What the ancient Mayans can teach us about health and healing
In a time when human beings are suffering from a host of illnesses caused by stress and modern-day living, the need for ancient wisdom has never been more important. In fact, many people have become tired of the side effects caused by pharmaceutical medicines and the lack of care shown in mainstream medical facilities and are turning to traditional treatments.
Recent research has discovered an ancient Chinese herbal remedy that is effective in dealing with chronic pain, and more people have been seeking holistic treatments for diseases and ill health. Treating patients holistically is a concept that was well understood by the Greeks. In ancient Greece, patients would visit Asklepion, holy temples of healing where diseases were cured by harmonizing all the social, environmental, psychological, spiritual and physical factors that were believed to interact in the causation of illness. The early Mayan civilisations also developed healing systems that have influenced holistic healthcare to this day.
The Mayan civilization originated in the Yucatán around 2600 BC and rose to prominence around 250 AD in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. The Mayans excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. The Mesoamerican civilization may not have survived, but many of their secrets to good health, healing and living well are still alive to this day. Here are five things the Mayans can teach us about health and healing:
Chia seeds are a superfood that are high in protein and fibre and packed full of omega-3 fatty acids. The word ‘chia’ comes from the Mayan word for strength. Originally grown in Mexico and the Southwest between 1500 and 910 BC, Chia seeds were an important part of the Mayan diet. They were considered to be almost magical because of their ability to increase stamina and energy over long periods of time. Warriors used Chia as their main source of fuel during conquests. Medicinally, they also used it to relieve joint pain and stimulate saliva and are said to have been prized more than gold due to their incredible health enhancing properties.
For the Mayans, health was all about balance. Man was considered as an integral and interactive part of the cosmos and society, and any imbalance would lead to illness. To cure these imbalances, the Mayans used a holistic approach to healing that focused on both the spiritual and physical aspects of well-being, and recognised their interconnection.
The Mayan healers sought primarily to balance the flow of ch’ulel (life-force) in the body, a concept very similar to ‘qi’ in traditional Chinese medicine. "Ch'ulel represented that everything was linked and unified," wrote Bonnie Bley in The Ancient Maya and their City of Tulum. "The physical and spiritual worlds were at opposite ends of a continuum surrounded by medicine which aided the spirits in the healing process."
Extensive research has shown that emotional health has a significant impact on physical health, yet this element is lacking in today’s medical system.
The Mayans are well known for their love of chocolate. It is believed the Mayans were consuming chocolate as far back as 2,600 years ago, and incorporated the ancient superfood cacao into their diet regularly to maintain good health. It was also used as a medicine - cacao is packed with flavanols, an antioxidant shown to benefit heart and brain health, and is high in magnesium, calcium, iron, copper, zinc, and potassium. The Mayans believed the cacao bean had magical or even divine properties, suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.
They consumed chocolate by first harvesting the seeds, or beans, from cacao trees. They fermented and dried them, roasted them, removed their shells, and ground them into paste. They often combined this paste with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and other spices. Many ancient Mayan artefacts are decorated with paintings of the people gathering, preparing, or drinking cacao. It appears to have been a truly integral part of their religious and social lives.
Saunas are not just a modern-day luxury. They are known to have a number of important health benefits, including flushing out toxins, cleansing the skin, improving cardiovascular performances, and relieving muscular aches.
Seen as a purification method, the Mayans used sweat baths, or temezcal, which were achieved through saunas constructed out of stone. Water was poured over hot rocks to produce steam, thus encouraging the patient to sweat out his or her impurities. Sweat baths were seen as particularly useful for women who were pregnant.
Mayan rulers made a habit out of visiting the sweat baths as well because it left them feeling refreshed and, as they believed, cleaner. In addition, Mayan rulers performed ritual purification ceremonies to appease the gods and secure the well-being of their communities. Archaeologists have uncovered sweat baths at sites including Tikal, Aguateca and Nakbe, but the most impressive find to date is in Piedras Negras, a Classic Maya city in Guatemala. In addition to the recognizable palaces, temples and ball courts, archaeologists have uncovered eight stone buildings that served as sweat baths to the Maya royalty.
The Mayans understood the healing properties of water. Herb baths were used to cleanse the body of a particular malady. The herbs were mashed and salt was added to help release the oils. If using dried herbs, hot water was poured over them to make the plant release its vibrational field. The types of plants and herbs used in the bath depended on the illness, and prayers were often said over the individual as they bathed.
Health and medicine among the ancient Maya was a complex blend of mind, body, spirit and science – a balance which is sorely needed in today’s world.
Featured image: Mayan medicine is still a practice among Central Americans today. Photo credit: Patryk Kosmide.