The following is excerpted from Secrets of Your Cells: Discovering Your Body's Inner Intelligence published by Sounds True.

A Shamanic Doorway – Crossing Over

When I first took off my lab coat to spend time with children as the “balloon lady” on the pediatric floor of the hospital, I formed a special bond with a five-year-old boy named Alvaro, who had been diagnosed with leukemia. When his leukemia returned after a year of remission, I was overwhelmed—his death seemed inevitable, and I didn’t know what to do. I called on the support of Dr. Tomas Pinkson, a psychologist who was clinical director for the Center for Attitudinal Healing at the time. Tom had also started one of the first hospices in the United States, so I knew he dealt with the end of life every day. When I called to ask him how to deal with Alvaro’s impending death, he told me, “You don’t deal, you feel.” Of course, I didn’t want to feel—that’s why I was calling him. I was sure I’d be overcome with grief.

I met Tom in his office. Expecting a typical pristine professional space, I was surprised when he led me into what seemed to be an indigenous healer’s space: it was entirely another world. On the floor were a Navajo rug and drums, on the walls were drawings and Huichol art. Tom invited me to sit on the floor across from him. Once I was settled, he lit what looked like a small bundle of twigs, blowing on them to raise smoke. Then he waved the smoke all around me. I would later learn that burning sage (“smudging,” as it is called) is a Native American practice for cleansing and focusing energy.

From that moment, Tom’s nonintellectual, nonlinear “shamanic” approach to inner wisdom intrigued me, and he became my lifelong teacher of healing—heart, mind, and soul. From him I learned a bit about letting go of my questioning mind and reaching into my knowing heart.

My work with this shaman was a true turning point. He helped me reframe my concepts about what healing is and the mental and spiritual dimensions that foster it. By going deep into my own healing journey, I began to explore my own role as a healer. During that potent apprenticeship year, I made my lifelong aspiration to bridge science and spirit in the healing process

Influenced by my shamanic studies, as I witnessed living cells’ heroic efforts to defend against danger, I began to see them as more than programmed tissue. They were holy. They were evidence of God’s handiwork, of a divine design. I now accepted that the invisible world was more than the cells and molecules I had studied in books and thought I knew; this world encompassed spirit, wonder, and the soul.

What is it that tugs on the edges of our cells and consciousness and urges change?

What convinces the cell to choose one focus of attention over another?

Cell biologists have long believed that a cell behaves the way it does because of genes, proteins, and signaling molecules. Yet pioneering scientists now show that by physically twisting, bending, and pushing the cells, mechanical forces help control which action a cell performs.

Embedded in the design of our cells is a translucent, dynamic webbing that decides the cell’s direction. While the external receptors we have learned about in preceding chapters listen to our molecules, the fabric or “strings” of our cells manifest action.

The Strings of Our Cells

Connecting inside with outside, the strings vibrate, push, and pull, guiding the cell into delivering what it’s supposed to. A new fluttering on its strings plays a new tune of activities. This is the way into the shamanic secrets of our cells.

The degree of tension on these strings and matrix of the cell regulates the cell’s expression and destiny. Stretching taut triggers one genetic message and outcome; letting go of some tension initiates another message and outcome. Same genes, same internal intelligence—different future. This process of balancing forces and tension is a universal law of design called tensegrity. Tensegrity guides the pattern of human-made structures, cells, and even complex tissues. We find it in buildings and atoms, spiderwebs, stars, and molecules.

Had I not experienced a moment of synchronicity, I might have overlooked this important aspect of the cell altogether. It was 1998, decades after I had studied biology, when I was in a bookstore perusing popular magazines. Two articles at opposite ends of the shelf attracted my attention: one in the Yoga Journal and the other in Scientific American. Both used the Buckminster Fuller-coined term tensegrity, which I had never heard before. One of the articles, written by Carlos Castaneda (in the Yoga Journal), concerned ancient practices he referred to as tensegrity movements, which were said to alter human consciousness.

The other article, by Harvard professor Dr. Donald Ingber, delved into the very architecture of life. He described the cell as having a tensegrity structure that guides its decision-making abilities. The notion that this architectural principle could be at work in both the microscopic stuff of which our bodies are made and in our consciousness came as a revelation.


The underlying matrix of the cytoskeleton—the scaffolding that connects all parts of the cell, which also transports molecules, coordinates information, and regulates genetic expression—has roles beyond gene regulation. It is the “shape changer” and energy transformer; some say it’s the seat of consciousness.

Shape change transmits information.

Shape-shift is an unusual word typically assigned to the shaman, magician, or mystic. You may have read tales of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan shape-shifting into a coyote or Harry Potter’s godfather, Sirius, turning into a big black dog whenever the spirit moved him. While the idea is convenient in storytelling and myth, for our purposes shape-shifting means shifting our point of view and our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy. According to many sacred teachings, when we change our body we shift our consciousness (and the reverse is also true). Our potential changes. Here science supports an ancient claim: if we move our bodies in certain prescribed ways, we can alter how we feel and what we are able to do. Our cellular kingdom changes. It shape-shifts us.

Ancient mystics and shamans discovered that certain tension-changing body postures improved overall well-being by uniting mind, body, and universal energies. To shift the mind and soul for this purpose, many traditions use complicated patterns of movement: among them shamanic dance, tai chi, yoga, and the ancient ritual postures explored by anthropologist Felicitas Goodman.

Carlos Castaneda, who purportedly spent years in Mexico studying sorcery and magic with Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus, claimed that ancient physical practices can enable us to sense energy flows and shape-shift our bodies. By doing what he called magical passes, we can tune in to both inner and outer energies and effect a change of consciousness. Though he never talked about the cellular tensegrity we have discussed here, he nevertheless codified these techniques as tensegrity movements—this was the subject of the Yoga Journal article I discovered in the bookstore that momentous day.

The term is appropriate for magical passes and the other body practices previously mentioned, all of which emphasize tensing, stretching, and relaxing muscles and organs—similar to the very movements our microscopic cells naturally undergo. An obvious question arises: if we engage in magical passes, qigong, or dance, do we change our cells’ tension, memory patterns, or genes? Do we alter their intelligence or their future?

By moving our bodies, can we adjust our state of mind, energy field, or consciousness? Consider that the property of tensegrity within our cells may provide a new explanation for why staying physically active prolongs life; it alters our mood and energy. It expands our potential for pleasure, well-being, and peace. Movement can change our lives; Sri Aurobindo would call this “yoga for our cells.”

Our cells change shape, move, grow, and “choose” what to do with the help of tensegrity. They manage us through tensing and releasing tension. Our bodies need to stretch and move to keep our tissues healthy and flexible. Yoga and other forms of movement as well as massage and chiropractic may be viewed as therapeutic interventions based on this principle. They bring us into our bodies, help us sort out thoughts, enhance energy, and encourage letting go of patterns that no longer serve us by tapping into what I call our cellular shaman. When we pay attention to the matrix of forces occurring inside and outside of us, we can change our lives. Here is where science and sacred wisdom meet.

The Real Deal—Science Meets Spiritual Practice

When we drum, laugh, move our bodies, make love, or experience any other form of pleasure, our bodies surge with chemicals called endorphins.  Molecules ebb and flow, brain waves change, cell tensions ease, and we re-create our emotional condition from the inside out. Our cells have the ability to use physical rhythm and the vibrating energy of our senses to create these pleasurable states. Energy shifts. Our muscles soften. We may even reach another level of being or knowing. Within our cellular scaffolding is where humming, drumming, light, movement, “vibes,” and thoughts shift mind, body, and spirit.

Consider that one stiff muscle can change the structure of the whole. If you have ever pulled a calf muscle or stood up from a session at your desk with a pain in your neck, you know this is the case. Tense structures share a critical factor: their tension is continuously transmitted across all structures. The whole body reacts to a pain or pulled muscle. Muscles—which are bundles of cells—are able to shorten, lengthen, or freeze in place. A muscle held taut in one position reduces circulation of blood, breath, and information elsewhere in the body and can cause chronic pain. Rigid lung cells can hinder breathing.

Tuning Our Strings

Our cells possess “tone” just as muscles do. To use an analogy, a stretched violin string produces different sounds when pressure is applied at different points along the string. In a similar fashion, a cell processes chemical signals differently depending on how much and where its cell strings are distorted or pressed.

Recalling the physical nature of our cellular matrix, we recognize that we are made of strings. Our cellular fabric shape-shifts us when we engage in physical, energetic, or shamanic transformative practices. The strings of the universe can now include the strings of our cells.

Only with personal experience can you find out if this is true. Strings vibrate. Pluck a guitar string, and the adjacent strings will vibrate; the strings resonate with one another. The same is true of drums—strike one, and another close to it will vibrate in response. Consider that our cellular strings respond to movement, sound, humming, music, and chanting. Coming into harmony with our cells takes on a whole new meaning when you remember the resonating intelligence inside. Perhaps the scaffolding of our cells is the location where energy, movement, and vibrational healing take place.

Calling Your Cellular Shaman

A cellular shaman pulls on the strings of the invisible, and when those luminous filament are pulled or pushed, everything changes. A cellular shaman moves through, as archeologist, digging out old patterns and examining the remains—To learn from, enjoy, prevent, ride through, or avoid altogether. Help your shaman choose.

Consider this: You have a particular pattern of behavior, such as reacting angrily to your partner or one of your parents, eating when you get tense, or chewing your fingernails while waiting in traffic. It’s as if you have an attachment point that keeps bringing you back to the same old place again and again, all best intentions aside. Repetitive behaviors like these imprint on your body’s cells.

Suppose you could cut loose from the broken record and create a new pattern to change your feelings, actions, and habitual responses. Psychotherapy can help—and so can engaging the cellular shaman.

When we move our bodies we begin creating new patterns; our cellular threads and neuromuscular wiring weave and anchor a new experience. We break the strands that hold us to old habits. Next time you find yourself reacting in the same old unwanted way, break the attachment to that behavior through sound or movement. The key is to begin!

Into the fabric of our cells our experiences are woven and rewoven. We change the weave and pattern depending on what attracts and holds our attention and intention. We are always in a state of creation. What do you choose? Untie the knots! Break old strings and attachment points! Weave new patterns!

A Cellular Shaman pulls on the strings of the invisible,
and when those luminous filament are pulled or pushed, everything changes.
A cellular shaman moves through, as archeologist, digging out old patterns and examining the remains—
To learn from, enjoy, prevent, ride through, or avoid altogether.
Help your shaman choose.

Copyright © 2013 Sondra Barrett. Published by Sounds True.

Teaser image by Hector Lazo, courtesy of Creative Commons license.