Urban Shamanism:  
Using Shamanic Healing Practices to Treat Depression
By Elham (Ellie) Ezzati, C.M.T., M.A.



Shamanism — What is it and where does it come from?

Shamanism is believed to have developed during the New Stone Age and the Bronze Age period. The word shaman derives from the Manchu-Tungus word aman, literally meaning, “he who knows.” Shamans can be found in all indigenous cultures of the world from South Asia, the Americas, to Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, India and Africa. It is questioned whether shamans of all cultures can be seen in the same light. There are, however, certain commonalities within the shamans’ world view as well as their ritualistic practices that make some generalizations possible. For example, shamanism may be applied to all religious systems in which the central personage is believed to have direct intercourse through an ecstatic state with the transcendent world that permits him or her to act as healer, diviner, and psychopomp (Encyclopedia Britannica online, par.1).

Shamans use these ecstatic states only for the purpose of helping to bring about health and wholeness within individuals and communities. Once shamans enter these states, they are fully in control of their journeys to other realms and are conscious of everything that transpires. They are also able to evoke spirits and inner allies that will be protectors and givers of power (Nicholson, 1987, p.xii).

The belief system of shamans and the rituals they use to perform healings vary from culture to culture. For example, Nicholson explains Native American shamans hold the belief system that the universe has three levels — sky, earth and underworld — connected by a central axis. These shamans use techniques to journey from one of these regions to another in order to access the information they need to help the individual (p.viii).

 Muslim Indian shamans, on the other hand, believe that there are three classes of living beings “higher” than men: Farishta (angels), shaitan (satanic beings) and jinn (demons or spirits). They believe that it is the interference of the shaitan and the jinn that can cause chaos and disorder in a person’s life creating an overall state of imbalance (Kakar, 1982, p.24).

Modern Day or Urban Shamans
Urban shamans are everyday healers who continue to practice the essence of traditional shamanism in today’s modern society. In a sense, any individual working with-in the healing arts profession is to some degree a modern day shaman. They use a core belief system (cognitive/behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy or touch therapy, etc) as well as techniques and rituals (weekly visit to the therapist’s office, lying on the couch or the table, talking about life events or dreams, etc.) in order to promote mental and emotional health. However, a more traditional shaman would access an altered state of consciousness as a way to get more information about his/her clients.

Sandra Ingerman (1991), author, healer and educator, is an urban shaman who uses a technique called “soul retrieval” as a way to bring back the lost vitality and essence in a person’s life. She explains that, “soul loss is a result of such traumas as incest, abuse, loss of loved one, surgery, accident, illness, miscarriage, abortion, combat stress or addiction” (p.11). She goes on to further explain that, “individuals who suffer from soul loss often carry with them a painful sense of incompleteness and disconnection . . . may spend years in therapy or self-help groups trying to uncover traumas and to become whole” (p.12). She uses soul retrieval as a way to help bring back the lost life force energy and vitality of the individual.

Does it actually work?
 Jeanne Achterberg (1992), author and professor of psychology at Saybrook Graduate School, has done experiments to see if in fact shamanic healing rituals have any benefit for people. Her experiments show that any healing ritual has a significant impact on a person’s well-being (both physical and psychological). She shows that incorporating ritual of any kind by healing practitioners is a way to encourage hope, reduce depression and anxiety in patients (p.161).

She believes it is the activity of the ritual, particularly if it prescribes a series of behaviors that has the critical psychological effect of pacing people through difficult times, that makes the difference. These rituals provide a roadmap for the unseen, unknown and uncharted territory. These rituals can be but are not limited to acts such as, “chants, songs, or prayers to quiet a troubled mind, making space for mental and spiritual clarity” (p.162).

Another study by Marlene Dobkin de Rios (2002), a medical anthropologist and psychotherapist reveals that using shamanic healing practices with U.S. Latino immigrant population suffering from psychological and emotional disorders is far more beneficial and productive than using straight insight or talk therapy. She believes that psychotherapy has its roots in shamanism and most indigenous people are apt to feel more comfortable with these rituals rather than the Western model for healing (p.1576).

Joan’s Story
Joan was referred to me by a friend of hers. Her initial reason for wanting to come in was chronic depression. She mentioned she had been receiving psychological counseling for a number of years, and while her symptoms seemed to have improved significantly, her depression still lingered. She felt there were unresolved issues in her life that seemed to not get worked out. Not only had she seen a therapist for a while but some years back she had also gotten involved with occult practices. While her spiritual practice had helped her initially, lately she felt it compounded her depression. She wanted out of the order but was having trouble letting go.

She had heard about my work from her friend and was curious to know whether I could help. Upon her inquiry, I decided to consult my own spirit guides to find out if indeed I could help her and if she would benefit from a shamanic healing. The answer was a clear, “Yes.”

The next time Joan and I saw each other, the session began with the same ritual I practice at the beginning of every shamanic healing session. I had her lie on the table facing up and I stood beside her at the head of the table. I then held my hands in a prayer position and allowed myself to enter into a quiet place within myself where I could invoke the presence of the spirit world to help guide me through the process. As I entered an altered state, I consciously began to surrender and let go of my will so I would become an open channel for Joan. Once I was able to let go of my thoughts and ideas of what the session needed to look like or what was to take place, I then knew the session was ready to begin.

What transpired next is different with every individual. With some I may not need to talk and instead perform the healing in silence, while with others I may have a continued dialogue. In Joan’s case, I felt I needed to tell her what I was seeing. While in an altered state, I began seeing images of scenes that flashed rapidly in front of me. One after another each scene depicted a man with a young girl or a woman. While each scene was different from the next and each one took place in a different time period, the theme was the same; each one clearly showed a man abusing, exploiting or taking advantage of the child/woman.

As I described each scene, something began to shift in Joan. First she began to gently sob, then gradually her sobs turned into painful cries. She began to resonate with the images and said this is exactly what she had been feeling all her life but not able to put into words. While she suspected her father had abused her, she could not confirm it. He continued to deny it to this day, and this left her paralyzed and not able to move on with her life.

As I continued to share the scenes with her, eventually something interesting began to happen. Joan began to see the same images I was describing. Soon I would start describing a scene and she would finish telling the rest of it. Each time she finished describing a scene, her body would relax more. It seemed as though the images were helping her let go of the pain she had been holding onto for so long. We continued going back and forth for the next hour or so until there were no more images visible to either of us. It was then that I knew the session was over.

Joan and I continued to work together for the next several months processing the events of the session. The images had opened up a doorway, allowing her to deal with each scene as if it had happened to her. This enabled her to do the inner work required to gradually understand and let go of her deep hatred and resentment towards her father.

As she continued to do the inner work her sense of self became stronger. Her depression began to gradually lift, and each time I saw her she seemed to have let go of a layer of darkness. She also became more confident in her own intuitive abilities and began incorporating it into her daily life. She no longer felt she needed an external source of affirmation for her spiritual beliefs and practices. Later, she used her gift to work with abandoned and abused animals. She was able to communicate with them and help them release their trauma so they could be adopted into more loving homes.

In the following years since I worked with Joan and many other amazing individuals who happen to cross my path, I am always reminded of this wonderful Chinese proverb:

When the winter is severe
the pine trees in this ancient land
stay green throughout the year.
Is it because the earth is warm and friendly?
No, it is because the pine tree has
within itself a life-restoring power.

Ellie Ezzati, C.M.T., M.A. is an adjunct faculty at Santa Monica City College and at University of Phoenix. She also holds private counseling sessions in Tarzana, California. For more information call (310) 498-3573 or e-mail Centerpeace@earthlink.net 



Achterberg, J. (1992). Ritual: The foundation for transpersonal medicine. Revision, 14(3), 158-165. Retrieved on March 9, 2003, from MasterFILE premier database.

Dobkin de Rios, M. (2002). What can we learn from shamanic healing: Brief psychotherapy with Latino immigrant clients. American Journal of Public Health, 92(10), 1576-1579. Retrieved on March 9, 2003, from MasterFILE premier database.

Ingerman, S. (1991). Soul retrieval: Mending the fragmented self. New York: Harper Collins.

Kakar, S. (1982). Shamans, mystics & doctors: A psychological inquiry into India and its healing traditions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nicholson, S. (1987). Shamanism. Wheaton, Ill: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Shamanism. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved April 10, 2003, from http://search.eb.com/eb/print?eu=117459

Return to the July/August Index page