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Two different approaches to well-being

In order to understand how to heal and vitalise oneself, one has to understand the nature of the body.

Between the cultures loosely defined as east and west, two very different approaches to this question evolved. Western culture, with its emphasis on science and technology, approached the body from the ‘outside-in’: with the eyes looking externally and with tools – the scalpel and the microscope – to make the eyes ever more perceptive. Fundamental to the western perspective is the idea that we can understand something if we can break it down its fundamental components and label them. This is an ‘objective’ method, because it searches for objects and then the relationships between these objects.

In this way, we discovered and labelled all the bones, all the muscles and tissue, the organs, and bodily systems and we described how these interact with each other to produce the working body. With the microscope we discovered the chemical basis of the body and out of this derived pharmaceuticals and chemical solutions to body events.

In the east, with its emphasis on introspection and subjectivity, the nature of the body was approached from the ‘inside-out’: feeling deeply into one’s self. Ancient sages came out of deep meditation to describe what they felt deep within themselves. What they described was a system of relationships within the body with one fundamental binding force: energy flow. They described energy channels that this fundamental force – called ‘the life force’ – flowed through, feeding and keeping balance throughout the body. This life force was not only found within the body, but everywhere in nature, and in everything: the common denominator of all life. ​

It became understood that the body’s capacity for health was a function of how well the body was aligned with, and how well it conducted, this force. When energy flow to or within the body was hindered or blocked, imbalance and disease resulted. When it was unhindered and free-flowing, the person did not get sick, and remained vital. These observations became the basis of a system of medicine that operated successfully for thousands of years, and still operates successfully, throughout a massive geographical region (throughout Asia and India; indigenous people throughout the globe also carry similar understandings). The idea is that the physical body is the result of, and remains always dependant upon, the movement of subtle energies – too subtle to be seen, but obvious enough to be felt with training. By manipulating these subtle energies – for example, by acupuncture – changes can be made that will produce healing in the physical body. The basic idea is: work on the energy to affect the physical. This system of medicine was originally predominantly a preventative system. In ancient China, for example, it was considered an embarrassment for the doctor if his patient became ill: his role was to prevent that happening, and if it did happen, it reflected poorly on him.

Today, both medical systems have their advantages and their place. The Western system gave us precise working models of the physical body so that we can easily visualise bodily locations and processes. It works excellently in the emergency situation, saving many lives; it has created many excellent medicines, has extended life expectancy many-fold, and has grown to become the dominant system of medicine world-wide. Its disadvantage, however, is that, as an ‘outside-in’ system, its solutions are always ‘outside-in’ – it places the patient in a passive role with respect to his or her health. The patient is always dependant on something outside him/herself to become well again – a drug or a surgeon or a doctor. It is also limited in the sense that it can only work with what it can see, via the scalpel or microscope. There are many happenings in the body that are not understood because they originate at a deeper level of our being. Many of the chronic diseases of today can’t be explained by western medicine, which although it has a name for the condition, still does not know how to deal with it.

Eastern or alternative medicine doesn’t work as effectively in the emergency situation as Western medicine, but it is very effective against many chronic ailments that Western medicine can’t resolve. The benefit of the eastern approach is that it understands well-being as a holistic phenomenon that takes into account one’s beliefs, emotions, attitudes, thoughts, and environmental conditions as the foundations upon which physical health is built. It understands that we are more than just physical beings – that our nature extends from the physical, into the subtle, and into the mysterious; and that well-being comes from harmonising the myriad aspects of our totality. It is a thoroughly participatory approach which places the individual at the centre of his or her health; it is ultimately what the individual does for him or herself that determines well-being, and not what another does to or for us.

It is important to take both of these approaches into account in developing a thorough wellness and vitality building program for oneself. They both have something valuable to offer.

In the Western model, wellness and vitality training centres on nutrition and cardiovascular exercise; its exercises are designed to burn fat, increase fitness and muscular endurance; they strengthen both the circulatory and nervous systems by stressing them and then relaxing them. Cardiovascular exercise speeds up all processes in the body – it’s like putting the body on fast spin cycle. Everything going on in the body goes into overdrive; the blood moves faster, cells wastes are more quickly removed, toxins released through sweat, metabolism increased; the body heats up, loosening muscles and joints and killing potentially harmful bacteria. Cardiovascular exercise, practiced for at least long enough on each occasion so that a sweat is raised, is a deep clean-out for the body. And everyone who engages in it, knows exactly how good it feels. Exercise also releases endorphins – chemicals that make us feel happy. In fact, the best remedy against depression is regular exercise.    

Wellness in the eastern model focuses on promoting energy flow in the body; its exercises involve increasing respiratory capacity through breath training, re-establishing and energising the mind/body connection through meditation and movement training; gaining control over deep attitudes, thoughts and beliefs such that limiting patterns are eliminated and empowering attitudes instilled; achieving emotional and mental harmony; increasing one’s energetic capacity, and achieving sensitivity and insight into subtle events in the body and the natural world.