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 that gently relax the body or use imagery to help us find our happy place. Another broad type of mind-body is movement-based meditations like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or yoga. Or maybe you prefer a religious type of meditation like praying or attending a service. I don’t mind at all what type of meditation my patients choose to do—I just want them to do it. Make some space in your life for amazing things to happen.
How to start paying attention to your Spiritual Self (or Give Meditation the Good College Try)
Sometimes it’s hard to get started with a meditation practice because it feels overwhelming, so I teach my patients simple breathing exercises along with what I call “Meditation for the Busy Person.” My advice is to start with a guided muscle relaxation that takes about five to ten minutes each day. Many free meditations exist including some on my website www.DrKatie.com, so I encourage you to try a few different kinds so see what kind appeals to you.
I advise all patients to give meditation “the good college try,” meaning that you need to do it almost every day for three weeks before making up your mind about its effect on your life. Any activity that we wish to make a habit needs to be done for about three weeks. I encourage you to choose any form of meditation that feels good to you. Try your hand at various breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or even a movement-based meditation like yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong. At the same time, start to listen to your body by tuning into your Wellness Intuition. Look at all areas of your life – your sleep, your concentration, your energy, your irritability – and determine if you’re a little better off than before. But also cut yourself some slack, and know that it could take longer to get into a mindful state.
I have found that doing yoga about three times a week and an almost-daily 10 minute breathing-based mindfulness is my personal sweet spot. I encourage everyone to make space for yoga at least once a week. While focusing on my breath during mindfulness (and movements during yoga), I can more easily let go of my busy brain and connect to my Spiritual Self, and it feels nourishing. I find I have my most positive body image while doing yoga because I realize how strong and beautiful I inherently am.
Mindfulness and the Default Mode Network
I have found great solace in practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is active rest and can literally be enjoyed at any time of the day, in any position, while doing almost anything.
Mindfulness is active rest where you are paying attention to your thoughts and feelings and accept them without judgment, without believing there’s a right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment. During mindfulness, you let go of ruminating over the past or worrying about the future by staying in the present moment. Mindfulness has been extensively studied and the outcomes show benefit in a multitude of conditions from acute and chronic pain management to mental health of expectant mothers.
Why should we practice mindfulness or meditation in general? Because it gets us out of the non-helpful, daydreaming brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is the background story, the scenarios that our brain makes up while it’s not actively engaged. It’s the unhelpful rumination about the past and the worry about the future that we all find ourselves doing constantly through the day. It’s estimated we spend at least half our waking moments in our heads, not engaged in the present moment, spinning stories about our reality that may or may not be true. And studies show the more time we spend in the wandering brain the less happy we are. Meditation and mindfulness have been associated with reducing activity in the DMN. It’s our way to literally short-circuit our brain into experiencing more joy.
You can certainly practice meditation and mindfulness while in a stationary position. It would be ideal to have a few breaks during your day for just a few moments where you could sit down, close your eyes, and just come back to your breath, allowing the many thoughts that enter your mind to remain unjudged and just float away on a balloon or a cloud, knowing that you can come back to them later.
You can extend mindfulness into all parts of your day with a little awareness. When was the last time you put on your shoes and truly just focused on how your foot slides into the shoe and how you tie the laces? Or chopped vegetables in preparation for dinner and just focused on the act of chopping?
If you’re like me, when you put on my shoes you have a trillion thoughts in your head about everything you need to accomplish after you walk out the door along with a healthy dose of worry about how to get it all done combined with rumination about how a past project didn’t go so well because of x, y, or z.
But what if we slowed down and really did one thing at a time. That’s a way to find mindfulness in tiny little nuggets throughout your day that doesn’t require a sit-down practice. It’s impossible to say what effect this could have on your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, but I would bet my life on it being positive.
Above all else, when it comes to nourishing the Spiritual Self, the most important part is to do things that bring us joy.
Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is brought on by external triggers and tends to be rather fleeting. It’s an intense emotion that feels like we’re on the top of the world, but isn’t sustained because we feel it due to situations outside of ourselves that are circumstantial and temporary.
Feeling joyful is different. Joy is an internally cultivated feeling of contentment that’s relatively consistent, despite what’s happening around us. It comes when you make peace with yourself and have a strong connection to your Spiritual Self, an enduring feeling that persists despite frustration and challenges. Joy is a choice. It’s a choice to fuel yourself with satisfying relationships, with making space in your life to take care of yourself, with recognizing gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, and acceptance, and with belly laughter.
My hope is that you’ll nourish your Spiritual Self by discovering your internal joy.
(Coordinates with Dr. Katie’s Favorite Superfoods)
Dr. Katie Takayasu (203) 883-0346 745 Post Road Darien, CT 06820 firstname.lastname@example.org drkatie.com
Intuitive Beauty + Wellnessis a series of articles that will provide a more scientific deep dive into the belief that beauty + wellness come from within -- within our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There's a direct health connection between how we feel on the inside and its reflection outward in our wellness. After 25 years of working as a professional model, Bridgett has a profound and personal understanding of this, and one of our favorite mantras at BBP is --beauty is how we feel. We have partnered with Dr. Katie because we are both on a mission to educate others on the importance of connecting and tending to their inner selves. Dr. Katie practices Integrative Medicine, combining traditional Western medicine with evidence-based complementary modalities, and her work emphasizes the harmony of the mind, body, and spirit. Beyond Beauty Project and Dr. Katie believe that caring for all the parts of yourself -your physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health will make a difference in how you show up in the world and, most importantly, in how you feel. We hope you enjoy this series and learn more about the science behind tending to our inner selves.
Xx, BBP + Dr. Katie