in its tincture form. “She was very specific with me that I was only to take it in sublingual tincture form and not smoke it,” Hobart tells me over the phone, referring to salvia with feminine pronouns, just as Garcia had done.

In fact, Hobart’s salvia ritual had some similarities to the Mazatec tradition. She practices a pre-ceremony cleansing period where she only eats vegan and refrains from smoking or drinking (a practice that has now become a lifestyle). She also consumes La Pastora in front of her own altar with much prayer and meditation involved. For Hobart, this protocol has helped her reconnect with herself and her body, and she feels the short psychedelic experience (taken sublingually, she reports the experience lasts about 90 minutes to 2 hours) is very manageable and “integratable” for her as a highly sensitive person who is recovering from trauma.

Hobart spent much of her monogamous year with salvia working in low dose ranges that gave her a more spacious quality to her meditative practice. She explains that for those with trauma, even meditating or connecting with the body can seem like “a daunting, almost impossible task.” But by working with different levels of salvia and titrating her dose to cautiously work her way up to a higher dose range, it became more manageable. “If there was anything I learned in my experience of healing trauma with salvia, it’s that I don’t have to go to the top plateau to do the work. There’s work at every level and you can be gentle and compassionate with yourself and your nervous system. And honestly, you can integrate better when you titrate.”

That was especially interesting to me as someone who went straight to a smoked high-dose salvia experience. Are there really other levels to this medicine that are less intense? Hobart definitely thinks so, and when I ask her about the uncomfortable feeling in the body at higher doses, she reports that with her tincture protocol, she doesn’t find that to be the case. She explains that she views a salvia trip as having 3 phases: the clearing phase, the resourcing phase, and then the re-embodiment phase. At higher doses in the clearing phase, she can have visions, which she interprets as a cleansing that’s connected to the trauma she holds in her body. Then, in the resourcing phase, she can experience a type of ego-loss where she becomes one with the earth, which helps her release the trauma that can come up during the clearing phase. “It helps me realize I’m more than this body,” she explains.

Then in the re-embodiment phase, she returns to herself, “clean and free of that trauma.” Hobart specifies that she’s not completely free of trauma though. “There’s always more work to do. But in that moment, for that piece of work that needed to be done, I can re-inhabit my body in a safer way than I ever have before.” In that year of regular practice, Hobart was able to clear a lot of trauma, which, in turn, helped her anxiety decline. “I was able to return to my own sovereignty and empowerment through the understanding that this story is mine to tell,” she says.

Cloud forest of Southwestern Oaxaca

Christopher Solomon, who is a somatic salvia guide, went down a similar path with the plant that started over 10 years ago. He had smoked salvia a handful of times as a teen in the early 2000s and found the experience pretty bizarre and unwieldy. “It just didn’t really make much sense,” he tells me over Skype. But one day, as he was loading his bong with salvia, he received a “download” from the plant. “Out of nowhere, there was a feeling inside of me that just said: ‘Wait. Meditate first.’” Even though he didn’t have much of a meditation practice at the time, he took 10 deep breaths before inhaling the salvia, “and it was just completely different… it was a lot smoother and more gentle on my system,” Solomon explains. “It was more grounded. Instead of me being taken elsewhere or torn apart, it was more like this other reality unfolded gracefully in front of me.”

Now, over ten years later, he’s also developed a very intimate relationship with the plant and its many levels of psychedelic experience, and he’s even started to guide others through salvia journeys. Like Hobart, Solomon also sees a lot of benefits in working in lower dose ranges. In fact, he’s theorized the salvia experience has about 10 levels, and a lot of the most therapeutic work is done in levels 1 through 7. Solomon explains that levels 1 through 3 are almost sub-perceptual. “It’s very akin to being taken [to] a very, very deep, still place in meditation. One’s breath becomes deeper and there’s a feeling of grounding down and opening up. It’s not opening up to [the] world around one, it’s more as if one’s body is opening up to itself, like an internal opening. There’s a sense of slight physical tingles that come on the body and then the chattering mind gets a little bit less chattery. It can be summed up as being taken to a place of quiet, deep stillness.” He adds that finding this place in regular meditation practice can be very difficult for a lot of folks, echoing a sentiment Hobart expressed about how daunting it can be for those with trauma to try to reconnect with their bodies. But according to Solomon, in levels 1 through 3 of salvia, focusing on one’s breath feels pleasurable and comfortable, even euphoric. “It really increases your ability to remain attentive to whatever you put your concentration on. With the quieting of the mind comes a greater ability to concentrate on one’s own embodied self and be very present.”

This is a key concept in somatic therapy, in which Solomon is certified. “One of the main premises of any sort of somatic work is coming back to what is in the present,” he explains. “And instead of getting caught up in stories, expectations or memories, it’s about coming to the present moment- to the now, and seeing what’s right in front of one and seeing what we think.” When it comes to the salvia experience, the sense of presence that the plant insists on can be very healing. For Solomon, the lesson has been very clear- that learning to be present in the current moment is key to living a healthier, happier life. Salvia taught him: “Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about the past. Just be here now, and engaged, and aware, and playful. And then everything else kind of works itself out.”

These messages from salvia often come in the next dose range, in levels 3 through 7, where the feeling in the body becomes more intense (sometimes called “salvia gravity”), and visions, entities, and being taken to a new reality are more common. However, Solomon notes, the best preparation for these higher dose experiences is working in levels 1 through 3 first and getting comfortable there. But many of us don’t know about this preparation or don’t bother, and are shot straight to levels 9 or 10 on our first trip of smoking a bowl of 20x or 50x extract, and in turn, are completely turned off by the intensity of the salvia gravity sensation.

Photo of salvia packaged for retail sale

But when you prime your body first by titrating your dose and starting in lower, sub-perceptual dose ranges, “the pushing feelings do happen in your body, but it doesn’t feel as aggressive or foreign. It feels a lot more controllable instead,” says Solomon. And this is where things get really interesting and hard to explain. But through his deep practice with the plant, he’s learned that you can control those pushing and pulling feelings, or “energies,” and direct them towards parts of your body that need healing. Solomon’s most profound example of this is also the experience that led him to pursue sharing salvia with others as a somatic guide. Essentially, a few years ago, he had a swollen lymph node in his neck for months that he tried everything to cure, including three courses of antibiotics and diet and lifestyle changes. “But no matter what I did for months, there was this big swollen lymph node in my neck. It just didn’t go away.” At the time, he consulted with a couple of doctors who both said he needed to have his tonsils removed.

Before having the surgery, he decided to turn to salvia for the first time in nearly 2 years. “I smoked a bowl of 20x extract,” he says, “and usually when I do, I feel this pulling and pushing sensation on my body coming from outside, or it feels like I’m being moved through time and space.” But this time was different. “I felt all this energy tingling, kind of like little ants rushing up from every extremity of my body. And it all went straight to where the swollen lymph node was. This energy was congregating around the swollen lymph node and a thought came to me: ‘Oh, well, let me just heal myself.’” He says his hand “automatically picked itself up,” and he began pressing on his swollen neck like he had done many times before. But this time, as he rubbed his lymph node in a circle, “I felt it split in half,” he recalls. As he kept rubbing, it kept splitting. “It got smaller and smaller and smaller. It felt like tiny little grains of sand. And then those split even more, and it kept dividing until I couldn’t physically feel it anymore. Then all that energy that initially rushed to that part of my neck rushed over the rest of my body.” He reports that he laid there for about ten minutes until coming to, and his swollen lymph node was totally gone, and has remained absent ever since.

Kathleen Harrison, famous ethnobotanist, writer, psychedelic elder, and co-founder of the Botanical Dimensions library in Northern California, told a similar story in a talk at the Entheogenesis Australis conference in 2018. She sought out a Mazatec curandero who specializes in salvia healings and had a traditional ceremony in the highlands of Oaxaca. At the time, she was experiencing a lot of heart trouble and doctors told her that the only way forward was lifelong medication to manage her condition. But in a ceremony with salvia, she felt a female presence wave a hand right through her body and physically take her pain away. “A little door opened in my heart. It blew open like a sudden breeze had come, and I just saw this hurt fly out and dissolve. And my heart was better. I never had another problem with it,” Harrison describes in her talk. When she got back to her California home, medication was no longer necessary.

These healings are hard to explain in terms of what’s happening in the brain, even though there are psychedelic researchers looking into Salvia divinorum at Johns Hopkins and other universities. Formal research began in 1994, when ethnobotanist and researcher Daniel Siebert first isolated the psychedelic compound in Salvia Divinorum – Salvinorin A – and published his findings. Since then, Siebert has become salvia’s champion: he founded the salvia information vault, Sagewisdom.com, which includes a salvia safe-use guide, and he ended up piquing the interest of psychedelic researchers and run-of-the-mill psychonauts alike.

Today, salvia is still legal in about 20 states, which makes it easier than psilocybin or MDMA for researchers to study. In 2010, Johns Hopkins University conducted the first controlled human study of salvinorin A, and their team is still looking into how salvia works. That’s partly because salvia is unique in the way it affects the brain, and so offers researchers a novel opportunity to study other psychedelic (and potentially therapeutic) mechanisms of action. Essentially, most classic psychedelics, like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, mostly bind to the serotonin 2a receptors, and that action is thought to be responsible for most of their psychedelic effects. Salvia, on the other hand, has no affinity for the legendary 2a sites, and instead focuses the majority of its attention on the kappa opioid receptors.

Salvia laws in the United States (may not be fully up to date) – Source 
Red – Jurisdiction where salvia is illegal.
Orange-  Jurisdiction where salvia is decriminalized.
Yellow – Jurisdiction where salvia is legal with age restrictions.
Blue – Jurisdiction where salvia extracts are illegal but the plant itself is legal
Green – Jurisdiction where salvia is legal.

Yet, oddly enough, according to Manoj Doss, a postdoctoral scientist at the Hopkins Psychedelic Research Center (who is the lead on analyzing the latest salvia brain scan data), even though the receptor action site is different, the overall effects on the human brain are very similar to classic psychedelics. “We essentially found the same pattern [that Robin Carhart-Harris found with LSD],” Doss explains. “We got decreases in functional connectivity within network connectivity, so these networks are communicating less within themselves… [and] decreases in Default Mode Network connectivity, [which was the strongest effect]. And, we have increases in connectivity between areas that don’t usually communicate with each other as much.” However, although the effects were “quite similar” to other psychedelics, Doss believes more research is needed. “There are a few more caveats that are going to require a study with a larger sample size,” he says.

To folks like Solomon, while research is exciting, it’s not necessary towards understanding how salvia works for healing. “It’s very somatic medicine,” Solomon says. And it’s inspired him to complete a certification at the Hakomi Institute and provide guided somatic salvia sessions to clients. And unlike other traditions, Solomon’s clients smoke salvia, but not all in one go. In fact, Solomon has invented (thanks to a message from the salvia plant herself) an entirely new smoking apparatus for consuming salvia, aptly named “the salvia pipe.” The contraption has five separate bowls into which he sprinkles just a couple of flakes of salvia for clients. The idea is to titrate the dose to make the experience more similar to a chewed fresh leaf ceremony, which he admits is his preferred method of consumption, but isn’t very accessible unless you grow your own salvia. And so, his clients only smoke a very small amount at a time, then they meditate together for five minutes between each bowl to gradually work up to a level 3, 4, or 5 experience that they can manage and are comfortable in.

Solomon even does guided salvia sessions online, which have become increasingly popular since the pandemic, and the first thing he does is send clients a salvia pipe packed with the correct dose (if the client lives in a state where salvia is legal). He says folks come to him for a whole host of reasons: sometimes just out of curiosity, and others to work on self-esteem, physical ailments, or trauma. “I like to think of salvia as ‘the great neutralizer.’ If you’re feeling up, salvia will help bring you back down to a baseline calmness, or ‘groundedness.’ But if you’re down in the dumps, salvia can bring you up… and that is essentially how it incorporates so well into somatic therapy- because a lot of trauma therapy is getting the person to a sense of feeling grounded and stable, as if they have their own resources… it’s like a hard reset- a reboot to the present.”

Regardless of how Salvia divinorum works, it seems it has a lot of therapeutic potential that’s not getting a lot of attention, especially considering that it’s legal in 20 states. But I believe that’s because most of us go on one incredibly intense and off-putting first date with salvia at a young age and are completely unprepared for the experience. Yet it seems by building a relationship with the plant by preparing one’s set and setting, titrating dose, and being mindful of its sacred power, it can have lasting benefits for those who bother to take the time.

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