I don’t really remember when shamanism began stealthily weaving its tendrils into my life. I guess, like many people, for a long time the word ‘shaman’ just conjured up the idea of a witch-doctor type character with wild eyes and dubious sanity credentials. Or it made me think of the 90s rave group and their love of Eeez! But, in around 2013, in fact very early on in my healing journey, I was working with an amazing psychotherapist, who was very influenced by Carl Jung, and it was actually him who first mentioned to me the term shamanism on the odd occasion, in the context of its benefits as a healing modality. Even back then my interest was inexplicably piqued, so much so that I ended up visiting a well-reputed woman shaman of the celtic tradition in Oxford to have a healing session with her. I loved the session – the woman sang beautifully over me and played various instruments including a huge drum and a rattle. It was super relaxing and I experienced all kinds of strange twitches and sensations in my body. At the end she gave me a long account of what she had experienced on her ‘journey’ for me – and much of it made a lot of sense and, even more strange, some bits I didn’t understand at the time have since come to pass. However, I still didn’t really understand what shamanism actually was, and that was that for a few years – the word faded into the recesses of my mind as I put my energy into building my yoga teaching career.
Then, after a few years of nomadic living, either in a campervan in various beautiful parts of the natural world, or in a caravan in a field whilst teaching in the UK, my lifestyle was increasingly becoming one of nature immersion. I have always felt a very deep connection to nature, further deepened through my work as an ecologist, but somehow this was taking it to another level, some might say spiritual, although that is a very loaded and not always very helpful term (something I would love to address, as I describe in this short video). Anyhow, I was living very simply and very close to nature indeed, and certain things just started happening to me, for which I had no contextual understanding at the time. I began collecting certain stones or feathers or driftwood that felt ‘special’. I began doing my own little rituals out in nature, often with a candle or fire. I was drawn to certain spots, feeling a positive energy there or feeling the land needed a boost of my energy, and I was increasingly drawn to visit ancient sites, such as stone circles. I began communicating with plants and trees and animals, as if I could hear their voices in my head – they became my teachers. I carefully watched nature’s events unfold around me – everything felt loaded with symbolism, each encounter a lesson, nothing a coincidence. I felt so connected to the elements, to every part of nature. I felt the sacredness of the land we walk upon, and the intricate inter-connectivity and perfection of it all. I shamelessly hugged trees in public, feeling them as old friends, grateful for their pure energy. Songs came to me, as if blown into my head from the elements themselves.
Then, one day, my friend Janey was in my car and she pointed at the collection of feathers and leaves on the dashboard.
“You’re such a shaman!”, she said. And there it was – that word again, after all these years! I thought about her comment a lot, but didn’t really pursue it further. Although that same friend and I soon afterwards began putting together yoga events to mark key dates on nature’s calendar, such as the solstices and equinoxes, involving activities that felt quite new offerings to me as a teacher, such as fire ceremonies and deep nature connection. At the same time, I began working a lot with an inspirational yoga teacher, David Sye, whose gloriously celebratory approach to yoga and life placed great value on ceremony, ritual and nature appreciation. I still didn’t really connect the dots and relate any of this to shamanism though!
Then, in the summer of 2017, a good friend of mine and I took a wonderful trip to Ireland to visit a recommended South African seer/psychic. She was absolutely incredible, I’ve never experienced anything like her before or since! Anyhow, I’ve never really been into past life stuff but one of the first things she told me was that I had a significant past life as a full-blown Toltec nagual shaman. I couldn’t believe it – that word again! She told me that my path in this life wasn’t necessarily to ‘be the shaman’ but that I needed to reconnect to these teachings to help me make sense of my own path. I learnt that Toltec shamanism is particular to a certain area of north-western Mexico, in the desert, and has a heavy emphasis on ‘the dream-time’ and lucid dreaming. Weirdly, for the last year or so I had been experiencing spontaneous lucid dreams and all kinds of other strange nocturnal shenanigans, for which I had no explanation. Even weirder, I had tried to book a ticket to Mexico just a few weeks earlier, but my card had been refused and I bottled out, choosing instead to go to India (I never went there in the end either, but that’s another story!). Anyhow, she said it was on my path to visit Mexico to reconnect to the teachings, but that in the meantime I should learn about the Toltec way at one of the few places that teaches this tradition in the UK – none other than the Anam Cara Retreat Centre near Inverness! So, that is how I found myself in Scotland in August 2017, on a course entitled ‘Plant Spirit Medicine’ with Twobirds, the resident shaman there. I know many people think shamanism is all about ingesting psychedelic plants, but the only thing we imbibed were copious amounts of tea all week! In fact, there are so many myths that need debunking, and I will do my best to do so as time goes on. Anyhow, it was a fantastic week of deep nature connection, friendship and healing – and the strangest thing was learning that all the things I had been intuitively doing already were in fact aspects of the shamanic tradition!
And, as many of you know, it turns out I ended up staying the whole year at Anam Cara. I studied more with Twobirds, going deeply into Toltec wisdom, which did feel eerily familiar. I kept thinking, ‘I know this stuff, I’ve done this before!’. Then, on my recent trip to Mexico, I fulfilled my dream (literally, I kept dreaming about it!) and spent three immersive weeks in the desert with a shaman who follows the Toltec tradition, learning more about its wonderful practices. But, when I say learning, it has never really felt like that with shamanism. It just feels like affirmation that I already have this knowledge within me – it is innate.
And, really, that is what I passionately believe and wish to share – the idea that shamanism is an umbrella term for innate earth-based wisdom that simply comes from our authentic way of being, in deep connection with ourselves and all aspects of interconnected life. It is true that all traditional cultures across the world share eerily similar shamanic traditions – in the UK, the witches of old were probably the shamans – herbalists and healers. (Interestingly the word ‘witch’ comes from the same etymological stem as ‘wise’.) A shaman is often described as a healer of the community who walks with a foot in both worlds – the seen, physical world and the unseen world of spirits, messages and energies. I now reaelise I’ve always lived my life this way, I just never understood it until recently.
‘But how does all this relate to yoga?‘ I hear you ask! Well, really, it’s in that key word ‘connection’. Yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bring together’ or ‘union’ and, to me, shamanic practices, or earth-based wisdom, as I prefer to call it, can be easily interwoven with yoga to contribute to this. It is really just another way of connecting deeply – with ourselves as spiritual beings having a very human experience indeed, with the world around us, the earth that supports us, the mysteries of the stars and planets above us. To me yoga and earth-based wisdom are two sides of the same coin – just a whole load of different tools by which we can explore what it is to be human, and open up to healing and growth, through deep connection, through remembering that all life is sacred, from the most mundane encounters to the most mysteriously magical experiences. To me, the combination of yoga and shamanism really does encapsulate the idea of ‘roots down, branches up’.
For too long ‘spirituality’ has been separated from our innate way of being, when in fact it’s such a normal part of life. I am lucky that I have worked in ecology for so many years – I would count some of my ecology colleagues as some of the most spiritual people I know – good, grounded, caring and kind people with great integrity and a deep reverence for nature and, from that, for all life. But they would probably never describe themselves as spiritual! You see, spirituality doesn’t need to be something esoteric and complicated, it’s just getting quiet, getting connected, and coming back to our true selves, understanding that we are all connected, and it’s a beautiful thing. One of my favourite quotes is from legendary yogi, BKS Iyengar, who pretty much nails it in my opinion:
“One’s spiritual realisation lies in none other than how one walks among and interacts with one’s fellow beings.'”
So, in practical terms, you probably won’t notice much difference in how I teach – I’ve been bringing nature connection into my teaching for many years already. But, I will probably just gently weave in some of the basic tools that traditional cultures across the world use to help them come to health and happiness. So, things like creating a sacred space with an altar (I already do this in my yoga!), cleansing the energies of the space we work in with incense/sage (again, already do this!), working with the four directions (linked to the four elements – already do that!), and introducing the shamanic journey technique (a self-guided visualisation much like yoga nidra!). I also intend to organise events around nature’s calendar where possible, to help us restore the deep connection to the land that has been lost in the busy modern world (again, I already did this a little bit!). So, in conclusion, not much will change except, I hope, a richer experience for you and a deeper connection to yourself and the world around you, which has always been my intention through teaching yoga anyway… Nuff said!
For those particularly interested in learning more about shamanic traditions, I would love to hear from you. If there’s sufficient interest, I may well branch out into separate offerings to teach some of its fundamentals in the future.