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Religion & Culture | Shamanism: The oldest religion on earth - Dance and movement heals emotional scars

Published:Sunday | December 10, 2017 | 12:00 PMDr Glenville Ashby

The shaman moves with stealth and deliberation. His body twirls to the sound of the drums and percussion. His is a cosmic dance, a rhythmic dance that captures the imagination.

Shamanism is the oldest religion on earth. Stripped of bureaucracy and written edicts, it promotes uniformity in nature.

The forest and its inhabitants, the heavens and the seas, the mountains and human kind are weaved in a single cosmic entity. It is this attunement, this delicate balance that ensures wisdom, creativity and good health. Physiological, physical, psychological and emotional diseases occur when we step out of this balanced cohabitation.

The word shaman is derived from Evenki and Tungusic languages (spoken in Mongolia, China and Russia) and is used to define an ascetic person or monk. By the 18th century it was utterly corrupted and sweepingly used by Western anthropologists to describe pagan priests in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific who served in didactic roles as intermediaries between the spirit world and the living.

Blurring lines, anthropologists described every magician, occultist and witch doctor as a shaman creating a category of priests supposedly steeped in superstition and ignorance.

But shamanism is hardly based on dogma and faith.

In truth, a shaman is essentially an individual who upholds a belief in the oneness of nature and fortifies the spirit through prayer, healing sounds, music and dance. Here, belief is based on understanding the dynamics of natural law which is defined as principles. observed in nature. that are binding on humankind. These principles are distinct from positive or man-made laws and statutes.)

Nurturing the body, mind, and spirit is rooted in shamanistic lore. In this article we will explore the body as a conduit to heighten one’s spiritual awareness while attaining sound health.

Unlike some eastern disciplines that downplay or deprive the body in the quest for enlightenment, shamans are well aware that the way to elevated consciousness and good mental and emotional health is through the body.

The body is essential to shamanism as it is to psychoanalysis. It was Sigmund Freud who constructed several stages of human development starting with the oral stage in an infant that lasts from birth to two years old.

This is followed by the anal, phallic and genital stages. Freud contended that personalities behaviours are formed by the child's experiences during these phases.

It is where the seeds of a healthy ego or emotional and psychological disorders are planted. For example, some forms of addictions could be traced to difficulties experienced by the infant during the oral stage of development.

The oral stage is arguably the most pivotal and deeply rooted. It is the period where the child and primary care giver (usually the mother is bonded especially through the feeding process). There, the infant finds comfort and security.

All forms of addiction are symptoms of deep-seated problems that could have originated during this phase of development. Addiction then is a psychological fixation and a regressive step to recapture the security, comfort and pleasure that the oral stage, in particular, ought to have provided. 

Pleasures, according to Freud, are not only found at this phase but also in what he termed erogenous regions of the body. Indeed, touching and embracing are integral to a child's sense of worth, assurance and confidence and identity.

Freud's erogenous thesis, though, isn't reductionist (limited) or material. In fact, it lays the groundwork for the Carl Jungs of the world who later explored the larger dynamic of body, mind, and spirit.

This dynamic can be better explained through the study of movement. This is where the shaman, his body and his dance come in.  This is where the mechanics of posture comes in.

The shaman's dance involves animal movements, for the most part. The writhing, elongation and caressing of the body along with drumming, percussion and healing (vocal) sounds, unify dancer with nature's rhythms and patters.

It is this oneness that engenders healing and wisdom. The animal is never disconnected to its surroundings. Its acute perception is a consequence of this symmetry.
The Sun Dance and the Chinese Dragon Dance are just two of the many artistic movements performed by shamans. The former is believed to generate healing and enlightenment and is still practised by Native Americans. It involves communal fasting, prayer, drumming and the use of sacred fire and ceremonial pipes.

The Dragon Dance promotes self-worth, internal strength and identity. Historically, the dragon has symbolised power and dignity - attributes that, if not nurtured at infantile stages, can lead to psychosocial problems later in life.

The more Shamanism is explored the more we can add to its psychotherapeutic tapestry.

While the role of movement did not play a role in classical psychoanalysis we are discovering that working with the body does facilitate healing.

The proven success of yoga and other complementary healing modalities (including Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique) in treating stress and addiction, are worth mentioning.

In her memoir, Yoga For Life, Colleen Saidman Yee identifies seven areas in the body that harbour stress and demonstrates the asanas (postures) and movements to free oneself from their emotionally harmful effects. These areas are the throat, neck, jaw, pelvis, diaphragm, shoulders and hamstrings.

In 1997, Ou Wen Wei, the founder of Pangu Shengong,  successfully collaborated with Guangzhou Ministry of Public Security in China in using Qigong therapy (Moving Form) to treat heroin addiction.

These studies and the impact of the Shamanic dance prove that body is transcendental in scope. Prodigiously used, it can well heal the loss, abandonment, fear and anger we might have experienced in our childhood.


- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity and The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health

Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby