Body Work

The Whole World In Your Hands

Next to love and happiness, your health is probably your biggest issue, especially since the first two are so dependent on your fitness and well-being. Or is it the other way around? Perhaps your health depends on your supply of love and happiness. That's what holistic medicine is all about. The idea is that the state of your health, or "wellness", is the whole of the various components of your life: physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.

That the state of your being is the sum of all these parts at first seems obvious. But American acceptance of holistic therapies, or "alternative medicine", has been a long time coming. We associate headache with aspirin, anxiety with valium, back pain with surgery, and cancer with chemotherapy. It has been easier to accept the cause and effect relationship between diet and lifestyle and the onset of illness rather than the ability of non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive treatments to actually cure those ailments.

Because conventional treatments have seemed to work so well for so long it is sometimes more comfortable to refer to holistic "natural" alternatives as "complementary" medicine. After all, in our American world, drugs and surgery are part of the whole realm of caretaking. Bottom line, when most of us get really sick, we go to the doctor.

At the same time, conventional wisdom suggests that things like Stress, Worry, Tension, and Anxiety are both root causes for a plague of alcoholism and drug addiction, and common obstacles to our quest for the good life. More simply, life without stress, worry, tension, or anxiety would be good! That premise is the prime motivation for the practice of yoga in America. While it is true that it is extremely effective in achieving "stress reduction," practiced regularly over an extended period of time, yoga is a powerful healing and transformational tool.

The immense cultural gulf between ancient Indian philosophies and modern American life seems formidable. But, in a way, recent applications of the science of yoga actually begin to span that gap. Sanskrit Sutras created thousands of years ago have found their way into modern American hospitals, specialized wellness centers, even into our homes and offices. Yoga's exercise component is applied as a body tune-up. Gentle postures stretch and tone muscles and joints, relaying positive effects to the entire skeletal system, organs, glands, and nerves. As to its conventional medicinal value, the first rounds of Western scientific studies have already shown yoga's effectiveness in the treatment of asthma, diabetes, weight control, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, chronic fatigue, varicose veins, heart ailments, and various psychological diagnoses.

Then there's that happiness factor. Beyond the riddance of aches and pains, the ordinary performance of yoga's prescribed regime of exercise seems to yield serenity, scientifically measured by an amplified activity of alpha waves in the brain. In our world, the tracks of those alpha waves might lead to something close to spiritual enlightenment. Yoga seems to be the ultimate holistic solution. Yoga means "to yoke together" the body and mind to create a state of internal peace (well being) and integration. Go deeper and the individual can evolve from a state of separation to a self-unity that is flexible, accepting and whole.

It's tough for us Americans to get to that "oneness" thing. Most of us just wanna be happy, but we don't want to be caught chanting. Yoga lets us start by getting rid of the aches and pains, getting in shape, and looking good. Historically, yoga's science comes down to a collection of 195 statements contained in eight "limbs" of practice. The program of physical postures which we commonly associate with yoga are prescribed in the third limb, asana, as designed to purify the body and provide strength in order to embark upon more meditative stages. These physical aspects ­ stretching, breathing awareness and body movement that make us feel good ­ make up the yoga commonly studied in America, known as hatha.

There is a yoga class near you. Whether your schedule allows only a brief one-hour session, a full-blown yoga retreat, or a long term commitment to the discipline there are convenient outlets close by. If you have visions of being twisted up like a pretzel, fear not. Instructor Laura Fagan explains "The great thing about yoga is no matter what your level of physical ability, there is a class out there for you. There is no wrong in yoga. It's about accepting what your body can do on any given day". Fagan wants her Sussex County studio to be "a refuge from a busy world. A place not just to practice yoga, but to relax and refresh yourself."

Other centers have sprung up all over Northwest New Jersey, conceived as professional holistic centers offering solutions for wellness as well as supplies, educational materials, audio and visual aids, nutritional items, cultural events and seminars. Yoga stands the center of most, as it has to various public programs offered at schools, churches, and YMCAs for free. The case of the free yoga class is the same as most others: you get what you pay for. Yoga instruction is not to be taken lightly and you should regard your teacher much in the way you would heed your doctor's advice as opposed to that which is free. We're talking about practices proven by thousands of years that can absorb a lifetime of study. Most true Indian yogis are busy elsewhere, but you'll be surprised at the availability of local instructors who approach that level of dedication. Instructional methods and institutions have existed long enough in the United States to have established reliable standards for certification. You should take advantage of those criteria.

Shirley Sicsko has been practicing yoga for 35 years. One block from the frantic energy of Route 10 in Succasunna, she and her husband Jack have built a business based on life's "pranic" energies. At Yoga West Holistic and Kripalu Yoga Center, a staff of instructors assists 100 full time students, plus walk-ins, in methods to develop all aspects of the individual. There are also corporate and outside classes, including specific classes for teachers in Roxbury and Mt. Arlington. Shirley prefers teaching at the Center. "Yoga is a very mental. There are areas of your body where, if you connect with a certain muscle it evokes a memory, a past memory, and you're able to release it. And it's so much safer to release it in a place like this where people understand and let you have the experience. That's what Yoga's all about. Relief of tension, relief of stress, release of emotions, maybe emotions that have been pent up for years."

For Shirley, and other wellness professionals, yoga has become a way of life. "It works. It's a whole science that's been practiced for thousands and thousands of years and now we're finding out my gosh, this works! It really does." After a girlfriend dragged her into a private home where a family brought yogis over from India, she taught aerobics and weight control until she went into "heavy training" for yoga at White Lotus in Santa Barbara. She now has over 3,000 hours of certification, most of them from the Kripalu Center in Lennox, Mass.. Although Kripalu once required a candidate's presence Lennox for periods of 28 days to attain levels of certification, the Center has established "satellite" instructional locations. One of those is at Yoga West where aspiring practitioners can pursue the qualifications necessary for teaching yoga in shorter increments of time.

The approach to yoga and holistic health as a "retreat" is becoming popular here and elsewhere as Americans develop a passion for recreation as therapy. Locally, the Appalachian Mountain Club hosts weekend retreats at the Mohican Outdoor Center in Blairstown where yoga, discussion groups and breathtaking hiking trails spur spiritual renewal. Nearby, the StillPoint Schoolhouse Yoga School offers several yoga retreats each year at the bucolic Genesis Farm. Further south in Warren County is the Mount Eden Retreat. The home of the annual Kindred Spirits festival also offers a secluded spot for holistic retreats and workshops. The 189 acres of scenic meadows and hills has a spacious Manor house. The seven bedrooms, 4 full baths, calming meditation room, spacious living room and large terraces make the Manor ideal for indoor and outdoor classes. A spring-fed pond, a Native American Sweat Lodge and a fire pit lead to meandering walking trails throughout the Retreat property. Director Delane Lipka, passionate about her work and her vision, describes her retreat approach as "Love and light filled hospitality. It is the ideal place for a retreat because it is so serene and peaceful and helps people reclaim their wholeness, heal and to renew themselves, in a safe and serene environment".

As if the universe of yoga were not enough, most local facilities offer additional disciplines and therapies. Pilates was developed after World War I by a German boxer and physical therapist looking for a way to help bedridden patients recover muscle strength. A cross between yoga and weight lifting, the system employs specialized machines to teach the body self-awareness and strengthen muscles without straining them. Pilates has proven beneficial for the rehabilitation of injuries and is favored by dancers and athletes for muscle toning. A type of yoga called Bikram, or "hot yoga", closely integrates Pilates techniques. Tai Chi is an ancient yoga-like system of exercises originating in China designed for self-defense and spiritual development. These and other disciplines such as Reiki and dozens of massage techniques are meant to compliment each other and satisfy the needs of a world of clients. You can get started for about $12. Its a whole new world.

This story was first published: Winter, 2004
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