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What is shamanism?

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Shamanism is not only the oldest healing tradition in the world it is often also grossly misrepresented. In this blogpost, I’ll introduce you to four dimensions that in my view define shamanism. This includes work with altered states of coscniousness, with energy and nature as well as the ability to bridge worlds. And rest assured: I will also mention the stereotypical rattle.

Four possible definitions of shamanism

When you hear the word “shamanism“ or “shaman”, what comes to your mind? Rattles, incense, and a wolfhead as a headdress? You’re not alone. Originally, I also thought of shamanism in these terms. In actuality, though, these are concrete instances of shamanic practices rather than the essence of shamanism.

By now I know four different definitions of shamanism which in my view are legit:

  1. The shaman works with altered states of consciousness.

  2. The shaman works with energy.

  3. The shaman works with and learns from nature and the elements.

  4. The shaman is a bridge between worlds.

Shamanism as work with altered states of consciousness

As far as its range of accepted states of consciousness are concerned, our Western society is relatively poor. If we’re not drunk or under the influence of MDMA, we’re usually in the state we consider “normal”. (An exception might be states of flow. But that topic deserves its own post.) The frontal cortex is in the lead, rational planning, organizing, and analytic thinking are the dominant mode. Out of four available modes of consciousness (deep sleep; dreaming; waking; integrative), only “waking” is actively used in our everyday life. Entering an altered state of consciousness while being awake is suspect. The name “altered” state already indicates that it is the deviation from a norm.

"But demonising or discarding altered states, ignoring their potential for healing and human growth, is far from being normal.”

Research that compares different cultures found that the narrowing of everyday awareness to one single state of consciousness is not so normal after all (see Ember/Carolus 2017; Winkelman 1986, 1992, 2010). One study compared 488 contemporary societies and found that 90 % of these do now trance as a cultural practice. Also historically, altered states of consciousness have been much more normal than one might think: there are indications that for more than 100 000 years, altered states have been part of human culture and practices.

So almost all societies have known several states of consciousness, attributing them a societal function. Contemporary Western societies however tend to pathologize, marginalize or even criminalize what has elsewhere been recognized as healing and advantageous (Winkelman 2010:4; siehe auch Pollan 2021).

Shamans are experts for alternative states of consciousness

In many societies, Shamans are or used to be the experts for alternative states (Winkelman 2010:3). Shamans enter trance in order to make experiences and gather information. Shamans also help others enter into altered states and guide them in these states so they can have experiences that are healing or instructive.

In this wake, one could also see hypnotherapists and breathworkers as engaged in a Shamanic practice, as they both guide people into altered states.

Techniques that help people get into altered states are manifold:

  • Sound, e.g. with rattles (there they are, finally), drums, singing or chanting

  • Visual sensations

  • Movement, e.g. dance, shaking (as in the Germanic seidr), whirling (as in the famous Sufi practice), Qi Gong, Tai Chi

  • Physical exhaustion, hunger or thirst, e.g. in the sundances or vision quest

  • Breath

  • Meditation, Mindfulness practices

  • Entheogens, Psychedelics, „Teacher Plants“ (e.g. Mezcalito/Peyote; Ayahuasca; Ninos Santos/Psilocybin; Alcohol; Tobaco)

  • Rituals

To my knowledge, scientific research is only starting to understand that and how altered states contribute to healing.

What struck me, when reading about the topic and revisiting my own experiences, was that the brain areas and functions affected by trauma are also those involved in altered states. Also, the areas of perception and awareness that are relevant to both experiences overlap. So for example, some symptoms of trauma are: difficulty to be in the present, the recurrence of one or several specific pieces of memory (“flashbacks”), a disconnect from the body and dissociation. In psychedelic experiences and altered states of consciousness in general, people can experience a shifted sense of time or timelessness, the revisiting of past events, a sense of being completely in the present, out of body experiences, arriving in their bodies. The potential of mediation and mindfulness for trauma healing has been scientifically proven (see e.g.Van der Kolk 2015). Studies investigating the beneficial effects of professionally assisted psychedelic treatment for a variety of mental health challenges (depression, anxiety, PTSD) are starting to show their potential (see Tullis 2021). Exciting trials on psilocybin, MDMA and the like are underway in many places, for example at Johns Hopkins in the US, King’s College, UK, and the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

In my breathwork as well as my shamanic journeys, I assist people in entering altered states of consciousness and guide them in their experience. For this, I regularly put myself into a (less intense) trance state or at least enter a state of flow. For shamanic energy work, it’s indispensable that I enter a trance state myself. When working with another person’s energy body, this altered state helps me to see. But with some practice it’s actually fairly easy to get yourself into a state of light trance, either by rattling or drumming.

Shamanism as work with energies

Shamans learn how to recognize and direct energies. One can read this metaphorically: they learn how to read and influence situations. But one can also read it literally: Shamans can perceive the energy that our world is composed of and influence it. Which energy are we talking about in the second case? Depending on the tradition, it’s called Qi (and Shen and Jing), Prana, or life force.

The wisdom traditions of this world know that we are also energetic beings. (And so does Quantum Physics, I am told. If you want to take your own shot at understanding it, you can start here.) Yoga as much as Qi Gong and shamanic practices build on this knowledge. In the Toltec tradition, too, it is assumed that energy is the basic matter forming our universe and its material and non-material phenomena. In several traditions, there is a distinction between different forms of energy.

"Energy is the basic matter of all life. And the Shaman has learned to intervene intentionally in a person’s energy system.“

Regarding humans, the Vedic traditions also speak of the „subtle bodies“ that complement our physical, material body. The Shaman has learned to intervene intentionally in a person’s energetic system and dissolve blockages on this level. This, by the way, is a skill she shares with practitioners of various natural healing methods like TCM and Shiatsu, even though the type of energy or energetic layer each works with differs. Shamanic traditions also differ in regards to how they intervene: Some focus on the direct manipulation of the energy body, while others emphasize the importance of identifying and changing emotional and behavioural patterns that led to the energetic blockage. In my Shamanic training, I first learned to remove blockages “manually”. Especially in studying and practicing Toltec principles, my focus has shifted more to how our behavior fosters energetic blockages or leads to a lack of energy. In my work I now combine both perspectives.

Shamanism as working with and learning from nature

I heard this definition of shamanism from Jonathan Hammond, who studies Hawai'ian shamanism (Huna). From everything I have learned and experienced so far, this idea immediately made sense. After all, a large number of shamanic techniques, have to do with nature, e.g. the fire ceremony, working with the “nature mirror“, connecting with power animals, using incense etc.

An important effect of these practices is to reconnect with nature and to realize one’s connection to all of creation. They also help us to become more aware of (and master) our animal nature.

In addition, these techniques train certain skills that are important for a shaman, such as attentive observation, perceiving with different senses, taking into account one's own intuition, as well as overall developing a sense for one's surroundings. Moreover, in these nature-related practices, if we use them correctly, we are always thrown back onto ourselves. They are hence a powerful way of enhancing our personal growth. Nature reflects back to us what is going on within us in the present moment.

"Shamanism reminds us that we are cyclical beings, tied into the cycles of nature."

I have had the most amazing experiences in fire ceremonies, learning a lot about what my expectations and demands, my fears, and ultimately my patterns of thinking and feeling are. Relating to nature more mindfully, understanding it as a mirror and teacher, has also taught me much about the cycles of life and my own cyclical nature. I have also been able to see in others how engaging with nature - both our own and that which surrounds us - brings understanding and relaxation to people.

Shamanism as a bridge between worlds

Classically, the worlds to be connected here are the material world of everyday life and the world of the spirits. I am least familiar with this fourth definition, as it is not the focus of my shamanic work. Spiritualistic practices and people who work as mediums focus much more on this aspect of shamanism. If you are interested in connecting with the spirit world in this way, Hannah Achenbach, my colleague at Feelconnect, for example, can tell you more about it.

If you understand the world of spirits as a symbolically mediated dimension (see Winkelman 2010) or as spirituality in general, I myself also move between these worlds and build bridges for other people. In particular by bringing together science and spirituality, and by practicing a grounded, down to earth form of shamanism, I hope to open these fields up to modern, rational people who can benefit from the wisdom of ancient teachings for their contemporary life.

This is also a concern of Feelconnect, a platform and collaboration project we are currently initiating: to connect spirituality and science, and to ground spiritual practices, i.e. to make them relevant to our everyday challenges. You will soon be able to read and hear more about it on our website.


Ember, Carol R., Christina Carolus. 2017. “Altered States of Consciousness”

in C. R. Ember, ed. Explaining Human Culture. Human Relations Area Files


Pollan, Michael. 2021. This Is Your Mind on Plants. New York: Penguin Press.

Tullis, Paul „How ecstasy and psilocybin are shaking up psychiatry”, in nature, 27.2.2021,, accessed 22.3.22

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Winkelman, Michael. 2010. Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.


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