Into the Light

“Shamanism is not an accumulation of knowledge – it is an innate wisdom that we all have.” Luciana Bellini meets Jo Bowlby, shaman to the stars, to learn about this ancient spiritual practice and discover how harnessing its simple rituals might just be the answer to living a happier, more harmonious life…

We all work with energy, we all read energy – it’s just that most of us don’t realise it,’ Jo Bowlby tells me. We are chatting over FaceTime on a darkening Thursday afternoon, and the shaman and spiritual coach is explaining to me that yes, she can carry out her energy healing sessions over the phone and yes, they work just as well as in person. ‘Energy is non-local,’ she explains.

‘You’ve had phone calls with people where it’s been lovely and you’ve come away buzzing, and then there have been terrible phone calls. The phone call has changed your energy – it’s not the phone. And that’s what I do.’

Berkshire-born Bowlby may not look like the picture of a shaman you have in your head, dressed in flowing robes and elaborate headgear – instead, she is the 21st-century embodiment of a spiritual guru, and when she calls me from her home overlooking Battersea Park in London, she is warm, inviting and engaging, without a hint of the overtly woo-woo.

For Bowlby, there was no specific moment where she was called to shamanism – she worked first as an estate agent and later in publishing – but she always had an ‘innate curiosity of life’ and wanted to make sense of why ‘I found certain traditions harder to work with.’ She was in her early thirties when she went to a talk by the Cuban psychologist and medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo, who has spent years working with the medicine men of the Amazon. As she delved into his teachings, she found it was ‘like jigsaw pieces falling into place’.

Since then, she has spent the last twenty years perfecting her craft, first by studying at the Four Winds Society, where she specialised in the traditional teachings and energy work used by Native American and South American shamans, before continuing her training in Peru with the Q’ero elders in the Andes. Today she is one of the most sought-after modern shamans, who works with an international client base that includes celebrities and top CEOs.

Last year she released her first book, A Book for Life: 10 Steps to Spiritual Wisdom, a Clear Mind and Lasting Happiness, which gathers together everything she has learnt and distils her teachings into handy tips and tools
designed to help you build up your resilience and find balance.

Shamanism may be one of the oldest spiritual practices, but over recent years
it has experienced a major resurgence. Americans alone spent more than £1.7 billion on ‘mystical services’ in 2018, and in a post-pandemic world, where so many of us feel isolated and disconnected from the world and those around us, we have never been hungrier for spiritual fulfilment, something Bowlby can attest to. ‘The reason I see as many clients as I do is because we live in a very literal world,’ she says. ‘We have been taught to use our analytical brain for everything. And that can be fantastic when you want to do a mathematical equation, but not so good when you’re trying to understand why you feel empty inside.’

So, what exactly is shamanism? Bowlby describes it as an ‘ancient spiritual practice’, in the same realm as Zen and Buddhism, only less cerebral.

‘Shamanism is visceral,’ says Bowlby. ‘It uses nature and the world around us to explain the world within. You have to remember that way back when, if a shaman was trying to help their community, many of them wouldn’t have been literate, so they used what was to hand to explain things. Even a five-year-old knows what I mean if you say, ‘close your eyes and imagine you’re flying like an eagle’, or ‘put four paws on the ground like a jaguar.’ So, shamanism is just a way of explaining how the mind is.’ Bowlby insists she is not teaching her clients anything new – instead, she’s helping them access something within themselves, most likely deeply buried and long forgotten. ‘It’s not an accumulation of knowledge – it’s an innate wisdom. That’s what spirituality is, that’s what shamanism is – it’s remembering that wisdom we all have.’

As for why it’s having a moment now, Bowlby believes that’s all down to how removed we have become from the natural world, and the negative impact that is having on our mental and physical health. ‘We’re in a world that’s trying to find its bearings,’ she says. Many of the shamanic exercises ask us to find ways to connect with nature, as a way of helping us ‘break through the hold of the intellect, so we can get to a place beyond words’. To do that, Bowlby suggests a few simple rituals, such as walking barefoot in the grass or feeling the bark of a tree. ‘At this time of year, I also love creating little fire ceremonies,’ she says. ‘A fire ceremony can be a great big bonfire outside, or it could be a tea candle. There’s an amazing depth and profoundness that comes from just staring at a flame. Get matchsticks and blow your intention into them – if you feel angry or sad, or you have something you’re struggling to process, blow it into the stick and give it to the fire. Let the energy go back to nature.’

Before she goes, there’s one more spiritual practice Bowlby wants to emphasise to me: gathering with your loved ones and having fun. ‘The one thing the shamans were famous for was telling stories around campfires, and while you might not have access to a campfire, you can meet up with your friends,’ says Bowlby. ‘Laughter is the most profound spiritual practice, because you’re not thinking of anything – you’re just in the moment. I think it was Osho who said, ‘The deepest meditation is in the middle of a belly laugh’. We make spirituality so intense and serious, but it needn’t be. So that’s my message: lighten up!’