Spiritual Healing: Why Young Women Are Turning to Shamans to Fix Themselves

In the pursuit of health and well-being, another ancient practice is now taking hold.

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Human, Lip, Hairstyle, Skin, Joint, People in nature, Organ, Beauty, Muscle, Neck,
(Image credit: Cassi Alexandra/www.cassialexandra.com)

Kate Hudson was married by one. Greta Gerwig has her go-to, as does designer Mara Hoffman. You could say all the cool girls have one, and no, I'm not talking about the latest must-have accessory, but spiritual healers, often referred to as shamans. Their popularity can be charted by the navel-gazing quotes popping up in your social-media feed; pop culture cameos like in the film Icaros: A Vision, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in the documentaries The Reality of Truth and Chelsea Does...Drugs (Michelle Rodriguez does shaman-administered ayahuasca in the former, Chelsea Handler does it in the latter); and the proliferation of spiritual centers including Maha Rose Center for Healing in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Sacred Roots in Long Beach, Los Angeles. 

Once relegated to the fringes of society, New Age-y ideas like shamans—and reincarnation, chakras, and mantras—are slowly moving into the mainstream, just as yoga, meditation, and other practices rooted in ancient, indigenous cultures have. From coast to coast, young women are turning to shamans to help them deal with stress, depression, and other mental and physical conditions.

"There is a shift happening, a renaissance," says Guru Jagat, a kundalini yoga and meditation star (who counts the rapper Eve as a client) with a record label, book deal, and expanding empire of Ra Ma institutes offering kundalini yoga, meditation classes, and teacher trainings. Jagat posits that the technological age and social disenfranchisement—"We are simultaneously closer and farther apart," she says—are driving more people to look inward and discover "the innate human ability to heal ourselves" through meditation and other woo-woo-sounding modalities.

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in New York City, links the shaman trend to a declining interest in traditional religious practices. "Millennials are turned off by organized Western religion and are more open to religions based on Eastern philosophy. In a world that is so uncertain, there is still a desire for a sense of control, so some believe a spiritual leader holds potential answers," says Diller, who notes that an increasing number of her female patients (more so than her male patients) are seeking additional help with spiritual healers.

The word shaman has been traced back to the word saman in the language of the Tungus people in Siberia, which scholars have translated to "one who is excited, moved, or raised" and "inner heat," according to American Shaman: An Odyssey of Global Healing Traditions by Jeffrey A. Kottler, Jon Carlson, and Bradford Keeney. In Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, author David Gordon Wilson cites another translation as "person with supranormal skills." Though shamanic practices and medicine men and women have been traced back to ancient Incan, Indian, and Egyptian civilizations, the term today is widely used as a catchall for spiritual healers.

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Most healers enter a trancelike state in which they call upon the help of spirit guides that can appear as visions in animal or plant form or "come through" as voices. Their job, say shamans, is to be a vessel through which these spirits can heal their clients—women like a New Jersey–based comedian trying to break her pattern of obsessing over unavailable men, a graphic designer in Minnesota struggling with infertility, and a powerful politico in D.C. mending a broken heart.

What's good enough for Kate and Greta is good enough for me, so when a colleague told me about a shaman giving chakra cleanses, I thought, Why not? I wasn't in a good place professionally, personally, or physically. The waistbands of my beloved pencil skirts were grow- ing tighter each week, and I spent last summer, the height of ponytail season, watching my hair get thinner. I was uninspired at work as an editor, on edge at home. "Unmoored" was how I described my state of mind to friends. A therapist helped me identify what might be getting me down: a toxic work environment, marital hiccups, anxiety related to my children. I tried yoga and running to relieve the stress, a kid-free beach vacation with my husband to bring us more in step. None of it provided more than a temporary reprieve from my malaise. Maybe a healer could fix what nothing else could.

On a sunny morning last fall, I swallowed my innate skepticism and visited Alyson Charles, a former college track-and-field coach and one-time radio DJ whose fit physique and bubbly personality are more Laker Girl, less spiritual healer. Charles, 37, who has been practicing shamanism for three years, began under another shaman by taking online courses and workshops, and working with other healers at the Golden Drum, a spiritual center in Brooklyn. Charles conducts guided group shamanic journeys at the Breathe salt cave in Manhattan for $40, and one-on-one sessions in clients' homes (prices vary). Mine was comped and done at the LuliTonix juice store she manages in Nolita. Sounds totally insane, I know.

I'd felt so rudderless for so long, having a reason to feel hopeful was enough for me to set aside my more rational, cynical self.

Dressed in a fur vest and high-heeled booties, Charles sat me down in a pillow-strewn corner of the shop, as she lit a piece of palo santo ("holy wood"), which is believed by South American healers to help purify the air of malevolent spirits, and started to play soothing tribal music from her iPod. Then she took me on a 30-minute guided meditation, shaking handmade Native American and Peruvian wooden rattles around my head as she encouraged me to imagine each one of my chakras becoming vibrant and "juicy." The belief in chakras, or energy disks, comes from Hindu philosophy. There are seven chakras from the root of the spine to the crown of the head, each corresponding to a different color and aspect of life. For example, the second chakra, located above the pubic bone, is orange and relates to sexual health and creativity; stagnation in either can be remedied by specific yoga moves, certain foods, breathing techniques, and meditation. According to Charles, we must clear our chakras from "childhood wounds, traumas, aspects from other lifetimes, things that aren't even ours to carry"—so we can "truly be the fully flourishing light being we are meant to be." 

When she asked me to imagine my chakras, I saw dark spots representing past traumas and pain lifting away from my root, heart, and throat chakras, revealing bright red, green, and blue energy centers. I liken these "dark spots" to smudges on a gemstone that have to be wiped away to reveal the glow beneath. Near the end of our session, she told me to envision my "goddess" self. What does she look like? What is she doing? How does she feel? Suddenly, a very clear picture of myself appeared in my mind. I had masses of long, wavy brown hair, and my legs and arms looked long, tan, and toned. I was wearing a white bohemian dress and walking down a sun-dappled cobblestone street. Charles ended the session with a hug. "You were just so present and ready," she said, giving me some of the wood, a feather, and an amethyst, which she said the spirits had told her to give me.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

My doubts had faded, and I left feeling light and jubilant, thinking of little else other than that vision of my goddess self in the days that followed. The idea that I had permission to become this happy, glorious woman I was meant to be had taken seed. Within a few days, I stopped finding clumps of hair in the shower drain; people started telling me that I had "amazing energy"; and my husband (who had been somewhat dubious but mostly disinterested when I tried to talk to him about my cleansing) and I received a small but unexpected check from a family member. Of course, this could all be easily explained away: I'd been taking supplements for my hair and avoided flat-ironing it; people simply picked up on my positive mood; the money was a gift. Still, I'd felt so rudderless for so long, having a reason to feel hopeful was enough for me to set aside my more rational, cynical self.

A week later, a colleague handed me the card of a "seeress." "I feel like this is something you'd be into," my friend said, not ironically. I e-mailed Deborah Hanekamp, 33, who studied herbal medicine and Reiki in New York and Thailand, and spent eight years as a shaman's apprentice in the Amazon. Now she leads seminars and offers personal "medicine readings"—at $200 a pop for a 90-minute reading—during which she reads a client's aura and uses a mix of Reiki and Tibetan singing bowls (metal bowls that produce sound when struck or stroked) to bring a client's energy into balance. Hanekamp often works out of Brooklyn's Maha Rose Center and Golden Folk Wellness in L.A., but came to my apartment in Manhattan.

She laid out her tools: a dozen or so crystals, a drum set, and a vial of waters from Lake Titicaca in Peru.

She laid out her tools: a dozen or so crystals, a drum set, and a vial of waters from Lake Titicaca in Peru, the Ganges River in India, and the Upper Sacramento River Watershed in Mount Shasta, California, considered sacred by the Incas, Hindus, and Winnemem Wintu Native American tribe, respectively. Hanekamp describes auras as "multi- colored vibrating lights" that can range in size from six inches to 30 feet. "I've learned to interpret the different colors and how your aura vibrates," says Hanekamp. "It's like learning a new language." 

I sat on the couch as she read my aura, which was indigo, yellow, and orange, and extended about three feet away from my body. "You are happiest when changing the game and breaking through old paradigms, not just for you, but for humanity," Hanekamp explained. "The orange says to me that you are highly creative, sexual, and focused on what you can give." My aura also showed her this: "You are a lioness dressing yourself up as a lamb. You think everyone wants you to be the lamb, but they don't. Trust that people will respond to you when you are living your own truth." For as long as I could remember, I'd been pulled by opposing forces—the desire to be accepted by others and the desire to stand out in a crowd. The lamb in me sought the approval of others incessantly. The lioness? Bitch, please. 

Then came the "medicine reading," involving spiritual guidance, energy balancing, and crystal therapy. Hanekamp had me lie on my couch and placed a pillow over my eyes. She sang an icaro—a song to call spirits into a room—and beat a drum. At one point, she tapped me with a chacapa, a "leaf rattle" Hanekamp uses for blessings and cleansings that she makes from dried oak leaves. (In Peru, these are made from the Amazonian chacapa plant.) Finally, she prescribed a ritual bath (lemongrass and lavender essences, Epsom salts, wine, and cacao powder) and gave me mantras (I forgive; I am forgiveness) to repeat. Hanekamp also told me to put citrine in my bath to soak in the stone's "protective properties" and to sleep with Himalayan quartz under my pillow for "calm and clarity." I couldn't find the crystals online, but a week later, the same day I was let go from my job, my husband surprised me with them. That he'd gone out of his way to do so, when I'd assumed he thought what I was doing was crazy, made me feel more loved and supported in my marriage than I had in a while.

I started working out with a trainer and following a protein-rich diet. The weight practically fell off my body. This, of course, had to do with the sweating I was doing and the bread-and-butter sandwiches I wasn't eating, but there's no question that my anything-is-possible attitude helped me commit to changing my eating habits. Six months later, I had a new halo of hair, my body looked better than it had since my 20s, and I felt a new kind of inner strength.

My session blasted me open. It got right to my underlying issues.

I wasn't the only one transforming. "Women want to feel empowered but peaceful," says Domino Kirke, a 33-year-old Brooklyn musician and doula (and sister of Girls' Jemima Kirke). Kirke says healing sessions with her shaman are more productive than talk therapy. "In therapy, you work on what you can bring to the surface. You chip away at yourself, and it can take many years," she says. "My [shaman] session blasted me open. It got right to my underlying issues."

Beth Brickey, 36, a food blogger and recipe developer in Long Beach, says her chronic stomachaches abated after a shamanic Reiki practitioner saw "big, black snakes" in her gut—parasites that had gone undetected by her doctors for years. "Sometimes it's physical; other times, it's focused on emotion and mental well-being, or looking for clarity in my career path," says Brickey, who sees her shamanic healer monthly. "It was as if someone put the missing puzzle piece to my life on a platter and said, 'Here, this is what you need.'"

"Most women who come see me are trying to find themselves," says Brickey's Long Beach–based healer, Brook Albrigo, 33, who trained in New York City, Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. "A lot of times, they are in careers that aren't nourishing them, and they feel disconnected. They've lost the ability to listen to their intuition. I never offer changing careers as an answer. I encourage them to follow their passion, and that means something different to everyone."

For some, that's finding a greater sense of purpose in life. "People are looking to experience a deeper aspect of themselves," says Tim Frank, a shamanic healer who runs a weeklong immersion program at Miraval in Tucson, Arizona, involving drums, gongs, and Tibetan bowls to facilitate meditation and self-healing, and a ropes course to help participants "discover how to utilize their natural talents and abilities to the fullest," he explains. The Faena Hotel Miami Beach offers a Shaman Purification Ritual that can be bundled with South American hot oil massages at its spa. And at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, guests can book a session with Jon Rasmussen, a healer trained in the Q'ero tradition who does soul retrievals, which are based on the idea that trauma (a breakup, for example) chips away at the soul, leaving us not fully engaged in life or dispirited. "I help women come into their power," says Rasmussen. 

I help women come into their power," says Rasmussen.

Who doesn't want more agency in their life? But, warns psychologist Diller, "It's important to recognize when your problems are too serious for a shaman or spiritual leader. Some emotional issues require medication, hospitalization, or a more trained therapist." Shamans should be considered supplemental to therapy, like yoga and meditation, she adds: "Everyone needs to make choices based on self-knowledge, which means doing the hard work of learning about yourself." Healers are often found through word of mouth or via online registries run by The Foundation for Shamanic Studies or The Society of Shamanic Practitioners. There is no official licensing or certification process, making it next to impossible to know if you're seeing the real deal. That's partially because historically, shamanistic practices were passed down through family lineage and apprenticeships. Plus, the idea that a healer is "called" or "chosen" to commune with spirits doesn't exactly jibe with the idea that anybody can learn how to read auras and retrieve souls by taking a course. As the field is now enjoying plenty of cool-girl appeal, "There's a lot of risk in the loss of authenticity in shamanic study," says Hanekamp.

In late winter, I reached out to Hanekamp again. I was still holding on to some pain related to a string of personal and professional rejections. Several minutes into our session, she began playing a singing bowl to induce "deep meditation and receptivity." It was one of the most moving sounds I'd ever heard. I began to sob, my whole body growing hot and vibrating. Out of nowhere, I had a new vision, this one of a wave breaking over my head and a thousand little fish fins flapping above me. Later, I'd describe the feeling that washed over me—metaphysically, if not literally—as a release. I'd never experienced anything like it.

I called my husband. "It was so beautiful. It was like angels were singing to me," I said.

"That's great, honey," he responded, sounding both supportive and skeptical. "Whatever works."

My sentiments exactly. 

This article appears in the July issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.