PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia - The tension literally feels as if it's being rolled into a ball before being squeezed out of the spine.
Digging deep into her patients' backs, masseuse Chrissie Brock offers her services at "Ahahswinis", or wellness center, in the newly constructed House of Gathering on the Hupacasath reserve in Port Alberni. Taking advantage of the natural location and the surrounding trees, Brock has decorated her office with an array of greens and other earthly colors that are accentuated just enough with an afternoon light peering through the blinds.
This setting creates a soothing experience in which all that's required from her clients is to relax and let her thumbs and hands do the work.
"I'm in a different headspace here. It's a more serene healing atmosphere because before I was in a 100-year-old brick building (downtown)," said Brock about the positive vibe she feels at "Ahahswinis." "This helps me focus on my work better being surrounded by the wilderness and gets me into a peaceful mood."
Her business, Zen Body & Mind, is one of three practices providing holistic and natural healing methods within the confines of this large cedar building tucked into a central Vancouver Island forest. With open arms the Hupacasath council has welcomed these therapists because their techniques, if not necessarily conducive to traditional Native healing, are not foreign concepts either.
"It's hands-on healing and I believe that goes along with the First Nations healing ways," said Brock, who is also an aromatherapist, about her massages that incorporate a variety of cool and heated natural oils.
Unquestionably the pressure applied to the spine feels good but there is a science to her work that explains why massages are an accepted form of health care and continue to gain popularity in North America. Finding pressure points and knots, Brock noted people don't realize they have sore spots and she will stimulate those areas.
"It produces blood flow to get rid of toxins such as cortisol stones and lactic acids and it promotes more oxygen and nutrients to the muscle to aid in its repair," described Brock.
Next door to Brock is Susan Brookes, a hypnotherapist and reflexologist. Both women moved in when the building opened in March 2003. Like Brock's working space, Brookes' environment is also enriched with forest shades and plant life to compliment the decor at "Ahahswinis", both inside and out.
The most comfortable piece of furniture is the green leather chair that allows patients to melt into comfort and initiates the internal cleansing of hypnosis to work. This form of treatment works when the mind and the body connect at a deeper, semi-conscious level.
"Hypnotherapy is like counseling but in a relaxed state with your eyes closed and it allows you to do things on a different level," Brookes said while explaining that a 15-minute session is the equivalent of a four-hour deep sleep.
As with all of her patients, Brookes customizes the therapy sessions to meet the individual's requirements. Of her clientele, about one-third is Aboriginal and for them she will incorporate visages and metaphors that are culturally appropriate.
Starry nights, calming water and other earthly themes permit Brookes to induce her patients into a sub-conscious state in order to root out troubling problems.
"Through the process of using hypnotherapy, you can look at their issues and work through them in a culturally-sensitive way," said Brookes, noting among First Nations some of the deeper wounds of residential schools include concerns about trust and self-esteem.
Reflexology meanwhile involves gently stimulating the feet. A practice dating back 4,000 years to Egypt, Brookes states that all of the organs in the body are directly connected with the foot and thus some pains can be eliminated by increasing the blood flow along the arch. Each foot has more than 7,000 nerve endings and 26 bones and through the medium of touch, much of the rest of the body can be assisted.
Especially among Native populations where the risk of diabetes is high, proper foot care is essential when the effects of such disease reduces blood flow and in extreme cases results in limb amputation.
"These are only tools, not a cure and not a replacement for medical practitioners or advice," Brookes stated about holistic care. "However, they do allow patients to become a participant in their own healing and healing journey."
Where Brookes and Brock offer physical, therapeutic healing, across the hallway at "Ahahswinis", a certified counselor offers assistance through a more conventional approach of listening and talking. Invited by the tribal council to set up an office, Dominic Rockall emphasizes the First Nations medicine wheel where the four elements; mental, physical, emotional and spiritual, all need to be in balance for individual harmony to exist.
"I like to work with clients with a bio-psycho-social spiritual model," said Rockall who has an masters degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of British Columbia.
Citing the disproportionate number of Native youth within the province's social services system, Rockall believes First Nations people are generally apprehensive about seeking governmental or professional assistance if their problems are psychological.
"Part of counseling is developing a therapeutic relation including safety and trust and that's facilitated by being here," Rockall said. "Having the help on their own land, in their own 'home' is much more comfortable."
Between Rockall, Brookes and Brock, the number of Native clients they see is relatively low for being located in a tribal building, in part because the Hupacasath only has about 230 members. That means most who are coming into "Ahahswinis" are Port Alberni residents and accordingly, council has recognized these practitioners are an excellent attraction for non-Natives to enter onto reserve lands.