You’re probably up to speed with Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine but what about aboriginal bush medicine or unanitibb? We take a look at popular healing rituals across the globe
From shiatsu therapy, reiki healing and ayurvedic facials, to herbal medicine, hot stone massages and reflexology, most of the complementary therapies and holistic treatments that we love share a common theme – they all originated from ancient folk traditions across the world. These practices developed out of the specific nature of the culture, history, philosophy and availability of natural resources in different regions of the world.
Treating illness with herbs, plants, spiritual energy and hands on healing, they were used for thousands of years before the arrival of modern medicine. And they remain so to this day – the World Health Organisation estimates that between 65 and 85 percent of the population still relies on traditional medicine as their primary form of health care.
From Japan and India to Australia and Africa, every corner of the global community has its own rich and fascinating culture of indigenous medicine that is still embraced today. Here are some of our favourites…
Native Hawaiians have practiced a sophisticated form of healing for thousands of years. It combines healing herbs with fasting, seawater cleanses, steam baths, massage and prayer, much of which has filtered into holistic therapies across the world. You might have come across the lomi lomi massage, which in the Hawaiian language means ‘to knead, rub, soothe or to work in and out as per the paws of a contented cat’ and is used by traditional healers to help to balance spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing. Other forms of medicine include the use of indigenous plants such as ‘awa’ or kava root, ‘noni noni’ or Indian mulberry and ‘olena’ or turmeric. These are combine powerful rituals such as ho’oponopono, the spiritual practice of healing relationships, ho’omanamana or energy work, and la’au kahea or healing by chants to bring about harmony and wellbeing.
Practiced across the Middle East and southern Asia, this healing system developed across Arabia and Persia thousands of years ago and is still practiced widely in countries including Bangladesh, India, Iran and Pakistan. It takes a holistic approach to healthcare, working on the concept that most diseases have physical, emotional and environmental elements. It is based on the theory that the body has four natural ‘humours’ – blood, bile, black bile and phlegm – that need to be balanced through lifestyle changes, natural medicine and holistic therapies. One of the more popular detoxification treatments is ‘regimental therapy’ which can include anything from Turkish baths, exercise and massage, to purging, blood-letting and leech therapy!
Native Americans believe that all things in nature are connected and that every human and object has a corresponding presence in the spirit world. Achieving physical, spiritual and communal harmony is at the heart of this folk medicine. Healing involves symbolic rituals, ceremony, meditation and medicinal herbs such as sage, hops, feverwort, wild black cherry and willow bark.
One of the better-known treatments is the purification ritual, which takes place in a darkened sweat lodge made of willow branches covered in blankets to symbolise the womb. Water is ladled on to red hot stones to produce steam that envelops the patient and healer while they pray, sing and drum together to purify the spirit and achieve primal wisdom.
If the healer believes the patient to be possessed they will use ‘soul retrieval’ by going into a trance-like state to ask the spirit guides to help return parts of the patient’s spirit that have been stolen away.
The tribal medicine of the Aboriginal people of Australia evolved thousands of years ago, and this wisdom has been passed down over the centuries to provide a powerful form of healing that still exists to this day. Tribal elders have an encyclopedic knowledge of the edible properties and medicinal uses of the plants in their territory, and many such as tea tree and eucalyptus have become popular in conventional medicine across the world.
Aboriginals believe there are two causes of illness, natural and supernatural, which are treated with natural remedies and spiritual healing respectively. Treatments range from wild herbs, animal products, steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages, string amulets and divine rituals and ceremonies. Cockroaches are used for their anaesthetic and antiseptic properties while wounds are often dressed with dirt or ash. Another popular remedy is to eat small balls of white clay and pieces of termite mound to cure diarrhoea and stomach upsets. Bush remedies for headaches range from a bath of crushed red ash leaves to rubbing a crushed liniment tree on the forehead.
This holistic Indonesian system draws on ancient knowledge from China, Japan and India, and combines gentle holistic therapies with spiritual wisdom and the use of indigenous herbs and spices to address physical and mental illness. In Balinese culture, there are two worlds – the conscious reality called ‘sekala’ and the psychic world called ‘niskala’ – and both need to be addressed when healing illness. Traditional healers or shamans are called Balians and they play an important role in the native culture, being called upon to remove spells, treat sickness and channel information from the ancestors.
Want to know more? During a spiritual healing, the shaman will anoint your body with oils. The shaman will also apply herbal poultices, use deep tissue massage and occasionally even poke you with sharp sticks to release stagnant energy. Other techniques include acupressure, skin rolling and flicking, as well as firm and gentle stroking, tapping and the application of essential oils.
There are two types of traditional healers in South Africa – the inyanga, who specialises in herbal medicines and potions; and the sangoma, who uses divination, mediumship and psychic healing. Both use spiritual guidance to bring about physical and emotional healing, supported by the medicinal properties of plants, roots and trees.
To decide how best to treat the patient, the sangoma will use dreams and prayer, or go into a trance to seek guidance from ancestral spirits. This can take the form of channelling or ‘vumisa’ to make contact with the ancestors, or by throwing an assortment of sacred object such as bones, shells, stones and plants.
They will then use healing plant remedies in intense ceremonial rites and purification rituals including vomiting, steaming, nasal ingestion, enemas and blood-letting!
One of the world’s oldest known medical traditions, the holistic system focuses on treating the root cause of the problem, rather than just the symptoms, and recognises that dietary, psychological, lifestyle and environmental factors cause imbalance in the body and mind. It uses a variety of sophisticated diagnostic tests such as pulse, urine tongue and eye analysis. Like the Indian ayurvedic system and the Asian Tibb, it is based on the belief that the body is made up of three different humours known as ‘wind’, ‘bile’ and ‘phlegm’. Treatment can include anything from lifestyle and dietary changes, spiritual guidance, herbal remedies, acupuncture, moxabustion, cupping, massage, and inhalation therapy.
Folk medicine plays a huge part in the lives of Russians, with many using traditional home remedies passed down from their elders. A traditional healer or ‘babki’ is believed to have supernatural powers and will often be consulted to treat anything from infertility to depression. As with many traditional healing systems across the world, heat plays a bit part in the process and the ‘banya’ or steam room is a popular healing treatment.
When people have a bad cough, they may use gorchichniki — small pieces of paper covered with a layer of mustard flour applied to the body to cause a rush of blood to the skin. Other treatments include the use of honey and milk with garlic, potent roots and herbs such as Siberian ginseng and rhodiola, and rhythmic affirmations called ‘zagovor’.
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