Alternative medicine has always been part of the healing process for many Canadians, with its usage dating back centuries and across cultures. But these ancient practices are becoming more popular thanks to celebrities and pop culture coverage. And that popularity is increasing due to the stressful times we find ourselves living in.
The term alternative medicine can cover everything from massages to crystal healing, and consists of a variety of treatments and practices not found in standard western medicine. To help identify alternative practices, the Government of Canada describes them as being “holistic” and involving the “patient as an active participant” with a “focus on disease prevention and well-being.”
According to a recent study by the Fraser Institute, 56 per cent of Canadians surveyed in 2016 had used at least one form of alternative healing or medicine over the past 12 months and Alberta is the province with the highest use of alternative practices in Canada.
Those therapies have also recently been highlighted by popular series such as Netflix’s Unwell, which explored popular wellness trends from essential oils to fasting, as well as documentaries such as the 2017 controversial film Heal which focused on the influence that our emotions have upon our physical health.
Celebrities have also been endorsing alternative methods and products. Singer Adele swears by crystals to help with stage fright, sports legends such as Tom Brady and Odell Beckham Jr. have recently launched their own holistic wellness lines and actress Gwyneth Paltrow has built a controversial and lucrative empire with her lifestyle company, GOOP.
Many of those treatments are now called complementary rather than alternative — a change that’s welcomed by practitioners such as Ana Laura Pino, a Calgary-based crystal healer.
“I’ve never liked the emphasis on the word ‘alternative’ because it implies that it needs to be one or the other and that should never be the case,” said Pino. “This isn’t modern western medicine pitted against alternative practices. They’re most powerful when combined. That’s why we prefer to say complementary.”
However, the effectiveness of these practices remains largely disputed or unproven. Why then are more Albertans turning to them? Well, the provincial government’s health information website states these complementary approaches to healing are compelling for many people, who “feel a stronger sense of control when they become involved in their own health.”
According to three Calgary holistic practitioners, that feeling is especially important during a year that has been filled with increased anxiety and uncertainty. For Pino, the majority of new clients coming to her practice are searching for help with managing their stress.
“There are a lot of illnesses related to stress. We’re more stressed than ever and we’re so lucky that we can use modern medicine to treat the symptoms of our stress,” said Pino. “But how often are we addressing the stress itself? We need to ask ourselves why we’re stressed and identify our triggers to come up with practices [to] help us manage.”
Calgary Reiki master Geneva Robins has found new clients are turning to this ancient form of energy healing in search of a deeper connection to themselves and their environment.
“This has been an immensely challenging year for all of us. I think for a lot of people, they’re searching for that feeling of connection,” said Robins. “A lot of us are grappling with this intensity and deep pain on so many levels.”
“To wake up every day and face everything, we’re looking for new ways to manage and cope.”
Herbalist Diana Mayorga has found that most new clients are turning to this ancient form of medicine due to a desire for control over their own health and a search for empowerment.
“I think for a lot of people, being able to know that your stomach hurts and you have something in your pantry or greenhouse that might help is really powerful. Obviously, if your stomach is bothering you for days then of course go see your doctor,” said Mayorga.
“But I think it isn’t just that holistic medicine is seeing a random boom in popularity. I think people are really increasingly eager to have the opportunity to educate and help themselves.”
If you’re curious about these practices and want to learn more about how they work, here’s what you should know.
As a crystal healer, Ana Laura Pino has seen more public interest in crystals, but stresses that, although the increasing popularity is new, the practice is not.
“Humans have been working with crystals around the world for thousands of years. There are records of people working with crystals for healing, for protection — what a lot of people still consider to be magic,” explained Pino. “This is nothing new. Crystals are mentioned in ancient texts from India, China, Central and South America, Egypt and even the Bible.”
The general belief system behind the power of crystals to promote spiritual, physical and emotional healing is that they interact positively with our chakra: the energy fields throughout our bodies that each have a specific vibrational frequency.
Pino explains the belief behind the healing power of crystals with a simple analogy.
“I always give the example of if you hold two tuning forks and one is of a low vibrational frequency and the other is high, eventually what will happen is that the low frequency will raise itself to match the high frequency,” she said.
In this example, our chakra is the lower frequency tuning fork and the crystal is the higher one. Eventually, the energy of crystals is believed to naturally train our energy to match theirs, with the belief that this will in turn lead to improving balance and enhancing our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Like chakras, different crystals are thought to have different healing properties and purposes. When working with clients, Pino assesses what chakras are out of balance and chooses the crystals that will encourage harmony.
Crystals are also commonly used to assist with meditation and intention setting: a practice where individuals identify specific aspirations. This is based on the belief that crystals act as a vessel of sorts to focus our energy and intention upon, with the idea that where intention goes, energy flows.
“To me, the power of intention is the same as prayer or being determined to reach a goal. I believe that there is nothing more powerful than accessing your intuition and setting your intentions,” said Pino. “This is a fundamental concept behind working with crystal grids, it’s about knowing what your goals are and what you want to manifest.”
Diana Mayorga is a Calgary-based intuitive reader, Reiki master and clinical herbalist. Running her own clinical practice since 2005, Mayorga began studying herbalism after seeing the positive impact naturopathy had when coupled with the standard medical treatment her mother was receiving for multiple sclerosis.
Seeing first-hand the impact of modern western medicine when paired with naturopathic healing has been a driving force for Mayorga’s work and beliefs.
“I’m very much an integrative medicine person. This is no judgment on anyone and their beliefs, but that’s something I always like to throw out there because I think there’s always this assumption around people like myself,” said Mayorga. “But there are a lot of us who believe that we should be very integrative about everything. Your health doesn’t need to be a spectrum that you fall on either end of.”
Herbalism, also known as phytotherapy, is an ancient practice that focuses on using plants to assist in the body’s natural tendency to heal itself. It’s a practice found across cultures and modern herbalism borrows heavily from ancient Chinese and Indigenous medicine. Mayorga considers a key factor of herbalism and general holistic healing to be “seeing the forest through the trees,” meaning treating the whole self rather than an isolated illness.
“I’ll have a client that I’m seeing for an herbal session, and they have certain illnesses that are very acute and bothering them. But when I put that aside and start just asking about their general health, I learn that they’re chronically constipated and nobody’s addressed that,” said Mayorga. “Obviously it isn’t a cure for their chronic illnesses, but I can give them the tools to help give them some ease and help their body function better as a whole.”
For Mayorga, a big part of practicing herbal medicine is helping provide her clients with the information they need to make their own decisions about their health. “This is definitely not the same as when you go to a medical professional, which of course you should, and
they have ultimate authority. I want people to walk away and understand that they have their own choices they can make,” she said.
Energy healing with Reiki
Geneva Robins is the owner of Calgary Reiki studio LunaHolistic. She became a Reiki master in 2007 as she was simultaneously earning a master’s in ecology. While Robins considers her journey to energy healing unconventional, she is passionate about the practice.
“I was working in environmental science and I really did love it. But the problem I kept running into was until people really care about themselves, we can’t ask them to care about anything else,” Robins said. “At the same time, I was studying this method called Reiki and how it helped people realize and connect with what really matters for them.”
A newer practice, Reiki originated in Japan in the 20th century. Commonly translated from Japanese as “vital energy,” the practice involves a healer placing their hands over a person’s body to channel universal energy.
That practice comes from the belief that we are not limited to just our physical being, and that our bodies act as a vessel for our mental, emotional and spiritual states as well.
Similar to working with crystals, Reiki begins with the client setting a specific intention for the benefits they hope to gain from the session before it begins.
Robins considers the most common result of a session to be that “people say that they feel calmer, more centred and at peace” depending on the session and intention.
A practice that relies on transferring the universe’s energy, Robins understands the confusion surrounding the purpose of Reiki.
“There’s really solid science proving the connection between our mental and emotional states and the stress that our bodies are under. And so from a very simple point of view, what Reiki does is help put people into a state of rest and relaxation. In a lot of ways, it’s like a facilitated meditation,” she said.
Robins has seen an increase not only in people’s interest and willingness to try Reiki in the past couple years but also in the general understanding of it.
“When I first started out and I’d tell people I did Reiki, they’d say ‘what’s that?’ And I’d explain it and they’d look at me like I had three heads. Now there is certainly a lot more awareness.”
Do these practices work?
Conventional modern medicine is based on scientific knowledge, extensive studies and proven treatments. In contrast, the effectiveness of crystal healing, herbal medicine and Reiki is contested.
Studies on the healing power of crystals have been limited, but suggest that results are due to the placebo effect. However, research from Johns Hopkins University on the power of positive thought has found people with a familial history of heart disease who valued positive outlooks and intentions were a third less likely to have a heart attack than their negative counterparts.
Herbal medicine is thought to be effective in treating minor ailments such as stomach aches and has been proven to help in some cases with menopause. It is not recommended for treating any serious illnesses and studies have indicated that some herbs can react negatively to medication.
The effectiveness of Reiki is highly debated. Reiki treatments are available in some hospitals across Canada and the United States and have been used to successfully manage posttraumatic stress in veterans. From a scientific standpoint, it is considered a pseudoscience.
For those who are more open-minded to the effectiveness of these practices, the Johns Hopkins University website states that some complementary medicine “therapies are supported by scientific evidence, others are not. Many still need to be studied. This doesn’t mean these therapies don’t work, it just means that experts haven’t studied them enough to know if they do — and if so, how.”
Are these practices safe?
When used in conjunction with modern medicine, these practices are largely considered safe to try and can even be recommended by medical professionals. However, they can also become dangerous when used to replace modern medicine, as seen recently in the controversial case surrounding the death of 19 month-old Ezekiel Stephan. Stephan died in 2012 after not receiving proper medical treatment for over two weeks as he became increasingly ill with viral meningitis. His parents initially treated what they believed to be a cold with garlic and horseradish.
After becoming progressively lethargic, Stephan was given naturopathic treatments instead of being taken to a hospital. In a highly-publicized case, Stephan’s parents were initially found guilty in 2016 of failing to provide the necessities of life. In 2019, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, they were found not guilty in a separate trial. In March, Albert’a top court ordered a third trial for the couple.
Although this tragic case occurred in Alberta, it received national coverage and served as a cautionary tale of the dangers of abandoning modern medical treatment and assistance.
“I always tell my clients that big problems need a big team, and I’ll always encourage people to get help from lots of sources. I obviously love Reiki. But it doesn’t replace things like eating well, maintaining strong relationships, seeing a counsellor and going to the doctor,” said Robins.
Belief in complementary medicines can also sometimes go too far. Well-known examples include the anti-vaccination movement and the increasing number of wellness practitioners who publicly support the right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon.
Crystal Mohr, strategic communications manager for the Canadian Medical Protective Association, emphasized the importance of communicating with your doctor when trying alternative practices, writing in an email that:
“Physician-patient communication is important when considering alternative medicine. Physicians should encourage their patients to inform them if they are using complementary or alternative medicine or natural health products.”
Are these practices for me?
If you’re interested in trying out complementary medicine treatments and therapies, it’s important to first do your own research and consult a doctor. Mayorga advises to also research different practitioners until you find the right fit — the same approach you’d take when choosing your family doctor or dentist.
If you’re looking for more help with your health and general wellbeing but don’t feel comfortable with trying unproven treatments, keep an open mind to what options might work best for you.
“Some people feel they need to go out to nature, to ground and recharge. It can be hiking, camping, yoga, crystals, whatever works. There’s no right or wrong way to manage. Find a practice to make your own, build your own connection and work to find your own peace,” advised Pino.
“Only you know what’s right for you. And if you don’t want to try this, that’s great,” said Robins. “Always follow your intuition. And don’t get too overwhelmed — remember that it’s a big world, there are lots of things and activities you can try until you find what makes you feel better.”
This story appears in our January/February print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.