Shamanism is the UK’s fastest-growing belief system, driven partly by Millennials and Gen Z
“Close your eyes,” says Sushma Sagar, as she whirls a piece of smouldering bark around my shoulders. Sagar is a shaman, and this ritual is called smudging, apparently designed to cleanse my energy field with burning Peruvian palo santo wood. Over the next hour, she leads me through a ceremony that culminates in an attempt to contact my 12-year-old self. It sounds ambitious, but it is less dramatic than I imagined – I mostly lie motionless on a massage table doing breathing exercises. “Open your eyes,” she says, eventually. “Now how are you feeling?”
Shamanism is an unlikely pursuit for emotionally repressed Brits, yet it has become fashionable in recent years. The 2021 census of England and Wales found that 8,000 people identified as shamanic followers, up from just 650 a decade before. According to this metric it is, by some distance, the fastest-growing belief system in the country.
Look on social media and it is clear where much of the interest is coming from. Hundreds of Gen Z and Millennials post regularly on TikTok and Instagram about drumming circles, fire ceremonies and smudging. Some call themselves shamans – others are energy healers, medicine women or witches. This is a world of crystals, oracle cards and chakras which is dismissed by the mainstream as new age pseudoscience. But for its legions of young followers, shamanism is reshaping their lives.
“I had an eating disorder during my teens, and then later on I struggled with severe anxiety, alcoholism and heavy drug use,” says Charlotte Johnston, 31. “I went through depressive episodes. I was constantly unfulfilled and I wasn’t able to feel my emotions. That led me to heavy drinking to try and escape.”
In her mid-twenties, while travelling in South-East Asia, Johnston was introduced to energy healing. Initially, it amounted to little more than “surface level” treatment of her symptoms. “I was trying to heal myself, but I was still going out and getting absolutely smashed at the weekend.”
Over time she went deeper, experimenting with witchcraft and Celtic rituals, which she compares to the UK’s “local version” of shamanism. Gradually, Johnston found it made her feel more grounded. She felt better equipped to engage with her problems and the anxiety faded. Even her menstrual cycle became more reliable.
“I can sit with my emotions and process things without having to turn to any kind of substance. I don’t drink anymore and I’m in recovery from various addictive patterns,” she says. Now, she runs a self-help business in Edinburgh. “It’s helped me create a life I actually want to live.”
“This is a lifelong journey, not something you can learn on a weekend course” – Sushma Sagar
Johnston’s path into spirituality is well-trodden. Accounts of mental health-related disorders are disproportionately high among young adults. A March survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that people aged 18 to 34 were more likely to report anxiety than older age groups. Meanwhile, clinical help is difficult to access, as wait times for National Health Service-run talking therapies spiral.
For some, this makes visiting a shaman a tempting alternative. Sagar says the majority of her clients initially contact her for lack of a better option. Many feel “disengaged from their true selves, like they’re lost or like something isn’t quite right,” she says. “Others are disillusioned with what society said would make them happy, like getting a good job. And they ask: ‘Why?’”
Climate anxiety also plays a part, she adds. Much of modern life involves doing, buying or consuming things that harm the environment, while shamanism encourages people to connect with nature. “We inherently know that we need to change the way we’re behaving because the Earth is in serious trouble,” she says. “Millennials and the younger generation get that.”
Phoebe Grant, 26, says the sudden disruption of Covid-19 was the catalyst for her. She was working as a make-up artist in London’s West End until lockdown struck and theatres closed. During her newfound free time, she grew interested in holistic therapy and, in turn, shamanistic techniques. Now, she runs a massage practice in Brighton which incorporates energy healing.
“It’s changed my life,” she says. “Lockdown was such a crazy time. We all had to explore new things and reconsider what was actually important to us. That was huge for me. And I’ve spoken to a lot of people since who switched their career paths, and now work closely with shamanic practices and other alternative healing methods. It’s all just popping off.”
In layman’s terms, a shaman mediates between spirits and humans, calling on the former to heal physical and mental illnesses. Modern shamanism, as practiced in Western countries, borrows from a range of traditions from Indigenous cultures in Peru, Siberia and Australia. Not all are historically linked, but most share versions of the rituals Sagar uses in our session. Similar practises crop up in regions as disparate as the Indian subcontinent, North America and East Asia.
Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Selma Blair have preached the benefits, and have subsequently been criticised for taking a magpie approach to other cultures. This also plays out on social media, says Sagar, where wellness influencers routinely “regurgitate [shamanic practices], give them a new name and claim they’ve come up with a whole new system. Then they commercialise it without making the link between what they’re selling and where it has come from… I’ve been doing this work for six years in a professional sense, but this is a lifelong journey, not something you can learn on a weekend course.”
Even the name is reductive, says Alexander Alich, an expert in shamanic culture at the University of Birmingham. He prefers to use the plural “shamanisms” in a nod to its diverse roots. Wellness gurus who thoughtlessly harvest these traditions discredit the people whose ancestors practised them, he says, because outsiders then see both sides as frauds. “It doesn’t help people who are looking for answers either,” he adds, “because they don’t get them.”
Moreover, some people appear to be worryingly impressionable. A 25-year-old woman who was interviewed for this article told me her shaman “literally cured someone’s cancer”. She added: “I’ve seen him make someone’s legs the same length when one was shorter than the other.”
While a handful of studies have drawn links between ritual-based therapies and positive mental health outcomes, Alich argues that shamanism lives firmly in the realm of religious experience. It is not recognised by any UK medical bodies, nor is it listed by the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, which provides a register of non-mainstream disciplines like aromatherapy.
Nonetheless, spiritual guides, scientifically proven or not, clearly help many others achieve a sense of genuine well-being that they didn’t have before. For former make-up artist Grant, and others in her social circle, it is “something within us that we’re just exploring, and it makes us feel really good.”
As for my own spiritual awakening: there is a box of tissues on the coffee table in Sagar’s studio; some patients need them after particularly intense sessions, she says. Unfortunately, our bid to reach my 12-year-old self has so far been unsuccessful. A book authored by Russell Brand sits on the shelf. The sweet, citrusy palo santo smoke fills the room. I start to feel dizzy.