The Wellness and Holistic Movements
The past two decades have produced an explosion of ideas and practices claiming to fill the void left by the limitations of modern medicine. The divergence of ideas at times has seemed confusing, yet, from a long perspective, they contribute to the emergence of a new model for health and healing.
For example, in the late 1970s, John Travis opened the first wellness center in Mill Valley, California. His inspiration came from a book written by Halbert Dunn in the 1950s, based on a series of radio talks, entitled High Level Wellness. Travis believed wellness to be an educational process through which a committed individual could assume personal responsibility for enhancing well-being. Wellness was not the absence of illness but the presence of happiness, purpose in life, satisfying work, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment.
This idea of getting educated for one's own health caught on with the general public, who saw an alternative to the traditional medical model, which neither included a role for personal initiative, nor concerned itself with positive well-being or pro-active prevention. In the 1980s, corporations moved rapidly into wellness as a way to express concern for their employees, boost morale, potentially moderate the escalating costs of health care, and reduce the costs to the employer resulting from poor employee fitness and its effect on absenteeism, disability, worker turnover, and productivity.
Hospitals, too, entered the wellness business to enhance their public image and diversify their sources of income. Fitness centers, health-food stores, and an endless series of books and audio- and videotapes compete for a percentage of this new market.
Wellness is, in fact, an established national movement. More than 50 percent of our population actively exercises, smoking has decreased in the past three decades by 50 percent, health-food stores have expanded from twelve hundred in 1968 to eighty-three hundred in 1981, and more than five hundred major corporations offer fitness programs managed by full-time fitness directors.
In the meantime, over the past decade, in the health community, if you were not a wellness practitioner, you were probably a holistic practitioner. Holism, as a concept dates back to a 1926 book entitled Holism and Evolution by Jan Smuts. Smuts challenged the reductionist view of medical science, which denies the complexity and multidimensionality of the human experience. He supported the idea that the whole cannot be understood by summing up the parts.
Holism, as conventionally understood, states that mind, body, and spirit are inseparable. Holistic healing expands this perspective to include an understanding of individual's attitudes, beliefs, values, support system, and environments. Such a comprehensive understanding of the causative factors in health and disease, results in more effective healing.
Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, stated much the same in his treatise Air, Water, and Places. He taught his students to assess carefully their clients' living environment for an understanding of their diseases. Two-and-a-half millennia later, the noted internist, Sir William Osler, stated, "It is better to know the patient that has the disease than the disease that has the patient."
Holistic healers focus on the individual, not the disease. They listen carefully, aim for an in-depth understanding of the human lives with which they work, and enlist the individual as a partner in a healing program, which encompasses mind, body, and spirit. This approach demands of the healer that he or she be personally committed to the healing process.
How have the wellness movement and holism filled the gap left by the traditional medical care system? The answer, unfortunately, is not very well. As initially conceptualized by Travis, wellness was about personal growth and development. His focus was on generating positive attitudes, emotional well-being, healthy human relationships, community, spirituality, and joy. Poured into the funnel of our physically oriented culture, it came out as nutrition, fitness, and smoking cessation taught by exercise physiologists, nutritionists, and health educators, each trained within the constraints of their narrow specialty. The emphasis on mind and spirit, essential to the core of the wellness philosophy, was lost in its commercialization.
The implementation of holism, too, has left much to be desired. Rather than encouraging the evolution of well trained, mature, and eclectic healers, we have many poorly and narrowly trained individuals hawking one alternative treatment program or another, which, at best, may be helpful while causing no harm and, at worst, may be dangerous.
Yet, although the response to the expanding gap in our medical treatment model has been filled by neither the wellness or holistic movements, each of these attempts to expand the conventional medical model has provided new perspectives and opened the way for the ultimate emergence of a new and credible model for health and healing. We will read about such a model in the next chapters.
*I was first introduced to Aesclepian healing by Dr. Jean Houston.
1. Kirkpatrick, Richard A. "Witchcraft and Lupus Erythematosus." JAMA, vol. 245, no. 19, May 1981.