When I Google "shaman near me" from my office in New York City, I'm answered with a map showing more than five locations in Manhattan alone. It's clear that a new class of shamans has risen to meet the needs of today's stressed-out, anxious, suffering population, and you don't need to trek deep into the jungle to meet with them. But with this proliferation of shamanism, an unknown quantity of people who claim to be shamans and yet have no training to speak of has also grown. As Well+Good's guest editor Diana Stobo, a retreat leader with decades of experience in the wellness biz, outlines here, trusting your well-being to someone without the proper vetting—especially when powerful herbs and mind-altering medicines are involved—can have serious consequences.
On a recent trip to Mexico, my friend participated in a three-day ancestral healing retreat. She, like many people who engage in ancient ceremonies, was looking for enlightenment, for an understanding of life’s greater purpose. It cost her her life.
Over the course of the three days, a man calling himself a shaman led my friend and a group of other retreat-goers through a number of ceremonies that used intoxicating substances—ayahuasca, peyote, and kambo, a poisonous secretion from an Amazonian tree frog—to facilitate healing and induce eye- and mind-opening experiences. (There's no scientific evidence to support their efficacy, but such benefits have long been touted anecdotally.)
Before taking the kambo on the retreat's final day, the shaman instructed my friend to rapidly drink two liters of water in order to help the medicine do its work. That’s a lot of water—and in her tiny body, maybe too much. She told the ceremony leader that, previously, she had been hospitalized for ingesting too much water and needed a salt solution IV to rebalance her electrolytes. But her concerns were brushed aside and she was encouraged to carry on.
Things were off, to put it mildly, from the start. My friend vomited—which is known as “purging” in the context of a ceremony—for over three hours before losing consciousness. When the other retreat-goers expressed concern, the shaman told them she was in a medicinally induced dream space and instructed them "please don’t touch her, let the medicine do its work." It would be another five hours before anyone realized that her heart had failed.
I don’t tell this story to be purposefully shocking. Many people who participate in a ceremony such as this come through unscathed—I tried kambo myself and had a great experience. And of course, there are healing ceremonies that don't include intoxicating substances. Jill Blakeway, a board-certified acupuncturist and clinical herbalist, previously told Well+Good, "As much buzz as ayahuasca ceremonies get, the vast majority of shamans don’t use hallucinogenic plants. Often, they use sound, like monotonous percussion, drums, or rattles to bring people to altered states.”
But my friend’s death is far from an isolated event. In 2017, a 24-year-old Australian man died after taking ayahuasca, and a year later, a coroner ruled that a 19-year-old British man died in a Colombian ayahuasca ceremony. Just last week, police in New South Wales opened an investigation into whether the cause of a 39-year-old woman’s death was kambo. To say the least, plant and animal medicines are powerful and can have serious consequences when the ceremonies are performed by people who lack the proper training.
The healing ceremonies of Central and South America that so many tourists now flock to have roots in ancient traditions, and many are administered by trained shamans who benefit from generations of knowledge and experience. According to Blakeway, "Most [people] initially became shamans through initiation or through their ancestors, and the process is very long, often a lifetime or, in some ways, many lifetimes.” I’ve known two such shamans in my life: One grew up on a Native American reservation and the other in an Amazonian indigenous culture; both learned from childhood the depth of the healing arts, herbs, medicines, and rituals and both have even gone through Western medical school so that they can understand how modern medicine can work in tandem with ancient teachings to help people heal.
But this is not the case for so many—too many—of the “shamans” facilitating healing ceremonies and powerful plant medicines today. From the penthouses in New York City to the jungle settings of the rainforest, ceremonial medicines are being administered by anyone interested in doing so—or anyone who can get their hands on the drugs. The leaders of the ceremony that killed my friend, for instance, were not trained shamans, but musicians. According to The Guardian, “You too can do a training course. The basic one takes two weeks.” I recently Googled what it takes to become a shaman, and a 60-minute free online workshop popped up.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates everything we put in our mouths. It decides what kind of fiber we eat, where we get our sugars, dairy, and meat. It seemingly won’t let us breathe fresh air without its approval. But there are no regulations on powerful plant and animal medicines. With all the recorded deaths from healing ceremonies gone wrong, I can’t be the first person to advocate for controls in this field.
And we, the consumers, need to be better shoppers. Most of the tragic deaths that happen during healing ceremonies are accidents caused not by the medicine itself, but because of the practitioner’s lack of support, experience, and education in the process of healing. We wouldn’t practice yoga with someone who hasn’t completed their 200 hours of training, and we wouldn’t take nutritional advice from someone who hasn’t completed an accredited certification program or received a nutritional degree. So why would we turn to a shaman with 60 minutes of training to their name?
Diana Stobo is an innovator and leader in the global wellness industry. She is an expert and trusted voice on subjects of digestive health, food as a modality for change, hormone balance, sex, aging well, weight management, wellness travel and optimal health through helping the body heal itself.
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