Health and Healing in Oaxaca — Noreen Singh

Temazcal is not your typical sweat bath. It is a healing practice that dates back before Spanish conquerors arrived in the New World. Still widely practiced today, it is indigenous medicine in a remarkably preserved form, surviving Mexico and Central America’s evolution from Mesoamerica. The harnessing of energy when the body is subjected to extreme heat can be a form of therapy for a wide range of medical problems. For some, it serves as a therapeutic tool tailored to a specific medical condition. For others, it may be a unique meditative experience. For all, temazcal represents a cultural tradition that has not been lost to history, and for that reason, it remains an important healing modality in many communities. 

In the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, I lived with a family that shared stories of this practice and other traditional practices of Mexican healing. In transcending language barriers and sharing a communal living space, I was quickly welcomed into an intimate sphere of medical wisdom passed down through generations. During these long hours of narrative about indigenous medicine, I felt my previous ideas of community health expanding to include culture and tradition. In turn, I began to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be a healer.

Differences across cultures underline the impact of cultural processes not only on healthcare practices, but also a patient’s experience of illness. As diverse as Oaxaca’s geography and indigenous people, the practice of medicine varies from resource-poor communities to those where Centros de Salud (Healthcare centers) are within arm’s reach. In a state where an estimated 50% of residents lack access to primary health care, traditional medicine continues to play an integral role in remote communities.  It was in a small Oaxacan coastal community that a natural healer led me through my first temazcal experience as an alternative to the over-the-counter cold remedies in my suitcase. Markedly different from the constellation of treatments I could offer to patients in the government-run clinics in the city of Oaxaca, temazcal had something important to teach me. In making my own experience richer, this cultural practice allows me to better understand my future patients.

Though the approaches of traditional and Western modalities are different, healers from both practices aim to take care of the whole person. Caring for the whole may mean transcending language barriers to understand a patient’s cultural backdrop. It may mean ministering to an individual within the context of a community that lacks access to primary health care. As physician healers, it is an appreciation of the oneness of us all, preserving the belief that everyone is worthy of our best care.

Noreen Singh

MD Candidate 2012, Yale University

Filed Under: Global Health

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