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Eastern Healing: Native American Ritual

By Linda Childers
Posted On Jul 22, 2014

Native Wisdom

Enthusiasts of alternative therapies need not only look to the East for a paradigm shift. Native American ritual is a powerful route to healing, nurturing, and renewal.

BY Juliann Garey ILLUSTRATION by Andrea Cobb

Karen N. Pearlman’s business card is stamped with the words, “Integrative Massage Therapy,” meaning she combines traditions and techniques as she works. For some clients, a relaxing massage is all they need. Others come for her metaphysical gifts.
Pearlman studied with Joseph Rael, a member of the Southern Ute Indian tribe of Colorado. Rael is a renowned Native American visionary medicine man, and with his guidance, Pearlman has honed her intuitive skills as an energetic and spiritual healer. She brings the Native American healing philosophy to her New York City practice. “Native Americans believe the Earth and everything on it—the elements, water, fire, all animals, plants, rocks, everything, including us—are one.”

There are over 500 distinct Native American tribes (or communities) practicing thousands of rituals. Yet there are beliefs that are widely shared. Illness—whether physical, psychological, or emotional—occurs when the spirit is off-kilter. It’s the job of a healer to work with a patient to restore spiritual balance. Without it, nothing else is able to align. Pearlman favors sound therapy, which involves the intonation of different vowel sounds to target “stuck” energy. “A” symbolizes divine relation to all creation; “O” is divine childlike innocence; “U” is divine omnipresence. “If a person feels disconnected, I work with the energy centers ‘A’ and ‘U.’ I intone with them and ask them what feelings are coming up.”

Pearlman burns specific types of incense that help her achieve particular goals as well, like sage for purification, sandalwood for intuition, pine for severe stomach issues, and cedar with sage to clear energy. She also asks a lot of questions. All the while—and perhaps most importantly—she relies upon her highly attuned insights.

“The thrust of Native American teaching is to clear away the noise that interferes with intuition and instinct,” she says. “That’s the noise of the rational mind. The job of the healer is to show up and let spirit fill in the rest.” Pearlman’s mentor and teacher, Rael, whose Indian name is Beautiful Painted Arrow, is still a practicing healer and a Sundancer Priest who, at 80 years old, leads tribal members in dances that go on for days to heal the Earth.

“Native Americans believe that the Earth is our mother and the sky, the wind, is our father,” Rael says. His deep, resonant voice has the power to instill profound calm in the listener, even over the phone. “When we do healing work with the physical body, we bring these ideas into play so the patient understands they are part of the universe.”

Rael will ask patients to close their eyes and pretend their body is gone, leaving only energy to help identify the source of their affliction. “When they return to their bodies, the problem is usually gone,” he says. This may be a tough concept to wrap the modern brain around, but there are many scientific studies that prove the benefits of mindfulness meditation on physical wellbeing.

What we now call mindfulness—being present in the moment and aware of thoughts and actions—is a fundamental Native American belief. Though visits to medicine men aren’t practical for most people, native influences define many U.S. destination spas.

Perhaps the best example is Aji Spa at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa. Located in Chandler, AZ, the resort sits on 2,400 acres of the 372,000-acre Gila River Indian Reservation. Aji boasts treatments designed and practiced by the Pima and Maricopa tribes indigenous to the area.

The Ho’ishp is a prickly pear-cactus body treatment combining steam and red clay followed by a the job of the healer is to show up and let the spirit fill in massage. The Nahtogig (“Four Directions”) is an exfoliating treatment of pomegranate, salt, honey, and blue cornmeal to represent sunset, illumination, sandstorm, and water.

Meanwhile, Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa near Taos, NM, is built by hot springs that were used by the Tewa Indian tribe in the fifteenth century. Ojo, described by its spa director, Jeannine Dolan, as “a place of healing, steeped in myth and legend,” is the only geothermic springs in the world with four different types of mineral water, including lithia (believed to relieve depression and aid digestion), iron (considered beneficial to the blood and immune system), soda (for digestive problems), and arsenic (thought to relieve arthritis, stomach ulcers, and a variety of skin conditions).

Many Ojo spa treatments incorporate herbs that are grown on the grounds. During the “Sacred Journey” treatment guests drink cota tea made from an herb that benefits the kidneys. They are wrapped in towels steeped in Ojo waters, after which a blue corn and prickly pear salt scrub treatment is applied. Dolan insists it is healing both from inside-out and outside-in. For individuals feeling stuck or in need of help in moving onto the next chapter of life, Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs, CA, is just what the medicine man ordered.

The property’s signature Healing Earth treatment is a purification ritual, beginning with a sand and oil exfoliation that removes dry skin cells and, more importantly, negative energy. Guests are taken outside for a sage “smudging” ceremony, during which a healer calls upon the Four Corners (north, south, east, west).

The ritual ends with the application of essential oils and a chant of renewal. So many of us seek alternative healing from cultures halfway across the world.

There’s a deep, spiritual tradition stateside. The ancient wisdom of Native Americans is a healing treasure—for those among us who are willing and ready to open their hearts and minds. You can reach Pearlman at [email protected]