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Shamanic Wisdom and Healing: Cleaning Up Your River

A Conversation with Alberto Villoldo

Trained as a psychologist and medical anthropologist, Alberto Villoldo traveled to Peru in 1973 to study the shamans of the Amazon. Over the course of the next 30 years, he would be initiated into an ancient and sacred body of knowledge, practically unknown in the West. In this conversation with Kripalu Online, Alberto, one of the leading teachers of shamanic wisdom and healing practices, discusses some of the foundational beliefs of the shamanism of the Americas.

Kripalu Online (KOL) You’ve been working with shamans in South America for more than 30 years. How would you define shamanism?

Alberto Villoldo The term shamanism encompasses indigenous wisdom teachings and healing practices, as well as rites of passage or initiations. What few people know is that the shamanism of the Americas actually originated in the Himalayas. Around 30,000 years ago, when a small group of hunter-gatherers crossed the Bering Strait, they brought with them a body of knowledge—wisdom teachings, healing practices, and rites of passage—that was complete and intact, that existed before the coming of humans. And this knowledge acquired cultural flavors along the way. We call them Mayan, Hopi, or Incan, but their Himalayan source is one and the same. This is also the connection to yogic wisdom.

KOL So shamanism is not a religion so much as a spiritual path.

Alberto Exactly. Religion is based on belief. Spirituality is based on experience. It is verifiable through personal experience.

KOL That is very much in sync with the way we understand yoga. And the reason yoga is still here, the reason shamanism is still here, is that they work. Otherwise, there would be no reason for them to have survived so long.

Alberto Precisely. And that points to the difference between religion and science. With science, the newer it is, the better it is; the science of 20 years ago is outdated. And with religion, the older it is, the better it is. But eternal teachings like yoga, like shamanism, existed even before humans arrived. They are a body of wisdom that has to be individually accessed through practice and initiations.

KOL What are the practices of a shamanic life? What does a shamanic life look like?

Alberto On one level, you brush your teeth and have a cup of tea in the morning like everybody else. On a deeper, more internal level, you are in communion with all of nature at all times. And your practice is one of finding how you can be in service, as a steward of nature and to the world that you want your children’s children to inherit. So the core task of the shamanist is to dream her world into being. Otherwise, she has to settle for the collective nightmare that is being dreamt by others.

KOL How does the shaman dream her world into being?

Alberto Ah, that’s the trick. We now know that whatever you vibrate, you create and attract to yourself. So, you work on healing yourself in order to create peace around you. You become peace. If there’s conflict living within you, you cannot live in a world of peace. The world mirrors back to you perfectly the condition of your love and of your intent. And if the world you’re living in is not a world that is at peace and at joy and at grace, then you have to find peace, joy, and grace within you.

The shaman no longer looks for meaning in life, but brings meaning to every situation. The shaman stops looking for truth and instead brings truth to every encounter. You don’t look for the right partner, you become the right partner. And then the right partner finds you. It’s a very active practice focused on healing.

KOL And do your beliefs affect your ability to be healed?

Alberto Yes. And it’s important to differentiate between healing and curing. Curing is the business of medicine and has to do with eliminating symptoms. A cure will seldom ever result in a healing. Healing is a different business. Healing works on four levels: the energetic; the mythic (the level of the soul); the psychological, where you can test out new beliefs; and the literal, where you can test out new behaviors, new diets, new yoga practices, new exercise routines.

We all know people who have been cured but who haven’t been healed; they’ve had the tumor removed or worked through their mother issues, but they haven’t changed their diet or eliminated life stressors. Or their interpersonal lives are a mess. Generally their symptoms will come back—six months, or a year, or six years later.

And there are plenty of spiritual people, yogis included, whose upper chakras are very open, but they haven’t seen their mother in years or their children won’t talk to them. Everyone’s got to do what the shamans call "cleaning up your river."

KOL Are you born with a clean river or is there a karmic aspect to what kind of river you come into the world with?

Alberto You’re born with imprints, former lifetimes that predispose you to the families you’re going to be born through. So that you’re born into the family you’re going to have the most fun in, right?

KOL Then I got the wrong one. [laughing]

Alberto Most of us think we did. One of the exercises I have my students do is to write a story about the baby that was dropped off by the stork at the wrong house. We should have been dropped off at the house where the parents stayed together, where there was no arguing, nobody died, and everything was beautiful. But the soul, which shamans understand as the luminous energy field, gravitates to the families where you’re going to learn the most.

The luminous energy field is very potent. It has imprints that predispose you to how you will live, how you will age, who you will marry, how you will die. It is so powerful that it will even bring two people together for a single night of love in order to be born through them. I have a friend who said, "That’s exactly what happened to my parents. Except they stayed married for another 55 years afterwards."

Shamanic healing practices consist of erasing these imprints and downloading a new code that is free of this karma so that you don’t have to work it out through the next job, or the next spouse, or the next city. We want it cleared at the level of the luminous energy field. Then it stops choreographing our physical reality, which includes our biological and psychological reality.

KOL What do you mean by that?

Alberto Well, the luminous energy field encodes all your information—what you inherited karmically, what happened when you were 6, when you were 12, as well as all your genetic information. If heart disease runs in your family, it’s encoded in the luminous energy field. And you want to deal with it at that level—not at the level of a heart attack in the ER.

KOL So if we have all these imprints that choreograph our lives, once they are cleared, is there nothing choreographing us?

Alberto Then you become the author of your own script. You become the storyteller instead of being in the grip of the story. So a genetic story of breast conditions is like a bomb waiting to go off and can be triggered by external stressors or a crisis. The luminous energy field is like the software while DNA is the hardware.

But that gene does not have to express itself. You can heal your DNA. That’s when healing becomes spiritual growth. It becomes a movement towards consciousness and ceases to be a physical or a psychological phenomena.

KOL Does shamanism contain the concept of some purpose that a person is meant to live?

Alberto Absolutely. You are here to fulfill a destiny. When you have trauma that occurs in your life, your destiny is derailed. It becomes fate, and whether it’s genetic fate or psychological fate, it is fatal. Fate is a story that’s been written for you by somebody else. By your parent’s genes, by what happened to you when you were a child, by your culture, by the fact that you were born a man or a woman. Destiny is a story that you write.

Alberto Villoldo, PhD, is dedicated to bridging ancient shamanic healing practices and modern medicine and psychology. He is the author of several books, including Shaman, Healer, Sage and Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval, and directs the Healing the Light Body® School, a shamanic training program.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail