Book explores role of shamanism in women’s health

More Americans are incorporating alternative therapies and medicines into their lives than ever before. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, 36 percent of adults in the U.S. are using some form of alternative medicine. When megavitamin therapy and prayer specifically for health reasons are included, that number rises to 62 percent.

“We’re in a major change moment,” said Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D., a noted anthropologist and author of the new book The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. “Beliefs and spirituality are coming back into medicine.”

Tedlock, a distinguished University of Buffalo anthropology professor who’s a fully initiated shaman, added: “Some doctors are prescribing patients yoga training and acupuncture. I’m excited that we’re seeing a major shift of our regular Western paradigm. We’re in a moment where this whole thing is breaking into the mainstream. Americans are extremely pragmatic. If something works, we’ll do it. Well, guess what? It’s working.”

While many people are still just beginning to explore and benefit from alternative healing practices, Tedlock has long known of their tremendous power. As a child in the late 1950s, she was stricken with polio. The entire left side of her body was paralyzed. Doctors put the 4-year-old Tedlock into a tank respirator, better known as an iron lung. She was confined to the immobilizing metal machine for a year-and-a-half.

It wasn’t until her grandmother, a shaman, herbalist and midwife, talked her parents into releasing her from the hospital that she got better. A still ailing Tedlock was brought home to a difficult regimen of daily swims and sweat baths that were intended to awaken the muscles. Her grandmother complemented that treatment by massaging her with ointments made from various healing herbs.

The alternative treatments sent “bolts of electricity” through Tedlock’s limbs. In just six months, she had regained enough strength and flexibility to return to school.

Tedlock said those alternative therapies—and the amazing results—have profoundly influenced her throughout her life. In The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, Tedlock explores the tremendous contributions women, such as her grandmother, have historically made to shamanism, the world’s oldest spiritual and healing tradition.

By melding firsthand experience with exhaustive scholarly research that’s taken her through Asia, Africa and the Americas, Tedlock provides proof that shamanism was originally the domain of the female.

“There’s very good evidence that women were shamans from the beginning,” said Tedlock, who is the prolific author of four previous books and scores of academic journal articles. “Unfortunately, the scholarly literature and pop literature only stressed the male dimension.”

The Woman in the Shaman’s Body not only sheds new light on the female’s role in shamanism, it provides compelling information about the effectiveness of mystical practices and alternative healing.

But nothing is more compelling than these statements from Tedlock: “I’m normal today because of my grandmother. I walk and talk today because of alternative medicine.”

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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