Shamanism, Plant Medicine & the Western Paradigm of Mental Health

JUNE , 2020
Plant Medicine
Mental Health
There are many forms of healing, whether it be healing of the physical body, addressing mental health, or healing a fragmented soul or spirit.
But how do they connect and where do they cross over? The answer is not simple. Healing is a complex but beautiful web of interconnected practices, techniques, and influences. Whether we use shamanic practices and plant medicine to transcend into different worlds, or through the use of Western therapies – each person’s journey will be deeply personal and entirely unique. Here, we look at shamanism and plant medicine and see how these ancient traditions can be interwoven and work together with the Western contemporary paradigm of trauma.
What is Shamanism?

Anthropologist and religious historian Mircea Eliade describes shamanism as a “technique of religious ecstasy”. Shamans are seen as spiritual messengers between the supernatural world and the human world. They are respected as masters able not only to heal individuals of physical and mental ailments but also to bring solutions to problems affecting whole communities.

To do this, the shaman must reach an Altered State of Consciousness (ASC) in order to perceive and interact with what they believe to be the spirit world and to channel these transcendental energies into this world (Singh, 2018). This is sometimes called the ‘soul journey’ or ‘vision quest’, where the shaman’s soul or spirit departs the body and travels to other places. This can be deliberately induced in a variety of ways, including chanting, dancing, singing, drumming, fasting, extreme temperature exposure, or through the use of plant medicines such as Ayahuasca. The shaman can then transcend to other worlds to call upon the wisdom and power of spiritual entities, which may take the form of animals, plants, the deceased, or other manifestations.

Shamanism considers the body, soul, community, and environment not as separate forces, but as one integrated being. This is why the involvement of the community and ritual is a vital element in the healing process of Ayahuasca ceremonies.


We express our gratitude #thankyouplantmedicine

Shamanic traditions historically are associated with indigenous and tribal societies, and here at AYA Healing Retreats, we are guided by the tradition of the Shipibo Indigenous approach of the Peruvian Amazon.
Most of the shamans we work with come from a long ancestral line of shamans, where guidance is passed down from generation to generation and shamanism is a way of life from birth.
“The wisdom of healing and shamanism is in their DNA. We honor their ancient traditions with our work as facilitators, and together, we bring healing through Ayahuasca ceremonies”

Transcending worlds to reconnect

A central theme in shamanism is to revive soul loss. Soul loss is a condition where individuals sense they are losing meaning in life – they feel like they don’t belong and can become disconnected from others. It is thought to be caused when a traumatic event (be it physical or emotional) causes the energy of the individual to fragment; parts of the soul can get lost or trapped, disrupting the natural flow of energy and vitality in a person.
Life can be stressful, so everyone will go through the trauma of some degree and therefore soul loss may happen. However, some life experiences that can cause prolonged or more severe pain. These might include emotional, physical, sexual or psychological abuse, grief, addictions, birth trauma, war, or torture.

Soul retrieval, or recovery, is an ancient practice that shamans use in order to bring an individual who is suffering from soul loss back to wholeness. It involves regaining a new sense of self after a traumatic experience and becoming able to engage with others and the world. Social support is vital to soul retrieval, as is support for the reintegration into communities.


trauma informed principles

Don Miguel at AYA Healing Retreats by photographer Olivia Leigh Nowak

Shamanism and Mental Health  


Ayahuasca as a plant medicine for the soul

Ayahuasca, or yage, is a psychoactive plant medicine made from a potent brew of the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaves of the Chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). This combination creates a powerful drinkable medicine that is similar in structure to the body’s own serotonin. It has been used by the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon for healing and divine ritual for centuries.

Ayahuasca can take us on a challenging and revealing journey through our heart and soul, enabling us to unblock long-held trauma, fear, hostility, anger, hatred, and pain. It works at the level of the physical body by directly cleansing and eliminating toxins, often by vomiting, crying or laughing. It also works at an emotional level, helping define which aspects of the personality need to be released and letting the healing of emotional wounds happen. This can often occur through receiving spiritual guidance from visions of teachers from a different realm. Ayahuasca can create a clear passage between our waking reality and a non-physical plane, allowing us to access innate wisdom from deep inside and outside of ourselves.

It requires deep courage and commitment to be able to shine a light on the deepest, darkest aspects of ourselves.

This is why it is not a straightforward, one-off experience, but involves a good network of experienced therapists, coaches, healers and supportive communities to continue realizing this life-changing growth.

Mental health in Western cultures today

In the last few decades, there has been some amazing progress made in the research and development of the mind-body connection. Today, we have more insight than ever into how trauma can affect the brain, and how it is stored in the body. These discoveries have revolutionized the way in which trauma recovery can be managed.

An example of this is the Somatic Experiencing® method. This is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders, developed by Peter A. Levine, resulting from his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application.

SE therapists are equipped with the tools to be able to recognize when the mind of an individual is stuck in the flight, fight or freeze state after a traumatic experience. Through a variety of healing practices, including bodywork and talking therapy, the individual is eventually able to complete these self-protective motor responses and release the thwarted energy in the body, therefore addressing the root cause of the trauma. This can help the individual feel less lost and more able to cope with their day-to-day lives without feeling blocked or devoid of all energy.

trauma informed principles

Working with Plant Medicine by photographer Olivia Leigh Nowak

Another example of an effective trauma therapy that encapsulates the mind-body connection is NeuroAffective Touch®, developed by Dr. Aline LaPierre. It’s a technique that uses intentional mindful touch to bring unconscious memories held in the body into conscious awareness. Working with the nervous system, the therapist can help the individual rewire the brain to help rebuild self-awareness and a more positive sense of self.

These new practices of trauma recovery, along with many others, as well as the revolution in neuroscience research, have reshaped our understanding of the biological effects of psychological trauma. By recognizing the importance of the relationship between the nervous system and the innate intelligence of the body, we can create a new paradigm of trauma-informed plant medicine care.

The shift to a new, holistic type of healing

Recovering from traumatic experiences, especially cumulative traumatic experiences, is not easy. It takes time, effort, specialized care, support, and persistence.
When someone decides to try sacred medicine, it’s normally a conscious choice to experience deep spiritual, mental and physical healing. However, there are currently no regulations in place to make sure participants are respected, guided by qualified, ethically-minded facilitators, and are fully supported after their experiences. A code of ethics is much needed in this field of healing. There are times where plant medicines are not enough to resolve traumatic experiences, and the individual needs therapeutic interventions as extra support.

This is where a new understanding and structure of integration and mental health care is imperative.  

Through carefully facilitated Ayahuasca ceremonies, we can shed the limiting behaviors and powerful fears that have held us back for years and unlock our true potential. However, if the wisdom received through these powerful psychedelic experiences is supported with trauma-informed integration, especially when traumatic memories surface, then a full resolution can be achieved. This involves continued contact with experienced therapists who understand the delicate rhythms of the mind and body connections, and who also maintain respect and knowledge of shamanic traditions

In this way, the insight and healing received in the altered state of consciousness becomes a living reality in waking life.
We need to open up to a holistic paradigm, where we can interweave ancient shamanic practices of the understanding of soul and spirit with the new emergent knowledge of neuroscience and body-oriented and somatic psychotherapies of trauma.

Only then can we transform our everyday reality into one where we are more courageous, authentic, loving, powerful, intuitive and creative in the journey towards wholeness. 


Singh, M. (2018). The cultural evolution of shamanism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 41. e66. 10.1017/S0140525X17001893. 


– Written by Atira Tan and Rosie Tweedale. 

Shamanism and Mental Health

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