The women sat in a circle — their eyes closed and their ears tuned into the soothing voice of Donna La Chapelle.
“Soft,” she coached, as the handful of mostly American Indian women in their 60s inhaled through their noses.
“Belly,” she said, signaling them to exhale from their mouths.
Belly breathing relaxes the nerves connecting the brain to the gut, explained La Chapelle, an elder in residence at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis. “You feel better and you can let out all the fatigue and worry,” she said.
This breathing exercise is one of many mind-body practices that La Chapelle and fellow elder Linda Eagle Speaker are blending with traditional American Indian therapies to treat physical and emotional pains.
Their mission: to improve the overall health of the Indian community with mind-body techniques that are culturally meaningful. The exercises incorporate elements of Indian culture.
The duo recently completed two years of training with the esteemed Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and are now among the first Indian healers in the country certified by the center.
“Our dream,” La Chapelle said, “is to take this to all of our communities. If we have enough Indian people trained, the movement can begin.” This movement would spread the healing power of mind-body medicine throughout the Indian populace.
But first they must plant seeds.
They are getting help through the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, which recently was awarded one of 12 inaugural seed grants from the George Family Foundation to introduce integrative medicine practices to communities that haven’t had access before.
The $25,000 grant to the center will be used to host Indian gatherings on mind-body medicine and support training for elders and spiritual teachers.
The philosophy of mind-body medicine — that our thoughts and emotions have an impact on our physical health — is a natural fit with traditional Indian beliefs that healing the mind and spirit will help heal the body.
Breathing, movement and social support are used in many Indian ceremonies, said Suzanne Koepplinger, director of the Catalyst Initiative, the grant program. “Mind-body medicine is not that far afield,” she said.
Eagle Speaker, whose traditional Indian name is Holy Medicine Shining Woman, comes from a long line of herbalists. She works with homeless women and with girls who have been trafficked for sex to help them deal with the trauma they’ve experienced.
Both she and La Chapelle also help their Indian clients heal from “historical trauma” wounds — depression, chemical dependency and other issues resulting from the loss of Indian population, land and culture over generations.
Three years ago, La Chapelle found herself searching for new tools to help her people.
“I knew something was missing,” she said. “I wondered, ‘How do you heal?’ The universe responded.”
She met Dr. Kathleen Farah, a family physician with Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota who specializes in integrative medicine.
Farah demonstrated the methods to La Chapelle and Eagle Speaker and encouraged them to apply for additional training through the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
The center has used the techniques in many settings to help people heal from traumatic experiences. One notable case involves treating children living in Gaza and Israel traumatized by war using the same exercises that La Chapelle and Eagle Speaker are using in their group sessions.
“The model is to train people to go into their communities and work with groups. They do simple meditation, simple guided imagery, etc. — all of which helps the brain heal from trauma,” Farah explained.
Already, word is starting to spread across the Indian community about the benefits of mind-body medicine, the women said. Eagle Speaker was invited to visit the Leech Lake reservation during its recent annual youth conference to talk about the techniques.
“Part of it is just beginning that healing process for our people,” Eagle Speaker said. “If we can heal 10 people, there are other generations coming up after them.”
Back at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, the circle of women gathered burned sage and passed an eagle feather as each one took turns “checking in” about their thoughts and emotions. At the end, they practiced “shaking,” a mind-body method of relieving stress by moving the whole body.
They laughed as they shook their arms and legs, danced to music, and came back to the circle once again to bid farewell for the night.
“It’s holding that sacred space for people because we all need to share,” said La Chapelle. “People have a lot of stories — and maybe even a lot of heartache — that they haven’t been able to release.”