As the sun set on 17th Street at 7th Avenue last night, a medicine woman who goes by the name White Shamaness ChokBar conducted a smudging ceremony on the sidewalk. One by one, men and women stepped forward to subject themselves to the cleansing ritual: the Shamaness traced their bodies with fragrant evergreen smoke, hissed and shouted, and fanned them with the brown-striped wing of an eagle owl.
This was the beginning of the Rubin Museum’s second Shamanic Power Animal Workshop ($59 to participate, $20 to observe). The Rubin, which focuses on the art and culture of the Himalayas, planned the Power Animal Workshop to coincide with their exhibition called "Becoming Another: The Power of Masks." The first workshop in June, had sold out, and this one did too.
“There’s a big cultural moment right now for shamanism,” Robin Carol, the museum’s PR manager, explained. “One of the big uses of masks is for shamanistic rituals and different spiritual practices, and that’s something that extends across many different cultures.”
Carol added, “People are always calling celebrities their spirit animals.”
The power animals presented by the Shamaness were quite different from pop culture’s conception of “spirit animals,” which includes daemons from The Golden Compass, Patronuses for the Harry Potter series, and the comedian Hannibal Buress.
The Shamaness and her spiritual practice hail from the isolated region of Tuva in Siberia, which, she noted in her introduction, “is known for two things—Tuvan throat singers and shamanism.”
No railroad penetrates the mountains that ring the region, the Shamaness said, and as a result, the area’s indigenous cultural traditions are unusually intact.
“Shamanism is not a religion,” the Shamaness said. “It predates religion. It dates back to the dawn of humanity.”
The White Shamaness ChokBar introduces the basics of power animals. (Molly Dektar / Gothamist)
(Molly Dektar / Gothamist)
The evening began in the Rubin’s well-appointed basement theater, participants sitting in a ring in the front, observers in rows in the back. Candles lined the stage, and the offerings for the spirits—flowers, sugar, milk, chocolate—were laid out on red-draped tables.
The crowd, which skewed female and seemed to favor embellished shawls, was rapt.
So what are power animals? “First of all, they exist,” White Shamaness ChokBar said, before elaborating: power animals are energy patterns in the shape of an animal. They belong to you, but they have separate consciousnesses, separate minds. They have no ego, and so they can see things that you cannot. Connecting with your power animal will help you “become aware of who you already are.” Maybe not as fun as conjuring up a golden stag to fight off hordes of Dementors. But decidedly more flexible for the average non-wizard’s needs.
At around 7:30, we all trooped outside to watch the smudging, and to take turns shushing wide-eyed passersby.
We returned through the Rubin's red-lit Café Serai (on the menu: octopus, catfish, and frankies, a fast food wrap popular in Mumbai), past the bookshop, where True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh abuts Bunny Buddhism: Hopping Along The Path to Enlightenment by Krista Lester.
We began “toning,” chanting “Ah, oh, ooh, mmm.” We sounded good. The next activity was a dance, purposefully unchoreographed. “Drop everything, drop our social masks that we usually wear,” urged the Shamaness. “Let go—if not, why did you come?”
Over the loudspeakers came a song that combined a mouth harp, drums, monkey screeches, wolf howls, and ululation. The lights dimmed. The participants and observers rose from their chairs and began to dance as the Shamaness wished—irregularly, flinging their arms around, twitching their shoulders, nodding and shaking. It’s a testament to the open-minded atmosphere that, when the Shamaness came around to my row, shaking her rattle, I actually felt awkward sitting still; at that point I felt like I had to stay committed to my non-dancing.
At the end of the session, participants shared cookies that the Shamaness had asked the spirits for permission to consume (Molly Dektar / Gothamist)
The last part of the workshop was the meditation. The Shamaness briefly disappeared to the green room to dry out her hide drum. “Shamans used to dry their drums over a fire, but now we use blow driers,” she explained.
The participants lay on the floor. The Shamaness banged the drum and rang her bells. Was the meditation fifteen minutes? Thirty? Even to this avowed non-meditator, it was peaceful, and I was sorry when it ended.
Afterwards, both participants and observers shared their experiences. Many had felt connected to more than one animal—giraffes, finches, fish. One participant related that a bear had come back to her, “for the first time in many years.” The crowd murmured in delight. Another woman said, “During the smudging, I felt wings, and I knew my power animal was a great blue heron.”
By 9:15, it was time to exit into the sticky night. The Shamaness, whose given name is Larisa Oorzhak-Koronowski, lives in New Jersey. I asked her how she coped with being so far away from the wilderness. “The Hudson River keeps me alive,” she said.
This recalled something she’d said earlier, in response to a man named Yuri, who’d pointed out similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and the night’s ceremonies.
“Some are inclined to a religious path,” the Shamaness had responded. “And some want their own personal spiritual experiences, that aren’t connected to anyone else’s.” In the end, that seemed to be the workshop’s foremost lesson: do your own thing.
Molly Dektar is originally from North Carolina and keeps a photo blog here.