Written by Dr. Katie Takayasu
Photos by Julia D'agostino
Despite what the diet-culture messaging tells us, truly feeling well and getting in touch with one’s Wellness Intuition is only about what foods we choose.
As a doctor grounded in holistic body, mind, and spiritual wellness, it’s important to me that I spend time with patients talking about how one takes care of more than just the nutritional aspect of health. How we move our physical bodies every day, how we find space for rest (both in the form of sleep and in just taking a hot second to sit down), and how we attend to the Spiritual Self are vital pieces of wellness alongside smart choices in the kitchen. We’re all on a quest to find our own sense of balance.
But balance in life doesn't come easy.
Balance is not a wellness destination. It’s not somewhere you magically find. And balance certainly doesn’t mean all things in your health are equal.
How do you know where your balance is? This is where your Wellness Intuition comes in and you listen to what your body has to share.
Our state of balance is imprecise and good balance may only be recognized retrospectively. I don’t often find myself saying, “Wow, I’m in balance!” It more so happens when I’ve been listening to my body for a period of time and when I reflect that I feel well I realize it’s because I was attending to my health in the right way.
And finding balance is so messy. My favorite quote about balance goes something like this: “You can have it all, just expect it to be a mess.” And it’s true. If we gun for everything all at once it just ends up being a mess. I think it’s better to evolve into a more optimal state of health over the course of time, making only the changes we need in that moment or on that day, adjusting in real time to the demands of our schedules or obligations or even our moods. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that the body does not like drastic changes. Slow and steady wins the race.
Philosophy on Attending to the Spiritual Self
All of us have an innate need to be connected to our Spiritual Self. This is the Self that is the “real” us, the Self that lies deep in our bellies and guides our thoughts and actions. It’s the Self we show to our true friends and close family. In Chinese Medicine, this is from where our Qi (pronounced “chee”), our vital life energy, flows. This true Self is tightly woven into the fabric of our Wellness Intuition, governing what feels right for our bodies. Your true Self is nourished by people and activities that bring you joy and taxed by irritating people or situations.
You can picture your Spiritual Self as a bank account. Deposits are made with meditation, gentle exercise, nutritious food, restorative sleep, our deepest passions, and time in community with those whom we cherish. Withdrawals lves iare made by everything else – laundry, mundane tasks at work, arguing with our partners, disciplining our kids, paying bills, judging ourselves in the mirror – the list goes on and on. Attending to your Spiritual Self is finding more deposits than withdrawals.
Mind-body medicine and the autonomic nervous system
One of the best ways to attend to the Self is with mind-body medicine. Mind-body medicine includes everything from movement-based meditations like yoga and Tai Chi to religious meditations like prayer or Bible study to mindfulness meditation. It does not matter how you connect to that deeper part of yourself. It only matters that you do.
From a science perspective, we have research to show that mind-body medicine affects our background nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous systems always in motion, like our heart beating and our digestive function. In Western medicine, we divide this into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. But recognize this duality understanding exists in other ancient systems of medicine as well, except they are described in a much more beautiful holistic way. For example, in Chinese Medicine, we call this understanding yin and yang. In Ayurveda, a similar duality is described in terms of soma and agni, or ojas and tejas.
Our sympathetic nervous system is our “fight, flight for freeze” response. You know this as the sweaty palms, heart racing, stomach churning feeling you get right before a big presentation or the quick-as-a-dime reflex you have to jump out of the way of an approaching car.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” response. This is the part of the nervous system that allows us to relax, to sleep, to digest our food, and to have sex.
A problem exists for most of us because we don’t have balance between our fight, flight or freeze response and our rest and digest response. Many of us spend much of our time like we are running from saber-tooth tigers in sympathetic overdrive. Our bodies interpret this stimulus as a signal to produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic cortisol elevation can lead to worsening insomnia, weight gain, and other downstream hormonal disturbances.
One way to increase our parasympathetic response is by evoking the relaxation response in mind-body modalities. Robust systematic reviews including multiple trials and thousands of participants show that spending time doing activities like yoga and meditation have incredible positive effects on the body due to the decrease in stress hormones during the relaxation response.
You can change your brain
Our brains have the beautiful capacity of remodeling over time, called neuroplasticity. This ability means that practicing relaxation techniques helps us relax more and more over time.
Neuroscientists like to say “neurons that wire together, fire together.” You know this in your own life as the ability to quickly learn lyrics to a song after hearing it’s catchy, up-beat tune on the radio a few times a day for a week. The same is true with relaxation techniques. The brain-body connection is strong, and attending to a mind-body practice on a daily basis can change your brain and body over time to react more calmly. It’s important to engage in regular practice. Just like we don’t go to the gym one time to do bicep curls and expect completely toned muscles, our relaxation response requires gentle attention each day to allow us a better and better response over time.
I imagine mind-body modalities along a spectrum. At one end is one of the more pure forms of meditation like mindfulness where one is focused on the breath and allows thought to come and go without attachment or judgment. Some prefer guided meditations