Saturday, March 12, 2011

Social Work Students Experience Traditional Healing

By: Billy Hamilton
Augsburg College

Social work students spent four days in a rural community in the state of Morelos to learn about the role of social workers from rural Mexican contexts. Many members of the community embrace many different forms of traditional healing to treat—what western society may label—physical diseases, mental disorders, and pregnancies. Or, community members use traditional healing simply to build one’s spirit and heighten attention to one’s internal state of affairs.

"Photo of  a Temazcal--
students went inside in groups of 8-9
Two of these practices that social work students experienced were the Temazcal (sweat lodge) and the Limpia (cleansing). The Temazcal, from indigenous Nahuatl culture, is a type of bath designed to cleanse the spirit. Social work students experienced a 20-30 minute sweat inside a small adobe structure. After receiving a blessing with incense, students crawl on hands and knees backward into the four-foot structure. Crawling backwards represents retreating into the womb of Mother Nature. Once inside, the leader of the Temazcal poured water on burning volcanic rocks and used Fresno branches and leaves to disperse heat inside the small structure. After 20-30 minutes, students crawled out (facing forward) of Mother Nature’s womb to rest in sheets and to allow their bodies to adjust to outside temperatures. We then had the change to experience a Limpia. Two spiritual leaders in the community used an egg to read different physical, emotional and spiritual states of participants. Many of the students were brought to tears after the Limpia, as such an experience can stir emotions and make oneself face his or her inner fears. The Limpia challenged me to look within and take a personal inventory of myself.

You may ask why are social work students participating in what many—especially in today’s world—would label “outdated” or “strange” healing practices? In order to meet a diversity of clients where they are, social workers must understand the importance of traditional healing customs. The best way to understand such customs—an important piece of many indigenous cultures—is to participate in them. Students can work in their future careers to integrate traditional healing methods into the medical model. For many, the western medical model alone does not suffice as a viable intervention to meet the needs of clients. As noted by Marsiglia,  & Kulis (2009), social workers, when appropriate, can collaborate and partner with native practitioners of culturally appropriate ceremonies and rituals in order to integrate them into medical treatment plans. Furthermore, as “practitioners become exposed to other cultures, their interactions, presence, and privilege become part of the cultural diversity experience” (p. 30)[1]. Students can use this experience at the Temazcal and the Limpia to promote liberation—instead of oppression—of future clients. Social work students extend a special thanks to the community that opened up their houses, cultural practices and hearts to the students studying at the Center for Global Education in Latin America.

[1] Marsiglia, Flavia Francisco & Stephen Kulis. Diversity, Oppression & Change: Culturally Grounded Social Work. (Chicago: Lyceum Books, 2009), 29.


  1. Fascinating postings -- thanks so much for sharing your experiences and linking them so vividly to social work education with a multicultural perspective. Hugs to all and please greet staff, teachers, social workers, families, and other resource people in Mexico from all of us here, where there is still many feet of snow!!


  2. Great blog Billy! I already miss those wonderful experiences in Amatlan. I have enjoyed having the opportunity to do so much experiential learning here in Mexico. It's exciting when we are able to make connections from our experiences and stories we hear to the theories and things we are learning in class. Thanks for the great connections you made!

    Much of the work we do in the future is going to be with people of different backgrounds from our own. I appreciated how you explained to the reader the reasons for a social work student to participate in those traditional customs that we did in Amatlan. You said it perfectly, "In order to meet a diversity of clients where they are, social workers must understand the importance of traditional healing customs." Also you wrote, "Students can use this experience at the Temazcal and the Limpia to promote liberation—instead of oppression—of future clients." -Such great insights!
    It's important for us as social work students and future social workers to understand the meaning and value behind certain customs our clients may practice. It also goes along the lines of the general principles of our own cultural competence practice. It's important to acknowledge diversity and how race, culture and ethnicity, contribute to uniqueness of an individual, family or community. As social workers we will need to learn how to adapt our skills to meet the needs of our client and their culture.

    Thanks for your blog post!
    -Alicia Fowler

  3. This is an amazing experience and thank you for sharing it. I think it is very important to learn about other's culture. I grow up in a culture when we believe in trraditional healings from the Shamans and it's very graceful if other people have the chance to experience it. Also, I hope that your trip in Mexico will help you and your future of becoming a social worker.

    SWK 280- See Thao

  4. Thanks so much Billy, for describing this experience so perfectly.

    I must say that after the sweat, even though I was obviously covered in sweat, that I have never felt so clean in my entire life. It was as if every cell in my body had been thoroughly cleansed and my mind was able to focus for the first time. After this experience, when I return to the US, I am going to seek out more experiences like these. I now believe in the power of alternative healing. As they say, "don't knock it until you try it." I believe in the future I am going to participate in many things from my clients' cultures. I would recommend that all of you do so as well!

  5. Hi Billy! Great blog post!

    I really valued the opportunity we had to challenge our biases toward Western medicine and against more traditional healing methods. Although I felt a little claustrophobic inside the temazcal, I don't regret the experience at all. I agree with Deidre- despite all of the sweat on my body, I felt clean, healthy, and peaceful upon exiting.

    You offer great insight as to the connections to social work inherent in this experience. As we have discussed, it may be impossible for us to become completely competent in the culture of another, but experiencing that culture's traditions and living with the people is about as close as you can get.


  6. Wow, that must have been such an awesome experience! You really made a good point when you said that our cultural competence can improve by experiencing things of other cultures, as opposed to just reading about them or learning secondhand. It seems that when we really experience something, our understanding of it is so much fuller and we develop a greater, and more complete, appreciation for practices and customs that are different from our own.
    Jessie Kemp

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  8. Hi Billy!

    Even though you are missed I am so happy that you are having such an incredible time experiencing everything in Mexico. These two examples were incredible to read about and I can only imagine how interesting the experiences must have been for all involved.

    I must admit, being the daughter of a doctor, that my mind is not really open to traditional healing customs for myself. I am one that takes comfort in modern medicine and likes to leave certain issues to the "professionals." BUT, this does not mean that I discredit any of these other healing options that other cultures embrace and rely on for personal reasons. Your two experiences sound incredible and life-changing.

    I am learning that as a social worker, many cultures outside of the western world value sacred rituals and ceremonies for all different types of healing. These practices cannot be ignored or degraded based upon my upbringing or personal values. My judgment needs to not be clouded when working with people of other cultures that use other forms of healing practices. I have to respect the beliefs and ideas that others embrace and rely on for building one's spirit and/or for healing. I may choose modern medicine, but I must always respect my clients choices.

    I am so intrigued by what you have described in your post and am impressed with your ability to remain open minded. You point out that the Limpia challenge allowed you the chance to take an inventory of yourself and that is incredible and something I would imagine you will never forget.

    All of these experiences that you and our classmates are having will be ones that will help make you all better social workers and better individuals in the world-be proud! Please keep taking more challenges so we as your classmates can learn from you experiences. In a smaller way we all will benefit from your learning and willingness to keep open minded! Stay safe and enjoy!

    Traci Singher

  9. Billy!!!

    Thank you so much for your post and what an experience you are having!! This is a topic I struggle with here in the United States. When a client comes with a medical concern I automatically think of the medical model; my mind does not go to ANY alternatives. Your blog reminded me that I need to keep an open mind and strive to question my own ways of doing things. There are so many alternatives to the way the United States does things and we, as social workers, will never know all of them. However, your blog reminds me, to keep an open mind and quit assuming-if at all possible. Thank you again for your blog and the questions it has provoked for me!

    Emily Dahley

  10. Billy!

    I can't thank you enough for the blog post! It truly put me in the mindset that you and all the other social work students were in with the experiences you described. I love how there are so many alternatives to medicine out there; they are complex yet simple. I believe here in the United States we try to "fix" someone right away and send them off to the doctor with not taking enough time to really see where the issue may be coming from. Your blog really showed me we as future Social Workes have to take a step back and see where some of our clients concerns are being driven from.

    Thank you again for sharing your blog post! The pictures also helped out so much!

    See you soon!!
    Sarah Amato

  11. Billy,

    Great post! I completely agree that actually experiencing a culture allows for better social work practice. Not only does this make any iteraction with a client more meaningful for you, but it allows you to better perform a task to have that cultural competance. I am currently working with a predominently Somali Muslim community and I am constantly refering back to the 2 years I lived in Saudi Arabia. having had that experience in an Islamic country allows me to relate to a central aspect my clients lives. This puts them at ease, and allows for overall better interactions with my clients. sounds like you are having a great time! We miss you in BSW forum!

    Grace McLagan

  12. Wow! I thought this was so interesting. I think that in America, traditional foreign healing activities such as these are thought of as trends. I think it is a great experience to see traditional practices such as these in their original settings. Just reading about them makes me appreciate the importance of non-Western traditions, other cultures need to continue celebrating their traditions. I think the more Americans who see these practices, the more they will be appreciated in American culture.

    -Amanda Bruemmer

  13. Billy!
    I miss You! I am so glad that all of you are having such a wide range of experiences to bring back with you as future Social Workers. I definitely believe in the power of "Alternative" medicine. I use essential oils and herbs when I am sick and I am fortunate enough to have a sauna in our house and I love that feeling after I get out of being cleansed by the heat, steam and essential oils. I think it is really important that we open our eyes and hearts to many different ways to healing ourselves and others. It is cool that we can use these tools in our self care as well as using this knowledge to be culturally competent with our clients. Thanks for sharing. I hope all of you have a safe journey home.

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  15. Billy,
    This sounds absolutely fascinating! I am glad that you were able to experience this type of "healing" that isn't practiced on a normal basis in our world today. It would be interesting to see if there are other "Wordly" ways of healing in Minnesota or surrounding cultures that seems out of the norm for many. Can't wait to have you back!
    P.S. Stupid computer said Bill, not Billy so I had to delete and re-post it! :)

  16. wow, what a great blog! I plan to do next spring semester in Mexico and can't wait to have experiences like this. It is important for us, as social workers, to understand how other cultures think of medicine and healing. In western society we think of things in very physical terms, while other cultures focus on the spirit and the mind. It's interesting how some of the students were so moved by entering the sweat lodge and how you said it stirs a lot of emotions. I think it takes a lot for someone to open up and except others norms and ways of thinking as truths. Perhaps so many of the students were moved because they were culturally competent social workers! ;)

    -natalie koness

  17. Hi, good to read that social work students are learning outside the was a breath of fresh air to read your blog, as I am a social work graduate 2011/uk with an interest in combining energy healing/spiritual healing with practice.