Becoming You – Positive Psychology Coaching,
Movement Medicine and Shamanic Healing

Honouring the Animal - Movement Medicine

Specific interest in what we might term contemporary “neo- shamanism”  within North America and Europe is something that is generally regarded  as having emerged over the last three decades. Writing in his critical  account of religion and anthropology, Morris posits that this once  disparaged subject amongst anthropologists themselves has now become  an important area of study. The significant upsurge of interest was  originally led by anthropologists and academics, before moving into what  he refers to as New Age circles, as a form of spiritual practice. Amongst  shamanism’s major proponents in the contemporary environment have  been Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner and Joan Halifax. Harner in  particular, after engaging in his own anthropological fieldwork,  established The Foundation for Shamanic Studies; an educational  establishment dedicated to propagating what Harner refers to as core  shamanism, a set of practices I myself am trained in.

Given the role of anthropology in cultivating awareness of difference  and diversity it is perhaps unsurprising that much of that which has  emerged from its explorations stands as a direct challenge to the values  and beliefs of the more mainstream Western religion and culture, often  with an interest in emancipation from suffering in the here and now,  rather than salvation in the hereafter. Neo-shamanism has thus become  established as one of the major strands within what is sometimes  referred to as New Age spirituality, something that could be classified as  an emergent social movement in its own right.

Shamanism itself is thought to have originated as far back as the early  Paleolithic cultures. Classical shamanism is generally viewed as being  brought to the popular imagination in recent times by Mircea Eliade in his  classical study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstatsy, work focused  upon North and South America and South-East Asia. It is nonetheless, the  case that shamanism exists as a worldwide phenomena, embedded in a  vast array of cultural and religious circumstances, always dynamic and  highly adaptive (See Jay Griffith’s Wild for a contemporary populist and  painful account).

For this reason many of those who study and practice it in contemporary  settings, view it more as a worldview than as any kind of religion in an  institutionalized sense. The word shaman originates with the Tungus or  Evenki people from Siberia, who used the term saman to describe their  specialized priests. Variously thought to relate to one who ‘knows’ or  ‘sees in the dark’, shamana is also a term for a Buddhist monk. Mainly due  to Eliade’s seminal work on shamanism, shamans have been viewed as  those who enter a trance state, thus enabling them to leave the body and  engage in ‘magical flight’ in the upper, lower or middle worlds, in order to  gather information and cures for those who request their assistance. This  would certainly seem to describe the ability to transcend certain  everyday limitations. During such a trance state the shaman is viewed as  having the ability to communicate with ‘tutelary’ (helping) spirits who  assist them in effecting cures, or divining for their ‘patients’. The shaman  has also been variously described as an inspired prophet or leader, a  charismatic religious figure and someone who acts to solve the many  problems presented to them, specifically through the control of spirits.   Indeed it is this very contact with spirits which introduces the notion of a  dual reality consisting of the everyday realm and the realm of the spirits.

Amongst anthropologists there are varying opinions on the subject. S  Some suggest a clear distinction between the material and the spiritual  realms while others take the view that the two are fully integrated.  Puttick points out that while shamans believe that the spirits of the   unseen realm are real, psychologists tend to relate to the same  experiences as originating within the psyche, or collective unconscious in  the form of archetypes. All such technical discussions aside, the main  purpose of the shaman is to act as a bridge between the ‘unseen’ worlds  and the material realm of what is referred to as ordinary or everyday  reality. Indeed the main function of the shaman is to assist the  community to deal with pragmatic, practical issues, such as illness and  mental and emotional disease, relationship difficulties. Although more  traditionally, this also involved where to find food, correcting misfortune,  or other matters of meaning, all of which ultimately relate to health, well  being and in some contexts, survival. This, just as clearly involves the  immanent, or embodied realm, as the transcendent. The ultimate goal of  shamanic practice remains then, that of bringing personal and  community integration and harmony on a material level.

Shamanism has an ancient history of employing a variety of methods,  including drumming, chanting and dancing, the use of hallucinogenic  plants, sleep deprivation and isolation, in order to induce what are  referred to as altered, trance or non-ordinary states of consciousness.  Harner refers to these as Shamanic States of Consciousness. Within  contemporary neo-shamanism the altered state or trance is usually  achieved using drumming, chanting or dancing. Within the practice of  Movement Medicine, music played for dancing tends to involve the kind  of repetitive rhythms known to induce such shifts in state. The  community practicing Movement Medicine also at times, employs fasting,  the physical isolation of vision quests and burial ceremonies, singing and  sweat lodges. The focus of such rituals in such a context tends to be on  healing, self-awareness, empowerment, personal growth and a deepened  sense of interconnection with the natural environment. The  purpose of moving into an altered state of consciousness is intended to  generate improvement in well being for either the individual or the  community, where community is defined as inclusive of the non-human  world around us, with the health of the latter being seen as intimately  interconnected with the former. The shaman therefore has been  described a person who acts to solve the many problems presented to  them, specifically through relationship with their guiding spirits. Within  traditional societies shamans were and still are also often the mediators  between the community and the environment, as well as cultural  repositories who assisted with the transmission of culturally binding  narratives. Indeed the shaman might even be seen as someone who  assists others in making sense of their life circumstances through the use  of healing stories.

Looking for guidance about some of the spontaneous “altered states” I  myself began experiencing in puberty, the answers I found that both  made most sense to me and empowered me to move towards a greater  sense of personal well-being were to be found in anthropological studies  of shamanic cultures. Particularly within the work of Joan Halifax and  Marcia Eliade, both of whom described the kinds of crises that form part  of shamanic initiation. Living in rural Scotland as an adolescent,  traditional tribal elders with the appropriate reference points were scarce  and I would not discover my first embodied mentor (Lilian Broszka) until I  was 21, but in the meantime I could certainly relate to the concept of an  underworld journey or healing crisis described by Halifax and Eliade.

The point here is that in my own life, shamanism was something that was  initially, quite simply one aspect of my embodied life experience (I only  later came to develop my relationship with it in a more disciplined way  through engaging with a set of techniques and spiritual practices) rather  than a faith per se. In addition, there was very little in the way of  economic exchange involved in this phase of my life although I was  learning a set of skills which would lead me towards a career in  psychotherapy and later still to training as a shamanic practitioner,  enabling the provision of services to my community.

Involvement with spiritual, psychological and body based ‘healing’  practices, which are often very interwoven in contemporary  Western cultures, may in some instances be something  that includes economic or resource exchange, as it has in tribal cultures  for millennia. For all the reasons explained above, it is not something  that I believe can be reduced to concepts relating to the marketplace.   Given my own upbringing amongst those who can only be described as  politically well left of centre, the whole subject of capitalism and the so-  called New Age is an area of conflict in my own psyche, I have been  attempting to work through in recent academic publication on the  spiritual marketplace, but at the end of the day we all need to eat and  keep a roof over our heads.

I have mentioned the first stirrings of my own experiences with  shamanism and there were several decades, many stories and lots of life  experiences between then and now. Tales for another time and place. To  update somewhat though, in 2006, I left a relatively successful career  within a mainstream organizational context. In my case, this was the  National Health Service. I had spent twelve years leading highly complex,  specialist therapeutic work within organizational systems that are subject  to increasingly unsustainable demands given the resources being made  available to them. Throughout those years, both neo-liberal economic  approaches and what is blithely referred to as “the evidence-based social  movement” swept through the health service.

Along with the increasing emphasis on the business model,  management and leadership within the public health systems  as I experienced it, became increasingly, both top-down and brutal. My  attempts to bring personal authenticity into an organizational context I  felt increasingly at odds with began to feel more and more lacking in  integrity. I had been in treatment for cancer and was suffering from what  we euphemistically refer to as “burn out”. I desperately needed time to  experience life at some distance from the intense suffering involved in  working with serious trauma in a systemic context that often rendered  me impotent to offer more than superficial remedy. I believe that at least  some of this trauma results partly as a by-product of particular sets of  cultural mores that devalue the place of what we might describe as the  ‘feminine’ within that culture. Furthermore, that such tendencies are  amplified by socio-cultural models that place the ethics of growth and  competition above the value of life – the existence of which I believe has  profound consequences for the well-being and embodiment experienced  by both genders and possibly even for the continuation of life on our  planet.    In addition, never a big fan of the medical model, I came more and more  to consider the largely socially de-contextualized treatment of mental,  emotional and spiritual ‘dis’-ease with drugs (from which the  pharmaceutical industry makes enormous profits) as an ethical travesty.  Post-departure, however, I was still left with the aspiration and the task  of attempting to transform existing skills into a new livelihood more  congruent with my personal values. Over the next few years my quest to  transform a more viable model for empowering self- leadership for well  being into what Buddhism refers to as right livelihood led me to train and  set up as a shamanic practitioner. My husband, valiantly supporting my  ongoing quest for more sustainable self-leadership was about to become  bankrupt and I meantime, needed to return to the labour market.

Throughout this time however, in an attempt to transform my  relationship with my health, I had made a commitment to  follow a combination of what I experience as spiritual guidance and what  I would describe as body-based, holistic, intuitive sensing, rather than the  more usual cerebrally based way of accessing information that our  conditioning In Western culture has trained us to believe is the best way  to orientate ourselves in the world. I pledged instead, to attempting to  follow my sense of what Colquhoun refers to as communion with the  unbroken wholeness of my life, rather than making decisions based upon  my cultural conditioning. So that faced with the pressing need for yet  more change, I did what I had been doing in response to problems and  challenges, both my own and those whom I had treated as clients, for the  past several years. I took a shamanic journey. A practice that involves  using drumming in order to enter a trance state in which one is able to  consciously and deliberately access greater intelligence, that which  Gregory Bateson and others refers to as non-local mind and what  shamanism names as our ancestors.    ​Going outside one evening I lit a fire and began drumming, with the  specific intention of asking for guidance from my guides and ancestors,  about the way forward. Within the shamanic tradition the ancestors is the  name given to those unseen forces of all that has come before us and  lives around us, which provides spiritual guidance for those of us in the  seen world. The answer was swift and surprisingly prosaic. I was  instructed to look on the Internet. This was not at that time something I  had ever done in my life to pursue employment (neither the drumming  nor the internet I might add) but nonetheless, I did as suggested. Imagine  my astonishment, when ten minutes later the very same evening I  discovered a job description that looked as though it had been written  especially (almost) for me. A funded position in a business school to  research leadership, spirituality, well-being and embodiment, not only  felt like it spoke to my life’s work, it had nonetheless, a strange sense of  calling about it.

Coming from an ancestry of Irish peasants, coal miners and those  subject to the Scottish Highland Clearances, amongst whom the kind of  financial elite I expected to find in a business school were the designated  enemy, life really could not however, have suggested a more apparently  alien environment than a business school, in which to pursue my  inquiries. The opportunity to be paid for three years to write about  embodiment and well-being was however, especially in the face of  impending bankruptcy, so seductive that I applied anyway. As someone  who is, as I have described, innately suspicious of external authority, I  tucked the term leadership out of conscious awareness, where like much  that we are unwillingly to tackle up front, it would later demand  considerable attention. Not something commonly acknowledged within  the standard scientific research literature, Romanyshyn (2007) a Jungian  analyst and author of The Wounded Researcher, writes about just such  unconscious processes in the life of research. And as I outline in one of  my own early academic papers he argues that research not only has a life  and agency of its own, but that some research actually “hunts the  researcher, with a view to finding just the right voice to meet its needs, at  the same time as assisting its vehicle to address and heal their own  wounding” (Young 2011).    Within a week of being accepted for the research post another  synchronicity meant that I returned to visit The School of Movement  Medicine, the newly constellated organization, run by Susannah and  Ya’acov Darling Khan whom I first met over twenty years earlier. Within  the particular community that they lead, following one’s innate felt sense  of what ‘calls’ one is seen as the route to embodying one’s sacred dream,  a process Maslow refers to as self- actualization. Just at exactly the time  when I needed a spiritual community in which to conduct research, I was  re-embarking upon involvement in a re-constituted version of one I had  left several years earlier.

Although I had stayed connected to a more local group, I had taken a  break from The Moving Centre’s international community several years  earlier. This had coincided with a number of personal concerns about the  leadership and values of the organization itself, including the  environmental ethics of international travel; the commoditization of  spirituality and exploitation of indigenous wisdom within historical and  contemporary contexts that involve colonial imperialism, as well as the  potential for alternative spiritualities to inhibit social change due to the  fact that they may neglect to locate the causes of ‘dis’ease in wider  organizational structures. I had in the meantime become aware that  Susannah and Ya’acov Darling Khan, two of the leaders within the  international community I have previously mentioned here, had left the  parent organization, Roth’s Moving Centre, setting up a new organization  in England close to where I live.    Some months prior to applying to begin my PhD thesis I had already  made a decision to participate in the foundational workshop that they  were now teaching as part of their newly constituted practice –  Movement Medicine. There had also been many things I had valued in my  previous experience of belonging to a community exploring movement as  a spiritual practice. I was curious about whether any of my previous  misgivings would be addressed within this new organization. This new  school had, unlike the previous organization, quite specifically dedicated  itself to promoting the tripartite goals of social justice, environmental  sustainability and human fulfilment, rather than simply exploring  individual personal growth.

Given the personal nature of some of my relationships within the  community I would not have considered it a viable proposition to have  re-entered it from a place of inherent hostility to the values being  espoused. I decided after spending a week within it that I felt sufficient  resonance with it, along with still holding the questions I had held about  its organizational predecessor, for it to be a viable community for the  research I was about to embark upon. My re-search was about to become  research. Whilst my journey into the wilds was about to take me ever  deeper into the centre of the forest. ​ ​  

“I have worked with Ali twice in recent years, both times when I needed significant healing and help. I’m  glad I found my way to Ali and have truly loved working with her. She has an unusual gift for sensitivity and  attunement, a great capacity for clear inner ‘seeing’ and plenty of power and presence – all this allowed her  to create the rituals and processes that brought me the joyful and life-changing shifts I was needing. Her  rich background in psychotherapy, movement and dance, as well as her shamanic work make her a gifted  healer and helper of souls.” Mark, Psychotherapist, Devon      

​​“My family and I all had Shamanic Healing with Ali between 2010 and 2015. I also completed a Shamanic  Counselling course with her. Ali’s work as a Shamanic Practitioner is deeply powerful, profoundly healing,  sensitive and ‘wonder’ – full. I feel Ali achieves this through her strong connection to Spirit and by   holding a safe sacred space for the work to manifest in and through her. She brings compassion, integrity,  and her sense of humour to the work and I found this all to be grounding, refreshing, honest and a deep  ​reflection of the sacred within us all.

For me, meeting Ali proved to be life changing as, not only did I experience intense and powerful healings, I  found the confidence to trust my own inner wisdom…Ali retrieved soul parts for me which had been missing  for many years…I felt more complete than ever before, the missing pieces of my soul – which I  had searched for for many years- had finally been returned home to me.

I witnessed Ali undertake truly miraculous healing work when working with my children. In conjunction with  her Spirit Allies, she accurately diagnosed the cause of my son’s physical pain without prior knowledge of the  ailment and then went on to completely heal this pain through shamanic extraction work.   Restoring my daughter’s lost power in the form of an animal was also a beautiful, deep, life affirming  healing…generating relief and transformation for both us as parents and the children Thank you Ali.”   Emma Meadows, Shamanic Practitioner    ​

“I found Ali’s shamanic healing work very deep, gentle and useful. Ali works from her heart with respect and  clarity, so I felt completely safe and held in the healing process.”   Mattius Axelson, Psychotherapist, Denmark ​   

“Ali’s baseline skill and professionalism are rooted in her long experience of safeguarding services and clinical  supervision. I felt very lucky as Ali knows how to bring life back to equilibrium from chaos – as she kind of  holds your hand and gets into the dirt with you…soothing, firm and boundaried, she offers security amidst the  storm, bringing earthy humour and lightness. I remember having shamanic work with her and looking back it  is strange to see how helpful it all was…    ​ Ali intertwines the worlds between the life we lead in our daily lives, with our heritage and ancestors, as well  as our connections with animals and plants…she gets to the nitty gritty of an issue, helping to find ways to  name what needs to be named and dealt with in order to move forward, not only for the sake of the  individual and their family but I think also of humanity – she is strikingly protective of the raw fabrics of life.   ​Ali’s own journey with cancer gives testimony to her ​vision and faith in working with the Earth..”  Sam Buckle, Steiner Teacher and Forest School Facilitator   ​


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For further information on shamanism please see my blog on Shamanic Healing