Rituals: a lesson from the jungle

A ritual is “a ceremony or action performed in a customary way.” Creating a ritual can turn an action into a meaningful experience, engaging the senses. When we do things with more meaning, we give value to the present moment. We ask ourselves, “how is this experience meaningful to my life?” One of my greatest teachers in the importance of ritual is a medicine man, or curandero, from the jungles of Panama named Gonzalo.

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I first met Gonzalo on an anthropology trip to study ethnobotany (the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses) on an island in the indigenous San Blas region of Panama, home to the Guna people. I was fortunate to form a good relationship with the tribe on a small island there, and returned for my Masters work in public health- creating a culturally competent health education program for women, using yoga for mind-body awareness.

Gonzalo was thought to be well over 80 years old, but they aren’t quite sure because birth dates were not recorded in the jungle where he was born.

Gonzalo apprenticed a curandero from a very young age, who taught him to speak the language of the plants. A good curandero knows, speaking this language allows one to find and prepare the right plant medicine for each ailment.

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You see, proper health and healing in this rich culture involves both prescribing the right plant medicine AND calling on the spirit world. Here, the physical and mental aspects of healing are addressed with equal importance.

He helped his tribe with issues from skin infections, to headaches, to daily prenatal concoctions. At 80+ he was kayaking to the mainland every other day, searching through the thick jungle for the plants that spoke to him.

The plants were then prepared, and stored with a nuchu— a carved wooden doll that is brought to life through the song of a spiritual leader. Each person has a nuchu that protects them and looks after their health.

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And each person will care for their nuchu—calling the spirit to eat while they are eating, bathing the nuchu with water and basil, and even offering cacao beans (spirits like chocolate too!)

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Gonzalo, with the awareness of his patient, calls upon the protecting spirits and treats them with his herbal concoctions. The nuchu is a physical reminder for the patient to stay connected to the healing process. And when hammock-ridden (yes, they sleep in hammocks, not beds), their nuchu rests beneath them, reinforcing the power of the plant medicine.

This is similar to what we do in a restorative yoga class. We position the yogi in a physically beneficial pose, and have them concentrate on emotional healing with meditation.

When we involve both the mind and the physical/chemical processes of the body, we create WHOLE-istic healing.

Your thoughts and feelings have a direct effect on your physical being. A ritual celebrates this connection. While rituals may differ from one individual or culture to the next, the power behind them is universal.

Here are some ways to add ritual into your everyday life…

Coffee/tea ritual: When you go for your morning cup of coffee or tea, avoid guzzling it down while running out the door. Close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths. Find gratitude for your ability to nourish your body and add energy to your day. Set the intention to be present to all the little luxuries that you are able to enjoy with your good health!

Self-love ritual: When you go to pleasure yourself, stop and mentally set an intention for healing, self-love, and connection. Instead of going right into the mechanical action of trying to orgasm...focus on feeling present in your body and filling up with love. Make your physiological response an offering to the universe as you worship yourself and your body in this moment.

Taking your vitamins or medicine: When you go to take your daily vitamins, pills, or whatever healthcare routinely may have— mentally prepare your body for healing by calling in what you believe in: your own spirit, your guides, angels, the universe, or the powers of modern medicine to participate in your health and healing journey. Invite in positive change and whole health.

Checking your emails or messages: When you go to tackle those emails, become present to how lucky you are to be connected to anyone in the world. Find admiration for all the hard work and communication you are capable of, and go into this work session with lots of self-love and positivity. YOU can make an impact in your life and the lives of others just by communicating positively.

Yoga Quickie ritual: Yoga combines physical body awareness with mental presence. It is a moving meditation. If you’re feeling exhausted at the end of the day, and want an easy way to unwind, simply lie on the floor with your legs up the wall, or calves resting on a chair or couch, and breathe deeply. Mentally sink into the present moment, focusing on your lower back relaxing, breathing deeply into your belly, and relaxing your pelvic floor muscles. For more yoga inspiration, follow along with some Intimate Health Yoga videos, like the one described above on the YouTube channel.

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