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Holistic Healing Centers: A Community Appproach To Wellness

by Ellen Lovinger Eller


"Going it alone" has become increasingly difficult for health-care providers who once aspired to having a private practice, and that’s true for both "conventional" allopathic doctors and holistic healers. Various factors—not only economics but also the acknowledged advantages of sharing space and expertise—have led many of them to join forces in healing centers: hubs where practitioners with different skills can interact for their patients’ benefit.

Because holistic healing centers bring together diverse disciplines ranging from Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and Acupuncture to Chiropractic, Therapeutic Massage and Craniosacral Therapy, people have a wide spectrum of choices when it comes to finding a healing center. So here is a brief overview of wellness resources available to help you make the choice that’s right for you.

Making the Most of Your Experience

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who lived in the 4th century B.C., believed in encouraging the self-healing efforts of the body, in contrast to the many early healers who were more interested in stepping in to correct illness. The two approaches—support versus intervention—were debated for centuries until the scientific revolution of the 19th century.

That’s when Western medicine became thoroughly focused on intervention, treating illnesses as invaders to be destroyed with medicines, and basically ignoring the possibilities posed by healthy lifestyle choices, environmental factors and emotional health. Discouraged from participating in their own health care, patients came to believe that physicians should, and could, "fix" whatever was wrong with them.

But after nearly a century, the limitations of that approach became clear. Some "cures" proved more harmful than the diseases they were supposed to treat, and other diseases and chronic conditions simply failed to respond to "scientific" methods.

Today, living with more pollutants and chemicals in our food and environment than ever before, facing epidemic rates of obesity and chronic disease resulting from poor diet and exercise habits, plus daily stresses that lead to depression and anxiety, people are involved: demanding healthy alternatives and actively seeking better options for their personal wellness.

What’s more, up until recently, very few M.D.s were trained in holistic health care. Now more and more acknowledge the efficacy of holistic healing methods and are willing to work with trained professionals.

Ancient Traditions Adapted

for Today

Long before penicillin or x-rays, healers recognized the importance of emotional and spiritual wellbeing—a holistic approach to health exemplified by two well-documented ancient disciplines.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated almost 5,000 years ago and has continued to evolve into a complex system of diagnostic and treatment methods that are still practiced today. From the very beginning, Chinese physicians viewed the human body as a small universe of interconnected systems, including physical elements as well as subtle energies, such as life force, "qi," or "chi" (CHEE), and spirit, "shen."

As with indigenous peoples around the world who learned to draw on the medicinal properties of native plants, Chinese healers relied heavily on herbal medicines to foster health and healing in their patients. Western herbalism originated in ancient Greece and Rome, spread throughout the rest of Europe and eventually to North and South America. As practiced today, it often incorporates elements of ancient Chinese knowledge.

Acupuncture, a key component of TCM, is a technique for balancing the flow of qi through pathways in the body, called meridians. By inserting extremely thin, solid needles through the skin at specific points along the meridians, acupuncturists manipulate and increase the flow of energy to alleviate pain and discomfort.

Interestingly enough, many Western practitioners view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate not qi but nerves, muscles and connective tissue to boost the activity of the body’s natural painkillers and increase blood flow. But whether seen from an Eastern or Western perspective, the bottom line is that acupuncture works. As countless sufferers have discovered, it is remarkably effective for relief of many diseases and common conditions, including headaches and migraines, low back pain, menstrual cramps, osteoarthritis, labor pain, dental pain, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia and the nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word meaning "the knowledge for long life," is an Indian healing practice that dates from the sixth-century B.C. It incorporates beliefs in five great elements of the universe, seven primary constituent elements of the body, and three "doshas," or biological energies, which practitioners utilize to guide their patients to balance and moderation, ensuring the proper functions of channels, called "srotas," that transport fluids from one point to another. Unhealthy srotas are considered the main cause of conditions such as rheumatism, epilepsy, paralysis and convulsions. Therefore a person undergoing ayurveda is likely to experience induced sweating and steam-based treatments intended to open up the channels and dilute the doshas that cause the blockages and lead to disease.

Ayurveda also utilizes medicines derived from herbs and other plants, including cardamom and cinnamon, as well as animal products such as milk. Various fats and oils are used in a number of ways: anointed or smeared on infected areas, massaged into the head or ingested as part of one’s daily diet. In addition, the practitioner may prescribe rasa shastra, augmenting herbal treatments with minerals like sulfur, copper sulfate, even arsenic, lead and gold—although it should be noted that the use of these substances has raised some safety concerns in the United States. Seek references from sources you trust before beginning treatment.

Therapeutic Massage:

Hands-On Healing

People looking for improved health, relaxation or pain relief through massage should find a healing center that offers the right therapy to meet their needs because Therapeutic Massage comes in several forms.

Trigger Point Therapy, for example, targets tight, painful areas within muscles (trigger points) that cause distress in other parts of the body. The therapist works to alleviate the source of pain through cycles of isolated pressure and release.

Swedish Massage utilizes light to medium pressure to help relieve stress, reduce pain, improve mood and promote relaxation, while Deep Tissue Massage, similar to Swedish techniques, focuses on the deepest layer of muscles to release knots and chronic tension.

Sports Massage, ideal for athletes of every kind, is often geared to specific sports. The therapist is likely to focus on a particular troublesome area, like a knee or shoulder, to help clients prepare the body for activity or competition or soothe away soreness afterward.

Hot Stone Massage is designed to melt away tension, ease stiffness and increase both circulation and metabolic function. The therapist will place smooth, water-heated stones at key points of the body to promote deep muscle relaxation—often complementing the hot stones with a customized massage for complete and lasting wellness.

A massage therapist may also offer other specialties, such as Reflexology, applying pressure to "reflex zones" in the hands and feet to address conditions of those areas and promote overall relaxation. Or he/she may specialize in Prenatal Massage, an excellent choice for mothers-to-be (each massage based on the individual’s personal requests and needs), and Geriatric Massage, which relieves anxiety and depression while helping elders maintain and improve their overall health.

Craniosacral Therapy:

More Than a Head Trip

Craniosacral Therapy is a gentle, noninvasive form of bodywork that addresses the bones of the head, spinal column and sacrum to release compression in those areas.

The objective is to restore the natural position of the bones, which enables the therapist to decrease the stress from chronic injuries and provide relief from migraines, neck and back pain, temporomandibular joint disorder (inflammation of the joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull) and more.

Scalp massage may be part of the therapy, too. Muscles in the scalp, responsible for making facial expressions, can accumulate a lot of tension, especially when a person is under stress or spends all day staring at a computer screen. Many people are unaware of the stresses, but they notice how much better they feel when the head is massaged.

Furthermore, according to the National Headache Foundation, approximately 28 million Americans suffer from migraines, often triggered or aggravated by stress and poor sleep. In a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found that participants who received bodywork like Craniosacral Therapy had better quality sleep and fewer migraines than those who didn’t. And the positive effects lasted up to three weeks after therapy ended!

CAM—Bridging the Healing Worlds

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a commonly used term for groups of diverse health-care systems that are not generally considered part of conventional, a.k.a. Western, medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degrees and related professionals, including registered nurses and physical therapists.

CAM practices are often grouped into categories such as mind-and-body medicine, manipulative and body-based practices, like chiropractic, or centers that focus on natural products such as probiotics and dietary supplements. Many people choose a CAM center with a staff that includes an M.D. who either has studied some form of alternative healing and incorporates it into his/her medical practice or has teamed up with a holistic specialist whose work complements the allopathic diagnosis and treatment.

Finding Your Center

Do you have a high-stress job? Trouble sleeping? Chronic pain? Think about which of the therapies mentioned above might help you, then look for a healing center offering that specialty. You can search online or, even better, check out the listings in this issue of Wisdom. Just listen to your body—and trust your instincts!

Ellen Lovinger Eller is a freelance writer and editor residing with her husband, Mike, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. She is a regular contributor to local newspapers in addition to Wisdom magazine.


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