It’s not just in California that people are starting to regard a visit to a shaman as essential as medical check-ins with a doctor. But beyond taking the pulse of your aura and giving you a supercharged dose of TLC, are there any deeper effects? David Annand goes in search of the modern-day urban shaman to find out
I’m standing at the altar, naked underneath my robe. Incense is burning. There are flowers on the alter, little offerings to the heavens. Carlos Gomez, the celebrated Mexican shaman, is standing just behind me, holding a massive conch.
To say that I’m sceptical about Carlos, and shamanism in general, would be an understatement. I have a thuddingly literal mind and the thought that anyone can be a bridge between the physical and spiritual planes, connecting us with our past lives and manipulating our energetic fields, has me rolling my eyes. But I’m on assignment and so I have submitted. And what the hell, I’m out of whack – drinking too much, working too hard, eating the wrong things. If ever I need an aura overhaul it’s now.
Carlos’s long grey hair is tied back in a pony tail, his white beard is neat, he has a scarf tied round his neck like a boy scout. He brings the conch to his lips, directs it at my ear, blows. Loud. I collapse into giggles. Carlos giggles too. Because it’s funny but also because it’s weird. Something is going on.
We’re at the Faena Hotel Miami Beach in its almost impossibly lovely spa, Tierra Santa Healing House, with its light-filled white spaces and South American fabrics. Carlos leads me from the altar to a treatment room where I lie on a bed near-naked and he whips me gently with a towel. He doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Spanish so we communicate occasionally through an interpreter, but mostly through glances and other non-verbal means. Which turns out to be enough. Just on presence alone he is one of the most charismatic people I have ever met, and I leave elated, energetically righted, cosmically reborn. Or at the very least, no longer hungover.
What is it that Carlos has done, apart from lavish me with attention and massage my ego and my back? Probably nothing, but would it have me scuttling back for more? Yes, it absolutely would. And I’m not alone. The world over (OK, mostly in California), everyone is seeing shamans – actors and executives, CEOs and SAS soldiers – all looking for healing, closure or just the edge on their competitors.
Leading the charge is, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow, the most high-profile client of Durek Verrett or Shaman Durek as he is known, the sharply dressed American superstar shaman based in Los Angeles. Apparently descended from practitioners of Haitian voodoo, Verrett takes people on boot camps where you might heal your inner flame or awaken your sacred rhythm. He also does house clearances to get rid of toxic energy, which is not something you can get on TaskRabbit. Clients of his report him creating a vibrational energy of such force that it made them rattle from the inside out even though he was sitting on a chair six feet away. And he is renowned internationally for giving the world’s best hugs.
And, I mutter to myself blackly, might it be this that we’re really after: a bit of love from an intensely charismatic person (by no means is it all men: Goop’s house shaman is former stylist Colleen McCann, and the ‘global thought leader’ Alyson Charles sells herself as the RockStar Shaman), which we can dress up as personal development? What, after all, could be more modern, more now, than a bit of life coaching with a lick of wiki-spirituality (Durek famously picks and chooses from a whole smorgasbord of sources from Maoris to Mahayana Buddhists)?
And isn’t it telling that lots of these people like to use “Shaman” as an honorific as if they’re doctors or five-star generals? I know it’s a thing in America. (The only truly nightmarish thing about the US version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is that everyone goes around reverently calling him “Chef Ramsay”, which definitely didn’t happen when he was in Llanddewi Skirrid and Letchworth). But doesn’t it tend to imply not just a phenomenal self-regard, but also someone who’s trying a little too hard?
But I then I talk to Basque/American shaman Manex Ibar, the go-to shaman for European spiritualists, and discover that he’s not just clever, but understated and humble. And totally serious. He means it when he says he sees energetic auras around people in different colours depending on the balance of their chakras.
“Is this not overwhelming?” I ask him chirpily. What happens when you go into a restaurant? “When I first opened up I started to see people’s purple auras,” he says. “I went to the optician to find out what was wrong and he told me I had 30/20 vision. Perfect. I asked him: ‘Then why am I seeing purples auras round people?’ And he said to me: ‘I can’t help you. You’ll have to go and see a Buddhist about that.’”
And so he did and the Buddhist sent him on to a shaman and thus started a long career which has seen him treat a whole roster of clients from the chronically ill and traumatised to high flyers looking to optimise their lives. A lot of this is done in one-to-one sessions, in person or via Skype. But there is also the option to go on one of his four-day Wisdom Quests into the Pyrenean mountains where guests can work towards overcoming their disconnection from nature, unblock stuck energy and learn to live more from the heart.
Although this might sound a bit woolly, there is a steeliness to Ibar, which I imagine comes from growing up in a family of sceptical scientists, who were initially nonplussed when he switched from studying physics to more esoteric teachings. Although he seems confident that the two might still be reconciled. “The shaman is a master of the subconscious mind and helps us understand the patterning and structures that exist within non-time space which we most often don’t even realise are there. Quantum physics is just catching up.”
And you never know, you might discover, as a friend of mine did, that you are an “Empress of Sexual Healing”, and for just the outside chance of this it would seem worth setting all scepticism aside.