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Native Intelligence

by Gretchen Kelly

Indigenous-inspired treatments are on the rise, here’s why.

What started as simple practices borrowed from cultures, such as sage burning in waiting rooms, has blossomed into full-fledged menus of treatments with roots in Native American, Mayan, and other cultures. “We are starting to appreciate cultures that are tied to natural medicine,” says Patrick Huey, chairman of the board for the International SPA Association and host of the Podcast At the Podium with Patrick Huey.

"If you’re doing a shamanistic treatment in Mexico, you have to get a shaman into your spa.” 

—Patrick Huey, Chairman of the Board for the International SPA Association

“In some ways, they represent our grandmothers’ home remedies that work therapeutically,” he says. “I think [indigenous treatments] are part of this movement. It’s also interesting how these trends and practices dovetail with yoga, energy, breath concentration and other practices.”

While Huey says the phenomenon is booming, it opens up issues. “The million-dollar question is, ‘how do you not appropriate other cultures,’” he says. “You have to do your research and you have to understand the result you’re going for and why you’re choosing it. Do your research on it. Educate your staff if you want to go walking in someone else’s cultural backyard. My suggestion is, if you’re doing a shamanistic treatment in Mexico, you have to get a shaman into your spa.”

New Modalities with Ancient Roots

Marie Watkinson, CEO and founder of Spa Chicks On The Go, a New York City-based mobile spa event company, says that indigenous treatments, “may appear as a ‘new’ trend in the spa space, but Native American-inspired spa services and treatments have always been the backbone of the modern spa industry.”

She says, “We have always looked to other cultures to inspire our services and give them life—or at least that has been my personal experience working in the spa industry since 1991 in New York City. I have watched many trends come and go—but the Native-inspired services are always a mainstay. Native American shamans have treated the body, mind, and spirit for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that we try to bring these ancient practices into our work.”

Watkinson, whose husband has White Mountain Apache ancestry, says that spa goers are, “seeking deep connection more so than ever after COVID, and these treatments tell us a story and make us part of that story.” In practice, she says, “it’s important to stay mindful of the real peoples and cultures behind these treatments.”

“I feel that wherever you can, you need to give back, and include the Native Americans’ tribes—whether local or across the country. This means trying to source your products and materials from them. For instance, while you can buy sage smudges on Amazon—why not reach out directly to tribe for purchase.” She also says when incorporating indigenous experiences into a spa, “intention is everything. If you are just jumping on the bandwagon and don’t do your research, you’ll be looked on as an imposter.”

“Auntie Jase,” a Two-Spirited Northern Cheyenne healer, performs daily smudge rituals online but asks that, “people respect our shells, sacred feathers, and the way we use this medicine as a closed practice.” He also hopes that people interested in indigenous healing modalities don’t just “cherry pick from other cultures,” but embrace the real people within those cultures “here and now in the present.”

From Potential to Practice

Elsa Hernández, spa manager of Vista Encantada Spa Resort & Residences in Los Cabos, says, “There has certainly been a rise in indigenous treatments in spas due to travelers seeking culturally rich experiences. Many are traveling to destinations where history and tradition are embedded in everyday experiences. The essence of our Milagro Wellness spa is rooted in tradition and cultural wellness experiences like the Temazcal, a traditional Mayan sweat lodge. This experience was introduced to offer guests a deeper understanding of indigenous practices. The treatment cleanses the physical and spiritual being and relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, and releases negative energy.”

"There has certainly been a rise in indigenous There has certainly been a rise in indigenous treatments in spas due to travelers seeking treatments in spas due to travelers seeking culturally rich experiences.” 

—Elsa Hernández, spa manager of Vista Encantada Spa Resort & Residences in Los Cabos

Janzu holistic water session. Photo credit: Tanveer Badal

The global hospitality group Habitas, comprised of “homes” for vacationers, has spa and wellness menus many of which are inspired by local traditions. Oliver Ripley, CEO and cofounder, points to its Janzu treatment at the Habitas Bacalar as one with strong roots in local indigenous treatments.

The practice of janzu (Chinese for “peaceful river”) originated in the 1990s in India but was developed as a medical treatment by Juan Pathik Villatoro, a healer/practitioner who drew from shamanistic rituals of Mexico, martial arts, meditation, and dance to create a holistic water therapy. A series of coordinated movements with a practitioner simulating an aquatic dance leaves users often reporting improved sleep, reduced stress, and a heightened sense of wellbeing in the days that follow the treatment.

“These experiences are designed to honor traditional practices and promote cultural authenticity with a deep respect for their wisdom,” says Ripley.

Native American Roots

Miraval Arizona offers treatments rooted in Native American culture and healing methods. Its Cara Vida Facial is inspired by Native people’s connection to mesquite (tree of life). Cold-pressed, organic, vitamin C-rich chia seeds exfoliate skin and a mask of organic local Arizona honey finishes the facial massage.

Patrick Huey says that although spas using locally sourced elements such as Miraval’s Arizona honey culled near the property are “almost expected now,” indigenously inspired treatments may sometimes source experiences and elements from non-locally specific cultures, too.

“Why shouldn’t a person in Connecticut not experience a Mayan ritual?” he asks. “Part of what we are doing is to create a space where all of our intentions can live together."

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