The Medicine Wheel: A Tool for Living
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
Sacred geometry assigns symbolic meaning to certain shapes. The universe works in circles and spirals and nature is filled with examples such as snowflakes, flowers, and nautilus shells. Plato believed that symmetry in nature was proof of universal patterns and repeating archetypes. The Tibetans have their sand Mandalas, Celts have their interlocking heart knot, the Hindi’s and Yogi’s have their Yantras. Similarly, the indigenous cultures have their own sacred geometry in the form of the Medicine Wheel.
The Medicine Wheel, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop, has been used by generations of indigenous cultures in healing work or to illustrate their cultural concepts or cosmology and is an integral part of their spiritual heritage. The sacred hoop is a symbol of interconnectedness and representative of the “never-ending circle of life” with no beginning and no end. The Universal Tree of Life provides another framework to experience how we connect with the world around us.
Many ancient cultures built stone structures on the ground with carefully arranged stones. There are hundreds of sacred architectures across the globe including England’s most famous stone circle - Stonehenge. The oldest construction on land is in Alberta, Canada and is estimated to be about 5,500 years old. Different tribes used them in different ways.
Many of these structures were used as calendars and signs for astronomical events. The 28 spokes of the Big Horn medicine wheel indicate that it was designed to count the number of days in a lunar month. The medicine wheel at Moose Mountain in Saskatchewan, Canada signs the summer solstice, as well as the rising point of stars such as Sirius and Aldebaran. Some were built as burial sites and memorial markers for great warriors.
When the people of the goddess Danu (Celtic goddess of wisdom) came to Ireland, they brought a magical stone called “Lia Fail,” which is the Stone of Destiny. This stone, which is thought to have been placed on the Hill of Tara in Meath around 700 BCE, served as a coronation stone for the High Kings. It was believed to speak or cry out in joy when the rightful king sat upon it.
“These sacred places are important because they’ve been made sacred by sacrifice, by the investment of blood and experience and story.”
~ M. Scott Momaday
While there are common teachings, they vary by customs; various tribes interpret the Medicine Wheel differently. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center surrounded by an outer ring with “spokes” radiating to the 4 cardinal directions (East, South, West, and North). The wheel embodies the Four Directions as well as Mother Earth, solid and stable below and Father Sun above. Like the medicine wheels of all traditions, it also contains the within and without construct with its sacred center. Everything comes together in the center which is Spirit, the truth (as I explained in last month’s musings about “I am the truth” in the mantra Sat Nam).
The term medicine means magic or supernatural. Often a symbol of hope, it was meant to explain the world as they knew it. Not just the world we live in but also HOW to live in the world. The sacred hoop represents all knowledge of the universe. Each direction symbolizes a dimension of health and the cycles of life as well as providing a proper order.
According to Shamans Way, “everything happens in a circle. The world is a circle. Trunks of trees are circular. Bird nests are circular. Water drops are circular. The seasons are circular. Much of nature expresses itself in circular patterns.”
Like the Wheel of Samsara, its circular shape acknowledges the connectedness of everything in life and represents the continuous pattern of birth, life, death, and reincarnation (rebirth). Movement is circular, or “sun-wise”, which is typically clockwise. This Circle of Life is a reminder that everything flows in a circle and the circle has no beginning or end. Kaia Ra, author of The Sophia Code, says when we call in our circle of divine empowerment that we invoke the angelic realm, ascended masters, and healed ancestors “to surround us in a very powerful resonant field of sovereignty.”
The lines or “spokes” create a cross in the center, similar to the ancient solar cross, which is significant to many cultures. The Celtic cross features a variation of the sun cross. We see a similar pattern in the Incan Cross or Chakana. Also, the crossing in the middle indicates the center of the Earth, the Axis Mundi. Like a tapestry of interwoven threads of life, everything is interconnected, linked to the Cosmic whole.
Ancient medicine wheels have different numbers of spokes or lines radiating from the center to its outer edge, many points that cannot be seen creating a perfect sphere. Often, the lines divide the circle into 4 quadrants.
The Four Quadrants
Each of the quadrants represents a distinctive color which for some stands for the human races, what I call the Rainbow Tribe. According to Native American beliefs, all races and religions will unite to spread the wisdom of living in harmony with each other and all creatures. From Ancient Origins: “The Rainbow prophecy, as it has come to be known, refers to the keepers of the legends, rituals, and other myths that will be needed when the time comes to restore the health of Earth. It is believed that these legendary beings will return on a day of awakening, when all people will unite and create a new world of justice, peace and freedom, and they will be named the Warriors of the Rainbow. They will reteach the values and the knowledge that has been lost in time, demonstrating how to have wisdom and extra-perception, and how unity, harmony and love is the only way forward.” The unity of all humanity, many tribes and peoples.
This sacred symbol represents those various philosophies, teachings, and beliefs as well as holds layers of metaphorical meaning. According to Mallory Graham of Tribal Trade, “the four sections are dependent upon each other, just as all aspects of life are dependent on each other, teaching us the importance of balance and being in touch with the various aspects of ourselves.” She continues, “though divided into four, each part makes up an invaluable part of the whole, and together they create a balance.” As we grow and embark on our inner journey, we change like the seasons, learning from each.
Each quarter plays important roles such as:
4 Stages of Life
4 Seasons of Year
4 Celestial Bodies
4 Sacred Medicines
And many more!
As the medicine wheel grows, we add color and dimension. The four most common colors for the quadrants are yellow, red, black and white. However, color placement can vary based on the tribe, clan, family, etc. Yellow symbolizes spring as the time of rebirth and renewal. Many teachings begin in the yellow or East quadrant as it also represents the sunrise and new beginnings. Red symbolizes summer as the time of youth as well as abundance for when ripe and fresh food is harvested. Black symbolizes the setting of the sun into the darkness of evening, it’s the time of fall and is a metaphor of maturity. White symbolizes winter and the completion of the life cycle - death.
4 Stages of Life
Just as the sun rises and sets, the wheel follows the life cycle from birth to death. The East is the beginning – birth. It also represents your physical body. South is a time of growth and represents youth and adolescence. It’s a time of learning and the mental aspects of self. As we grow into adulthood and parenthood, the West represents responsibility and nurturing. And finally, the sun sets, and we shift into the white North. The white symbolizing the white hair of our elders and their years of teachings and wisdom. This is the stage of self-reflection (Svadhyaya in yoga) where we delve deeper into the spirit world.
4 Celestial Bodies
The alignment of the medicine wheel is also relative to the celestial bodies. The sun rises in the East, the Earth is in the South or below the stars, the moon represents the blackness of night in the West quadrants, and the stars rise above the earth in the North quarter. When saluting the earth, we acknowledge our relationship with all life forms. When saluting the Heavens, we acknowledge our star brother and sisters, as well as the Great Spirit of Love & Light.
In the Celtic Medicine Wheel, the East represents prosperity, aligning with our destiny, and sharing our gift in generosity; the South is about music, sound and what is our message to deliver; the West is the pool of knowledge and wisdom; the North is our battlefield (like Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, the true battle being the battle within); and the Center is Sovereignty, like the Destiny Stone at the sacred center with heaven above and earth below, the path to divinity requires devotion.
Our yoga practice explores the life cycle from Child’s pose to Corpse pose; shamans and superheroes; muses and magicians; avatars and archetypes; and the animal totems.
There is much variety in which quadrant animals are associated. However, there are some common spirit animals. Often, you’ll find the eagle in the yellow or East quadrant which represents power and ability as well as the eagle’s vision to see the bigger picture. The buffalo in the black or South quadrant represents intelligence and freedom. Spirit animals in this quadrant are often associated with abundance. The wolf or coyote shows up in the red or West quadrant. The coyote is adaptable and considered the trickster. The Wolf has strong instincts and demonstrates freedom. They both represent emotional courage. The bear is strong and confident and is frequently found in the white or North quadrant. Each animal archetype exudes a unique vibration and energy. When combined with our yoga practice, they provide a beautiful gift.
Plant medicine is a very important part of indigenous cultures regarding cleansing, purifying and healing. Burning of aromatic herbs is believed to release the beneficial properties of each plant so many of these plants are used to smudge. Tobacco is a sacred plant associated with the Eastern section of the medicine wheel. This plant has been used from 18,000 years and has multiple purposes; it’s ceremonial smoke is often offered to bad spirits to “appease” them. The plant of the south is Sage which is used to remove negative energies and cleanse areas by using the smoke to smudge. Another sacred smudge is Sweetgrass which is braided into 3 strands. Found in the West, it’s vanilla-like aroma is burned to sweeten the energies and it is used in healing, purification, and calling in positive energies. The smoke of burning Cedar is used to cleanse and clear a space of any residual energies left from previous owners/occupants; it is said to welcome good spirits and is considered a guardian to keep away negative energies.
Insights from the 7 Directions
Albert Einstein once said that the problems we face in life cannot be solved by the means with which they were created. To this end, we have to shift our perception to a higher realm to find solutions to our problems, conflicts, and diseases, and to experience oneness with all creation.
As I am most familiar with the South American medicine wheel, I will share what I learned from the medicine men & women of Peru as it has been transformational in my view of the world and our universe.
Simply put, a magical journey around the wheel to uncover the wisdom of each direction by exploring…The Wind of the South (Serpent), which leads us to shed our shadows and the past. The Wind of the West (Jaguar) shows us how to transform the darkness into light. The Wind of the North (Hummingbird) guides us on an epic journey of sweetness and joy. The Wind of the East (Eagle) flies us above the mountains and clouds to teach us how to gain a dual perspective to see the world as it is.
We move through the Wind of the South represented by the great Serpent, Amaru, the ancient one, gentle healer of the past, the one who shows us the beauty of earth and being embodied, the one who guides us to walk on the earth with gentleness and softness, the one who teaches us to shed our layers like the snake sheds its skins, the one who cleanses us and purifies us. This is the first Chakra (Muladhara), helping us move into transformative change and surrender into our divine light.
When we move into the direction of the West, the Puma or Jaguar, the one who provides protection and safeguards our sacred place to heal and transform, the one who gives us courage to let go of our fear, guilt, cultural beliefs, learned knowledge, and ancestral karma, the one who bridges the worlds, the one who serves as ancestral stewards of life, and the one who is able to cross the rainbow bridge to the world of mystery. This is the second Chakra (Svadhisthana), the direction of courage and empowerment.
As we move into the direction of the North, the Hummingbird, the one who takes us on an epic trip, the one who overcomes the difficulties in the journey, the one who takes up the calling to travel from Chile all the way up to Canada regardless of an inability to fly perceived by others. It’s all about reclaiming your Christ Consciousness. This is the third Chakra (Manipura), reminding us to fly backward for healing the past and forward to only taste the nectar and sweetness of life.
As we move to the direction of East, the Eagle or Condor, the one who soars to the Sun and back, the one who is a great seer and visionary, the one who takes us on its wings above the oceans, mountains and clouds, we only can dream of, the one who shows us our life on this earth from a bird’s eye view, the one who guides us to connect to the spirit beyond our body and mind, and the one who guides us and protects us so that we may always fly wing to wing with the Great Spirit. This is the fourth Chakra (Anahata), the direction of discernment.
Then you have the directions of Above and Below; the interwoven, supporting energy of Pachamama (Mother Earth), and Inti Taitai (Father Sun).
Pachamama, the Mother Earth, home to the rock people, plant people, and the animal people, the 4-legged, the 2-legged, the winged, and the finned, the one who nurtures us and supports us. This is the fifth Chakra (Vishuddha).
Inti Taitai, Wiracocha, the sky, the Estrellas (the star nation), the sun, and the moon, the ones who sheds the light upon us, the ones who illuminates humanity. The first of the Sky Chakras, here we explore realms that are less familiar, stepping beyond death. In yoga, it is thought to be the eye of Shiva, where we move beyond the opposites of this dualistic world and remember we are eternal, immortal, divine beings of pure light. This is the sixth Chakra (Ajna).
All journeys lead back to your center, your connection to Source. The last direction is within, to the heart (hrid) which contains the soul chamber & infinity spark. To the center, the web of life, the web of love, the community of all our relationships of which we are part. This is the realm of ascended masters and angels. Opening this portal allows us to access the directions and energies that support our highest good. This is the seventh Chakra (Sahasrara).
Cosmology & Chakana
The Incan Cross (Chakana) is a symbol that represents many meanings in its design. The word Chakana comes from the Quechua word “chakay”, which is translated as “acting as a bridge” and is a compass to help us navigate life. There are many superimposed geometric shapes that represent the levels of existence. Within this cosmology, the world is divided into 3 levels – the Trinity. This is the same science that yoga has…body, breath, and brain.
It is 3-stepped symmetric cross indicating the 4 cardinal points of the compass. It also has 12 points which represent a concept or archetype (12 months, 12 astrological signs). And the 13th point at the center is a circle representing the passageway or portal between the seen and unseen worlds, the center of the Universe.
The oldest Chakana dates back to 5,000 years ago (prior to the Incas). This ancient image also symbolizes the Southern Cross and was a way to understand and orient their universe; it’s their connection with the earth and element of life, reverence for the divine, map of their empire, guardian spirits, concepts of harmonious communal live, perception of time, etc. It is also a sundial or calendar. The northern most side marks the Summer Equinox (June 21); Autumn Solstice in the east (Sept 21); Winter Equinox in the South; and Spring Solstice in the West. Depending on where the sun rays fall on the Chakana, the Andean community would know which one of the 13 moons of the year they were in and when to plant/harvest their crops.
The shamans of Peru believe that this symbol has mathematical and geometrical significance and holds the key to the secret of life. The Chakana embodies the phrase “live well but not better” (than others or at the cost of others). They believe we need to be in right relationship (ayni) with nature and the universe.
“We invite you to cast away your preconceptions and enter, with us, a magical world where all things are connected to you, and you are connected to all things.” ― Sun Bear, The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology
Carl Jung introduced the practice of creating mandalas for self-expression, discovery, and healing. He observed that his clients were able to change their mental and emotional states through creating mandalas. I invite you to explore this practice of creating your own medicine wheel. It can be as simple as a piece of paper with colored pencils or as elaborate as an outdoor wheel with crystals, arrowheads, seashells, feathers, etc. As a symbol of symmetry and balance, constructing your own personal wheel can assist you in svadhyaya - self-reflection and self-study.
The Medicine Wheel uses the principles of yoga as a foundation and vehicle to explore the teachings and healing practices of the medicine shamans. We shed what no longer serves us [serpent/snake]. Burn old contracts [agni/fire/tapas]. Plant and grown new intentions [jaguar]. Find the sweetness in life and only go to what truly nourishes you [hummingbird]. Gain new perspectives flying wing to wing with great spirit [condor]. Ready?
Yoga and Shamanism are the direct participation in the divine/extreme intelligence in the way the cosmos is already functioning. Our modern culture is lacking the influence of these ancient practices. We have forgotten who we really are and need to re-member how to connect with the natural world and its cycles. Not an easy task as we need to be headstrong like the warrior yet have enough feminine energy to connect to the heart for balance.
Many of us are feeling called to return to the ancient ways of honoring the land, the animals, and the sacred knowledge of our ancestors. Understanding the fundamentals of the medicine wheel helps connect us with a vast number of indigenous cultures and teachings as well as provides a framework for deeper self-awareness. Surprisingly relevant today, the medicine wheel is an ancient map that can help navigate the world today, bring us back into balance, and can be used as a tool for personal growth, general guidance, and deepening relationships. This is the path for anyone interested in self-transformation! (Email or text me if you are interested about my upcoming Tools for Transformation classes.)
We remember that no matter where we live on this planet, no matter our culture, our nationality, our race, our gender, our beliefs, we are still one planetary family, one humanity. Beyond all the things that separate us, there is so much more that unites us. In the spiritual realm, we are all connected. Our future is dependent upon us waking up to this truth that lives inside each of our hearts.