Alternative Health As Process

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The people I spoke with see alternative health and alternative healing as concomitant ongoing processes. Health is not an achievable goal as such, but an ideal to which a lifelong healing journey takes one closer and closer. In other words, to be healthy is to be engaged in the process of healing. Some informants experienced this process as a quest. For example, Trudy said, "It was really more my own search for my own healing," and Randal put it this way:

"I started my five-year search for this sort of healing, something that I'm constantly going to be working at." Others likened the process to a pilgrimage: "I felt like I was on some kind of journey," said Scott, "some kind of a progression that had to do with looking at what was going on inside of me." In both cases the emphasis is on the process rather than the outcome. Nonetheless, these people do have a discernable model of health in mind, which they articulate through the conceptual categories of holism, balance, and control.


Holism is the concept perhaps most often associated with alternative therapies (Furnham and Smith 1988; Lowenberg 1992; McGuire and Kantor 1987; Pawluch et al. 1994). Accordingly, it came as no surprise when all but three informants said they believe that an alternative model of health is a holistic model of health. For instance, Nora told me that alternative health "means that the person, their body, is functioning really well, in a natural way. And that means that they have a kind of wholeness about them. Their whole being is integrated in some way and works together." But what does holism mean? Like many new age concepts, such as wellness or centred, the concept of holism is abstract and ambiguous. For instance, when I asked people to elaborate, most defined holism as the unity of mind, body, and spirit. Richard explained it this way: "Health is a state when you're in line with your spiritual, physical and mental, and you're pulling all your energies together." But what does unity of mind, body, and spirit mean? For these people it means being balanced.


Not only is alternative health a matter of the wholeness of the individual, but the person must also experience balance amongst the components of mind, body, and spirit (McGuire and Cantor 1987). Similarly, the people who participated in this research also emphasized the need for balance when discussing their beliefs about alternative health. For example, Trudy said, "I think ideally what well-being is, is a balance in heart, mind, body, and soul," and Jane told me that "Health to me is not just physical, it's mental and spiritual. If you're a truly well person then all those things need to be balanced." Likewise, Brenda provided me with a written autobiographical statement in which she stressed that balance is integral to alternative health: "I continue to explore opportunities specific to my own needs which will help me maintain the precious balance between mind, body, and spirit." But what does balance mean? For these informants, balance is made up of two concepts: balance in the body and balance in the self.

For almost half of the people who participated in this study, the concept of balance means balance within the bodily system. They said things such as, "My enzymes do change and you can tell when things start to get out of balance again" (Lucy); "If something happens you can re-balance yourself because there's so many different systems in your body that you can balance it" (Richard); and "Having a balance in the body, it does make sense in a way to me" (Greg). Under certain alternative ideologies of health, illness is said to arise when the flow of bodily energy is disharmonious or has been disrupted (Glik 1988; O'Connor 1995). Likewise, for some of these people, balance in the body also means the unblocked flow of energy throughout the body. These informants were most often those who were, or were in training to become, alternative practitioners. For example, in relating his understanding of how acupuncture achieves health, Simon told me this:

Picture your body as a huge mansion: it's a temple; you open up certain windows in your house and get an air current through that's comfortable for you. You don't open all the windows because then doors start slamming. You open up strategic windows and you get the flow of air. Opening the windows to let the energy flow through at a better rate because it's sluggish, or I'll close off because it's too much energy.

Similarly, in telling me about reiki, one of the alternative therapies she uses, Marie said, "Get the body loosened up and then the emotion energy can start flowing. We're trained to feel where there are energy blocks in the body, where there's low energy or high energy." For most of the informants, however, the key to achieving balance in the body is awareness of, or listening to, the body. For instance, Lorraine used an analogy in explaining what listening to the body means: "Some very old cars are in very good condition, but you see a lot of new cars that are in very poor condition. It's the same with the body: it depends on the driver. Everything rests with the inner knowing, the spirit telling you what is right." Randal and Lindsay also stressed the intuitive skills necessary to listening to the body. According to Randal, "I don't feel strong enough necessarily to do a complete workout today, and that's just listening to my body [and saying to myself]: 'I think I'll take it easy today.' And every day it's always listening and monitoring." Lindsay had a similar view:

People who get into some of the naturopathic things start to develop an awareness of their body and people that don't have that awareness don't believe it can actually happen. They don't believe that you can actually get in and feel yourself, and feel the inner harmony, and feel what's going on.

For others, being whole means that not only should the body be in balance, but one's self and one's life must be balanced as well. For example, in giving meaning to balance in the self, Jenny and Lindsay used analogies. According to Jenny,

I see [being balanced] as being in the middle and being able to see all the sides around one as opposed to being on the edge of the same circle and you're just having to exercise all this energy just to stop from falling off. But if you're in the middle you can see everything around.

In contrast, Lindsay described being centred in the following way:

If I'm centred I feel like I'm going forward. I can choose where I want to go, right, left, or straight. Whereas when I'm not, when there is something that is not right, either spiritually or emotionally, then I feel like I'm off centre, like I'm off on this side adjunct and just going nowhere.

Others used more concrete examples and invoked an almost endless list of criteria in talking about being balanced or centred. Some of these have been noted in the literature on alternative therapies. For instance, balanced/centred people lack stress (Coward 1989; Furnham and Bhagrath 1993); are loving and tolerant of themselves and others (McGuire and Kantor 1987); are moderate; have heightened mental alertness; are open; live in the present; and/or have an enhanced awareness of themselves and others. While some informants only referred to one or two of these requirements, most made use of several of them. Most popular was the belief that being balanced, and consequently healthy, means living without stress. For example, Betty pointed out that an imbalance in self caused by stress can manifest itself in physical problems:

Ill health in a sense I would say starts on a level other than the physical and eventually manifests itself on the physical plane because of other things like, perhaps, the stress load on your emotions. Cancer [and] arthritis are two main diseases that are triggered eventually through certainly poor diet over many years, pollutants and this sort of thing. Your chemicals: they play a big factor, but to me stress is just as big a factor, if not more so, than the rest of it.

Several informants linked the idea of developing heightened awareness of oneself and one's environment with the ability to avoid stress. According to Richard, "You're aware of yourself and you're moving through things in a clear, relaxed and fluid manner, and you're not spending your time, your gut isn't eating you away." Similarly, Randal told me, "You need to take time for M E spelling me. You need to slow down. Stop doing for everybody else. You've got to stop burning the candle at both ends. Your body is shutting down and saying take time for me, take time to slow down." And Lucy said this: "What I have to do is avoid a lot of stress because stress puts even more stress upon your health. So you have to become a lot more aware of your environment, a lot more aware of your own personal reactions, and if you do then you're fine."

For Betty, being healthy means not only avoiding stress but also being a tolerant, loving person towards yourself and others. She said: "To me health is just being as good and loving, sensible and forgiving, and caring and reasonable, person as you can with all things, and with all people, and most of all with yourself." Similarly, Lorraine believes that achieving the balance necessary to health entails being loving. She told me: "The trick in life is always to send out as much positive energy, the love energy, that we don't get our teeter-totter out of balance." Further, Hanna described how achieving balance through alternative health made her more moderate in her behaviour and emotional reactions as well as giving her tolerance, patience, and a heightened awareness of others. In her words,

I very rarely go up and down, I don't get over-excited about things. You learn not to question what's happening to you, being just a little bit more psychic, you have more ESP and you reach an awareness of people. And it's also a tolerance, [I'm] a lot more patient than I was before.

For a few of the people who took part in this research, being balanced, and consequently healthy, means living in the present or for the moment. According to Randal, "I've learned to celebrate life. I've learned to savour the moment, being in the present and taking care of myself."

Some of the people I spoke with extended the concept of balance beyond themselves to include what Lowenberg (1992:27) terms an "ecological view." In other words, their understanding of balance in the self includes balance between themselves and their personal environment (physical space, social structures, and personal relationships), the natural environment, and/or the universe. For example, Randal explained how he and his personal environment had become unbalanced: "I'd come down with walking pneumonia. I said: 'This is not worth it.' So I cleared myself of the roommate situation, I cleared myself of the job situation, and I started a cleansing." Other informants conceptualized balance in the self as something that incorporates balance with nature. According to Hanna, "Everything in life has a life force. In yoga it's called prana, in tai chi it's called qi1 and qi means energy, that's all it is. I think every thing is a balance, nature is a balance, we should be in balance with nature." Finally, a few of the people who spoke with me saw balance in the self as something that necessitates balance with the universe. As was the case with healing energy, those informants who believe health to be dependent on a balance between the self and the universe are also more likely to espouse alternative spiritual beliefs. In Lorraine's words,

Understanding the laws of the way that the universe works. I think of it as universal energy, and when we're cast out as souls for this learning experience, there's one tiny spark. It's still a part of fire even though it's separate from the fire. In other words, the teeter-totter always has to be in balance.

But how is balance in the body and balance in the self actualized? For most of these informants, the key to balance is control.


For most of the people who took part in this research, achieving wholeness and balance, in short, means control. Control in turn means two things: taking control and being subject to self-control. Taking control of the healing process also includes having options and having the autonomy to make decisions, a belief found in other research on lay perspectives on alternative therapies (Sharma 1992). Finally, being subject to self-control means controlling one's thoughts, behaviours, and emotional reactions.

For almost all the people who participated in this study, alternative health means taking control of the healing process. For some of these people this means wresting control away from medical professionals. For instance, Nora told me, "Even when people want to take responsibility, often they're not allowed to because allopathic medicine really does have a lot to do with that." And Marie said this: "Take charge of [your] own wellness. Take an active role in your own healing and with mainstream medicine they take that away from you." Similarly, Simon related his experience of struggling with his doctors for control over his healing: "But the doctors, some didn't agree with chiropractic, some thought it was too harsh on the body. Some just had a general distrust of chiropractors and again they were trying to take the control out of my hands and putting it into their hands."

For other informants, taking control also means having options and making decisions. For example, Laura told me that alternative "health is the freedom to make the choices that I've made," and Lucy said this:

If a doctor says: 'This is what's wrong, it's serious, it's chronic, it's life-threatening,' I may respect his education and his experience but he's not infallible. Therefore, why would I not go and have one or two more other estimates to say: 'Do you see this from the same perspective?' I mean, if I'm going to die, I'm going to die, that's my problem. It's the method in which I go from health to death that I want to have a choice in.

For still other informants, taking control means asking questions and getting second opinions. As Jane put it, "I think everybody needs to be a consumer and take responsibility for what they buy. You don't buy a pig in a poke and you don't buy a diagnosis without questioning it." Lorraine also stressed the value of taking control via questioning initial diagnoses:

I think it's up to you, the individual, to get second opinions if, in your intuitive part, your gut feeling, if it doesn't sit right. Like that D and C [Dilation and Curettage ] didn't sit right. I went out and asked more opinions and then I made a decision that I was not having that D and C.

Montbriand and Laing (1991) argue that taking control of health and healing can also include the option of deciding to relinquish control to a practitioner. One informant, Laura, equated taking control with trusting her midwife enough to hand over control to her:

I had so much trust and faith in her [the midwife] that during the delivery anything that she would have suggested I probably would have gone along with because I knew that what she would suggest would not be invasive and would only be done if absolutely necessary. I felt like I was in control and had passed that control to her for that period of time.

Finally, for many of these informants, taking control of your health means doing your own research (Sharma 1992). According to Jenny, "If I'm going to an acupuncturist, I have to spend as long learning about all the meridians." Finally, Raymond connected the ability to make decisions with doing your own research and being well informed about your health problem:

Read up on it, educate yourself, make your own decisions. Do this for you. You've got to take control, know what you're putting in your body, know the side effects. Is it worth the quality of life loss for quantity? It's a difficult toss-up and it's a decision.

The literature shows that people feel that the alternative model of health allows them to take control (Furnham and Forey 1994; Kelner and Wellman 1997; Kronenfeld and Wasner 1982; Vincent and Furnham 1996; Pawluch et al. 1994; Sharma 1992). However, what is less conspicuous in the literature, and quite blatant throughout these interviews, is that taking control of your health in practice means engaging in a great deal of self-control (Coward 1989; Kelner and Wellman 1997; Pawluch et al. 1994). Furthermore, while taking control of your health may mean having choices as to how your health is cared for, it also means assuming total responsibility for your health status (Deierlein 1994; Lowenberg 1992; Pawluch et al. 1998a). For instance, Brenda had this to say: "I think I have to make the effort. Maybe alternative [health] is everybody's responsibility and they have to do it themselves." And Lindsay said this: "There's not enough people who are willing to make the commitment of their own health care. And I really believe that people are responsible for their own health and you have to say: 'Well this isn't working' or 'What else is there?' or 'I did some reading on this.'" Lucy also emphasized that under this alternative model, health is a matter of what individuals are willing to do for themselves: "You're aware when things are not in balance and once you know you have to make a decision: Do I want it to stay in balance, or to get worse, or am I prepared to go back and correct it?"

In practical terms, what taking control of, or responsibility for, your health means for these people is a great deal of self-monitoring and self-control, controlling everything from lifestyles to attitudes.2 For example, controlling stress is an important component of such an alternative model of health (Coward 1989; Furnham and Bhagrath 1993). According to Jane, "I analysed these ulcers. What causes ulcers but stress? Because it's not my diet. So it was just a matter of sitting back and saying, 'Hold it, I'll do my best at school. If I get an A wonderful, if I don't so what?'"

In addition, taking control of your healing means making lifestyle changes (Furnham and Kirkcaldy 1996; Yates et al. 1993). For many of these informants this means controlling their diet and changing the way they eat and drink. As Marie put it, "If somebody's drinking thirty cups of coffee a day and they're having trouble sleeping and they can't relax, well maybe look at your lifestyle." Similarly, Laura told me how she monitors what she eats: "I'm not a vegetarian, but if I have the choice between white rice and brown rice, I'll eat brown. There are very few processed foods in our house." Finally, Hanna talked about eliminating what she defines as unhealthy food from her diet: "Diet is my number one thing. What you put into your body is what affects yourself. I'm very strict on taking fats out of the system, sodium, sugars." Controlling the way they eat and drink also entails controlling the way they shop for food. For instance, Pam said, "I used to read labels to begin with; I read them now even more. You have to learn all the other little names that mean the same thing for the same foods."

For other informants self-control has more to do with controlling smoking, drinking, and other conduct they now perceive as bad habits. For instance, Marie, Greg, and Randal all told me of behaviours they engaged in that they now see as unhealthy under their alternative model of health. According to Marie, "I still smoke. I used to smoke a pack, a pack and a half a day; I smoke maybe six or seven cigarettes a day now. I used to be a very heavy drinker. I gave that up." Similarly, Greg told me,

I was able to try some acupuncture and I have to admit I did notice a fair improvement. It wasn't a permanent improvement, but that probably means that there is still something goofy with the body. I'm just going along following all the bad habits I may have picked up along the way.

For Randal also, alternative health requires control of "bad habits":

If you're going to be out in the cold bundle up! Common sense stuff, you know? Take care of yourself! Eat properly; eat the whole thing! And I was partying too much at that time. I was studying, I was partying, I was pushing myself. It was a slap on the hand to say 'Slow down.'

Moreover, if individuals' lifestyles are not making them sick, their mind or emotional reactions may likely do so. Therefore, alternative health requires control over one's "mind, attitudes, and belief systems" (Lowenberg 1992:25). According to Richard, "You change destructive behaviour [and] destructive beliefs" in order to pursue alternative health. For just as the mind has the ability to heal the person, under this alternative model, it can also make one sick (McGuire 1987; McGuire and Kantor 1987). For instance, Trudy said, "I realized that there was a lot more to it in terms of the whole psychology. I could understand that my body was responding to my own thinking." And Lorraine told me,

Whether cancer cells or different types of cells, it's the stress and negativity that sets these things in motion. Sure they could be in five hundred people; maybe four hundred of them will set them in motion. The other one hundred realize that the thinking process keeps those last one hundred from setting their cells in motion. What happens with negative thinking is that you end up with problems. It becomes your heart problems; rigid thinking becomes your arthritis. Each of these thinking patterns creates a different disease in the body.

Similarly, Betty highlighted the causal role in ill health played by negative thought patterns:

To me any negative emotions or feelings are a garden for seeds of ill health that you're planting, and somewhere, whether it's ten years down the line, it's going to catch up with you as those negative seeds grow into bigger and bigger negative plants.

Finally, for some of the people who spoke with me, healthy self-control means controlling their emotional reactions. Brenda, for instance, stated the following:

I started a lot of exploring with different therapies, changing my lifestyle. I was always expecting other people to change. I would always react to situations. I realized that I was in control and only I could change the way I responded to situations.

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