It’s a Wednesday morning in Manhattan, and I am lying on a thin, white table, being beaten with a dried shrub.
A ceaseless ringing emanates from the centre of the room. The air is thick with the scent of orange oil and the sounds of chanting. In my palms are two oblong crystals; on my chest is a small silver bell.
I am receiving a ‘medicine reading’ from Deborah Hanekamp, a self-described ‘seeress’ and energy healer.
The 34-year-old Ms Hanekamp claims that she can read auras – colourful energy fields that allegedly surround the body, revealing inner truths about the bearer. Through the process of a medicine reading, Ms Hanekamp says she can cleanse her clients’ auras, for the price of $225.
On her website, where she goes by ‘Mama Medicine,’ Ms Hanekamp promises to elicit feelings of euphoria, bliss, stability, and well-being in her clients. Long-term benefits allegedly include weight loss, enhanced physical radiance, and the ability to “be open to love and connected to your purpose”.
Her treatments have been hailed as a “cleanse” and a “rebirth,” and, according to Vogue, she is a favourite among the fashion elite.
I’ve arrived at her trendy Soho studio to figure out what, exactly, a medicine reading is – and if it lives up to the hype.
Ms Hanekamp poses at the entry to her ‘medicine reading’ room (Stevi Sesin)
Walking into Ms Hanekamp’s office, I feel like I am stepping into an Urban Outfitters catalogue. The walls are dripping with hanging plants, and the counters are dotted with candles and crystals. Copper-coated accents litter the room. The whole places smells like rose petals.
A receptionist greets me as I walk in the front door, and asks me politely to take off my shoes. Ms Hanekamp is in the other room, arranging pillows on a small bed, surrounded by what appear to be blown-glass mixing bowls.
She smiles when she sees me, revealing her dazzlingly straight, white teeth, and invites me to step into the room. I oblige.
The studio is so peacful its easy to forget you’re in a crowded New York City office building (BFA)
The medicine reading process starts with an aura reading – something Ms Hanekamp says she’s been able to do for as long as she can remember.
In fact, the seeress tells me it wasn’t until age 12 that she realised her peers didn’t see glowing, colourful blobs around other people, too.
“I was talking to my friend about the different colours around people, just like matter of factly,” Ms Hanekamp recalled. “And they were like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re crazy’.”
The experience inspired the young Ms Hanekamp to start down a spiritual path, studying up on aura reading and other sacred traditions at her local library.
While the word ‘aura’ can call to mind images of tarot decks and other cringey New-Age trends, Ms Hanekamp says she found her inspiration in Renaissance writings and artists, like William Blake, who painted colourful washes around many of his subjects.
During my reading, Ms Hanekamp tells me my aura is blue-green, which signifies a need for balance and a love of nature – both of which, she says, are currently lacking in my life.
To be fair, this could be said of almost anyone in New York City, where the most ‘nature’ we get is untended parking strip, and work-life ‘balance’ means drinking too much with friends after a hard day at the office. But still, it is nice to hear someone tell me to slow down, get out, and log off.
In fact, the aura-reading portion feels oddly like a therapy session: I tell Ms Hanekamp what’s irking me; she tells me what my aura says to do about it.
The medicine reading ceremony, however, is like no therapy session I’ve ever been to.
The process starts with a rapid breathing pattern – in, in, out, out – as I lay flat on the bed, arms across my chest.
At the beginning of my reading, Ms Hanekamp puts a cold, smooth object in each of my hands. She sprays the air around my head with scented oils, and snaps her fingers in circles around my blindfolded eyes.
As she prances around my body, administering her various remedies, she also begins to sing; whispering a sort of tuneless chant of which I can only make out one word: ‘limpia,’ or Spanish for ‘clean’.
Occasionally, she stops to stroke the blown-glass bowls, which I learn are not mixing bowls at all, but an instrument used to create an eerie, all-encompassing ringing sound.
When the ceremony ends, I do feel somewhat lighter – like something is pulling my body upwards. Or perhaps, I think reasonably, I am just light-headed from all the fast breathing.
Ms Hanekamp tells me her medicine reading ceremonies stem from a vareity of spiritual traditions. She was born a Christian, in a church she describes as ‘cult-like. Her brother, she says, wasn’t allowed to play guitar, as it was considered the ‘devil’s music’. Many of her friends from the church are now addicted to drugs, or dead.
In the wake of a family tragedy, Ms Hanekamp and her brother decided to leave the church. But they were also left largely without supervision, and began partying and drinking heavily.
By 17, however, her spiritual leanings won out. She quit drinking and using drugs, but kept studying ancient traditions at the library. At 19, she moved to New York City and started teaching yoga. That was also about the time she started travelling back and forth to Thailand to learn reiki, sound healing, and crystal healing.
Eventually, she opened her own yoga studio in Brooklyn, where she taught classes, yoga teacher trainings, and the beginnings of what would later become medicine readings. (Reviews of the now-defunct studio on Yelp praise the calming presence of a teacher called “Debbie”.)
Getting back to nature is a key tenant of Ms Hanekamp’s healing philosophy (BFA)
At the same time, Ms Hanekamp started travelling between New York and Peru, where she trained with a native healer practised in administering ayahuasca – an Amazonian plant known for inducing strong hallucinations.
But after eight years of gruelling training, Ms Hanekamp told me, she decided she didn’t want to lead ayahuasca ceremonies after all. Part of the reason? She learned she was pregnant with her now four-year-old daughter.
“Ayahuasca – just by the nature of the medicine – you can’t be pregnant; You can’t breast feed and drink ayahuasca,” she said. “There’s a place where it doesn’t really add up.”
She also realised that working at her yoga studio 12 hours a day, seven days a week, wasn’t conducive to raising a child. She shut down the studio, too.
It was at this point that Ms Hanekamp sat down, turned her attention to the universe, and asked it, “What do you want me to do with my life?”
The universe, she said, handed down medicine readings.
“I got all the information in a channelled message, which just feels like guidance from a source outside of my own mental chatter,” she explained. “[I got] a channelled message about, ‘Ok you’re going to do medicine readings. This is exactly how you do them; This is the exact formula. It’s a one-on -one experience, a group experience, and a retreat experience’.”
Ms Hanekamp began administering the readings immediately – to family, friends, and anyone else who expressed interest. To her surprise, business took off. It quickly became more popular, and more profitable, than her yoga studio had ever been.
In some ways, this success is attributable to the growing popularity of spirituality among millennials. Yoga – once a dubious activity for hamsa-wearing hippies – is now as popular as Saturday-morning brunch. In my neighbourhood in Brooklyn (where Ms Hanekamp also happens to live), there are entire stores dedicated to spell casting and potions.
When I asked the seeress why she thinks spirituality is experiencing such a boom, she gave a surprising answer: Because it’s pretty.
Even those who scoff at meditation, and wouldn’t go near an astrology chart, can appreciate the beauty of a selenite crystal. More importantly, they can feel compelled to share its beauty on Instagram. (Ms Hanekamp’s own Instagram boasts more than 27,000 followers, with whom she regularly shares photos of crystals, candles, and petal-laden baths.)
But there are other reasons she feels spirituality is flourishing – reasons not centred around crafting the perfect Instagram aesthetic.
“I think that because we are becoming disconnected from each other, in a weird way we are also seeking a way to connect more,” she told me.
“Spiritually brings you into connecting to yourself, to others,” she added. “It helps you to see you’re not so separate from one another. And I think it’s something that we are so desperately craving in such a large way right now.”
That’s not to say Ms Hanekamp doesn’t still get her share of sceptics. Even those closest to her, she says, have expressed doubt about her psychic abilities. She said she likes to tell them: “Just come try it out. You can’t lose anything.”
That’s a message I heard over and over again from the ‘Mama Medicine’ clients I spoke to. All of the women I interviewed – each of whom see Ms Hanekamp regularly – said they tell the sceptics in their lives just to give it a go.
“Just try it, you have nothing to lose,” Luciana Naclerio, a nonprofit worker and Ms Hanekamp’s former nanny, said she tells her friends. “Maybe It’s not your path. But just try it.”
Far from hurting them, in fact, many of these women say the medicine readings have helped them immensely.
Danielle Gould, a 34-year-old entrepreneur living in Brooklyn, claims Ms Hanekamp was the hidden key to solving her chronic digestive issues.
When she first attended one of Ms Hanekamp’s group sessions, she said, she had no idea what to expect. But she also knew she would try anything to cure the persistent pains in her stomach.
That group session, she says, was life-changing.
“For me it was really profound,” she said. “My entire body was crying. I couldn’t stop … By the end of the ceremony I could sort of see white light shooting from my stomach, and had some really profound realisations.”
“I was kind of hooked after that,” she added.
Ms Gould has now been seeing Ms Hanekamp regularly for five months. She said she’s greatly expanded the number of foods she can eat without trouble – something numerous doctors have tried and failed to do.
“I just saw my doctor, and my doctor agreed that nothing has helped heal me more than seeing Deborah,” she told me.
Clients say visiting Ms Hanekamp just once makes them feel calmer, and more grounded (BFA)
Other patients said Ms Hanekamp didn’t have a physical effect on them, so much as a mental one.
“It has that element of therapy but it’s not that, it goes deeper than that,’ said Catherine Dash, a freelance writer and prop stylist who also lives in Brooklyn. On her first visit, she said, “I had these things that I didn’t realise were were bothering me, and I left feeling like I had control over the situation that I had discussed with her.”
Ana Meier, a lighting and furniture designer who lives in the city, echoed that sentiment.
After her sessions, she said, “I have more clarity, feel more peaceful, more aligned, and happier. I guess the biggest thing is more of a sense of peace”.
“People around me notice,” she added. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you just went to Deborah’.”
The women know that claiming to have been healed by a chanting, shrub-brandishing ‘seeress’ doesn’t sound the most believable. Many said they don’t even know how she does it themselves. But in the end, they said, that’s not the point.
“What I take away from it is – whether or not people think it’s hooey – it doesn’t matter, because I feel awesome,” Ms Dash said. “It doesn’t matter what the background and science is of what she’s doing. It’s just that I feel good about it, and that’s what matters.”