Health & Health Care

What We Can Learn from the Medicine Wheel

While we’re used to looking through a Western lens at health and wellness, I think there can be a great deal of value in looking at other ways of understanding. The medicine wheel is used by certain North American Indigenous peoples to tie together culture, traditional knowledge, health, and healing. Traditionally, it was used in the prairies and plains, but its use has expanded in more recent times. The term “medicine wheel” is modern, but the concept is not.

The image above is from the Anishnaabe people from the Mississauga Nation, in the Canadian province of Ontario. The version below, which isn’t available in a larger size, accompanies the article discussed below.

The medicine wheel: an overview

The source of this information is an article by Christina Coolidge, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation here in British Columbia. In the article, the author explains the teachings she received from her grandmother. This is a very brief overview of that article.

The circle itself is meaningful, as there is no end and no beginning.

The four quadrants represent different peoples—Indigenous, Asian, African and European. Each has its own special knowledge to teach, as well as a gift they possess and an animal that acts as keeper of that gift.

Each quadrant represents a compass direction. For example, East represents the newness and potential for change at the start of the day, and North is about renewal and finding wisdom. While reading Christina’s article, what came to mind was a time for everything, and everything in its time, which Google just told me is a variation of a line from Ecclesiastes.

Each quadrant also represents a season, and the lessons that we can learn about life and transitions from nature’s cycling through each season.

Quadrants also represent sun/fire, earth, air, and water; each is linked to a part of the natural world and the lesson we can learn from it.

Holistic and interconnected

There’s the Goop version of holistic, and then there’s this version. Western notions of health are very individual-focused, but the medicine wheel takes more of an all-encompassing approach to health and wellness. Everything is interconnected, and it doesn’t work to address one part in isolation.

The idea of balance becomes more profound when it’s linked to the processes of the natural world around us. Seeing oneself as part of a much bigger picture could potentially help with feeling less alone, as we all exist within that same bigger picture.

While the biomedical model is good at treating illness, I think there are valuable lessons that can be learned from this kind of holistic view. There’s something to be said for being small in the wholeness of the world we inhabit, and looking to things like trees and mountains for what we can learn from them.

I believe that both a biomedical and holistic view can coexist and be valid. This fits fairly well with my own view that both illness treatment and wellness promotion strategies are needed to manage mental illness; both are important, but neither can replace the other.

What might a holistic view of health look like for you?

Further reading

20 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from the Medicine Wheel”

  1. I try to keep in mind that in the East, physical activity is the foundation of their food pyramid.

    I also consider 12-step living, and the meditation practices contained there-in.

    Water consumption is also a very valuable (but underrated) tool in maintaining health; as is sleep.

    I believe we have a responsibility to address our spiritual health as often (if not more often) as we do our bodily health.

    It is too easy to put our mental health on a back burner, and then forget that it’s where we need to start.

  2. I believe that both a biomedical and holistic view can’t coexist and be valid.

    Do you mean CAN rather than can’t here? That seems to fit better with your following sentence.

    I don’t know about Indigenous Peoples or alternative medicine and I’m not going to embarrass myself or offend anyone by trying to speak about them. But this post reminded me of a story in the Jewish Review of Books some years ago.

    The background is that this is a story about Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piascezno Rebbe. A Hasidic rebbe is not just a rabbi, but also a counsellor and, in many cases (not always nowadays), a faith healer. This is the story (copied from here:

    Nehemia Polen… relates a story of one of the Piaseczner’s hasidim who came to the Rebbe complaining that his headaches had returned ever since the Rebbe’s prescription had faded. When Rabbi Shapira wrote a new prescription, the Hasid placed it firmly in his hatband. To amused onlookers, Rabbi Shapira gently explained, “the modern world would classify this as ‘suggestion,’ but we who hold fast to the way of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hasidism] call it emuna peshuta—simple faith.”

    I used to find this story amusing, but thinking about it in the light of your post, there’s a lot you can unpack from it about navigating traditional and “modern” identities and the question of how healthy or possible it is to jump from one to the other e.g. the Rebbe spoke to the (presumably “modern”) onlookers about Freudian suggestion, but presented himself to his follower in a traditional way, which I don’t see as cynical, but as about meeting people where they are rather than exposing them to something they would not understand or want to see.

    1. Ugh, yeah, I mean’t “can.”

      I agree, there’s a lot to be said for meeting someone where they are. And when the spiritual figure has some knowledge of modern healing, and vice versa, it seems like there would be an increased likelihood of being able to effectively meet people where they are.

  3. I like the holistic approach to health because nothing exists in a vacuum and right now I have 3 specialists who are supposed to talking to each other and each of their specialties and treatment plan contradicts the other but then again the medical treatments for my ‘conditions’ contradict each other – (blood thinner for the blood clots vs. bleeding ulcer – yeah, I don’t do anything normal including getting sick.) No one has asked why I have a bleeding ulcer or linked any of my various ‘conditions’ to anything else including my mental health – and believe me they are all linked.

  4. The medicine wheel is a new concept for me! 😮 Very interesting!

    I guess holistic health would be… hmm… it would be doing stuff for wellness in tandem with taking psych meds. I’m sort of against people who say, “Oh, just change your diet and exercise. You don’t need meds to be healthier mentally.” Like, for sure, right? [Eyeroll.] So I like the holistic idea of doing both, which I’ve been working on lately, rather than pejoratively saying, “You don’t need those pills.” And holistic brings to mind that if you fix one aspect of your health, it will fix other aspects and have a ripple effect. Like, I’ve been happier mentally ever since my knee pain finally went away. And I think the exercise is good for my mind, but I’m not certain of that yet; we’ll find out. I think I was exercising a lot on my period once, and somehow the combination of hormones and exercise was dastardly. But anyway, I like the concept of holistic as being about everything health related: diet, exercise, meds, supplements, lifestyle, etc., etc.

    1. Yeah, I agree, the medical side of things shouldn’t be left out. It’s strange how the popular idea of holistic is everything but the medical, because it’s not truly holistic if you’re leaning out an important piece.

      1. Amen! Am I going to meditate away my underactive thyroid?! [Eyeroll.] There was an overriding theme on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman about Michaela’s inability to accept the Cheyenne’s known treatments, which were herbal. Sully couldn’t get her to go with it, even when the whole town was sick with whatever and the herbs would’ve cured everyone. I always thought that Dr. Quinn should’ve been a bit more openminded and could’ve talked to the Cheyenne about their methods for learning these things, and she could’ve done her own studies.

  5. Oh wow, these are fascinating. I feel ignorant in saying this, but I’ve never seen these before. I’m always happy to learn something new so thank you for sharing! It’s a shame the second version isn’t available a little larger. I’ll have to investigate the Ontario wheel and learn a little more.

    I’ll take this version over the Vagina-candle-Goop version any day. It’s interesting to get another take on life transitions and health/wellness. I’m a fan of more holistic, well-rounded perspectives on healthcare, and I absolutely think there’s room for all pairings when approaching life: natural and pharmaceuticals, medicines and talking therapies, science and psychology, biomedical and holistic. xx

  6. The Celts have something similar. Lately Ive been following the Moon and all the wisdom there. Plus following the rhythm of life, instead of trying to pack ourselves into sardine packaging, which has caused so many problems, gives us freedom over our lives.

      1. Timidity is a problem to overcome. To venture into the unknown takes courage and tenacity. I pray people will seek wisdom for themselves. Conquer their demons and shadow sides. Im grateful many years ago, to have started my healing journey. It has been give and take, trial and error. But I would not ever want to be in the decrepit place I once resided. With overlords and witches trying to malign and trip me up. Their snake pit? They can dwell there and be lonely. I for one rather love my self and my independence. Im healthy and thriving and soaring high!

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