Tried and True
Posted On Aug 24, 2016
Fortune favors the bold, particularly when it comes to alternative wellness. Our intrepid scribe explores the unknown.
By Juliann Garey
If I were living my fantasy life, I’d be off-grid in a small, sunny seaside town—someplace where the pace is slow and the bright lights, crowds, and hyper-stimulation that accompany big city dwelling were a distant, anxious memory. Reality dictates that I make the best of life as a slightly high-strung city chick—for a few more years, at least. Therefore I search for the calm within. Thrice- weekly yoga classes help, yet the effect is fleeting. Work deadlines, crowded subways, and car alarms conspire to douse my Zen. Having endeavored conventional yoga, meditation, and better living through chemistry, I decided to investigate decidedly “alternative” alternatives.
I never would have thought seriously about reiki—the vibrational healing practice in which someone who has been specially trained places their hands lightly on your head and your fully clothed body. Once, however, while we were on the sidelines of our daughters’ weekend soccer game, a practitioner friend of mine tried it on me. The heat that I felt rising in my tense neck and shoulders was undeniable and instantaneous.
No longer a skeptic, I decide to go to an expert. I selected Pamela Miles—a reiki master, integrative medicine consultant, and author (Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide; Tarcher)—to find out how this mysterious, hands-on practice works. “There are lots of theories, but the truth is that we don’t know what the mechanism of action is,” she admits. “But we know there is a physiologic response. We know it works.” Apparently, renowned wellness specialists such as Dr. Oz know it works, too. On more than one occasion, Oz has invited Miles into his operating room to practice reiki on open-heart surgery patients.
Miles says that reiki is primarily a spiritual practice of self-healing, not unlike meditation. The purpose is to bring balance to the full spectrum of your body’s systems and restore you to parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) nervous system dominance. When in this parasympathetic state, healing can occur. The physical sensations you feel when someone places hands on you during a reiki session—the warmth, the tingling, the abatement of lingering anxiety, the dissipation of a headache—is your system’s response to the practice. “There is so much emphasis placed on the practitioner,” says Miles “but the real value is what’s happening inside the recipient. It’s a profound, self-healing response.”
“The greatest misconception about reiki is that it is solely a treatment,” says Miles. “It is a spiritual practice that promotes balance and seems to work through the neuroendocrine system.” According to Miles, when you balance the neuroendocrine system, everything else falls in line. When we live with chronic stress, our capacity for healing shuts down. We get stuck in sympathetic, “fight-or-flight” nervous system dominance. “That creates a degenerative situation,” she says. “We’re supposed to be able to jump into action and then cycle back to rest. Because we live in an environment of hyperstimulation, the body physiologically forgets how to do that. There’s something about reiki touch that reminds the body of its capacity to come home again.”
Cupping—a treatment in which small jars are applied to the skin to create a suction that increases local blood flow—was the dark horse on my list of “alterna- tives.” Then I found out Jennifer Aniston is a devotee. Frankly, if cupping has anything to do with how fabulous she looks—not to mention relaxed—then count me in.
Licensed acupuncture therapist Trace Albrecht, co- founder of LA Herbs & Acupuncture, describes her- self as “a very enthusiastic cupper.” Cupping, she says, falls under the umbrella of acupuncture techniques. “It is a diagnostic tool and a therapeutic treatment at the same time,” she insists. The increase in blood circulation has multiple benefits, from reducing lactic acid build- up (in the case of musculoskeletal injuries) to strengthening lungs after an upper respiratory illness, or if you have chronic allergies or asthma. Jars can be retained on the body for a number of minutes, or you can do what Albrecht calls “flash cupping.” This is the method she favors. “I put up to 10 cups on, say, someone’s upper back, then remove one and place it somewhere else, remove another, place it somewhere else,” she says. “I keep moving them for about 15 minutes. It still stimulates circulation and leaves redness, like a hickey, but doesn’t leave the dark, dark purple bruises that you’ll sometimes see if you were to look up images of cupping.”
Cupping is also useful in treating anxiety and insomnia, as is the case with reiki, because it restores your body to the parasympathetic rest and digest mode, during which blood flow lends itself to digestion and healing. “It’s like having a massage but with suction instead of pressure and it really, really relieves that sense of tension and pressure in the muscles,” says Albrecht. “A lot of times chronic stress comes with IBS [irritable bowel syndrome], so I do cup- ping right on the abdomen. It not only stimulates digestion but brings the circulation right to the abdomen—and that’s where we have our second brain. I really like doing that when a person is really stressed out. Cupping actually draws cortisol [the stress hormone] into the blood stream where it can be broken down by the liver and metabolized into whatever its next incarnation is going to be.”
I’m still not sure about the hickies, but by the time I’m done talking with Miles and Albrecht I’m convinced there’s definitely something to this parasympathetic- sympathetic nervous system mode thing, and that I’ve been spending too much time in the latter.
When westerners hear the word “tantric” their minds often jump right to “sex.” That’s not actually what tantra is about, so let’s yank our minds from the yogic gutter once and for all, shall we? Tantra simply means to “weave” and tantric philosophy asserts that our consciousness is interwoven with everything on Earth; our mind, body, and being are all connected. We are all connected to everything and everyone else. “The whole modern field of yoga is possible because of tantra,” says Lea Kraemer, who has taught yoga, studied tantric philosophy for 20 years, and specializes in healing. “That philosophy permeates all of modern yoga.”
If you type tantric yoga into a Google search, your first hits are likely to lead you to all sorts of websites about tan- tric sex, otherwise known as “red” tantra. “I’ve studied tantra yoga for 20 years and I’ve never studied just the red tantra,” Kraemer says. “For me, red tantric is like car companies using naked women to sell trucks. To focus solely on feelings of need and desire is not part of a well- rounded practice. If you practice the tantric philosophy, hopefully every aspect of your life will be improved. The idea is that you come into total balance. But we definitely don’t do it by focusing on what we call the lower chakras and feelings of need and desire.”
How is total balance achieved, yogically speaking? The answer is “white” tantra, which is all about cleansing, healing energy, and balancing. The only hitch is that white tantra is a group activity performed in big crowds, just twice a year in 30 cities across the country and led by yogis who have achieved master status in their practices. “It’s a beautiful experience, and very intense,” says Kraemer. Thankfully for agoraphobes among us, small classes or individual alternatives are available from these teachers who led the bi-annual white tantra meditation events. Kundalini yoga is closely related to white tantra. It uses the same mantras and the same kriyas (breathing techniques), and has the same healing, cleansing, and calming benefits as white tantra.
“Kundalini as a practice is very total,” Kraemer says. “You are adjusting your body, strengthening your nervous system, and attuning your nervous system because you’re using breath.” Meditation is an equally important component of kundalini; as you are balancing your physical body and nervous system you’re also quieting your mind. Swirling thoughts and hyper-stimulation recede quickly as a result of this triple action—this connection of mind, body, and being. “You’re able to perceive thoughts that are really yours, rather than this pool of scattered thoughts and media that don’t feel essentially and truthfully you,” says Kraemer. “With kundalini yoga, you can get back to what’s essential very quickly.”
It’s hard to decide where to start with this buffet of stress-reducing alternatives. The common denominator of kundalini yoga, reiki, and cupping is the restoration of parasympathetic nervous system dominance—to stop the cycle of fight-or-flight I’ve internalized. That seems to be the key to finding my inner calm, even when there is a symphony of jackhammers just outside my window.