Drumbeats reverberate underfoot as the tiny woman sitting cross-legged on a richly-colored rug whips her arm against an animal hide.
The faster she drums, the more her knees bounce up and down, ostrich feathers in her headdress quiver, and strands of bells looped around her torso jingle. Puffs of incense waft from a small altar as her eyes flutter open and closed, piercing first one corner of the room, then another.
For a few moments she’s standing, her leather-brown feet stomping, spinning, then jumping as she chants in her native tongue — Hup! Hup! Hup! — before sliding back to her seat on the floor in one swift motion.
She wipes her brow and shudders, as if something without a physical form is passing through her physical body.
The Nepalese shaman Ngema “Maile” Lama tells her translator the energy in the building is good, and the spirits she’s summoned will now help her “clear” the individuals within.
Those individuals — numbering almost 30 — are overwhelmingly white, jean-clad Lawrencians who paid $35 apiece to attend the Chinta ceremony on a recent Saturday night at Elevate Ascension, 1403 Massachusetts St. About two dozen locals also requested private healing sessions with Lama throughout the weekend, and others attended a two-day core shamanism workshop.
Shamanic healing has a foothold in Lawrence, and followers of the practice say it seems to be growing here as it grows in Western culture as a whole.
“People realize, ‘This is something I can do,’” says Marta Schwartz-Calderón, a Lawrence massage therapist and shamanic practitioner. “You don’t have to be raised in an indigenous tribe.”
A number of Lawrence practitioners, working independently or through studios, offer shamanic procedures as a way to heal physical, mental and emotional ailments — some forms rely on guidance from spirits while offshoots focus on personal journeys.
Shamanism is not universally accepted as effective.
But those who practice it say it doesn’t have to be exclusive of other healing approaches, or even religions. They say shamanism filled voids in their lives they previously couldn’t quite put their fingers on.
What's a shaman?
A shaman is a traditional healer who is said to act as a medium between the invisible spiritual world and the physical world, according to the federal government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Most shamans gain knowledge through contact with spirits and use the information to perform tasks such as divination, influencing natural events and healing the sick or injured.
Traditional shamanic healing doesn’t involve physical medical procedures. But the Center warns that such spiritual practices should not be substitutions for conventional medical treatment or used as a reason to postpone seeing a doctor about a health problem, noting that stopping — or not starting — conventional treatment can have serious consequences in some cases.
While Westerners aren’t normally “chosen” as children to be shamans, as Lama was in her native Himalayan village, coursework is available to become certified as a shamanic practitioner.
Ritual not enough
Schwartz-Calderón was raised Roman Catholic and always loved the religion’s rituals, she says. Yet as a teen she began to question how she fit into them.
“I felt like I was just a participant,” she says. “I didn’t really feel connected.”
As an adult, after reading and trying exercises from Michael Harner's “The Way of the Shaman,” Schwartz-Calderón was “blown away.” Then, uncomfortable, she shelved the book.
“It was scary to me,” she says. “I don’t think my brain was really ready for the possibility that it would work.”
Several years later, her young son got pneumonia and couldn’t shake a wretched cough even after doctor-prescribed antibiotics. Schwartz-Calderón tried oils and Reiki, an Eastern energy treatment in which she’s also trained, before deciding to try a shamanic journey with him, which she says took her to a putrid lake into which she poured a vial of vivid blue liquid that cleansed the water.
When her son’s coughing ceased and he awoke the next morning ravenous and seemingly healthy, Schwartz-Calderón became a believer. She soon signed up for formal shamanic training, and now offers shamanic healing and bodywork services at Elevate, 1403 Massachusetts St.
Reaching beyond science
For Schwartz-Calderón’s teacher, shamanic practitioner Ellen Winner of Boulder, Colo., shamanism is a way to reach beyond what science can tell us for certain. She believes connecting with spirits enables people to transcend everyday thoughts to gain a greater awareness of life and to use that guidance for good.
“It’s very emotional. It’s physical feelings of awe and reverence,” she says. “The spirits communicate with us using all of our senses.”
Winner, who studied under Lama in Nepal, helped arrange the shaman’s visit to Lawrence and has taught her own shamanism workshops here for several years. Winner says her parents were scientists but that she was always “a closet mystic.” After reading Harner’s book in the early 1980s, she tried a shamanic journey and says, to her amazement, it worked.
“It was really a happy moment to get some recognition that spirits were real,” Winner says.
Shamanism in town
Studio owner Laura Martin-Eagle has been teaching a “Sweat Your Prayers” dance class since 2000. While the class doesn’t involve conjuring spirits, Martin-Eagle says that — through a process developed by dancer and “urban shaman” Gabrielle Roth — participants take a personal journey to transcend personal and cultural wounds.
The class started small and now draws 20 to 30 people every Sunday. Each week, Martin-Eagle says, attendees leave “transformed.”
“In my mind, each person is finding their own healer within,” she says. The dancing guides them out of the “ego” world and into the “soul” world, “which is kind of what people are craving.”
At Elevate, co-owner Autumn Magiera specializes in a form of shamanic healing called “soul retrieval.”
The goal, she says, is for people who have experienced trauma or simply left behind parts of their “essence” to recapture the source of their life force.
Magiera says she drums and sings to reach a different state of consciousness in which she can access compassionate spirits and glean information from them. She uses information gleaned during her “journey” to help clients understand what they need to become whole again.
Schwartz-Calderón and Winner know that not everyone thinks what they do is legitimate.
But they dispute negative stereotypes about shamanism, such as that it’s a form of evil sorcery or that it goes against religion.
Shamanism relies on compassionate spirits, and it’s primarily practiced to help others, they say. Unlike sorcery, it’s only practiced on consenting individuals.
And shamanism is a technique anyone can use regardless of their religious beliefs, they say. Some shamanic practitioners believe in God, some don’t, and some have unique combinations of beliefs.
Can shamanic healing help someone who doesn’t believe in spirits? Schwartz-Calderón and Winner say it can but that the person must be open to the possibility. Also, they say, “healing” can be defined different ways and doesn’t always happen immediately or obviously. For example, while a healing may not eradicate cancer, it can help a person in their difficult journey battling the disease.
The Chinta ceremony
The goal of Lama’s Chinta ceremony at Elevate is to bring love and healing to the space and people inside, something that involves calling on spirits to clear out any bad energy.
Some attendees watch inquisitively. Others sway with the drumbeats — eyes closed, palms up. One woman, as Lama chants and holds a drum to her head during her individual “clearing,” convulses and falls to the floor, panting as she regroups from the experience.
In a Himalayan village, such a ceremony would take place out in the open and involve children and elders alike, Winner tells attendees waiting for Lama to begin.
“You will feel the energies when she starts working,” she says. “It’s meant to make people happy. It’s meant to be a fun, community thing.”