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Reconnecting to the Ancient: A Visit to the Medicine Women of Oaxaca

Traditional healing in Mexico is both profound and pragmatic, as our editor experienced.

For our Oaxaca issue, I answer a few questions about a recent adventure there. I went to learn about sacred plants, and I came back with a few important lessons and huge appreciation for the things that link us back to the ancient.

Oaxaca is on our wishlist of places to visit. What took you there?

“I feel there are many powerful stories to tell”

Reconnecting to the ancient is something we crave now more than ever. I went to learn about plant medicine and the culture that surrounds it. I’ve always been interested in women spirit keepers, so I was really excited to drop in and explore this in Oaxaca, a magical, spirit-rich place that I dreamed about visiting. My grandparents come from Mexico, so there was an element of connecting to my heritage as well. I feel there are powerful stories to tell.

I knew it would take time. I started speaking with as many people as possible. There was always a little treasure to discover. For example, the owner of a natural cosmetics shop led me to a handbook of Oaxacan medicinal herbs, and a woman in the textile museum explained to me how traditional dresses were most ornate over the heart space, as this is where it is believed the soul enters and leaves the body.

Prayer and intention.  Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

Woman of Tlacalula, Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

“I observed and let myself adjust to the rhythms of Oaxaca”

In between, I filled my days with going to the markets, learning which herbs are used and how, and letting myself adjust to the rhythms of Oaxaca, a place whose beauty seems to lie in the in-between spaces. You need a little time to let your eyes and heart adjust. I filled my room with basil, ruda, and rosemary (all used in healing ceremonies), flores lirias from the Sierra Norte, and huge dahlias.

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One of the first openings came when I met a woman deeply connected in the communities. She explained that in the past she might have said no to making introductions (it hasn’t always been safe for medicine women to be known), but she feels that now is the time to bring this knowledge forward. Our first excursion was to a village high up in the Sierra Norte, to meet with a curandera who has been helping people for over 60 years.

Curandera, Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Milagros, Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

“Restoring balance is what a traditional healer is responsible for”

What’s with the egg?

What you are seeing in some of these photos is a form of healing called a limpia (or spiritual cleansing) that has been practiced in Mexico for centuries. The medicine women use a combination of bodywork, massage, prayer, and intention to release the imprint of old pains, traumas, fears and tendencies. In pre-Hispanic times, there was no illness — only imbalances. Restoring balance is what a traditional healer is responsible for. The egg is used like an energetic sponge.

“She helped release away the fear that he was still holding in his body”

In my first limpia, the egg was pressed into my body, not so gently, while I was showered with herbs, flowers and mezcal. Then the curandera read my egg. How could she know this about me? Then I watched a second treatment, on a young boy who had come with us. His story was very specific, involved a dog, and big, spirit-shaking scare. The best part was seeing him talk through it, as she helped release away the fear that he was still holding. Community itself is an element of well-being. Imagine if we all had this kind of immediate support.

…Later that night, I got very emotional. She had picked up on something subtle, and it felt important.

Ceremony flowers, Oaxaca, Mexico ©patriciagarciagomez

Visiting a Curandera for Day-to-Day Ailments

Who are these women?

They are curanderas, or traditional medicine women, and they play an incredibly important role in the health and well-being of their community. Many of them come from a long lineage of healers, which often moves through the matriarchal line of the family.

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We tend to elevate the idea of “healer” to something mystical or magical. Here, seeing a curandera is what you do every day to heal yourself, just like you might go to a doctor.

“Creating beauty, culture, and medicine”

What did you learn about yourself?

Unblocking places in our hearts and bodies can be rough and tough. Because I threw myself all-in (not just limpias, not all traditional), I experienced more in a few weeks than one might do over a very long time. I still have a lot to process. And the reveals of the work are itensely personal.

Ritual and ceremony are good for the soul. Not just for healing, but for creating. My favorite definition of a medicine woman comes from Elena Avila: “To me, curanderismo is the art of creating beauty, culture, and medicine with all the power of the imagination of the curandera’s spirit and soul.” A local artist, now a much loved friend, invited me into her creative rituals. It was a soulful sisterhood I have never experienced before. Creating is medicine, too.

Flores lirias, Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

Plant magic of the Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

Foraging in the Forest

Tell us about the forest…what’s happening here?

I spent a day in the Sierra Norte with a Zapotec herbalist and medicine maker. As we hiked, she introduced me to indigenous plants and how they were used in her culture. We ascended to 3200 meters, through a pine forest that rests on top of an oak forest. Because it was rainy season, the earth was rich with wild orchids, vibrant mosses, larger-than-me agaves, giant mushrooms (edible, medicinal, and some poisonous), and an abundance of healing flowers, barks and leaves. The Zapotec call themselves “The Cloud People.” Being up there, I understand why: they live in the place where the clouds are born. The route we followed is more than 8000 years old. The locals say “behind the clouds is clarity of life.”

Aztec calendar reading. Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

Guelaguetza, Oaxaca, Mexico. ©patriciagarciagomez

“Be careful with your spiritual wallet”

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to do something similar?

If I had one piece of advice to pass on, it would be one that was given to me by someone with a lot more experience than myself: be careful with your spiritual wallet. You wouldn’t walk into Times Square with your wallet open; same goes with your spiritual self, especially if you are traveling to a foreign territory. Healers are powerful humans. And no one is invincible. It’s always best to know who you are working with. Get a recommendation if you can. The next most important thing: be clear with your intentions. Intentions matter. Intentions direct healing in the same way they do love, success, and everything else in life.

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How would one go about seeing a traditional healer?

If you’re an outsider, the trick can be sorting through what’s for tourists. Tierraventura, an ecotourism company, provides traditional medicine experiences in the surrounding communities.

 

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I love this – I grew up in South Texas and when I had ‘trauma’ (car wrecks, etc) in my life as a child my grandmother would take me to see a healer. I laughed when I read ‘the egg’ because as a child you have NO idea what’s going on but as you said sometimes it’s the intention, mental health that we hold onto and some of these woman CAN help you release it! It is a mind over matter and because I had my grandmother there, I felt much more accepting of the strange situation. But I hold those memories as ‘dear’ to me because of the heritage and it was a part of my life with my dear grandmother. She was the one who would also make me camomile tea (the real stuff) and her TOUCH was healing for/to me as well. Thank you for sharing this beautiful history!

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Patricia Garcia-Gomez
Patricia Garcia-Gomez
Patricia Garcia-Gomez is a writer and artist working with visual media and sound. She is the editor of Travel by Ageist and a contributor to the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and The Private Journal (Europe). Her work is also part of the permanent archives of the Tate Modern, the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, the Buhl Collection, and The Harwood Museum in New Mexico.

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