If you’re seeing the word “shaman” pop up in your life more than you ever thought possible—on yoga studio schedules, wellness retreat blurbs, and even your Facebook feed—you’re not alone.
There’s Los Angeles-based healer Shaman Durek—whose IG includes selfies with Gwyneth (she recently called him “my light in shining armor”)—and Alyson Charles, AKA the Rockstar Shaman, for starters. And it seems that many yogis, meditation teachers, and healers of all stripes are incorporating shamanic practices into their work, as “woo-woo” wellness goes mainstream.
So what is shamanism? I consulted Alberto Villoldo, a Western-trained scientist who became a shaman during his 25 years living in the Amazon and the San Andes Mountains while he searched for medical breakthroughs.
Villoldo originally went to South America in his early 20s, when a big Swiss pharmaceutical company sent the newly minted medical anthropologist into the Amazon for three months. His mission: find the next active ingredient that could be used in a drug to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s, or heart disease—the three big killers of the West.
He spent his time in villages so remote, he recalls, “kids would rub my hands to try and shake off the white dirt,” since they’d never seen anyone with such pale skin. But his expedition was a failure, and he came back empty-handed. “The reason was, none of the places I went had anyone with cancer, Alzheimer’s, or heart disease,” Villoldo says. It wasn’t about finding the right drug. It was about something else—and before too long, he immersed himself in shamanism, a guiding spiritual principle among the locals he encountered.
Twenty-five years later, he not only became a shaman himself, but also founded a shaman school, The Four Winds Society, and has written several books on the topic, including One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness.
Read on for Villoldo’s 411 on what shamanism is, how shamans are trained, and what they can do for you.
Shamans vs. your primary care doctor
In a perfect world, MDs and shamans would work together, Villoldo says. “Western medicine is very good at treating trauma,” he explains. “If you have a snakebite, go to the ER. And then maybe ask a shaman why the snake bit you in the first place.”
According to him, shamans don’t treat disease; they treat the person. “We don’t have a health care system in America, we have a disease care system,” he says. “Doctors treat illnesses. Shamans work with diet and nutrition, your relationship with your ancestors, and emotional trauma to create conditions of health—and then the disease goes away. It’s a side effect of the work.”
A good shaman hits on three healing points: physical, emotional, and spiritual—they are all vital to good health.
Villoldo says a good shaman hits on three healing points: physical, emotional, and spiritual—they are all vital to good health. If you have a deep-rooted emotional issue, it can manifest itself physically. The same goes if you don’t pray or meditate, practice kindness and forgiveness, or regularly connect with nature.
As for the common belief that you can’t be religious—whether that be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other form of religion—and seek out a shaman, Villoldo swears that’s a misconception. As he puts it, a shaman doesn’t want to become your god; he or she wants to help connect you to yours.
The shaman treatment plan
Okay, so what exactly is a shaman going to do to you? Shake a few feathers, and chant? Not exactly. The first thing a shaman is going to do is ask you what you’re eating. “Most of what’s going on in your mind is coming from your gut—the issues you’re having with your spouse, if you feel like you can’t find enough love in your life, or you’re feeling anxious or depressed,” Villoldo says. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan for everyone, a shaman will help you figure out what to cut out (likely dairy or gluten), and what you need more of, like turmeric.
Then, be prepared to get to the bottom of the issues plaguing your mind and soul. Are you fulfilled in your career? Do you know your life purpose and are you living it out? Is there a relationship in your life that needs mending? Your doctor won’t ask you these questions, but a shaman will—and may offer guidance on what to do.
When to visit one
Villoldo says ideally, you wouldn’t wait until there’s a problem to see a shaman. “Shamans are particularly good at preventive care,” he notes. From a shamanic perspective, when you have unresolved trauma in your life—whether it’s a family conflict, a self-esteem issue, repressed sexuality, or fight with your best friend—unresolved emotions can manifest as physical symptoms ranging from a recurring stomach ache (hello mind-gut connection) to full-blown disease.
Shamans believe that “if you change your lifestyle and heal your emotions, then your genes only play a 10 percent part of what happens to you physically,” he says. “If you don’t change your lifestyle and heal your emotions, your genes play a 100 percent part.”
That said, it’s never too late. You can simultaneously go to a Western doctor to treat your physical symptoms and seek a shaman’s advice on getting to the deep root of a physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma. Villoldo says typically, someone can seek out a shaman once for a plan, but if something major is going on, they come for regular check-ups. Yep, just like a traditional doctor.
What happens on those exotic retreats
You’ve no doubt heard of getaways deep in the Amazon or Andes where travelers stay at a remote location and take part in ceremonies led by a shaman, where people leave totally transformed. So what happens at these far flung retreats? According to Villoldo, you are taught how to prepare nutritional meals, connect with nature, practice forgiveness, live with compassion—essentially everything everyone should practice already, but, well, doesn’t.
And what about ayahuasca? “If you’re going to try it, make sure you work with a very good master.”
And what about ayahuasca? Villoldo says that while the brew can be beneficial, it isn’t used on the retreats he leads because he hasn’t found the results to be long-lasting. “If you’re going to try it, make sure you work with a very good master,” he says. “If you entrust your brain to a stranger and you don’t know what he or she is giving you, it can cause problems down the line. But used correctly, it can be very beneficial.”
How to find a shaman you can trust
Which brings forth the important question of how to find a shaman who is indeed trustworthy—especially since many are uncredited. The Four Winds Society has a directory of vetted shamans, broken down by location so you can find a good local healer in your city.
Villoldo’s biggest piece of advice: Do a little digging and find out where—and with whom—your potential shaman trained. Last, ask around. If a friend had a powerful session with a shaman, that person might work their magic on you, too.
Want more advice on living a powerful, purposeful life? Here are six things to consider. And here’s how to tap into a sense of self-love when you’re not particularly feeling it.