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Healing Traditions of Latin America

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. It's the ancient Mayan herb that has strengthened men's sexual potency in the forests of Central America for centuries.

My friend Luis, born in Guatemala and now popular as a percussionist with Latin bands in Toronto, recently returned from a trip to Belize with a dose of muira puama. It's the ancient Mayan herb that has strengthened men's sexual potency in the forests of Central America for centuries.

Luis is always trying different herbs and usually refers to them first when a physical ailment bothers him. Whether it's u?e gato (Cat's claw the inner bark of a vine that has been used continuously by indigenous peoples of South America for 2,000 years to stimulate the immune system); Sangre de draco (Dragon's blood a tree sap used topically to heal wounds); or sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis a plant with steroid components taken as a tea), plants, not pharmaceuticals, are Luis's premier medical choices.

Ancient Herbal Traditions

In ancient times more than 1,200 healing plants from the jungles of South and Central America were effectively concocted as teas, tinctures, baths, plasters, and poultices. The ancient Maya, Aztec, and Inca cultures each developed sophisticated uses for medicinal plants before the Spanish Conquest in the early part of the sixteenth century.

Mayans (Luis's ancestors) occupied what is now Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, Honduras, and the northern part of Costa Rica. The Incas built an empire that stretched from Peru into what is now western Argentina and northern Chile. The Aztecs centred on an area where Mexico City stands today.

Healing traditions have passed down from these ancient cultures through generations of curanderos, lay healers who use their years of experience curing the body and soul together to treat illness and improve a patient's spirit. Shamans have also transmitted to the next generation their specialized knowledge of health care, particularly in tropical forest areas. "But for the most part it has been informal and intimate oral connections mothers talking to daughters, fathers to sons that explain how Hispanic traditional medicine has made its way down through the centuries," writes Anthony M. DeStefano in Latino Folk Medicine (Ballantine, 2001).

The Sacred Energy of Life

One of the basic tools of the curandero is prayer or incantation (in Spanish, ensalmo). It connects the ch'ulel (the sacred life energy within all forms of life) between the physical and spiritual worlds. The curandero recites prayers directly into the patient's pulse, listening for its strength, depth, rapidity, rhythm, location, and bounce, similar to the pulse diagnosis used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Prayer and other rituals generally help the patient feel better. A simple ritual of prayer, bathing, and incense can help the patient move beyond emotional trauma and provide closure in times of grief. When done reverently these rituals connect the individual with the world and bring them out of themselves and their illness.

Luis's journey to Belize reminded him of the healing power of the folk traditions of his birth culture. Although also trained in the Japanese art of reiki and often looking east to the healing traditions of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, he has recalled the vast medical lore that exists in Hispanic culture. Perhaps we can all expand our repertoire of folk remedies by looking south to Latin America.

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