Spirituality & Health Magazine

2007 May-June

Shaking Medicine

In November of 1881, a Squaxin Indian logger from Puget Sound named John Slocum became sick and soon was pronounced dead. As he lay covered with sheets, friends proceeded to conduct a wake and wait for his wooden coffin to arrive. To everyone's astonishment, he revived and began to describe an encounter he'd had with an angel. The angel told Slocum that God was going to send a new kind of medicine to the Indian people, which would enable them not only to heal others, but to heal themselves without a shaman or a doctor.

About a year later, John Slocum became sick again. This time, his wife, Mary, was overcome with despair. When she ran outside to pray and refresh her face with creek water, she felt something enter her from above and flow inside her body. "It felt hot," she recalled, and her body began to tremble and shake. When she ran back into the house, she spontaneously touched her brother and he started shaking. When she shook bending over her husband, his health improved the next day. That was when "it came to his mind that this was the new medicine" and that "this medicine was the shake."

From that moment, the Indian Shakers recognized and valued the spiritual inspiration that may trigger shaking and lead to a healing encounter. The Indian Shakers were not the only culture to make this discovery. Shaking bodies and vibrating touch have been known throughout the world as powerful forms of healing expression. Yet the value of trembling, vibrating, quaking, and shaking as a medicine for the body, mind, and soul has been all but lost in recent times, particularly among the more literate and technologically developed cultures.

It wasn't long ago that the practices of yoga, meditation, and acupuncture were relatively unknown. But today the idea that relaxation and stillness bring forth healing is a paradigm that Herbert Benson, M.D., of Harvard Medical School named the relaxation response. The complement to relaxation is arousal, or the arousal response. And heightened arousal -- whether through wild dancing, spontaneous jumping, or bodily shaking -- may be as valuable a healing and transformative practice as sitting quietly in a lotus position. (See box, below.) The most powerful form of healing may come from a complete cycle -- from ecstatic expression to deep quiet.


We have been liberated to do many things with our bodies, from ingesting chemical substances, legal and illegal, to stimulating our erotic capacities through endless forms and scenarios. What still remains off limits is the shake. Most of us have been taught never to appear out of control.

However, no culture can completely eradicate a behavior or social practice. Prohibition merely forces things underground, where they continue to thrive. When many churches and healing traditions all but banned spirited "out-of-control" expression, it moved into the musical arenas of blues, rock, rave, and techno, not to mention Burning Man festivals throughout the world and the sanctified gospel traditions of the African-American church. The shaking has never stopped, but today it usually takes place without benefit of the collective wisdom.

Shaking is the key to a wild place, the unconscious wilderness -- a place that the poet Gary Snyder describes as "elegantly self-disciplined, self-regulating" -- a place without a management plan. This place of wilderness is home to the shamans, Quakers, Gnostics, Taoists, yoginis, anarchists, American Indians, alchemists, Bushmen, Shakers, Sufis, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, biologists, Druids, Zen Buddhists, and Tibetans -- traditions awed by mysteries that are greater than our capacity to understand.


My shaking began more than 36 years ago with a mystical experience that led me to kindred spirits -- detailed in Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance (Destiny Books, 2005):

"I looked along the horizon and saw a distant gathering of Bushmen. We stopped the truck and I ran toward them. I went up to the oldest men, recognizing those I had seen in my dream. Our arms reached out for one another and we embraced as if it were a homecoming. Immediately the old man, whose name was Mantag, the chief of the village, began to shake. I shook with him. Without words we were already communicating; we were meeting through our bodies, expressing through vibrations what I had traveled across the globe to 'discuss.' As we shook, some of the women in the community gathered around us with their children and began singing and clapping their hands to make a vibrant rhythm. That was my first experience of shaking with a Bushman. . . . My guide, Twele, later explained, "For shamans, the dance helps them feel the power that causes the shaking. For me, I feel my hands getting very hot when I touch others in the dance. When the people sing loudly and I dance, the power comes into my feet. It is the power from the music and the seriousness of the occasion that make me very hot. It comes into my head and I feel it as a kind of steam that makes my head feel larger. A light then comes over the dance. My body also seems to become lighter in weight and I feel like I am floating."


In the years since that first experience, I have shaken with shamans and indigenous doctors all over the world, from the Caribbean Shakers of St. Vincent to the Guarani Indians of the Amazon to leaders of the Japanese healing tradition of Seiki Jutsu. I have learned that there is no right way to shake or to learn how to bring shaking medicine into your life. I have also learned that cultures throughout the world have made their own hypotheses and created their own names for what they assume is a force behind the shake. They generally propose that there is a universal life force that we can tap into, and that its energy brings forth the shaking and all the other energetic outcomes. In China the name for this hypothesized energy is chi or qi. It is called ki in Japan, n/om among the Kalahari Bushmen, tumpinyeri mooroop among some aboriginal Australians, prana in India, yesod by Jewish Kabbalists, Holy Spirit by Christians, baraka by Sufis, manitou by the Ojibway, and ha in Hawaii. Among many indigenous peoples it is simply referred to as "medicine."The name and hypothesis don't matter. We can agree that there is such a thing as an excited body. We can observe that the aroused body is accompanied by ecstatic experience that can renew and transform our lives. I invite you to shake. At first it may seem exotic and unnatural. But when you experience the shake in its natural form, you will feel that it was always a part of you, an old friend formerly lost -- the leadership of your own body.

This article is adapted from Shaking Medicine: The Healing Power of Ecstatic Movement.