What is a shaman?

A shaman healer is a traditional medicine healer who acts as an intermediary between the spirit and material worlds and heals without using surgery or drugs. Almost every indigenous culture is thought to have had shamanic practices, but with the rise and spread of monotheism, shamanism has been in decline for a long time and in some cultures its practice is essentially extinct.

A shaman is, in fact, a holistic healer, who enables your physical, emotional and psychic selves to be revived and repaired as they receive a shamanic healing.

Kichwa shaman healer Fidel Andy

"A table beside him displayed the modest tools of the ceremony: a fan of leaves, jungle tobacco, a gourd bowl and a clear plastic soda bottle containing an opaque, brown liquid. “You will start to feel a reaction in about half an hour,” the shaman, Tsumpa, said, as my guide translated. “When the effects come, you must concentrate on what the medicine is trying to communicate.” The open air of the hut, animated with night sounds, grew still with expectation. Tsumpa grimaced as he drank the brew. After pouring a bowl for me, he cupped the gourd in his hands and for several minutes whistled a sweet melody into it — the high key of a tin whistle or courting bird, seducing the plant spirits to aid me." Amazon Awakening By ANDY ISAACSON, NY Times Oct. 13, 2010.

This account was written by a journalist who drank ayahuasca for the first time in the Ecuadorian jungle with an Achuar shaman guide; the guide accompanied the reporter throughout his ayahuasca experience. For a shaman who uses ayahuasca to heal, he/she will journey with you on ayahuasca, singing sacred chants that guide the healing seeker, and providing an energy healing of the body. In some cases, these chants are thousands of years old, and they represent what we call sound healing.

Sounds are frequencies that affect our emotions; if you are listening to Mozart, for instance, you may feel more inclined for intellectual work, and if you are listening to spiritual music you may be more inclined to relaxing. The shaman’s chants are just that: they are designed to guide your safe and healing passage into the world of spirits, and into your subconscious instincts and unconscious intentions. They help you become aware of Self. The songs of the shaman go along with you down your memory lane, and your unconscious memory lane, guiding you and keeping you safe in the world of the spirits.

The shamanic practices that I am most familiar with personally are those of the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, all of whom use ayahuasca as one of their sacred medicines. Traditionally, the shaman healer was the only one that drank the sacred brew. The plant would then give the shaman the “eyes” to See the disease, and the “inner knowing” of what to do about it. More so than in any other environment I have been in, knowledge Is power in the jungle. One Kichwa shaman healer I met in Ecuador would compare the taking of ayahuasca by the shaman as similar to getting an X-ray in clinics and hospitals.

the healing breath of the shaman

Ayahuasca is the X-ray. Ayahuasca allows the shaman to See the patient’s issues, to See through the human body under the skin in order to heal the patient’s energetic imbalances, which is also known as shamanic energy healing.

Indigenous shaman healers:

In the last 30 years or so, shaman healers of Peru and Ecuador have progressively made their way into mainstream culture, as more and more Westerners travel to the Amazon region looking for shamanic healing. As one Peruvian psychologist put it to me, Westerners are more prone than the indigenous people to look for answers to their many questions about life. It is for that reason, and the fact that Western patients ask for visions, that the sacred brew is now regularly offered to them. The patient can get both an ayahuasca journey and a shamanic healing at the same time.

What I love most about the way of the shaman is that there is more than one way to become a shaman, to be a shaman, to look like a shaman, and most importantly, to heal. Difference is so welcomed and encouraged in shamanism, whereby it is expected that each shaman will have a very personal approach to healing. This approach and process that the shaman will have cultivated may take 20 years or more of initiations, ceremonies, and contemplation.

I mainly drank ayahuasca with Amazonian shamans from the tribes of the Shuar, Kichwa, Cofan, and with one shaman from the Ecuadorian coast. The latter would mix both his Chachi tribe’s traditions, and certain Mexican shamanic practices; Carlos Castenada described in his books some of those practices during his encounter with Don Juan.

In general, the Amazon shaman does not ask you about your issues as a psychologist would in the West. He is not a shrink. The Amazon shaman will ask you about physical illnesses, part(s) of your body where you need a healing touch, and he will provide it for you. The rest of the energy healing is between you and the plant medicine.

Shamans believe that the source of all diseases originates from an energetic imbalance, and subsequently with an imbalance with one’s natural environment. The root cause of every disease and health problem is an energetic imbalance.

When I lived in Ecuador, I was told by more than one Amazonian people, that shamans, real shamans with magical power, were an endangered species. Some tribes there, such as the Cofans in Northen Ecuador, no longer have shamans, but they have “ayahuasqueros”: an ayahuasca medicine man who works with the sacred plant ayahuasca. The three ayahuasqueros I met in the Cofan community were in their twelfth year of the necessary 20-year process to become a shaman.

Cofan ayahuasqueros in Northern Ecuador Ecuador

The big challenge that shamanism faces today is its very transmission, the transmission of the shamanic knowledge. The Amazonian tribes have an oral tradition, and while several petroglyphs with what appears to be shamanic symbols have been found in the Cotundo region of Ecuador and other spots in and around the rainforest, they did not start recording their knowledge until after the arrival of the West. Hence, the saying translated from Spanish: “Each time a shaman dies, a whole living pharmacy dies with with him or her.

Indigenous shamans, including Native American shamans and medicine men, are less likely to be charlatans in their healing art. The fact that they have lived so connected to their natural environment gives them a very earthy energy that fuels their healing touch. But not all shamans are there to heal: there are those who have chosen a path of darkness, which, some of them will say, has more power.

Shamans who work in the service of others as they focus on their healing can find themselves at risk in certain regions where there are many dark wizards. The latter would not hesitate to take down the competition with darts and spells, and in one case I am familiar with, to burn the good shaman at the stake.

Light worker:

A real shaman healer is a shaman who has chosen to enlighten people and journey through the spirit world with a healing intent. In the words of Michael Harner in The Way of the Shaman: "He (the Shaman) is a self-reliant explorer of the endless mansions of a magnificent hidden universe."

I went once for a session with my closest shaman friend as I had done something quite destructive for my health. I had tried cocaine a couple of times in Ecuador, but in a large quantity and as a first-timer. Needless to say my body, heart, and soul suffered throughout what became a 4-day ordeal trying to purge this deadly drug from my body. I first brought up my intentions for the ceremony to the shaman, in that I wanted to get this drug completely out of my body and energy field. He listened intently, and he did not judge me. Afterward, he talked about the Amazonian region being a big drug processing and trafficking zone, and about his own stupid mistakes.

We drank his ayahuasca, and I laid down and drifted into my world. Shortly thereafter, I started to hear my shaman friend’s songs as I was feeling the spirit of the cocaine throughout my body, while my heart was telling me that this was certainly not a life-giving spirit, but one which would bring death to my heart. The whole time, I could hear in the background the shamanic songs, but all of a sudden the songs were getting louder and more pressing, as if trying to wake me up, as they inserted themselves through vibrations in my inner journey. I could hear cocaine in Spanish, “cocaina”, repeated several times in the middle of a song, I knew the shaman healer was right there with me on my journey to purge myself from cocaine. Finally the overpowering urge to go vomit came over me; the cocaine was completely pushed out through my intent, my volition, and the sacred chants of the shaman healer accompanying me.

To go or not to go

I sincerely believe that whether you choose to “go native” or more commercial when it comes to the shaman of your choice, you will not regret it. In the worse case scenario, you will end up with an interesting anecdote. And what are we without our stories, our anecdotes, our adventures? Listen to your intuition, and it will most likely measure accurately the healer in front of you; sometimes, however, giving the experience a chance is the only way to know.

Shaman healers are inexpensive when compared to the regular doctors’ costs or health insurance, and, most importantly nothing is done to your body, no harm, no cutting, no anesthesia, no scars. If you go to the Amazon, you can choose whether or not to drink ayahuasca, but what is most important is that your shaman healer makes his own brew and drinks it for your healing, with the right intentions. The medicinal plant will help the shaman healer See inside you and know how to heal you or improve your body’s health.



Here and Now

To Shamanic Healing, an intro

KA Healing Retreats, between Caponga Beach and Cascavel in Ceara, Brazil
Memory and future of Ecuador's indigenous populations
Valerio, Cofan ayahuasquero