Alternative therapies engage mind-body-spirit
The modern approach to wellness puts emphasis on our multifaceted mental and physical states. The mind-body-spirit connection is deep and strong. Alternative therapies, in concert with Western medicine, can guide an individual toward optimum health.
Those who believe in the mind-body-spirit connection say a person’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs, whether positive or negative, affect the body and its functions and vice versa. Diet, exercise, sleep and other elements such as home and work environments have a direct effect on mental and emotional well-being, which in turn can have a direct effect on biological processes. Participating in physical activities or experiences that also focus on consciousness, or increased awareness of the whole self, allow a person to live life in a more balanced state, often leading to better overall health.
Holistic medicine incorporates many forms of health and wellness care, from traditional/conventional practices such as surgery and medication to alternative therapies such as meditation and yoga. When dealing with a wellness issue, the holistic approach is not to just treat the symptom but also examine and treat the cause. The human body is composed of elements that rely on one another to properly function; if one element is failing, other elements will as well.
When embarking on a more holistic approach to wellness, it’s important to seek advice from trusted physicians as well as respected practitioners of alternative therapies. There’s no one path to achieving optimum mental and physical health. A combination of established, trusted methods with less mainstream, or newly emerging, practices may just be the winning recipe for a more balanced and healthy mind, body and spirit.
Tai chi is an internal martial art originating from 12th-century China, practiced for both defense training and health benefits, including balance and longevity. The intricate sequence of slow, fluid movements is complicated to learn, yet soothing from the first lesson. For those who have a tough time turning off their brains, tai chi can be pure zen, since concentrating on learning or perfecting the movements often prevents the practitioner from thinking of anything else.
Tai chi’s leading philosophy is that softness must be used to resist force, to meet yang with yin, recognizing that force met with force only leads to pain and injury – emotionally, spiritually and physically. Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, wrote, “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.”
Tai chi has been used to improve general and psychological health as well as balance, reducing the risk of falls. It’s increasingly popular among seniors due to the low-stress training method and the fact there’s no floor work, as there is in yoga. But tai chi can be beneficial for all age groups. Learning the form builds strength and flexibility and often helps participants become more patient.
Says Fort Wayne tai chi teacher Pamela Steinbach, “Tai chi is also about awareness, and that is central to connecting to self and the world. I stress tolerance toward self while learning the form and relate that to other aspects of students’ lives. Tai chi offers lots of opportunities to practice patience and tolerance in a low-stakes situation.”
Steinbach started practicing tai chi in 1983 under master and author T. T. Liang and currently leads weekly tai chi classes from her home studio. “For me, growing patience has been a big benefit that I credit to tai chi,” she said. “It’s so peaceful, meditative and calm that my reactions slow down to allow choice in my responses, and those responses are based on curiosity and a kind of appreciation and humor.”
Another ancient spiritual practice, yoga (Sanskrit for “divine union”) is now one of the most popular forms of exercise and has even become a lifestyle unto itself. Yoga’s American roots come from the early 1970s, when it was seen as a new-age activity with a hippie following. Since then, yoga has grown increasingly mainstream, with a variety of methods and modernizations. Regardless of its Westernized physicality, the traditional goal of yoga was to quiet the mind in order to achieve enlightenment through meditation and mindful breathing as well as postures, known as asanas.
Yoga is a practice of self-awareness which aims to calm and focus the mind. Learning to listen to the body, to be still and to feel rather than simply react are important tools for those seeking whole-self wellness.
Jan Evrard, an instructor at Prana Yoga, teaches a 12-step-based discussion and yoga practice open to anyone dealing with addictive behavior – their own or that of someone close. That can include substance abuse, co-dependency and traumatic events that have led to depression or emotional issues. “It weaves together the ancient wisdom of yoga and the practical tools of 12-step programs, recognizing that the ‘issues live in the tissues,'” Evrard said. “Each practice is based on a theme, such as foundation, gratitude or surrender, and includes focused breathing and meditation to help us release whatever we’re holding onto.
“This class is not a replacement for a sponsor or any other 12-step meeting, but another tool to address the physical, mental and spiritual disease of addiction,” she added.
Celeste Sexton, co-owner of Fusion Yoga, said, “I call yoga the ‘trinity for health’ because of its physical, spiritual and mental benefits.” The physical act of yoga can be a great form of exercise for increasing balance and flexibility and can be beneficial to all ages and all fitness levels. “Yoga teaches you how to use muscles not only to contract but to stretch at the same time so that while building muscle, you’re also creating the longest muscle possible,” Sexton said.
Yoga also helps to work internal organs, she said. “When twisting in yoga, you are literally squeezing the kidneys, giving them an opportunity to wring out the toxins that don’t serve the body, much like wringing out a dirty sponge.”
Yoga can be a powerful remedy for the maladies of modern life, which is full of daily stressors and rife with anxiety. In addition to the physical and mental benefits, yoga also strikes a chord with those who consider themselves to be spiritual, not religious. Because the practice encourages looking inward and examining purpose and intention, yogis can connect more fully with themselves and with an unseen power greater than the individual.
Sexton advises beginners to incorporate yoga by simply being conscious of their breath. “Sit down for five minutes a day, comfortably, and listen to the ebb and flow of your breath. Making an effort to deepen the breath and notice the subtle movements and vibrations from your breath is yoga,” she said.
“You are creating union between you, breath and body. Additionally, giving thanks, regardless of where you are in your process, is a great place to start,” Sexton said. “The easiest way to be present is through gratitude.”
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a practice originating from Japan in the 1980s. It encourages slow, sensorial walks through forests and other natural environments for general wellness and as a form of preventative healthcare. Despite its name, forest bathing has nothing to do with taking off clothes or taking a literal bath. Rather, it’s meant to imply one should linger and lounge within a natural and beautiful setting to combat stress and to rejuvenate and restore the mind, body and soul.
Chronic stress can be responsible for higher risk of anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart disease, impaired cognition and chronic headaches. Engaging the senses while in the forest improves mood, boosts immunity and increases overall health by decreasing cortisol, the stress hormone.
Spending time in nature has always been heralded as relaxing and romantic, but those who practice forest bathing believe there is much more to be gained. The Japanese government, in response to Japan having the third highest suicide rate in the world, has directed millions of dollars toward shinrin-yoku research. This research has revealed many benefits such as a drop in blood pressure and heart rate, improved cognition, increased energy levels, improved sleep, relief from anxiety and depression, significant decreases in cortisol, boosted immunity and an increase in general happiness.
While walking is regarded as great physical activity, there is quite a difference between walking in an urban or suburban environment (usually with a digital device such as a phone, MP3 player or fitness tracker) and walking in the forest, completely disconnected from work or other distractions. A leisurely walk through natural areas boasts many more healing effects than the same amount of time spent walking through man-made settings.
Lettie Haver, who is in charge of outreach for ACRES Land Trust, said forest bathing is a welcome trend for those who’ve known of these benefits for some time, such as ACRES members and hikers. “It seems like more and more research confirms what people feel and experience: Nature is good medicine,” she said.
“It’s worth noting, too, that natural areas offer the support of inspiration and beauty,” Haver said. “The preserves are alive, changing and growing and offer a full sensory immersion that can support your goals toward consistent practice. It just feels good to be on the trails.”
ACRES owns many beautiful, natural spaces in which to practice shinrin-yoku. “You might forget that you’re practicing wellness and simply enjoy yourself!” Haver said.
Walking a labyrinth dates back more than 4,000 years. The practice of “circling to the center” is an ancient form of meditation and self-alignment. While associated with a few religious traditions over time, walking a labyrinth is non-denominational and encouraged for people of all faiths.
Labyrinth experts say there is no right or wrong way to walk one, but they do offer some guiding instructions. Start by quieting the mind and setting an intention at the entrance. Following the path at the walker’s own pace, the walk to the center can be a time to let worries, anxieties and random thoughts dissipate. The path leads to a center rosette and is typically used as a place of prayer or meditation. The path back out from the center leads the walker back into his or her life, refreshed and renewed.
Labyrinth walking is enjoying a resurgence as mindfulness grows in popularity. Proponents are seeking to establish these meditation tools not only in churches but also in public parks, community centers, hospitals and even prisons and airports. Labyrinths can be used in times of transition and decision making, grief or sorrow or during times of celebration and gratitude. Dr. Lauren Artress, founder of Veriditas – a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the labyrinth experience – describes the labyrinth as “a walking meditation, a path of prayer and a blueprint where psyche meets Spirit.”
Trinity Episcopal’s Father Tom Hansen and wife Nancy McCammon-Hansen are both Veriditas-trained and -certified labyrinth facilitators. Inspired by the famous 13th-century labyrinth in Chartres, France, the church built its own brick-and-paver labyrinth in the traditional medieval style at the corner of Berry Street and Broadway downtown. It’s free for all to enjoy. The congregation has provided stone benches, a Little Free Library and even dog treats, a hook for leashes and waste bags.
It’s a welcoming spot at one of many paths to wellness.
Flotation tanks were originally developed by John C. Lilly in the 1950s and have also been known as isolation or sensory deprivation tanks. During float sessions, users float in 1,000 gallons of water heated to skin temperature, with a half ton of dissolved Epsom salt. The water is more dense than the Dead Sea and makes the individual buoyant, allowing the user to loosen and relax the body, pressure free. Inside the tank, users can choose to have soft light and/or soothing music or nothing at all, ridding themselves of most sensory stimulation, therefore relaxing the mind.
Flotation therapy has been used to treat anxiety, chronic migraines, back and neck pain, athletic injuries, arthritis and fibromyalgia. The practice can aid health in three ways: gravity reduction, sensory deprivation and increase of magnesium. A reduction in gravity allows the body to more fully rest and relax, giving joints and spinal column the rare chance to decompress. The sensory deprivation component gives the body and brain a chance to rest and refresh without external stimuli. Rivers Relaxation, a float center with two spacious float tanks, opened recently on West Dupont Road.
With each float, participants typically find it becomes easier to get into a meditative state, improving mood, reactions, sleep functions and even creativity. Long used for easing muscle pain, Epsom salt is a mineral compound with many therapeutic components. Magnesium sulfate is vital to the body’s processes; most Americans experience a magnesium deficiency, due partly to the fact it’s easily lost through the skin. However, because magnesium is transdermal, it is also easily absorbed through the skin. Elevating magnesium levels helps to improve circulation, regulate electrolytes and relieve stress. It also can improve skin and hair, support bone health and aid in the body’s natural detoxification process. Post-float, users report feeling profoundly rested, calm and with sharpened senses; these effects can last for hours and even days.
TAI CHI – Pamela Steinbach, firstname.lastname@example.org
FOREST BATHING – Acres Land Trust: www.acreslandtrust.org; Shinrin-Yoku: www.shinrin-yoku.org
YOGA – Celeste Sexton, Fusion Yoga: fusionyogafw.com; Jan Evrard, Prana Yoga: pranayogaschool.com; Wise Choices Counseling: www.wisechoices.org
FLOTATION THERAPY – Rivers Relaxation: www.riversrelaxation.com
LABYRINTH – Father Tom Hansen, Nancy McCammon-Hansen, Trinity Episcopal Church: www.trinityfw.org; Veriditas: veriditas.org
First appeared in the August 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.