Creating A Modern Medicine Wheel by Joan Forest Mage

by | July 24, 2020 | Articles

In 1985, after fourteen years of study and professional performing experience as a modern dancer, I set out to create my own unique artistic expression.  And many years after that, years of study, experimentation and creation, I realized that the system I had synthesized, which is called Life Force Arts Method, follows the ancient form of the medicine wheel.

Throughout the years of work, it was obvious that I was creating something much larger than a form of dance or performance in the usual Western concept of art.  The average Western audience member does not go to the theater for a healing or spiritual experience. At least, this motivation is not at a conscious level for the audience member.  The theatrical experience is not viewed as a ritual in which they participate to create a shift in energy and consciousness.  Rather, the audience member expects to be “entertained”, to have an aesthetically pleasing experience.

In contrast, in indigenous cultures, music and dance have never lost their purpose as healing ritual.  Because I was mining dance and music for their profound meaning, I was led to discover deep psychological and spiritual aspects of dance and music, and how these fit into a larger pattern of understanding all aspects of life.

In Western thought, the tradition is to compartmentalize each aspect of life.  Medical doctors heal the body, psychologists heal the mind, artists do art, elementary school teachers teach children, business people run their businesses, etc.  Each is an expert in their particular field.  While there is somewhat of a tradition to think and act in a cross-disciplinary way, thinking and acting in a holistic way is quite a foreign concept.  By cross-disciplinary, I mean that a person would use the concepts and methods of one field to inform decisions in another field.  Actual examples are: a firefighter uses his carpentry knowledge to create a firefighting tool; a theoretical mathematician who enjoys studying insects sees a computer model of the sixth dimension, and realizes that it’s the model of a bee dance that has been observed for centuries but never explained.

Holistic thinking is to see the broader picture of a whole issue, including its physical, psychological, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental, etc. aspects. A medicine wheel is a holistic model of reality that encompasses and interrelates all these various aspects of life.

Through examining the concept of the medicine wheel, I will clarify my theoretical system, and be better able to explain to my performers and students how they can gain the greatest advantage from this model.

Medicine Wheel: Art, Teaching, Healing & Community Building

What is a medicine wheel?  Loomis (1991) says

In the Native American tradition, the source of all creation is the Sacred Mystery, the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit is not the patriarchal God of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition but a creative-conceptive force combining feminine and masculine potentials in harmonious balance. This Sacred Mystery reveals itself as the Powers of the Four Directions and these four powers provide the organizing principle for everything that exists in our world.

To gain self-awareness and enlightenment, one has to be in harmony with the Powers of the Four Directions and the source of all life. The medicine wheel, symbolized by a cross within a circle, provides a tool for achieving this balance and harmony.  The medicine wheel is a ceremonial tool but it also provides the basis for all teaching wheels.

All medicine wheels are tools for understanding our humanity.  Some are teaching wheels, explaining where human beings fit into the grand scheme of the universe.  Others are working wheels, pointing out what it means to be human…Being human means being conscious and being responsible for one’s self-growth.

The medicine wheel comes from societies where there is not a vast separation of the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual aspects of life. A medicine wheel is

  1. an educational tool, especially for spiritual, psychological and wellness teaching.
  2. a spiritual tool, used in ceremonies to cultivate relationships with divine, within the human community, and with the connection of humans to the larger environment of animals, plants and land.
  3. a tool for psychological and spiritual healing and wellness.
  4. an expression of art, and the spiritual connection art opens for the human being. This artistic expression may take the form of a large installation such as Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, or it may be a small depiction through stones or crystals that an individual can carry; or it might even be a drawn or painted representation.

Loomis, Underwood (1998), May and Rodberg (1996) and others explain that, in addition to the central wheel and directions, there can be numerous adjunct wheels, spokes and points in the model.  Some wheels are diagnostic wheels, which analyze where misalignments are occurring. Some wheels are developmental wheels, which depict the process towards wholeness (Loomis, 1991).

May and Rodberg explain:

Each position on the wheel is a symbol for certain influences, spiritual laws or experiences in life.  By moving to different positions on the wheel and reflecting upon the attributes of that position, you can recreate and transform the way you see yourself and your life experiences…

Many cultures have used the wheel, and each has adopted their own symbols for the positions of the wheel.  The symbols are often animals, minerals, colors, plants, people or objects having a special meaning for them…

Connected to each symbol is something not easily explained or named.  You know it because you feel it.  It is not your imagination.  When you open yourself to it, you will realize that it is an energy or law that can help you because it is a part of you and everything that is.

In other words, the medicine wheel is not simply symbolic in the Western sense of metaphor.  The medicine wheel is a guide to accessing actual spiritual energies which can heal, educate and uplift the person using it.

In the medicine wheel, metaphor is utilized as the gateway to the spirit realm.  This is grounded in human physiology. Markova (1996) explains that different ways of speaking create different brain waves.  Markova found that listening to a speaker using literal terms encourages beta brainwaves, or alert consciousness, in the listener.  When the speaker gave examples instead of literal explanations, the listeners moved into alpha brainwaves, which is relaxation.  Finally, when the listeners heard metaphors, they moved into theta brainwaves, which creates inner-focused consciousness (trance). Theta brainwaves are indicative of the deep meditative state associated with shamanic journeys, acknowledged since ancient times as a way of connecting to the spirit realm (Arrien, 1993).

Lane (2001) describes the work of the poet in leading us to spiritual heights through his or her art, especially in connecting us to the land as sacred:

If you are asking about the “gathered meanings” of the land through which you move…the gifts of the poet are most particularly appropriate, even imperative, in the task of defining and describing “sacred” terrain…The poet knows that the human experience of the sacred is awash in the particularity of things, the sensuous surfaces and ambient array of details that make possible any sense of dwelling in the presence of mystery…the poet, therefore, helps us overcome the problem of the isolated, abstract interpreter, the one who remains cut off from his or her own richly embodied experience of place.

In Western culture, many models of understanding and organizing reality have been developed in various fields from education to psychology to economics.  Indeed, Western culture delights in finding models which tend to abstract and reduce reality.

A medicine wheel is more than just the Western concept of an organizational model.  The medicine wheel adds to reality, by inviting in the spiritual dimension of life.  The person working with the medicine wheel has spiritual purpose, a connection to the numinous.   Words become prayers, focused intent.  In modern Western thought, the word “ritual” often has the connotation of meaningless action.  In contrast, the person working with the medicine wheel will often use poetic words filled with deep intent to shift energy, to change reality.  Listen to these words of Lynn Andrews (1990) from the opening meditation on her medicine wheel:

Powers of the North, place of storms of wisdom, mountains of knowledge, home of the Buffalo, come in.  Come in, Buffalo, to my circle now.  Teach me how to give away, to share what I have learned, to nourish others with the bounty of my beings.  Teach me to face the cold, to stand alone when I must, to take care of others like a tribe, like a true circle.  Buffalo, Sacred Provider, provide me with wisdom, with knowledge, and with the ability to share what I learn.  Powers of the North, come into my circle now!


Medicine Wheels: Ancient and Cross Cultural

A cross surrounded by a circle is the basic design of the medicine wheel. These two abstract designs, the circle and the cross have symbolic meaning in almost every culture. May and Rodberg (1996) explain:

The Hindu Wheel of Existence, the Chinese yin-yang symbol, Tibetan sand mandalas, and England’s Stonehenge are familiar examples…The round shape [of the circle] symbolizes wholeness, centeredness, completeness and unification.  The cycle of life: birth, growth, death and rebirth, is represented by the circle…The circle symbolizes the web of life, that is to say, the integration and unity of all living things in one all-encompassing circle….What happens to one part of the circle affects the whole circle.  We are all part of this whole, everything that lives on this earth and everything in the universe.  Animals, plants, stones, the planets, the moon and stars are alive and can teach us.   All physical beings can be viewed metaphorically in order to learn a spiritual lesson through the attributes they represent.  This is the key to understanding the medicine wheel….

Each position on the wheel offers an opportunity for change, growth, new experiences, new relationships, new ideas, and new ways of viewing life…By working with the medicine wheel, exploring it, and traveling through it, you will see yourself as a multidimensional being.  You will see how you can recreate your own life, and take responsibility for who and what you are.  It is a great challenge and also a great opportunity to ride the medicine wheel.

The circle divided into four parts is a representation of  the seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter.  Part of the purpose of the medicine wheel is the connection it makes to the seasons. Sites such as Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and Big Horn Mountain in Wyoming are giant astronomical calendars (Lane, 2001).  The Celtic cross, with its cross surrounded by a circle, is the shape of a medicine wheel.  Its use probably pre-dates Christianity, and is related to ancient Celtic and Druidic knowledge and ceremonies of the seasons.

How old is the concept of the medicine wheel?  Lynn Andrews says that her tradition of the Sisterhood of the Shields dates back as far as 300,000 years (Andrews, 1990).   Recent archeological findings corroborate how ancient the medicine wheel teachings may be.  Many of the teachings Andrews writes about are related to the Australian Aboriginal people, who migrated to Australia in boats at least 50,000 years ago (Kilian, 2000). In America, archaeologists have found an ancient settlement in what is now Virginia, which dates to 20,000 years ago.  This completely changes the previous theory of human migration into America, which said that the migration took place over the Bering Strait near Alaska about 13,000 years ago.  The artifacts that were found at the Virginia site are comparable to those of the Solutrean culture of northern Spain, which dates to the same time period of 20,000 B.C.E.  Asian and Arctic objects of the same era are distinctly different.  In other words, people probably migrated to America both from Asia over the Bering Strait, as well as in ancient boats or along a glacier bridge from Europe. And all of this happened much earlier than was previously thought.  So, it’s possible that the cultural teachings of the medicine wheel – the seasons, the directions and their psycho-spiritual connotations – may have come from an extremely ancient, common source in human history prior to 50,000 B.C.E., before such far-flung migration occurred.

Kenneth Johnson (1998) gives insight into the Eastern European version of the medicine wheel concept.  Archaeological evidence finds depictions of the cross within the circle on the most ancient Neolithic pottery, dating from about 5000 B.C.E., and unearthed in what is now the Ukraine and Moldavia.  In the classic Siberian and European forms of shamanism, the center of the cosmos is the World Tree, with its roots in the Lowerworld, its highest branches in the Upperworld and its trunk in the Middleworld, or the Earth upon which we live.  The World Tree is also the point of origin for the four cardinal directions, and is aligned with the sun which rises in the east, reaches its zenith at noon, sets in the west and reaches its nadir at night.

This is reflected in many of the myths from these Eastern European peoples.  They believed that, in order to remain in balance with the cosmos, the life of the community had to move in harmony with the cycle of the seasons.  Thus, we see rituals held at the seasons which balance male and female, old and young.  Spring is embodied by Lada, youthful goddess of fertility; Summer as the young male god Kupalo; Autumn as the mother goddess Mokosh; and “Old Man Winter” is the male god Volos.  Thus, these gods were the archetypes or spirit guides of the four directions and seasons.

Johnson also explains how the religious icons of Russian art follow the form of the medicine wheel.  His Russian spiritual teachers taught him:

[let your eyes work around] the entire icon in a circle, treating it as a meditation wheel ultimately resolving into the center of the circle, the face of the saint….many, if not most, of the portraits that occupy the center of icons are laid out according to a precise geometry.  A vertical line runs down the center of each face, usually defined by the part in the hair, the nose, and perhaps the cleft of the chin. This vertical axis is intersected by a horizontal one, typically the line of the eyes.  Thus the saint’s face itself forms a cross of the four directions.

As we have seen, a directional or seasonal cross of this nature should (symbolically speaking) be contained within a circle, the circle of life or of the year.  Again, in many if not most cases, the cross of the directions is encircled by the saint’s halo, which is typically a perfect circle.  This quartered circle, if focused upon in meditation, will lead your consciousness to its center, which is the ajna chakra, or “third eye center” of the saint.  The center is where the magic happens, for each saint bestows a particular gift or quality upon us, be it health, success, or love – gifts or qualities appropriate to those archetypes we call the gods.

Many cultures have psycho-spritiual tools in the shape of a circle which are akin to the medicine wheel.  For example, labyrinths and other spiral walks are found in ancient Greece and Rome, in the Celtic lands, France and many other places. They have been used since ancient times as  meditative tools.   By walking or tracing the labyrinth, the person was able to reflect on the journey of his or her life.

Another example of a psycho-spiritual tool similar to a medicine wheel is the Native American medicine shield, which is a ceremonial art piece.   This is a shield decorated with painted images which represented the character of the person to whom the shield belonged.  The medicine shield was a special depiction of the essence of the person.  Each woman would make her own shield – while a man’s shield would be made by his friends! (Sams, 1990).

In many traditions, particularly in the Sami tribe of Northern Europe, a shaman would decorate the drum that he or she would use for shamanic journey meditation.  The decorations would often reflect the circle of the World Tree or other medicine wheel themes.

The classic and most identifiable medicine wheels, however, are in the form of a circle divided into four quarters. Different traditions layer concepts associated with the four seasons and the four directions around this basic form.  For example, most traditions assign animal spirits to each of the four directions, and will have a traditional place (North, South, East or West) as a starting point in the progression around the Wheel.  But different cultures will have different animals in the directions, and start the progression from different points. Two examples are from the Incan tradition, as described by Warnimont (1994) and one of the Iroquois traditions, described by Underwood (1998):


Tradition Starting Point South Animal West 






Incan South Serpent Jaguar Hummingbird Condor
Metaphoric and Energetic meaning: Releasing the past Let go of old ways being Confront fear of death & future Find essential nature of self Seeing possibilities; free to make choices
Iroquois (Underwood) North Mouse Bear Elk Eagle
Metaphoric and Energetic meaning:

present knowledge


helping others


attention to detail


providing for self

Inspiration; seeing big picture


What inspires the choice of a certain animal, plant or other more-than-human guide for a certain position on the wheel?  It’s obvious that the choice, or determination, of animal spirit helpers in the example above was influenced by the type of animals found in the locale in which the tribe lived.  But the reason goes deeper than that. All life forms are seen as respectworthy and intelligent.  A holy place is not defined by some transcendent being’s blessing; nor is it holy because of historical human events enacted there.  Rather, each place is holy because of its own being. Lane (2001) gives insight into discovering the sacred dimension of place, and the human relation to Nature:

A sacred place is not simply a unique site magically “possessed” by chthonic forces, nor is it a topographical wax nose able to be culturally twisted into anything one makes of it.  A difficulty with both approaches is that the perceiver largely ignores the actual peculiarities of the place itself. It becomes a “blank slate” on which divine or human meanings are arbitrarily inscribed – by means of luminous revelation on the one hand or cultural construction on the other…

Discerning the full significance of a site necessarily involves attending to the place’s own contribution to its meaning…the world beyond us is also deeply before us.  We speak “for,” “to, and “with” it in a way that demands the total investment of ourselves…

The sacred site speaks, then, with its own voice…meaning emerges as a co-construction of human and more-than-human sensibilities…to weave a narrative that embraces the energies of land and sky in suggesting common meanings only discovered together.

Unlike the modern Western idea that meaning and metaphor arise from human consciousness, the medicine wheel lives in a universe of reciprocal meaning with all-that-is.  We do not so much “choose” spirit guardians for the various positions on the wheel, as it is they who tell us where they belong.  This is the mind of the medicine wheel.


Different Ways of Knowing

To understand the medicine wheel, it helps to understand how knowledge is passed on in various cultures. Modern Western culture relies on verbal explanation as a major part of teaching methodology.  In contrast, other cultures such as Native American and African utilize visual and kinesthetic training, with an almost complete absence of verbal explanation.  The learner is expected to gain the information through observation and experience.  In the West, training is literal, logical and cognitive.  In other cultures, the approach is often intuitive and creative, with the student allowed to figure things out on their own. This is consistent with the fact that it is often not just a concept or intellectual knowledge that is the focus of the learning.  Rather, the teacher guides the student into developing the student’s own unique relationship with the material.  The purpose of the learning is for the student to developing actual, on-going relationships with the energies of places, spiritual beings or sacred traditions. Underwood (1998) gives her experience of learning the medicine wheel:

The circle my Father had drawn on the beaten earth floor of our garage stared at me, showing me a great gap in my understanding.

I sat there and gazed at this circle for a long time, with no wiser understanding than, “It is a circle.”  Finally my Father drew a little mark out from the edge of the circle.  I already knew not to ask what it was.  He From Whom I Was Learning would only deflect the question back to me!  But I began to think about it.

Earlier, when I was only three, my Father had helped me learn how to recognize North.  He took me out on our front lawn and told me to close my eyes.  He spun me around in a circle, many circles until I was very dizzy – and then he said, “Find North!”

“What?” I answered him, devoid of understanding.

“Find North!” he instructed again.

And so I continued my dizzy spin, turning around and around until all of a sudden I felt a nudge of energy – something that felt different from the rest – and I realized, “There’s North!”…At the other end of this dizzying experience, I had a real sense of where North is – and a beginning understanding of the nature of Earth Energy. – Therefore I realized now that the mark my Father had just added to this new and puzzling circle on our beaten earth floor..was North…This process took over nine months, puzzling over each step day by day.  At the end of this time, this Circle Dance of Life was embedded in my blood and bone.  I had created it within myself.

And as Chicago drummer John Yost describes traditional African drum training:

At a certain age, their parents saw that they had a gift, and gave them to the master drummer.  And he showed them through doing it, not through teaching [explanation].  The first thing is that you carried the drums, and you watched and you watched and you watched.  Some day they throw a drum at you and tell you to play.  You play it right, you get to keep playing.  You play it wrong, you get hit in the head with a djiembe [drum] and you have to keep carrying the drums for a while longer.  (J. Yost, personal communication, 1/24/02).

The Life Force Arts Method that I have developed also has a large nonverbal component.  Through vocalizing, body movement, meditation, observation and interacting with each other, students gain information directly from their own experience and from various levels of consciousness.


Medicine Wheels for a Modern World

Many contemporary people have put forth their own versions of the medicine wheel.  In this, they are following the long tradition of medicine people and spiritual teachers, who have adapted these ancient teachings to the needs of each generation.    Among these modern teachers are  Lynn Andrews, Vicki May and Cindy Rodberg,  Mary E. Loomis and Paula Underwood.

May and Rodberg’s Wheel (Fig. 1) elaborates on each of twenty-five positions, assigning a spirit guide and meaning to each.  It is intended to awaken the awareness of contemporary people to the spirit realm, “to regain a conscious knowledge of our true selves,” and the interconnection and oneness of all life forms: stars, sun, moon, plants and animals.  Hence, the emphasis on the spirit guides.

Loomis’ orientation is in the field of psychology.  She puts forth two wheels influenced by modern psychological theories.  One is the traditional Star Maiden Circle (Fig. 2), which represents the psychological realities operating in our lives today, just as they did in the lives of our ancestors (Loomis, 1991). The other wheel, which Loomis created in conjunction with June Singer, is based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types (Fig. 3).

Underwood’s medicine wheel is based on her heritage from the Iroquois tribe (Fig. 4).  It has the broadest concepts, which apply to all aspects of life.  As Underwood states:

The Circle we now draw together represents any Whole, any Whole at all.

It can be one cell in your Body, your Heart, your Full Self, your Community, State, Nation.  It can represent any group, any organization, any school or corporation.  It can represent the League of Women Voters, Xerox, or the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.  It can represent the United Nations.  It can – and often does – represent Universe as a Whole.

Thus this Circle, this Great Hoop of Life is never assumed to be limited to personal use only.  It can be used by any organization or group…for any organization or group.

Let us remember it is so.

Underwood’s wheel shows the natural progression or pull of life.  We start with Wisdom, our current state of knowledge.  Then we feel a pull or Sensitivity, that there is more to know.  Next we have a Perception of what that new learning or experience might be.  From Inspiration arises Understanding of the new knowledge that awakens in us, after which we communicate it to others.  Then we begin the Growth process of the new (concept, experience).  This is experienced both in the Community as a whole, and within each Individual in the community.  From the experiences of the new in the community, Conflict and then Peace within the community will arise.  Finally, we have circled back to Wisdom, at a new level of awareness.

Sentient Being, Creative Community

My own modern medicine wheel, Life Force Arts Method (LFAM) has many parallels to Underwood’s.   The basis of this wheel was my observation of people doing dance improvisation together.  I found that there were four different stages: dancing by oneself; imitating and leading; dancing together; and following a common energy or pattern.  From this grounding in physical reality, developed a system of training people in mind, body and spirit to understand how to form vital, living (sentient) communities.  Each one of us is a community in ourselves, and then we interact with other people, other living beings, the Earth herself, the spirit realm and on and on into the cosmos.  We need to understand how to be an individual, a Sentient Being, and from that basis we can form truly Creative Community.

There are 4 Skills that help us arrive at Creative Community. The first Skill is Sentience, which means knowing and expressing what you think and feel. The second Skill is Osmosis, which is understanding presence and Being, shown by your proficiency in leading and following. In Osmosis, you practice standing up for what you think and feel, and support others as they stand up for themselves.   The third Skill is Dialogue, which is interacting with others to Create something new.  The fourth Skill is Crystallizing, understanding structure and working together with a common form or energy, often forming a Community

Through the years that I have led workshops based on LFAM, students have been amazed at the power of this teaching to get to the source of many personal and interpersonal issues that they have, and to illuminate a path for their future growth.



Andrews, L. (1990). Teachings Around the Sacred Wheel. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.


Arrien, A. (1993). The Four-Fold Way. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.


Johnson, K. (1998).  Slavic Sorcery. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.


Kilian, M. (2000, April 6). Europeans Possibly 1st Americans. The Chicago Tribune., p. 1


Lane, B. (2001). Giving Voice to place: three models for understanding American sacred space. Religion and American Culture, 11 (1), 53-81.


Loomis, M. (1991). Dancing the Wheel of Psychological Types. Wilmette, IL: Chiron.


Markova, D. (1996). The Open Mind. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.


May, V. and Rodberg, C. (1996). Medicine Wheel Ceremonies: ancient philosophies for use in modern daily life. Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph Publishers.


Sams, J. (1990). Animal Medicine Cards. San Francisco: Harper Collins. 


Underwood, P.(1998). The Great Hoop of Life. Los Angeles, CA. Tribe of Two Press.


Warnimont, W. (1994). Ancient Earth Wisdom. [Brochure]. Chicago: Author.  



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1 Comment

  1. Anna Urošević

    This is a lot of great information that I hope will find its way into your book! I appreciate learning about Kenneth Johnson’s observations on Orthodox icons as mandalas. I have a whole new appreciation for them now. ????


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