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Author Sarah Kirton
Sarah Kirton
Updated on Oct 17th, 2023
Fact checked by Deborah Leigh

Ancestral Apothecary 2023: “Healer Heal Thyself” 

Atava Garcia Swiecicki, drawing inspiration from nature and her diverse heritage (Mexican, Navajo, Hungarian, and Polish), has been based in Oakland, California, for nearly three decades. She is a respected teacher, founder of Ancestral Apothecary School, and has a diverse skill set including clinical herbalism, flower essence therapy, curanderismo, and ancestral healing. Atava has a strong commitment to serving underserved communities and has been recognized for her contributions by the American Herbalist Guild. In 2020, she relocated to the desert, offering healing services online, and authored "The Curanderx Toolkit" in 2022. DeliveryRank has the opportunity to delve a little deeper. 

Atava, you have a diverse heritage, including Mexican, Navajo, Hungarian, Polish, and more. How has this rich cultural background influenced your approach to herbalism and healing? 

Well, when I began my journey into herbal medicine, it was nearly 30 years ago. At that time, I was studying in schools in the United States that primarily taught herbal medicine from a more Western or European scientific perspective. However, I was deeply curious about the herbal traditions of my ancestors. I knew that my lineage had rich herbal and healing traditions, but these were not readily available or accessible in my education. So, I took it upon myself to embark on a journey of self-study and sought out teachers from these ancestral traditions. 

My main inspiration and guiding force in all my work is the desire to connect with, be informed by, and honor these traditions that are sometimes referred to as folk medicine or indigenous medicine. These traditions are often underrepresented and undervalued in herbal medicine spaces. They encompass the spiritual, prayerful, and ceremonial practices involving plants and healing, recognizing that healing goes beyond one human helping another; it involves creating a sacred space and engaging with various energies to facilitate the healing process.

My research has led me to explore the herbal traditions of my Mexican ancestors, which I've documented in my book. Additionally, I've delved into the practices of my Polish ancestors. Interestingly, I've found that herbal healing traditions from around the world share common elements when you trace them back far enough. They all emphasize the importance of being in a reciprocal relationship with the Earth, the plants, ancestors, and spirit. 

The unique energy of a particular region, whether it's Poland, Mexico, or Hungary, shapes how herbal medicine manifests. This exploration of ancestral traditions has not only enriched my own learning and practices but also informs my approach to self-healing and self-care. 

As the founder of Ancestral Apothecary School, you've emphasized the importance of diversity in the herbalist and healer community. Can you share more about your vision for creating a more diverse community of herbalists, and the impact it has had on your students? 

When I began my journey into teaching herbalism, I was based in Oakland, CA, which is a highly multicultural community. However, what struck me in many herbal schools was the predominantly white perspective on herbal medicine. It was concerning to see that even in a place like California, right next to Mexico and Central America, there was little to no focus on teaching the traditions of our neighboring countries. Given that my student cohort was diverse, with a majority of Black, Indigenous, and people of color, I felt a strong need to create a space that centered around them. I wanted to provide a safe and supportive environment where they could not only learn but also connect with their ancestral traditions and medicine. 

Over the past 20 to 25 years, I've observed significant changes in the herbalist community, primarily in the United States. Initially, it was dominated by white presenters, often white heterosexual cis-gendered males, which reflected broader issues of white bodied supremacy and patriarchy in the herbal community. However, this landscape is evolving as more people of color, women, and queer, trans and non-binary people are leading in community-building, teaching, and service. 

My goal was to establish spaces where students of color could not only learn but also actively engage in the herbalism community. While diversity in North American herbalism is slowly increasing, I believe it's crucial because representation matters. Herbalists who come from specific communities, such as African American communities, are better equipped to understand and serve the unique needs of those communities compared to outsiders. I see every herbalist I train as a seed that can take root in their respective communities, flourish, and provide valuable support based on their cultural and ancestral backgrounds.

You offer a wide range of healing services, from herbal and flower essence consultations to acupressure and 
dreamwork. How do these different modalities complement each other in supporting holistic healing?

My journey in the healing arts began when I was in my early 20s, and now at 55, I'm someone who has always been drawn to continuous learning and exploring various modalities. Over the years, I've accumulated diverse training in different healing practices, and when I approach my work, I bring together this eclectic mix of knowledge and skills. My first formal training was in acupressure at the Acupressure Institute in Berkeley, CA, where I delved into traditional Chinese medicine, focusing on bodywork rather than acupuncture. I learned various techniques, including acupressure, shiatsu, Tui Na, and Jin Shin Jyutsu. 

Additionally, my journey has led me to explore Mexican herbalism, which has its roots in traditional Mexican traditions. I view my skill set as a healer's toolkit, and when a client seeks my guidance, I have the flexibility to intuitively choose or let them gravitate towards the most suitable approach for their needs. I also believe in the synergy of these practices, where herbal medicine, including flower essences, can complement hands-on techniques like acupressure and Jin Shin Jyutsu. 

Sometimes, the physical body benefits from hands-on touch to move energy and activate healing. Furthermore, I've delved into genealogy and ancestor work, recognizing that many of the challenges people face in their current lives, both physically and emotionally, are linked to their ancestors' experiences and epigenetics. This understanding allows me to incorporate ancestral healing into my practice. My work is a blend of these elements, and I'm continually grateful for the opportunity to keep learning and evolving in this field. 

In your book, "The Curanderx Toolkit," you explore ancestral plant medicine and rituals for healing. Can you give us a glimpse into some of the ancestral practices and plant medicines you find most valuable for healing and transformation? 

When I was guided back to the path of curanderismo, I had the privilege of meeting my first teacher, Dania Enríqueta Contreras, and what I learned from her, as well as many other teachers, has profoundly influenced my healing practice. One significant aspect of this practice is known as "limpia," which translates to cleansing and energetic clearing. While there are various ways to perform limpia, some basic elements involve using a bundle of herbs to gently brush over the body. This ritual serves to cleanse, release, and move energies within us. 

Limpia can range from a light and gentle energy cleansing to a deep and transformative process. For instance, I recently worked with a client who had been feeling stuck in life for years, and we used limpia to identify and release the stagnant energy in her body. It's a powerful practice that can address trauma, emotions, and blockages, such as anger, resentment, or fear. In addition to cleansing, limpia also offers blessings, with the herbs infusing us with their energy, light, and blessings. It's akin to tending to the cleanliness of our physical spaces but for our spirits, a time of renewal and personal care. I've been involved in numerous free healing clinics within the healing justice movement, and people from diverse backgrounds are drawn to receiving a limpia because many of us crave personal and loving attention to our body, mind, and spirit. It's a transformative practice. 

Another related practice is "baños" or baths, where we can engage in self-cleansing by using herbs and flowers infused in bathwater. The intention behind this practice is again to release, whether it's fear or negative experiences that we're holding onto. We can perform both limpia and baños on ourselves, which I emphasize in my book because learning self-care is crucial. However, there are times when seeking a practitioner's assistance can provide that extra boost with someone else's energy supporting our healing process. 

I've witnessed complete transformations through these practices. For example, I recently gave a limpia to someone, and the next day, they made a life-altering decision to quit their job. These practices are rooted in multiple indigenous traditions of Mexico, and also are influenced by African healing traditions which were brought by enslaved African people who later freed themselves, as well as European traditions from Spanish colonizers. Rather than being seen as mere folk medicine, I view them as an advanced understanding of how energy moves within the body, mind, and spirit. 

Healing is often seen as a multidimensional process that takes time and commitment. How do you help clients navigate this journey, especially when they may be seeking quick fixes for chronic health issues? 

I absolutely resonate with this question, and it's something I often discuss with my clients. Drawing from my own experiences and multiple health journeys, I've had to fully embrace and accept the truth that healing can indeed take time. Sometimes, we're dealing with patterns in our physical or emotional bodies that have deep roots, and reversing them may not be an overnight process. Unlike certain Western cultures that promote quick fixes like taking a pill, I like to set the tone right from the beginning by telling my clients that herbal medicine is akin to tending a garden. 

Imagine you have a garden with poor soil where nothing has grown for years. To bring it back to life, you need to invest time in building the soil, adding compost, nurturing the soil with worms, and planting nitrogen-fixing plants. Over time, the garden thrives, but it's a gradual process. I use this analogy to convey that the body's healing process can also take time. I want clients to understand that they might not experience a quick fix when working with natural remedies, but the journey is worth it. 

Interestingly, after giving this speech about the importance of patience and time in healing, I've had clients return within a month, sharing that their issues had already resolved. It's a testament to the remarkable power of plant medicine, and it never ceases to amaze me. While I prepare people to engage in the healing journey, I also keep an open door for unexpected miracles and blessings that often manifest when working with plant medicine. 

Professionally, I encourage clients to sign up for packages of sessions, offering discounts to incentivize commitment to the process. Rather than hopping from one practitioner to another seeking quick fixes, I believe in creating a supportive container for clients to stick with me through the journey. However, it's essential that clients resonate with their practitioners and feel a genuine connection. If they don't resonate with me or my approach, I encourage them to explore other options where they can find the right fit for their healing journey. 

If you would like to find out more about Atava and Ancestral Apothecary, visit https://www.ancestralapothecary.com/

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