On a rainy night deep inside the heart of a Balinese forest, I took part in my first Cacao ceremony. I’d been traveling around Southeast Asia for years and in certain spiritually minded cities like Chiang Mai, Thailand or Ubud, Bali, I’d stumble across flyers promoting ceremonies revolving around Cacao.
The idea seemed bizarre. I’ve participated in a range of ceremonies – from ayahuasca, to magic mushrooms, to sweat lodges. But cacao? How could a plant with such weak psychoactive properties yield any real results? Was there any legitimacy behind this or was it just another new-age fad?
As I dug through the research, I became increasingly intrigued. There were countless accounts of participants raving about their experiences – from emotional healing, to profound feelings of love and unity, to powerful insights.
Digging deeper, I learned of its rich history. Cacao, whose botanical name Theobroma Cacao literally translates to Food of the Gods, has been used for hundreds of years in ritualistic settings throughout Mesoamerica and South America.
According to legend, the feathered Aztec god Quetzalcoatl discovered Cacao in a mountain, among other delectable plants. Cacao was later reserved for high priests, distinguished warriors, and high government officials. It was also used throughout Mayan and Aztec ceremonies as a sacrifice to the Gods.
Cacao mythology still holds true in certain towns around Mexico. This excellent paper on Cacao history talks about this further:
“In several regions of Oaxaca, Mexico, many of the Mesoamerican and Colonial practices and beliefs relating to chocolate continue to survive. Beliefs about the nutritional properties and sacred nature of chocolate make it one of the principle foods consumed in Oaxaca on a daily basis. Religious ceremonies, fiestas and other special events are also occasions in which to partake of chocolate.”1
After bulldozing through all the research, I had to try it for myself. Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali was awesome enough to invite me to one of their local ceremonies.
A few weeks later I sat inside a dark, open-aired, wooden studio buried inside a rainy Balinese forest. Crickets chirped from the forest. Thick raindrops plopped on the roof. Shadows danced on the walls from the candlelight.
My warm cacao cup was at hand, a concoction made from raw cacao, pure water, cacao butter, palm nectar, and a combination of spices including ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom. In addition to physical ingredients, energetic intentions were added to the brew.
“Presence and love are the key to brewing beautiful medicine,” explained Rob Weber, the facilitator of the night’s events. “We hold a space of pure, positive intention, and chant mantras and medicine songs as we prepare the elixir.”
I downed Rob’s mud looking elixir, which surprisingly didn’t taste as foul as I’d imagined. It was a thicker, earthier, stronger version of dark chocolate. As I drank that final drops of my cups, I let go of any expectation I had of the night.
In this article, I’m going to describe a number of unexpected benefits I experienced during my first Cacao ceremony, which will hopefully give you a more accurate picture of what they’re all about.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that everything I’m about to share is a reflection of my own personal experience, which may be completely different from your own. There are a number of ways a Cacao ceremony can be run, and Yoga Barn has created their own unique style. I’m offering a single, subjective perspective.
If you end up attending a Cacao ceremony, I’d love to get your take on the experience which you can share at the comments below. With all that said, let’s get started.
Cacao Can Open Up Your Heart
If you read up on Cacao ceremonies online, the most common account you’ll hear about is how the experience was uncanny in its ability to open up participants hearts. But what does that actually mean? Is this just another woo-woo catch phrase that sounds nice, but doesn’t actually have any scientific basis?
Heart intelligence has been a topic of fascination of mine for years. For thousands of years, religions and cultures have pointed towards the heart as being the seat of wisdom, love, and the key to unlocking the good life. We’ve always heard the age-old advice of listening to our hearts, letting our hearts guide us, and opening up our hearts. Again – nice sounding, but frustratingly vague.
Before we talk about how Cacao can open up the heart, let’s first talk about heart intelligence (which I’ve written about in a previous post called The Fascinating Science of Heart Intelligence). Here’s a quick summary:
- Several studies have found the heart radiates an electromagnetic field, which can be detected several feet outside the body. They also found that emotions are embedded in this field.2 3
- Neuroradiologists have found that the heart contains its own inherent nervous called “the heart brain” with over 40,000 neurons – more information is sent from the heart to the brain than vice versa.
- The heart brain is able to sense, process information, make decisions, and even hold short and long-term memory.4 It also creates and secretes various hormones, one of which being oxytocin – the hormone affecting love and bonding.567
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV) measures the variations in the time between each pair of heartbeats. Having a more coherent HRV pattern is linked to emotions such as love, appreciation, and compassion.8
As you’ve just read, science is finally catching up to the thousand-year-old advice of connecting with the heart – not only can it generate those feel-good oxytocin chemicals in your body, but greater heart coherence is linked to increased emotional balance, deeper intuition, higher mental functioning, better memory, increased focus, and lowered blood pressure.
As exciting as these benefits sound, most people are completely cut off from their hearts. Many of us look at our body’s as vehicles that transport our brains from point A to point B. I once spoke with Guy Harriman, the founder of the Ajna Light, and he said the longest (and most challenging) journey one can take part on is moving from the mind to the heart.
Can Cacao be a vehicle to accelerate this journey? Many enthusiasts seem to think so.
I recently spoke with Sena Shellenberger, a former Google program manager who traded a lucrative tech job to dedicate her time to share plant medicines such as Cacao.
“When taking ceremonial doses (1-2oz) Cacao can increase the amount of blood flow by 40%”, says Sena. “It amplifies the electromagnetic field of your heart. When we are in the same room with a group of people already sharing heart waves, our capacity to connect and drop in with each other is expanded exponentially when working with cacao. Our heart fields literally expand.”
I can personally vouch for these results. Within an hour of downing my cacao cup, mind chatter quieted, tension throughout my body loosened, a warm energy flooded my chest, and I started to feel a strange mix of love, compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude for life.
Was this the result oxytocin release? Did the spirit of the Cacao energetically untangle my heart chakra? Or was there some psychoactive component in Cacao that was affecting me?
The alkaloid Theobromine found in Cacao can speed up heart rate and affect mood.9 The amino-acid Tryptophan also found in Cacao, is famous for its mood-regulating abilities.10 In addition, Cacao contains Anandamide known as the bliss molecule, which binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain.11 This all on top of its 600+ antioxidants Cacao is loaded with.
Whether the Cacao affected me on a neurochemical level, an energetic level, or simply caused a placebo effect, I can’t say. But I don’t care. All I know is it worked. I left the ceremony feeling lighter, happier, more appreciative of life, and immensely appreciative of those happy feelings in my chest (which lasted for days after the event).
Cacao Alone Doesn’t Make The Experience
As I’ve just mentioned, Cacao is an invaluable, heart opening ally, but the plant itself doesn’t make the ceremony so special. Yoga Barn fused a wide range of state-shifting elements with Cacao that seemed to be the key to the experience:
- Ecstatic dance
- Tribal drumming
- A beautiful, candle-lit atmosphere
- Supportive facilitators
If cacao was the car, then these elements became the gas that powered it. And when the two are working together, it can transport you to some interesting places. I spoke to Rob Weber, the facilitator mentioned earlier, about him consciously merging these elements together.
“I recognized a format for weaving all of my favorite offerings into a single, coherent, meaningful experience,” explains Rob. “As a musician/dj, music producer and long time student-of-the-sacred, I’ve been facilitating kirtan and chanting circles, ecstatic dance, sound healing journeys, and other shamanic and spiritual modalities for many years. Cacao ceremony has become an opportunity to alchemize all of these practices into a single, fluid experience that helps people to open, heal, and celebrate in a sacred way”
Sena recalls how music fused with Cacao made her first ceremony so powerful: “As the cacao coursed through my veins and the medicine songs started my eyes closed and I submitted to the spirit of the medicine. My body started moving and it felt like I was unraveling from the person I was before. Stored pain, emotions, and anxieties unknotted from deep within me. I became one with the music, the pulse of the drum became my pulse, and I was in a state of pure presence.”
I can attest to the power of music and dance to potentiate the effects of Cacao. I’d add that the sequence in which these elements were introduced also seemed to be key.
After we drank our cups and set our intentions, we were guided into a meditation to quiet the mind. Afterwards, we started to sing various indigenous based songs. Then lead through body movement exercises. Finally to a full-blown ecstatic dance hour.
Each element that was introduced built on the last. The meditation prepared me for the singing. The singing made me feel lighter, more free, less in my head. By the time we were dancing, most people were fully letting loose, allowing whatever energetic blockages in their heart to untangle.
It was as if the Cacao, alongside an assortment of these consciousness hacking tools, worked together to peel off layers I was holding onto.
Cacao Ceremonies Are a Ton of Fun
When I think of the idea of a “ceremony”, images conjure in my head of some formal event held in a sacred space, lead by a wise ritual elder guiding initiates through some rite of passage. I link the event with sacredness, formality, and seriousness.
This is especially true after taking part in intense ayahuasca or mushroom retreats in the past, where a psychoactive substance was central to the occasion. Although profoundly transformative, those experiences felt like serious work at times.
So when I learned of cacao ceremonies, I figured it wouldn’t be too different. From the little I researched about beforehand, I learned of accounts of people feeling physically nauseous, of having out of body experiences (OBE’s), or crying/screaming at times.
And although much of the event did have a tone of sacredness and seriousness, it was surprisingly a lot of fun. The combination of the cacao, the non-judgmental container the facilitators created, and the practices such as singing and dance all came together for people to let go. As fears and insecurities began to fade throughout the night, I could see more and more people were beginning to unshackle their inner wild man/woman.
As tribal music blasted through the speakers, cacao running through my body, I danced around the room seeing those around me truly letting loose. I saw people smiling, giggling, hugging, and generally looking like they were having a blast – something you don’t normally associate with a formal ceremony.
Attending a Cacao ceremony has the power to be deeply beneficial to your life. It helps reduce stress, leads to insights, heals unresolved emotions, helps transcend our chattery minds, and can lead to feelings of profound unity to the world around you.
Among its many uses, perhaps Cacao’s greatest ability is to open up the heart. “When the heart is open, density is replaced by lightness, confusion becomes insight and clarity, lethargy is overcome by vitality,” explains Rob Weber. “Held within a space of love and presence, eventually there is a blossoming. We are energized and inspired, carried by the current of the present moment. There is joy and bliss. And again…there is deep, deep gratitude for Life.”
Now more than ever, people around the world are cut off from their hearts. Cacao can help unclench, untangle, and clear whatever blockages are blinding us from it. Sena shared with me an ancient prophecy how Cacao will come out of the rainforest at a time when humans have lost connections with their hearts.
“I believe this is happening right now,” Sena explains. “We need this medicine. I need this medicine. She is here to teach us how to remember. She wants us to come together, build community, and reconnect with the earth.”
Cacao Experts Mentioned:
Special thanks to Yoga Barn for having me as their guest and hosting a beautiful Cacao ceremony.
- Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate.” The Journal of nutrition 130.8 (2000): 2057S-2072S.
- Baule, G. and R. McFee, Detection of the magnetic field of the heart. American Heart Journal, 1963. 55(7): p. 95-96.
- Nakaya, Y., Magnetocardiography: a comparison with electrocardiography. J Cardiogr Suppl, 1984. 3: p. 31-40.
- Armour J. A., Kember G. C. (2004). Cardiac sensory neurons, in Basic and Clinical Neurocardiology, eds Armour J. A., Ardell J. L., editors. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press; ), 79–117
- Armour J. A. (2003). Neurocardiology: Anatomical and Functional Principles. Boulder Creek, CA: Institute of HeartMath
- Armour J. A., Kember G. C. (2004). Cardiac sensory neurons, in Basic and Clinical Neurocardiology, eds Armour J. A., Ardell J. L., editors. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press; )
- Dorsal spinal cord stimulation obtunds the capacity of intrathoracic extracardiac neurons to transduce myocardial ischemia. Ardell JL, Cardinal R, Vermeulen M, Armour JA Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2009 Aug; 297(2):R470-7.
- A healthy heart is not a metronome: an integrative review of the heart’s anatomy and heart rate variability
- Baggott, Matthew J., et al. “Psychopharmacology of theobromine in healthy volunteers.” Psychopharmacology 228.1 (2013): 109-118. APA
- Bertazzo, Antonella, et al. “The content of protein and non-protein (free and protein-bound) tryptophan in Theobroma cacao beans.” Food chemistry 124.1 (2011): 93-96.
- Hurst, W. Jeffrey. “Cacao Chemistry.” Chocolate and Health. 2015. 56-66. APA