Shamanic Approaches to Dis-Ease: Working with the Whole Person


The shamanic practitioner approaches illness, or “dis-ease” from a spiritual perspective. The focus is not on treating a condition, but on working with the whole person, a sovereign being, in mind, body, and spirit. Once upon a time, when cultures were collective, in communities where “we” was a more powerful concept than “I,” if one person was sick, all were considered sick.

Underlying the shamanic approach to healing is an understanding that we exist in connectivity with all other ensouled beings, not simply as isolated individuals. My vibration flows out to you, yours touches me, and we are changed in this. We are never truly alone. Taking a page from shamanist Frank MacEowen, we might refer to this as “at-one-ment.”

It is empowering to remember that we have backup as we walk our healing path. From a shamanic perspective, wellness is supported by rediscovering, reclaiming, and developing our sense of personal power. By increments our culture has begun to wake up to the systemic marginalization of people suffering from mental illness. In my own journey I found that being heard was the first, essential step towards healing.

I remember moving through my twenties experiencing profound depression and anger. Yet when I approached counsellors and psychologists, I didn’t feel like my need to resolve attachment to past hurts was recognized. The message I received repeatedly was that we should focus on “moving forward”—i.e., on the future. I knew that in the present, though, I was stuck. Intuitively I understood that some digging around in old wounds had to happen before they could be cleaned up—before I could truly heal from the inside out. This began for me when I sat down with a shamanic practitioner who told me, “I will listen.” Those three words changed the course of my healing, and my life.

Big caveat, here: This is not to say that if I had persisted, I wouldn’t have found an amazing and skilled therapist who resonated with me. In my case, I met therapists who nudged me in a different direction, and in retrospect I am thankful for that. Their intuition may have been that they weren’t the ones to walk beside me. And that was exactly what I needed.

In the shamanic realm, dis-ease may arise from many sources. Three of the primary wellsprings are: a sense of powerlessness or “power loss”, feelings of soul loss through deep trauma, and carrying misplaced energies that deplete us. As a practitioner, I sit down with my clients, and ask them to tell me what they are working on. The lead comes from them. And as their stories unfold, I listen. Clues invariably emerge that help us focus the work we do together.

Power Animal Retrieval

Power Animals are spirit helpers in animal form who protect, guide, and yes, empower us. They walk beside us as wise advisors who support us to transcend our perceived limitations. If a client tells me that they are struggling with a sense of powerlessness, low self-worth, have suffered assault or bullying, or seem to be experiencing chronic back luck, they may benefit from having a power animal restored to them. The qualities, skills, and wisdom offered by one of Nature’s first-born give us pause (or paws, if you delight in horrible puns) to reflect on our own strengths. Developing a relationship with a power

animal may expand our perspective and bring us the inspiration and courage to take wing as we rise to the challenge of our healing path.

Soul Retrieval

In a spiritual sense, the experience of trauma may cause us to feel as though part of us has splintered away and fled—particularly that aspect of us that was most vulnerable to the shock, pain, or violence of the situation. We feel weakened or blocked—nothing can seem to fill us up. When a client describes an inability to feel grounded or connected, deep unresolved emotions, a physical accident or surgery, addictions they cannot shake, or pinpoints that they “have never been the same since such-and-such happened,” a soul retrieval may be coming their way. A lost soul part coming home to roost can be like a returning puzzle piece, making us feel “more ourselves” again. The skills and qualities that soul part offers us have the potential to renew our energy and support further healing. We may find ourselves not only ready, but more equipped to continue the next leg of the journey, even it is rocky and steep.

Extraction Healing

Extraction healing is a response to spiritual intrusions—unneeded, misplaced energies that we carry with us. If a client describes feeling pain, anger, fatigue, anxiety, or the like after having visited a certain place, or after getting in the way of someone’s anger or other strong emotions, they may be weighted down with energies that are not even theirs. Highly sensitive or empathic people sometimes take on emotions that pile on top of the load they already bear. Extraction healing is a method of addressing that unnecessary burden. We may feel relieved, lighter, and freer to focus on our own concerns following the removal of this energetic weight.

Power Animal Retrieval, Soul Retrieval, and Extraction Healing are three possible methods that a shamanic practitioner might employ to support clients in their mental wellness journey. A shamanic healing approach does not seek to replace work with a skilled and compassionate therapist. It can, however, provide an excellent complement that encourages healing in the whole person through deep listening, courageous inquiry, and restoration of a sense of personal power.

Further Reading:

  • Cowan, Tom. Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1996.
  • Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
  • Harner, Michael. Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2013.
  • Ingerman, Sandra. Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner’s Guide. Boulder: Sounds True, 2008.
  • Ingerman, Sandra. Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. MacEowen, Frank. The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers, and Seekers. Novato: New World Library, 2002.

About the Author:

Kristi Corlett is a shamanic practitioner, author, and 500-hour certified yoga teacher who lives in the woods near Killaloe, Ontario. The forest and its creatures heal her every day. You can visit her at