This was originally an assignment in one of my college courses. It brought forth some interesting and different threads of thought around health and wellness, so I thought I’d share it with you.
My own personal health views are grounded in the perspective of each person having a mind-body-soul unity or connection that makes up the perception of self, while simultaneously being connected to the well-being of the ecological, sociological, cultural, and environmental communities we live in.
Epicurus’ theory that the body has an intelligence that it communicates through sensation is not a foreign concept to me but interesting to reflect on from a positive perspective. As a bodyworker, somatic movement educator, and someone interested in holistic health, I often reinforce to my clients that listening to your body will benefit wellness from the perspective of knowing what to avoid, when to be gentle with yourself, and what needs to be supported and worked on. From the broaden and build theory of positive psychology taught by Barbara Frederickson, PhD, Epicurus’ view makes sense—the body would reinforce what is good for the self (in Epicurus’ view, through pleasure), and then over time the received benefit and the positive sensations would expand and deepen.
In the somatic perspective, you not only have a body, nor are you just connected to a body; you are a soma. In The Body of Life, Thomas Hanna describes the soma as a conscious experiencer and expresser of mind, emotions, soul or spirit, body, and movement. This means that restriction in one area effects what you are able to experience and express in all areas. For example, if you were to develop restriction (and therefore more limited movement) in your shoulders, you would be less able to freely experience and express in certain ways as a soma. If we do not release these restrictions as we go through life, they will broaden and build until they greatly limit our mobility, our mental presence, our emotional expression, and our senses.
This is expanded on by Masgutova’s developmental sensory-motor theories and method. Reflexes and archetypal movements develop the basis for speech, sight, hearing, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and social and cognitive functioning. If we incur trauma or have long-term restriction that builds over time, we are no longer in our center of gravity and are limited in how we can move. These reflexes simply do not have the range of motion available to occur.
When our movement is restricted at a gross and cellular level it also affects our fascial system, the primary tissue housing the nerves which govern proprioception, or our internal map, sense of place, and balance. Fascia is also connected to and affects our pressure-based systems, influencing things such as the craniosacral rhythm and the function of the inner ear, which dictates hearing and sense of “horizon” or level.
In Western societies, we often experience higher levels of stress, lower levels of meaningful connection, and feel we have less time to contribute to our personal wellness. While we may tend to be more reactive or protective when we are in a place of restriction in our bodies, being more reactive or protective can also create restriction in our bodies. We cannot just approach the problem from one angle. Therapies or activities such as positive psychology, mindfulness or mindfulness-based psychology, yoga, or any other practices which promote mindfulness provide a pathway to connecting with ourselves and changing our habitual thought and emotive patterns. By engaging in practices such as this, we can begin to evolve our automatic responses of protection, stress, and fear into conscious responses of love, meaning, and gratitude. Perceiving meaning and connection causes all things in our lives to become more productive or effective (which seems to be the Western measure of success), but more importantly, it provides a foundation for us to develop the kind of life we want to live and the kind of person we want to be for ourselves and others.
Besides using physical, mental, and emotional therapies to correct issues, living a lifestyle that promotes the wellness of these systems can largely prevent issues from occurring. A life that includes functional movement, mindfulness, and meaningful connection to self and others can help to promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
People have to feel empowered and useful to engage in this lifestyle—beyond a person’s individual perspective and awareness, sociocultural roles and expectations have a large effect. Atul Guwande’s book Being Mortal covers the traditionally American viewpoint that aging is a medical problem. While there are sometimes medical issues that occur in aging, it is ultimately another period of life. As Emanuel seems to believe, so long as we are living, we should be living fully. There are small societies which have a larger proportion of adults living longer (and well), including the island of Okinawa. These societies integrate elders into the community in a meaningful way—ensuring that they can be active, give back to the community, and are called upon when wisdom is needed. I believe that Western societies can learn something from this perspective: all people, including elders, should be seen as valuable contributions to society. It is important to feel good about yourself to feel well, and to maintain functioning of your brain and body in a way that honors your age. Our cultural message needs to support this for it to be applied on a grander scale.
At the same time, my own personal belief is that there is a time where our systems have been worn and well-used, where our spirits, minds, and hearts have (hopefully, but not necessarily) been filled and are at a place of peace, or where we are tired, and where our bodies begin to shut down. Like anything else in life, I do not think there is a specific number you can assign to the whole population. The time to die is individual, based on how you have cared for yourself, conditions you have managed or even healed from but which still took their toll on you, stress levels, feelings of purpose, family, and epigenetics. At this time, my hope for each individual is that they can find peace in our collective morality, and, like Emanuel proposed, allow themselves to live fully and then allow themselves to die when it is time.
As shared in Hughner & Kleine’s work, another way of viewing health that many people carry is a more negative one, such as eradicating health problems or that health itself is a constraint applied to us by society. While I prefer to have a more positive approach to health, I am also realistic. Sometimes we have health problems, and it’s not always because we didn’t take care of ourselves. In my personal experience of health problems, I have learned that my body gives me feedback on what works for me and what doesn’t; as a result, I have become very connected to my body. I have also learned that my spiritual, social, mental and emotional wellness can affect my physical wellness. At first out of necessity, I became more aware of and connected to all parts of myself. This has turned into a practice which adds vibrancy and connection to my life. I have also found that health problems draw people closer, both in my personal life and when sharing with others who experience health problems or are on a wellness journey. As I became more mindful and connected to myself, I began to see what truly mattered to me. From my perspective, a lifestyle of wellness is not just a lifestyle where you have to manage your health, but living a life that supports a sense of wellness, vibrancy, and connection.
My personal approach to health and wellness is always holistic, functional, and natural first, though I do have an appreciation for modern medicine where it is needed. Each individual will find what works for them as they become more aware of themselves—for me, body therapies, mindfulness, spirituality, and connection to nature and horses have been large influencers in my journey. It is up to each of us to light our path. Regardless of personal limitations or of the specific path we each take, my wishes for everyone and myself are that we can be connected, feel safe, find some internal peace, and be capable of doing things that bring a feeling of fulfillment and connection to others. Coming full circle, I believe that our personal wellness is largely intertwined with our sociological, cultural, and environmental wellness. I believe that it is our responsibility to join together to create change in these areas. Rather than being the outliers, I would like to see us collectively raise the standard of wellness for people, animals, and nature. In this way, even those not actively practicing can have a higher standard of health, and even the trees which are largely passive to our choices are nurtured by us. In this way, as we take care of ourselves, we take care of each other. We breathe in love and care, and breathe out even more.