Dancing for Love in the Desert

“We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy”

A few weeks ago I went to Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree – the smaller, sister festival to the big bhakti yoga celebration in September.  I showed up thinking I would practice a little yoga, make some new friends.  Like most of us embarking on a new adventure, I secretly longed for some kind of transformation.  And I knew better than to expect it.

The first thing I did upon arriving in the dry, windy desert, was to sit at the main stage and listen to the music.  It takes guts to show up to a festival all alone: all the old demons from middle school come out to play: do I belong?  Am I likeable?  Attractive?  Will I find people here that I really connect with?  I know these demons well enough to keep them at bay most of the time, and also well enough to know that they were going to have a field day at this festival.

A group of strangers next to me were chatting idely.  The musicians on the stage looked vaguely familiar.  Then I heard them sing:

All that I am

I offer on the Altar of Love

And suddenly I, and the strangers around me, were singing in unison with the musicians

In sweet surrender

This is Kirtan – call and response devotional music – so it’s no surprise that we were singing from the audience.  The surprise was that we weren’t repeating the song back, we were singing along spontaneously.  We knew this song, and it had caught us like a wayward spirit, rousing us into a synchronous harmony, a momentary “higher order” if you will, that hadn’t existed moments before.

I remembered why I had come.

In time, the strangers around me return to their chatting, and I move closer to the musicians.  I’m shocked at how quickly I’m shifting paradigms.  Now I’m not only singing, I’m meditating, swaying – I’m crying. How could I have forgotten this?  A vision is taking hold – not just a vision in the mind, but a vision in the body, an ecstatic state of embodiment, feels like shifting vibrations on a cellular level.  My heart opens.  And my heart opening is like light and love pouring out of me and into me simultaneously.  Somehow the best within me and the best within the universe are the same thing.  I am crying because I am experiencing a solution to human suffering.

And then at some point my rational mind comes back online and says, oh shit, how am I supposed to integrate THIS?

Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion – perhaps to a higher power or principle, to a God, within or without – or perhaps just devotion to love.  For me, and I think for many who attend Bhakti/Shakti fest, that latter concept, love, is somehow able to contain the ones that came before it.  It’s not about getting anybody to believe anything – it’s not about dogma or creed.  In fact, one of the great strengths of these festivals is that they draw in many, many diverse teachers, none of whom necessarily agree with each others regarding spiritual doctrine.  Love isn’t a doctrine or a belief – it’s an experience.  In fact, it is the one experience I know of that can dissolve the strife of warring beliefs and philosophies.

If it sounds a little over the top or crazy – well it is.  It’s crazy in the best possible way.  It’s permission to be just a little crazy, in service to a higher good: happiness, fulfillment, community, connection, and service.  Because love, when it’s really love, isn’t just something you have – it’s something you give.

Easier said than done right?  You might imagine that I spent the rest of the festival as a blessed-out hippy, escaping into a spiritual trance to forget the evils of the world.  On the contrary, do you remember those demons I mentioned earlier?  Well, they absolutely threw a fit – I mean, they declared war.  You will never be able to integrate this into actual human relationships, they told me.  You are going to spend this festival alone and miserable.  These demons are assholes, but I believe we’re all stuck with them for life – the questions is, how do we deal with them when they show up?

Truth be told, it was hard.  Just because you have a vision of a better world doesn’t mean you know how to bring it into material reality.  For the next day and a half, I really struggled.  I wanted to connect to the human beings around me, but I didn’t always know how.  Many times I would smile at a stranger and they would turn away.  And I understand why, because sometimes strangers would smile at me, and in spite of myself, I would turn away.  It’s a natural response, to protect ourselves from the unknown, even when (perhaps especially when) it smiles sweetly.  In most places, and in most communities, there’s good reason to think twice about trusting a smiling stranger.  And yet, as Brene Brown has so beautifully demonstrated – there is no connection without vulnerability.

In the meantime, I did yoga.  All kinds of yoga.  Slow, meditative hatha yoga.  Fast, hard, sweaty, acrobatic vinyasa yoga.  Chanting-and-dancing-like-a-madman bhakti yoga.  Centering or ecstatic, consciousness-altering pranayama (breath) yoga.  They are all practices for healing, growth, and transformation, and it was the breathwork in particular that rattled me to the core, and laid bare what I had buried there.  In one ecstatic breathing practice, my whole body trembled and I felt as though I were enveloped in light.  I felt – for the first time in my life – I actually felt the chronic contraction in my diaphragm; as the lifelong tension in that muscle began to soften, it felt like a miracle.  Neuroscience has confirmed again and again that the body is integral to our emotional experience, and here the tentative partial release in this rigid core musculature pointed to a new way of being in the world.  It is something I still don’t have adequate words for.  I went to three breath workshops that weekend, by three different teachers, and each time I heard the pained and grateful sobs of my fellow human beings around me, as they let something heavy go.

The battle with the demons finally began to turn on Saturday night.  One of the festival volunteers, a sweet guy named Oliver, approached and asked me how I was doing.  I lamented that because this festival was so much smaller than Bhakti Fest (1000 vs 5000 people), it felt as though the energetic shift toward heart-centered consciousness that I remembered was severely diminished.  I theorized that with more people at the festival, practicing more yoga, making more connections, a kind of increased connectivity takes place, an acceleration of transmission that leads to a tipping point.  It seemed to me that at Shakti Fest, that process was dampened.  “Well then you have to do it,” he said.  I squirmed.  That felt like too much responsibility – not to mentioned setting myself up for failure and humiliation, when my love consciousness was rejected.

And then he hugged me, and I understood.

One connection begets another.  Laura Lalita from my PhD cohort arrived, eager to dance.  I connected with Billy, whom I had trained with in Thai massage a few years back.  Sky from the UC Berkeley days was selling art in a stall.  Even my mom showed up.   Each connection made the next one a little easier.  Every teacher or musician who talked about opening the heart brought us a little further.  Dancing madly in the desert by starlight doesn’t hurt either.

By Sunday, the connectivity seemed to be in full swing.  I smiled at strangers and they smiled back.  I struck up conversations with random people wandering the festival grounds.  There were ample hugs to go around.  48 hours after arriving, this was actually happening.  I was elated, grateful.

And sad, that it was suddenly over, having only just begun.

To say that I was transformed by this experience is no small thing.  I don’t use that word lightly, and I wouldn’t use it if I had a more honest word.  Nor do I mean to imply some sort of total transformation – only that something deep with me shifted, and is now making its way forward in time.  There is no easy way to carry such an experience out into the world.   Out here, trust isn’t always safe, love is guarded against, or else sought after and grasped hungrily as though it were a scarce commodity, a mere object to possesses.   I would like to believe that heart-centered consciousness is the direction the whole planet is evolving toward, but we won’t get there until we get there.  That connectivity is building slowly, over time, disrupted by war and famine, by bigotry and fundamentalism (both religious and scientistic) – and yet somehow, from the ashes, the connections resume.  Like the human brain, it’s in our nature, and our best interest, to connect, and then to connect more.

It’s not a matter of idealism or wishful thinking.  The pain and suffering and rage on this planet is immense.  The fact remains, we can do something about it.

It’s up to us.

Can Belief in the Supernatural Heal?

I recently had a very good conversation with a leader from the local atheist movement.  He told me that a primary concern of his tribe is to expose and prevent the harm that comes about from belief in the ‘supernatural.’  He regaled a story of a married couple at the emergency room who refused to allow their dying child to have a blood transfusion, because it interfered with their religious beliefs.  The child was saved only because the physician on duty invoked the law to make the transfusion take place.  This is a useful example – it is an instance of faith, religion, and spirituality taken to a dangerous extreme, and how those extremes may harm innocents who have not chosen such extremism for themselves.

There is a shadow here that we must contend with:  in its darkest aspects, religion becomes dogmatic, legalistic, ideological; faith becomes an excuse to abandon ethics, and spirituality can be dissociative and downright delusional.  Every organization, philosophical system, lifestyle, group, and individual has a shadow, and it is worthy work indeed to bring it to light, and guard against its mischief.

So I’ll be the first to admit that belief in the ‘supernatural’ has a shadow, and that countless lives have been damaged and destroyed as the result.

But, my friends, what about the light?

One of the foundational courses in my Somatic Psychology PhD program is a course on the healing traditions of ancient Greece.  We are reading not only the original Hippocratic writings, which detail the sloppy beginnings of Western medicine – we are also looking in detail at the healing that took place at the temples of physician-god Asklepios.   For centuries, the sickest of the sick, those whom the physicians could not help, took pilgrimages to these temples, to seek direct healing from Asklepios himself.  Once arrived, they would go through ritual purification, and then descend into the abaton, an underground sacred chamber, and await a healing dream from the Divine Physician.

Although any healing was understood to come at the discretion of Asklepios, and never guaranteed, the surviving accounts of miracle cures at these temples are too numerous to dismiss out of hand.  At a time when belief in the mythic gods was waning and rationality was on the rise, Asklepios remained widely beloved.  Indeed, as our understanding of neuroscience slowly blossoms in the 21st century, many scholars are now considering whether the dream healing that took place in the ancient Asklepieia might not best be understood as the earliest working model for integrative medicine.

In deference to the skeptics, let us evaluate the temple medicine in terms of what we now know about human health:  first, exercise, diet, and stress reduction were prominent aspects of temple medicine, and modern medical research increasingly corroborates how essential these factors are to good health.  But more important, let us consider the psychological aspects of this cure: it represented a retreat from the mundane world into psychologically sacred space, it represented a culturally acceptable healing method, and it operated through accessing the deepest levels of the personality – an encounter with the unconscious mind that invites a direct imaginal experience of a divine, healing presence.

The words “psychosomatic” and “placebo” have been unfortunately somewhat dragged through the mud in previous decades – we often take these words to connote imagined illness, false cures, and hypochondria.  But on the frontiers of neuroscience and integrative medicine, these concepts have transformed into a cornucopia of information about where healing comes from – how the mind can be harnessed to heal the body, and the body harnessed to heal the mind.  There is something deep within the mind-body connection – a place we have not learned to access consciously, where powerful healing can take place.  With this in mind, we can use models from somatic psychology and placebo research to explain the miracle cures at the temples, and still recognize those cures as legitimate medicine.  After all, what could be more real to an individual than being given another 20 years of life, when all the doctors of his age have given him up for dead?

It’s important to note that during the time of Asklepios, there was almost none of our modern contention that somehow science and spirituality should be at odds.  Those early greek physicians and the temple healers of Asklepios (called therapuetes, from which we derive our modern word therapist) were allies in the art of healing!  What the doctors could not cure, they sent to the priests.  In fact, the original Hippocratic Oath is sworn in part to Asklepios, who represented to these early doctors the pinnacle of medical practice.

Now, I’ll be honest:  I’m not ruling out some sort of ‘supernatural’ phenomena at work in the temples of Asklepios.  My personal understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is that it references anything that is outside of our understanding of ‘nature.”  One piece of data clearly evidenced by the history of science is that science itself is always revising itself with better information, better theories, whole new paradigms for understanding the universe (one brief example: according to science, bisexual attraction didn’t exist in human males prior to last year when someone at Northwestern University finally devised a study that could measure it – tell that to bisexual men! – one of thousands of examples of the dangers inherent in treating science as gospel!).  Thus, the word ‘nature’ is best apprehended as something that changes its meaning over time.  Our understanding of ‘nature’ 200 years ago is radically different from what it is today, and we have every reason to believe that in another 200 years our understanding of ‘nature’ will change even more dramatically.  So in speaking of the existence of the ‘supernatural’ I am merely acknowledging that human knowledge is limited, that there are things outside of it, beyond our understanding, things that don’t fit inside our language now, and might not fit for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.  I see this as a matter of common sense.  Science must remain extremely conservative to maintain its integrity, but common sense, I think, must remain firmly moderate if it is to be of any use at all.

In the meantime, let us leave speculation aside, and look at the psychological, and yes, somatic benefits that supernatural belief may engender.   For this is not a tale of sick people learning how to “think positive” and miraculously cure themselves in the comfort of their own homes, during their spare time, by simply wishing it so.  The story of the Asklepieia represents an intensive journey of psychological transformation.  These terribly sick and impaired individuals of yore took a pilgrimage across vast distances, in an era without motor engines, to surrender themselves before a psychologically sacred image, an image that was culturally reinforced as a divine source of healing, and on this foundation they were invited to engage directly and deeply with the most primal, and perhaps most powerful, forces of their own unconscious minds – they met Asklepios in the realm of dreams.

My point in rendering this dramatic portrait is that for the asklepieian model to work, belief in the ‘supernatural’ is an essential factor in affecting a cure.  This goes deeper than conscious belief and cognitive processing – this is healing that engages the core of the psyche.  One must believe and believe deeply, believing in the bones, in the nervous system, in the cells themselves, or the cure would surely fail.

Asklepios may be lost to us, but the potential for this deep healing is not.  And indeed, those who have studied these matters scientifically have had to admit an astonishing truth – that deeply held beliefs are a very real factor in health.  Harold Koenig of Duke University has found in large epidemiological studies that religious observance is associated with less medical illness and lower rates of hospital admission.  Frontier science is largely corroborating that, whether objectively true or false, beliefs, spiritual practices, and alternative healing methods seem to have a tangible, measurable impact on health outcomes.  This is one of the primary reasons that integrative medicine has exploded in the united states – and with great results.

Given this evidence, are we not bound to question the ethics of not only religious extremism that denies western medicine – but also materialist extremism which attempts to eradicate all belief in the supernatural?  If holding a space for the divine has even a small chance of effecting psychological and physiological healing and transformation, are we not doing violence to humanity by attacking such beliefs ubiquitously?  Nor can we expect the same degree of healing and transformation once we have disemboweled these beliefs by insisting they are a purely imaginary affair  (i.e. it’s all in your head) – one did not go to the Asklepieia to think about pleasant concepts and dialog with inner figures – one went to have a direct encounter with the living God!  As we move deeply into the mysterious contents of the subjective psyche, we by nature come into a realm that science cannot exactly measure, and scientific language can only partially describe.  This is a realm of uncertainties – that life should be uncertain is a difficult truth that we all must face at some point in our lives – but in uncertainty also lies extraordinary potentials, to which our rote ideological certainties may blind us.

I began by acknowledging the shadows of supernatural beliefs, and it is only fair to point out that the shadows of conventional medicine are also considerable.  According to Barbara Starfield, MD, writing on data gathered by the American Medical Association, over 225,000 deaths  every year are due to iatrogenic causes –i.e. deaths caused by medical treatment.  By this account, medical treatment is arguably the third leading cause of death in America, and others have placed that number much higher.  These figures are truly shocking!  But in contemplating the shadow of the medical establishment, let us here too not forget the light: how many dear loved ones have been saved by traditional medical intervention?

As always, my plea is for balance and integration.  I do not mean to endorse spiritual healing over Western Medicine, but rather to suggest that the two must find a way to coexist.  If we are going to heal ourselves, not just as individuals but as a species and as a planet, we owe it to ourselves – and each other – to accept all the help we can get.

*For more information on Asklepios, frontier science of the placebo effect, the role of belief in health and the role of spiritual healing in integrative medicine, I recommend the wonderful book Imagination and Medicine: The Future of Healing in an Age of Neuroscience, a collection of  scholarly & scientific papers presented at the conference of the same name, edited by Stephen Aisenstat and Robert Bosnak.

The Science of Yoga and the Joy of Bhakti

“All that I am, I offer on the altar of love”

Six days in the desert under the stars, surrounded by the haunting, sometimes comical postures of Joshua trees, a celebration ensues; a panoply of music and devotion, community and spirituality, yoga in its grounded, mystical and myriad forms – this is Bhakti Fest.  In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Philip Goldberg described it as the “garden” for yogis – and I wholeheartedly agree.  A garden is a place for cultivation, growth, nourishment, and beauty – and in this desert oasis we tend our souls and hearts, cultivating not only strong bodies and clear minds, but also love, joy, friendship, gratitude, and “god” – the direct experience of the divine.

I find myself writing in grand, poetic tones, and yet such is precisely where this wonderful gathering took me – to a grand and poetic place, to a taste of life not described by poetry, but life experienced as a divine poem.  As I passed from one extraordinary teacher to another, practicing physical yoga, partner yoga, breathwork, meditation, attended spiritual and historical lectures, met the shining eyes of yet another fellow bhakta, and sang and danced like a maniac to the ceaseless stream of intoxicating music, something hard inside me began to soften, what was rigid began to melt.   Places in my heart that had been cold and heavy for months and years suddenly surged with new life.  It was my own personal resurrection of the soul; my body felt radiant.

 

Photo by Michael Schennum

Bhakti is a Sanskrit word meaning devotion or worship of the divine.  One of the beautiful things about the festival is that there was no necessary agreement on what “divine” meant – each teacher had their own interpretation, and each individual had their own path.  Divinity could mean a personal God such as Christ or Krishna, a tantric path of immanence in every moment and every breath, an abstract concept of unity, a deep perception of mystery, or a felt sense or relationship, such as love or gratitude.  We weren’t there to fight each other over whose spiritual system was right – we were there to celebrate it, whatever it was!  As renowned teacher Shiva Rea whimsically put it at the end of a sunrise meditation,  “Crazy-God-People Unite!”

If it sounds a little absurd and over-the-top, that’s because it is!  That’s what makes it so much fun.

The experience left me pondering the way we view yoga here in the west.  There are many popular misconceptions, chief among them that yoga is about physical stretching and is only meant for flexible people.  Nothing could be further from the truth – in my opinion, yoga is about developing a more intimate relationship with yourself, and with the vast reality in which your self is interwoven.  Far from being a hobby for the physically flexible, true yoga is available even to those whose bodies are fully disabled.  Traditionally, yoga is an eightfold path, with the physical practice (Asana) being only one of the eight limbs.  The other branches include systems for meditation, contemplation, conscious breathwork, ethics, purification, and devotional union with the divine.  It is this last one, with its air of the mystical and the ecstatic, which perhaps feels most foreign and threatening to an American culture so sadly resigned to unexamined scientific materialism.

I mean no disrespect to science, of course.  Science, properly practiced, is at least as important as everything I’ve described above.  In fact, I see true science as being largely at odds with the philosophy of scientific materialism:  true science is a powerful method of humble inquiry and discovery, while scientific materialism is an unverifiable belief system inspired by incomplete scientific data.  (In forthcoming essays, I will argue that scientific materialism is best understood as a kind of religion).  Ken Wilber put it well when he said the attempts of science to colonize and control the realms of the ethical and the spiritual was a “total disaster”, a movement in the 19th and 20th centuries which led to a kind of flattening of reality in the collective psyche, a deadening of life.

Science and yoga have begun an uneasy dance in the last decade, riding the coattails of the longer history of neuroscience studying and ultimately affirming the benefits of Buddhist meditation.  It’s a project ripe with possibility and danger.  How wonderful to know that yoga can help to manage stress, balance the autonomic nervous system, ease anxiety & depression.  And insofar as yoga practice is undertaken as an embodied meditation, it should offer many of the benefits of meditation that neuroscience has already corroborated.  From the psychological perspective, it is increasingly clear that a safe, gentle yoga practice can be a therapeutic path towards a more fulfilled and wholly embodied sense of self.  Neuroscience tells us again and again that any neural pathways we consciously engage grow stronger – thus the more deeply and intimately we consciously engage with our own physiology, the more harmony between mind and body will be cultivated.  On the other hand, it’s also helpful to be reminded that a yoga practice undertaken for the wrong reasons, with the wrong teacher, and without mindfulness and compassion about the limits of the human body – can and does lead to injury.

And yet any devoted yogi will tell you that to truly study yoga – to truly understand it – one must practice.  For a comprehensive scientific study of yoga, we will need scientists who are also yogis – lest how will they know which hypotheses to pursue, how best to design experiments, how to sort and meaningfully interpret the data?  It’s the difference between studying your child through one-way mirror in a laboratory – or coming to know that child by being in relationship with it.  The latter way of knowing – the relational way – is the deeper and more meaningful way of understanding.   We love and marry our romantic partners, we don’t study them at a distance in laboratories.   And yoga, which means “union,” is in its most intimate nature and experience of relationship – relationship with body, self, and universe.  No matter how many miracles science produces, it will never be able to cross the boundary of objective study to subjective understanding without giving up a part of itself, and becoming something else, something pseudo-scientific, something vaguely spiritual – and this is no crime!  It is merely a recognition that the human condition must encompass more than the merely rational, valuable though the rational must be.  No matter how many chemical processes science can point to in trying to describe love – none will change the fact that the deepest meaning of love lies in its direct experience.  So it must be with experience of the divine, the “beloved” to which Rumi wrote his verse; it is a relationship first, and a concept at distant second.

One of the things I discovered at the festival is that my own yoga practice has become too scientific, too rational, and as a consequence, my world had become a little smaller, a little darker.  The yoga classes I teach are very grounded in physiology and neuroscience – I’m not one to ask my students to chant or dance.  And I imagine it will be so for some time, as this grounded approach is what I naturally have to teach:  tangible methods for integrating the physical, the emotional, and the mental aspects of being.  I personally believe that in this integration, the spiritual emerges, but I don’t talk about it much in class.  I leave it to my students to experience and explore for themselves.

But Bhakti fest showed me how many inner doors I’ve left closed of late.  Just as relaxation and mindfulness can be cultivated, so too can we cultivate in ourselves unconditional love, joy, gratitude, compassion and even the most terrifying one of all, spiritual ecstasy.  In a world so full of suffering, disappointment, anxiety, and pain, it seems the bhakti path is one which should be embraced as a resource for good, for healing and inspiration, rather than casually mocked and dismissed as a gathering of blissed-out hippies (which is, in a sense, also true).  I have no doubt that in the next few decades, astonished neuroscientists will publish papers corroborating all of this, “the health benefits of yogic cultivation of ecstatic states” and whatnot – but we don’t need to wait for them.  Spirituality can be strengthened by support  from science, but any spirituality completely beholden to scientific verification is a spirituality that has been eviscerated and enslaved.   Bhuddist meditation benefited mankind for thousands of years before neuroscience gave it permission to do so, and so it is with yoga.  If we are to truly integrate science and spirituality, it means fully respecting each on its own terms, and disavowing any attempt of either one to colonize and control the other.

As for the abuses of spirituality – or for that matter, the abuses of science – I humbly suggest that the question of ethics is another conversation entirely, albeit a vital one.  Science & spirituality both have tremendous potential for unethical behavior, as Nazi doctors and the Spanish Inquisition attest.  Neither can be reliably depended upon to provide unerring ethical systems of their own accord, and so we must honor ethics as a realm unto itself.  True, ethics can be strengthened by support from science and spirituality (this is what we mean by “integration”), but barring that support it must retain its own sovereignty.   We must stop insisting, as both religious and atheist fundamentalists do, that morality can somehow derive solely from religious or scientific systems.  Such claims are too often an attempt at colonization and control by one sphere over the other – they are an act of aggression and will only lead to further conflict.  It’s time to grow up as a species and move beyond these grasping power games.

How ironic, to make an admonition of growing up in the same essay in which I extol the virtues of exuberant dancing in the desert!  Have I painted a too-bright a picture of this jubilant garden of spiritual seekers?  Make no mistake, it has a shadow too.  Every person, every organization, has a shadow, and sometimes the brightest lights are trailed by the deepest darkness.  I write my praise of bhakti from a grounded place of balance and hard-won equanimity, accepting both the pleasure and pain in life, the good and the bad, as part of the “union” which yoga implies.  But certainly there were teachers at Bhakti Fest who were ungrounded, scattered, a bit lost in fantasies of the spirit, and perhaps more  often, a bit lost in the fantasy of celebrity.  (One doesn’t put on a festival two hours out of Los Angeles without inviting the phantoms of celebrity and commercialism to work their mischief!).  And for every bright eyed yogi genuinely practicing the devotion of their path, there was certainly a dabbler far more interested in the appearance and image of yoga than in its deeper meaning.  Nor are we unaware of these elements; shadow is inevitable, and many of the best teachers work to bring it into consciousness.  I was struck when celebrated teacher Saul David Raye – a mystic if ever there was one – warned his students of the danger of “spiritual bypass” – that is, the cultivation of spiritual states as a way of dissociating and escaping from the pain in life, instead of facing reality.  On the contrary, yoga asks us to be present to life when it is difficult – perhaps especially when it is difficult.

Life is vast and complex and often hard, and yoga is best understood as a practice of integrating it all – one cannot have “union” with the self – much less with the divine – while locking our pain and hardship in the cellars of the unconscious.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Bhakti to balance the excess of the rational, rationality to balance the excess of bhakti.  Science and spirit, light and shadow, material and transcendental.  Wisdom is cultivated in discovering, from one moment to the next, which way of knowing to pick up –  and recognizing when to put it down.

Epigenetics and the Healing Power of Touch

Earlier this year massage therapists around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.  A new scientific study confirmed that claims of massage as a “healing art” were not new age embellishments after all.  Not only did these scientists discover that massage speeds the physiological healing process, they also discovered how – through a biochemical process known as epigenetics.

The study, helmed by neurometabolic researcher Mark Tarnopolsky, showed that massage actually turns off genes that cause inflammation, and turns on genes involved in cellular repair.  In short, therapeutic touch encourages DNA to behave differently, effectively speeding the healing process.  This comes as no surprise to massage therapists and bodyworkers, who understand intuitively the benefits of their work, even if they can’t explain the mechanisms involved.  But science must be conservative in order to maintain its integrity, and from a scientific perspective these results are extraordinary.

A word is in order about the new field of epigenetics.  In traditional genetics, we understand that genes in our DNA give rise to physiological traits which make us who we are.  But epigenetics tells us that DNA is not a simple matter of a gene determining destiny – that gene also has to be expressed over the course of a lifetime.  Whether and to what degree a given gene is expressed is determined by environment and experience.  And, because humans in affluent societies often have considerable power in influencing their own environment and experience, it follows that we have the potential to influence our own gene expression.  DNA becomes less of a mandate defining who we are, and more of a set of potentials and possibilities about who we will become.

These changes in gene expression are very real.  Epigenetic biochemical markers accumulate over time and have been correlated with susceptibility to cancer and other diseases, changes in cognitive ability in learning and memory, and levels of anxiety and confidence.  In short, epigenetic activity appears to hold tremendous influence over both the quality and quantity of our lives.  And the research into this field is only just beginning.

Clean air and water, good nutrition, and an active lifestyle are all factors that can affect our epigenetics for the better.  But what about stress?

There is a large and growing consensus in the scientific community about the damaging effects of chronic stress.  Our bodies were designed for quick bursts of fight-or-flight arousal in an otherwise peaceful natural environment.  Our modern urban lifestyles replete with work deadlines, traffic jams, bombardment with sound, information, and advertising have the potential to over-tax the nervous system even when nothing seems overtly wrong.  There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that long-term stress throws the entire organism into disorder, causing wear and tear to multiple physiological systems and ultimately opening the door to disease.

Stress in mothers affects the epigenetics, and thus development, of infants with long-lasting consequences.  And, no surprise, general studies of epigenetic changes in stressed-out mammals indicate that maintaining high levels of stress is not good for our gene expression at any stage of life.  Most disturbing, chronic stress may leave us epigenetically predisposed for higher anxiety, which is likely to stress the system even further.

Long before we reach this point, the wise among us will stage an intervention on our own behalf, and break the cycle of stress.  We do this by recognizing it for what it is, and taking whatever steps necessary to remove it.  In drastic situations, the well-to-do might take a Mediterranean cruise, while those with depleted resources may stage a very real psychosomatic breakdown, putting themselves in the hands of others.  For the rest of us, a dedicated practice of meditation or prayer may do the trick, as might well-timed camping trips or other escapes.  For others, it’s regular strolls through a pleasant area, bike rides, or a good run or trip to the gym – although there’s some danger in these latter activities of pushing too hard instead of releasing.  I’m convinced the growing popularity of yoga in America is happening largely because a good yoga practice teaches intuitive self-regulation of the nervous system – it strengthens the mind-body connection, and leaves us less helpless to our own stress reaction.  These are all good resources, and there are many others.

Sometimes, we just need to be touched.  Sometimes we need a strong or soothing set of hands to intervene in our rigid tissues, to sink into our accumulated stress and break the pattern.  Anyone who has ever had a quality massage will tell you – no scientific studies necessary – that the release of stress in healing bodywork can be profound.  Quite literally, the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system winds down, and the “rest-and-restore” parasympathetic nervous system activates.  That’s why falling asleep on the bodywork table is such a good sign – sleep is a parasympathetic response, an indication that the body is finally letting go, that the threat is past, and healing can begin.

To sketch a complete picture of the relationship between epigenetics and healing touch, we must include the implications of stress reduction.  A gifted pair of healing hands is massaging not only our tissues, but our very DNA, the blueprint of our being.  If epigenetics interprets DNA as a set of potentials instead of a mandate, the role of the healer is to help draw forth the highest potential.  As poetic as that sounds, it has a basis in human physiology.  Nothing could be more natural.

Of course, the extent of this form of therapy has limits, and we mustn’t let out speculations run away with us.  Massage has been further vindicated as a healing method, but so too have quality sleep, nutrition, and fitness all been essentially linked to health and wellness. Like neuroscience, epigenetics is a science flush with the excitement of its own youth, and much more research has yet to be done.

In the meantime, it’s nice to know that touch actually does heal, on a physiological level.  It’s comforting to know that healing physical contact with our fellow humans is part of our design.  And whatever the physiological limits to bodywork, we have yet to consider the psychological healing that can be facilitated through therapeutic touch.  That’s another subject, for another day.