Native American Healing Traditions  


The pungent smell of burning sage crackled in the air as Belen Stoneman swept smoke over me and through the room with an eagle feather. She called in Spirit to guide her in helping me. We’d spoken about my physical and mental conditions, and what I thought I needed to feel better. As her prayers rose with the smoke, her hands began to swirl above my body, then descended to work vigorously on different parts. As she worked, she breathed rhythmically, stopping to ask me questions while her hands seemed to randomly hover, then dig in again. She told me to breathe with her, to feel the presence of guiding spirits. At the end of our time, my body felt better and so did my own spirit.

Stoneman calls herself a Native American Spiritual Counselor, not a medicine woman as others do. She believes she merely has a gift to help people help themselves and that we all have a special gift from the Creator that defines our place in the oneness of the planet. Many body workers are natural healers who consider their work a calling rather than a career. With the growing popularity of Native American healing traditions in the spa setting, genuine indigenous people and those who have studied their ways are introducing their practices. Healing is in the intention. The intention is in the ritual.

The First Nations knew the wisdom of the mind-body-spirit connection. For them, the human being has always been one with Spirit, with Earth and everything on it, and with each other. The first spas in America grew up around natural mineral springs where Native Americans gathered for healing rituals. Even today, they use the natural bounty of the Earth: plants, flowers, grains, food, and herbs. They believe that muds, crystals, gems, and stones have their own energy and vibration. Depending on their size, color, and mineral composition, these qualities are used for health, healing, protection, and guidance. Spirit is channeled through prayer: drumming, chanting, singing, playing flutes and pipes, rainsticks, dancing, sandpainting, and the medicine wheel.

In the early days, there was little separation of sacred and profane. Everything was connected. Because our lives are so fragmented and busy, most of us don’t incorporate a holistic approach to wellness on a daily basis. Instead we seek out the sanctuary of the spa for retreat and renewal. As the ancient lore of Native Americans has become a hot trend on the spa menu today, holistic has been increasingly associated with well-being.

There are differences among the many nations of Native Americans, but most have certain healing rituals in common. For example, smudging ceremonies – burning herbs such as sage for purification, sweetgrass for healing, and cedar for dispelling negativity – are common in many rituals. In most tribes the smoke is first offered to the Four Powers or Directions “to help heal, guide, protect, and cleanse you,” says a therapist at Two Bunch Palms in Palm Springs. Then Mother Earth and Father Sky are acknowledged with the smudging prayer. The herbs are sacred, as are all of Earth’s gifts, and they are believed to have a spiritual energy, which can be directed toward people, places, or things that need purification.

A Native American word for a purification ceremony is oenikika, “the breath of life.” The most sacred purification ritual is the sweat lodge. The authentic sweat lodge experience requires a period of preparation, contemplation, fasting, and prayer, but portions of the ritual are being introduced at spas such as the Ancestral Ways & Sweat Lodge Program at Vista Clara Resort & Spa, New Mexico; Spirit Quest at New Age Health Spa, New York; Miraval Life in Balance Resort, Arizona, and others. Most sweat lodges are built of branches, preferably willow, constructed in a womb-like circle, and covered with tarps or blankets. Volcanic “grandfather stones” are heated outside until white hot. The stones are then brought inside and water is poured over them to create the “sweat lodge.” It’s a holy and involved ritual, with such details as the direction of the entrance, the location of the lodge, and the order of the ritual, dictated by local custom. A medicine man or woman leads the ceremony, which also includes an altar, offerings of tobacco and herbs, smoking a peace pipe, songs, chants, prayers, talking sticks, and drums. Participants share stories, unburden their woes, and seek answers to problems. What is said within the circle stays there, with the trust and comaraderie of the group and reverence for the ritual. It is a kind of spiritual rebirthing that is most often undertaken naked, or with just a towel or shorts.

Rhythmic drumming disconnects you from random brain noise, syncs your pulse to that of the planet. Even spas that don’t provide genuine sweat lodges are inviting specialists to lead their guests in drum circles. Spas that believe in the healing powers of Native American ritual often begin their treatments with smudging and a drum or gong beat. Some use crystals as part of a treatment while others simply have them in the room as part of the sacred ambiance.

The spa menu at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa near Stoneman’s home, reads, “In times of battle, O’otham women and children were sent to Aji, a safe haven in the hills of the Gila River Indian Community. The sanctuary of Aji offered a place high in the world from which you could see great distances with great clarity. It is in this symbolic representation of this sanctuary that Aji spa was born.” Everything about Aji Spa, which is owned by Native Americans, was crafted with the input of the Elders of the Pima-Maricopa tribe through the liaison of Sara Bird-in-Ground, a Western-educated Native American. The circular patterns of Aji’s art and architecture were meant to “depict the cycles of life and the connection of all living things to each other and to the land.”

“Spa[s][are]a foreign concept to us,” she says. “Healing and cleansing ceremonies such as sweat lodge are sacred, not recreational. Pima women were known to be healers, and their healing way is to talk about problems until they are resolved,” she says. Unresolved problems “will bring us out of balance, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.” Every word on the spa menu was carefully considered, including several legends that lend themselves to the new intention of spa philosophy. For inspiration, you can see the original aji from the willow meditation hut at the spa.

For spa-goers looking for a spiritual dimension beyond massage, it’s a wonderful thing. Such spa treatments as hydrotherapy; hot stones; and herbs for teas, aromatherapy, body wraps, and scrubs already reflect the tradition in mindfulness. Many now offer sweat lodges, drumming, and dreaming experiences. It’s a controversial subject, though, because some Native Americans see it as profaning their sacred rituals.

At non-native spas variations of clay, mud, herb, and plant treatments abound. Most therapists take the spiritual dimension seriously. At the Golden Door Spa at The Boulders in Arizona, the Turquoise Wrap service is meant to ensure protection. You’re exfoliated with blue cornmeal, rinsed in a rainshower, and wrapped with turquoise clay. During this signature treatment, a smudging ceremony and rainstick prayer purify your spirit while peace pipe music is piped in, then you’re anointed with a honey mask, and rubbed and rehydrated with rosehip lotion.

Drop your troubles in the authentic Apache burden baskets on the doors at Westin Kierland Resort’s Agave Spa in Arizona on your way into the Blue Agave Paraffin Wrap. Raw sugar and agave nectar are applied with an ayate cactus cloth to exfoliate your skin and prepare you for a jojoba oil massage.

“Spirit is the true essence of what we are,” says Stoneman. “Too often we stray from that, move toward self-destruction. Like when a mother tells a child not to go out of the yard, we’re tempted to go too far, get farther away from wholeness, and it hurts us. But all we have to do is ask direction from Spirit, and we can get back.”

We can find direction in the ritual of spa; relaxation and recovery allow us to regain equilibrium and perspective. Then we can try to make peace – with the world, our workplaces, our neighbors, our families, and ourselves.

Native American Spa Experiences

Ancestral Ways & Sweat Lodge Program at Vista Clara Resort & Spa, NM; (505) 466-4772;

Aroma facial at Revive Spa at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort, AZ; (800) 835-6206; (480) 293-5000;

Avanyu (Tewa Indian name for mythical water serpent) Spas at Rock Resorts; (888) FOR-ROCK;

Blue Agave Paraffin Wrap at Agave Spa at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, AZ; (480) 624-1000;

Blue Coyote Wrap at Aji Spa Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, AZ; (520) 796-8416;

Cactus Flower Wrap at Arizona Biltmore; (800) 950-0086; (602) 955-6600;

Dreaming Your World at Rancho La Puerta, Mexico; (800) 443-7565; (760) 744-4222;

Havasupai Body Oasis Experience at Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, AZ; (800) 908-9540; (480) 585-2732;

Kuyam mud ritual room at Ojai Valley Inn Resort & Spa, CA; (800) 422-6524;

Laying-on-of-Gems Therapy, Green Valley Spa, UT; (800) 237-1068;

Native American Medicine Wheel: A Spiritual Compass at Miraval Life in Balance Resort, AZ; (800) 232-3969;

Native American treatment at Two Bunch Palms, Palm Springs, CA; (800) 472-4334; (760) 329-8791;

Native Rhythms at ShaNah Spa at The Bishop’s Lodge Resort, NM; (505) 819-4000;

Red Shawl Woman’s Release & Renew Ceremony at Red Mountain, UT; (800) 690-9215;

Sedona Clay Wrap at Mii Amo Spa at Enchantment Resort, AZ; (888) 749-2137;

Spirit Quest at New Age Health Spa, NY; (800) 682-4348;

Temazcal Ritual at Apuane Spa Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Mexico; 52 (329) 291-6000;

Watermark Restoration with rosemary massage, yucca serum, warm herbal compress at The Watermark Hotel & Spa, TX; (866) 605-1212;

By Judith Lazarus

Healing Lifestyles & Spas Team

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