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Does Shamanism Really Work?

Shaman Heidi Fokine

It’s not uncommon to meet a shamanic healer at a yoga class these days or come across a friend just back from a hallucinogenic retreat in South America. There are classes showing you how to find your power animal and use rattles to attain altered states of consciousness. Hollywood has embraced the concept as well. Kate Hudson was married by an Ute Indian shaman and Greta Gerwig sought one out to research an ayahuasca ceremony scene in While We’re Young.

Is this a yogic fad or does this tradition have legitimate applications in 2017?

I went to see Dr. Barnaby Ruhe, who received his PhD in Shamanism and Art from NYU, to find some answers. He took me to an African gallery at the Metropolitan Museum where he asked me to choose a sculpture, relax my mind as I sketched it, and ask if it had a message for me. I was enjoying drawing, but didn’t really expect to receive a message. Then a thought came to my mind: “Nourish and be nourished.” Was it a message from an African god, rising from my unconscious because I had relaxed? Or was it mere power of suggestion? Regardless, I noticed the message reappearing in the days and weeks afterward.

Dr. Barnaby Ruhe PhD

I was curious to learn more about the shamanic arts. Heidi Fokine, a yoga teacher and shaman on Shelter Island, told me shamanic practice was similar to doing asanas. “We feel better after a yoga class,” she says. “Why? Because consciously moving and breathing circulates energy through our systems. Yoga makes us feel connected, more present in our lives.”

She got into shamanic work after experiencing a recovery of her own as a first-time client. “After one session, issues I’d been grappling with shifted dramatically,” she says. “I had a freedom of movement that had eluded me through 35 years of dance and yoga.”

Shamanic practitioners circulate energy to work out physical, psychological, and energetic knots, I learned. It was probably a combination of these elements that afflicted Fokine’s son, who’d suffered from night terrors and screamed in his sleep since he was a child. When he was 16, Fokine took him to shaman Elizabeth Clemants. “After one shamanic healing, the night terrors were gone,” she says. “Gone.”

Shamans are said to be in touch with forces of nature, archetypal energies, and spirits of all kinds. “People are drawn to shamanism through grappling with difficulty,” Fokine says. “They do not want to mask symptoms anymore—they want to heal and take responsibility for their lives. There are certain techniques, such as soul retrievals, energy extractions, and cord cuttings, that a shaman can apply to help a person clear patterns such as such as illness, depression, and addictions.”

Shaman Nadiya Nottingham

A “soul retrieval” might involve finding a part of someone that is stuck in the past due to a trauma or shock. The shaman may ask clients to see themselves at the age the trauma occurred, for example, and comfort and reintegrate that memory, similar to Gestalt therapy. During an “extraction” the shaman removes negative energies or inner critics from a client’s space. A “cord cutting” helps a person separate from a relationship that no longer serves them. The languaging may sound woo-woo, but the concepts are universally relatable.

If shamanism shares aspects of yoga, as Fokine says, can a devotee become a shaman in the same way they’d become a yoga teacher? Do we have to study for years in the rainforest or have a near-death experience to assume the robes? “We all come from some shamanic way of life,” says Nadiya Nottingham, a Celtic Energy Healer and Qi Gong instructor. She reminds me that forms of shamanism are common in many ancestral heritages. “To explore shamanism,” she says, “I would first suggest looking at your own culture.”

“Astonishingly,” says Ruhe, “once we give people their power animal, which takes 15 minutes of drumming, they can not only get work done, but help someone else.” Drumming is an often-used tool in his work to help calm the mind and enter an auto-hypnotic state where non-ordinary experience is more accessible. Just about anyone can access this realm, says Ruhe, if you “clear your door, which means get your ego out of the way, and your modern skeptical mind, too.”

Drum or no drum, Ruhe suggests seeing beyond the world in front of you. “The modern mind doesn’t even want to guess that grandma is trying to talk to you from the grave,” he says. “But she is active and concerned—wake up and pay attention.”

--Emma Sartwell

(Photos from top: Heidi Fokine, Dr. Bernard Ruhe, Nadia Nottingham)

For more info on shamanism, check out the following resources.

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Barnaby Ruhe and his students offer monthly circles around the globe. Contact:

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