Although Western medicine offers a wealth of knowledge and cutting-edge protocols, it is limited in its scope. It tends to treat the body, not the person. I remember when I had the good fortune to observe a stomach surgery at the Mayo Clinic—the pinnacle of Western medicine. The patient had had multiple surgeries for bowel dysfunction due to a chronic dependence on opioids and was now undergoing exploratory stomach surgery.
She had not been able to reduce her dependence on opioids, the source for her bowel distress, and the attending surgeon said that was not her purview to discuss such matters with her patient. Although doctors and hospitals in other parts of the world may not rise to the standard of the Mayo Clinic, what other cultures have in their favor is an integrated vision of what it means to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.
Without further ado, here are five health/wellness practices from around the world that we could stand to do more of here in the U.S.
Physically grueling spiritual practices have become posh and even gentrified. According to the venerable New Yorker, the hallucinogenic Amazonian ayahuasca ceremony is booming in the US. The magazine calls ayahuasca “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale.” Now traditional ancient Native American sweat lodge ceremonies are creeping into the mainstream too. On both coasts, dedicated “urban sweat lodges” have started to proliferate. One such franchise, called Shape House, bills itself as a place “where ancient tradition and modern wellness meet to burn calories, deepen sleep, improve skin, lift moods and change lives.” These sweat spas use infrared saunas or an electric type sleeping bag to get sweat flowing, and tout weight loss, clear skin, reduced stress and even better sleep as the main benefits.
Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the traditional Native American version of a round, simple structure made from willow, hung with blankets and warmed by molten rocks that have been heated for hours in a fire, water poured over intermittently to create rising steam. The lodge was typically located in a natural setting, ideally a place that engenders introspection and communion with the Earth. The original spirit of the sweat lodge ceremony was as purification-in-action, a cauldron of heat that serves as a catalyst for mental clarity, physical energy and spiritual revitalization.
Here’s the intention behind the more authentic sweat lodge experience: The intense heat re-enacts the challenges faced in our lives. As the steam and temperature rises inside the lodge, so do one’s senses. The body purifies by sweating profusely, while the mind quiets and expands beyond the physical body. Inside the pitch black and fiery lodge, an intimate group of people speak, share stories, sing songs and pray. The water pourer, often times a medicine person/shaman, helps people connect to the spirit world and navigate the difficult transitions arising in their life.
Rooted in the core tenets of Judaism, the weekly celebration of Shabbat – with its special meals and break from the weekly grind – has much to offer as a ritual. A sanctioned time of rest in an age that never unplugs, this tradition offers impressive mental, physical and emotional health benefits. And you don’t have to be Jewish to observe the Sabbath—as more and more people take the principle to create their own version of a secular Sabbath.
An article in the Atlantic, “The Case for the Sabbath, Even if You're Not Religious,”, eloquently sings the Sabbath’s praises: “Does society need a mandatory time-out? We have weekends and vacations, sure, but even those are increasingly bent toward structured pursuits. Our leisure is often as scheduled and hectic as our work—and is, consequently, just as stressful. Sabbath, with its myriad proscriptions, offers what might be the only authentic form of leisure: the act and fulfillment of doing absolutely nothing productive.”
According to research, there are many benefits associated with Sabbath mores. At the heart of the Sabbath is eating a family meal together. Many studies have measured the effects on children of family meals. Among the benefits, children who have dinners with their parents are “the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.” Eating together has an even more benevolent effect for spouses. One study found that setting aside time to have dinner together—even just once a week—strengthens the bonds between husbands and wives.
And unplugging comes with a host of payoffs: A more recent study suggests that after unplugging from electronics for one night, participants reported greater happiness, satisfaction with their work-life balance, and feelings of empowerment.
Japanese tea ceremony
By now most people know that tea itself, especially the green matcha tea favored in tea ceremonies, has a myriad of health benefits, such as lowered risk of depression, stroke, and liver disease. But the spare, focused ceremony, which has its origins in Zen, also offers a meditative-like lens through which to experience the simple act of preparing, then sipping, tea. It encourages you to get away from your inner tempest. Instead, it pours out mindfulness—with all its stress-busting perks—into your teacup.
Another more modern ritual that hails from Japan is known as forest bathing. The goal? To become immersed in the natural environment by way of the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. The practice began in the early 1990s when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku for it, primarily intended as a preventative healthcare technique. Forest bathing is starting to take off in the U.S.—the Associations of Nature & Forest Therapy plans to train and certify about 250 new guides this year and aims to have 1,000 trained guides within three years.
Why are glorified nature hikes suddenly taking off? A growing body of evidence suggests that forest bathing can help boost immunity and mood and reduce stress. A 2011 study compared the effects of walking in the city to walking in the forest. While both walks required the same physical output, researchers found that the forest walkers had more significant reductions in blood pressure and certain stress hormones.
Personal and community-based grief rituals
In other cultures, grief is valued rather than frowned upon. Sobonfu Somé, author, teacher and activist, says, “For my people, the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa, we see that in life it is necessary to grieve those things that no longer serve us and let them go. When I grieve I am surrounded by family reassuring me that the grieving is worthwhile and I can grieve as much as I want. We experience conflicts, loved ones die or suffer, dreams never manifest, illnesses occur, relationships break up, and there are unexpected natural disasters. It is so important to have ways to release those pains to keep clearing ourselves. Hanging on to old pain just makes it grow until it smothers our creativity, our joy, and our ability to connect with others. It may even kill us. Often my community uses grief rituals to heal wounds and open us to spirit’s call.”
The bottom line: Rather than sucking it up or compartmentalizing our grief, as we are explicitly or implicitly taught, fully experiencing our grief, without judging its duration, is far better for our mental health. A funeral, cremation, or memorial service may not be enough to get at, and be with, the deep reservoirs of grief we hold in. But developing your own personal grieving rituals, on the other hand, may hold a key to healing. A 2014 study exploring how people cope with extreme loss found that emotional resiliency was linked to performing private rituals that expressed their anguish. Rituals, it turned out, helped the mourners reclaim a sense of control and agency, rather than feeling powerless and out of control.