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Today's Health & Wellness Clips

May/June 2007

Walk Toward the Light: Exercise for Body and Soul

By Nancy Monson

You walk to lose weight, improve your health and boost your energy—after all, walking is America's favorite form of exercise. But did you know that you can also gain mental and spiritual benefits, simply by adding a mind-body element to your regular walking routine?

The technique is easy: Instead of zoning out and thinking about nothing (or worse, stewing), turn inward. Give your mind a steady focus by gently pushing away all mental distractions and repeating a "mantra"—a word or series of words or a short prayer. “A walk is beneficial no matter what you think about,” says Alice Domar, PhD, head of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else (Penguin, 2000). “But how often do you go for a walk and you’re ruminating and stormy the whole time? Instead, try taking a mindful walk, where you look, listen and feel, where you focus on you’re breathing and the cadence of your feet.” In the process, you kill two birds with one stone, she says, relaxing and renewing both your mind and body.

             Using meditative and prayer techniques while exercising gives your brain a much-needed break from the stresses and distractions of the day, agrees Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking for Clarity, Balance, and Spiritual Connection (Harper San Francisco, 1998). Mindful walking works on three levels, she notes, soothing the body, mind, and spirit. “It benefits the body because it is easier to get a good workout if your mind is working with your body instead of against it. There is an athletic component that comes from being mindful,” she says. Spirited walking also brings on psychological benefits in the form of stress release—a state that Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson, M.D., has dubbed the "relaxation response." Benson's studies have found that repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or activity such as walking combined with a commitment to passively blocking out everyday thoughts and returning to the repetitive activity calms the mind and body in the short term (for instance, reducing blood pressure and slowing heart and breathing rates). When practiced regularly, the relaxation response may even garner long-term health benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression. Finally, mindful walking has a spiritual benefit that is both profound and subtle, notes Kortge. “When the mind and body work in harmony, there is a kind of wholeness that emerges that we rarely feel,” she says, since we spend most of our lives feeling pulled in many directions. Mindful walking can help to heal this fragmentation, so we can hear the wisdom of a higher power or simply our own intuitive knowing.

 Walk This Way

At first, admits Kortge, it may seem awkward to take a mindful or spirited walk. “But if you practice it, it will become familiar and will help you settle down quickly,” she says. Here’s how to start on your journey to a better kind of walking, whether you do it in 10-minute spurts or 30- to 60-minute bouts…

1. Select a mantra to say silently while walking—one that you can repeat in rhythm to your steps and breathing. (See “Walking Mantras” for ideas.) Use simple words you can easily remember to replace the “negative swirl that automatically goes on in your head,” says Kortge.

2. Do a gentle warm-up (for example, walk slowly and gently pump your arms) and then do some light stretches to loosen up muscles and joints and boost blood flow.

3. Gradually pick up your walking pace. Observe good posture, but keep your eyes focused on the path.

4. Silently, start to repeat your chosen mantra over and over again in your head. If thoughts invade, go back to your mantra. “You’re never going to be able to just focus on your mantra while you walk,” assures Domar. “It is human nature that your mind is going to wander, you’re going to trip over a log, you’re going to see a neighbor. You’re going to get distracted. That’s normal and healthy, and it’s going to happen.” But instead of getting frustrated or chastising yourself for not being able to do the exercise “right,” simply go back to repeating your mantra. “The more you do it, the easier it will get,” she says.

5. Be aware of your breathing. Relax your abdominal muscles and allow yourself to breath deeply, advises Domar.

6. Cool down and stretch again.

            “A mindful walk is a lovely thing that will give you a sense of peace,” concludes Domar. Besides, adding a relaxation component to walking may help to reduce boredom…which just may get you to stick with exercising regularly, she says.

 

Walking Mantras

Your mantra should be empowering and keep you firmly grounded in the present. Here, some affirmations, poems, and words you might like to try on your next spirited walk, courtesy of Domar and Kortge:

 “Right here, right now”

“Left” as you put your left foot down, “right” as you put your right foot down

Say “in” on the in breath and “out” on the out breath

“I am here and I am walking”

“I am here, I give thanks”

“I am walking, I am happy”

“I am strong, I am powerful”

“I am happy and confident”

“I am fit and healthy”

“I do my best”

“I accept myself”

 “I’m going to get there”

“I can make it”

“Om” (a favorite transcendental meditation mantra)

“Rama” (the Sanskrit word meaning “to rejoice”)

Om mani padme hom” (a Buddhist blessing that acknowledges the spirit in all things)

“Ham” on the in breath, “Sah” on the out breath (the Sanskirt phrase meaning “I am that”)

 

 

October/November 2006

See a Movie--and Call Your Psychologist in the Morning

by Nancy Monson

Hopelessly embroiled in an argument with your husband? Over the top about your teenager’s bad manners? Conflicted about a friend's behavior, or facing a major life change? Instead of turning to the therapist’s couch, try flipping on the TV. The latest trend in psychological circles is cinema as therapy: Mining popular movies for the emotional and life lessons they contain. It makes sense, too. After all, creative works—books, poems, plays and artwork (think the infamous inkblots)—have long been used to complement the therapy experience and help people resolve personal issues. Films, one of our most popular pastimes and raking in billions of dollars yearly, are naturally next in line.

Whether used as self-help or in sessions with a psychologist, films put us in touch with our deepest emotions. And our interpretations of films provide insight into our problems—and more importantly, may lead us to solutions. "Movies can help you break out of negative thought patterns and turn you on to new ideas and strategies," says Glen Solomon, Ph.D., author of Reel Therapy: How Movies Inspire You to Overcome Life’s Problems and The Motion Picture Prescription. "They're also great ways to open up dialogues with other people about troublesome issues or problems."

Psychotherapist Maria Grace, Ph.D., author of Reel Fulfillment: A 12-Step Plan for Transforming Your Life Through Movies, discovered the healing power of film when she began asking clients about the role of movies in their lives. She found many were having cinematic “affairs” because movies allowed them to experience difficult emotions in a safe, private and controllable manner. “Movies portray life, reflect our struggles, losses, victories and answer our questions,” explains Dr. Grace. “They give voice and image to our inner thoughts, yearnings, fears and joys.” What’s more, she says, movies have “the power of inspiring us and guiding us to take action and improve our lives.”

In her psychotherapy practice, Dr. Grace has found that movies influence her clients in a way that is often more powerful than their therapy sessions together.  “I worked once with a married client who wanted to pursue an affair with his secretary,” she says. “His marriage was on the verge of dissolving and he was floundering.” Dr. Grace asked him to view Damage, a film about a man who is a member of the British Parliament who has an affair with his son’s fiancée, which breaks apart not just his marriage but his family. “The movie had a deep impact on him and he decided to stop pursuing his secretary. He also had some profound insights about the way he related to his children,” she says.

            “Another client of mine needed help with letting her adult daughter fly off the family nest,” reports Dr. Grace. In this case, she recommended the film Shirley Valentine, which chronicles the adventures of a 40ish working-class Englishwoman who realizes that fantasizing isn’t enough to make her life better: she’s got to take action—so she finds the courage to chuck her dull, unsatisfying life and embark on a trip to Greece. As a result of watching the film, the client “had a complete transformation. She let go of her daughter, developed new interests, and started a ‘Shirley Valentine Club,’” Dr. Grace says. “Once a month, she gathers her friends and they watch an inspirational movie followed by discussion.”

 

Viewing Techniques

When it comes to enjoyment, therapists agree the movie theatre is great (although some cinephiles might disagree, given the proliferation of cell phones, rude patrons and high prices!). But for therapeutic purposes, they recommend the calm and privacy of your own home. So find a film that you’re interested in seeing (see the box for suggestions on movies that touch on common themes) and search the TV schedule for its next airing or rent or buy it on DVD.  “I like people to turn off the phone, not eat or drink anything except water and to avoid distractions,” says Dr. Solomon. As you watch the movie, look for characters, scenarios and emotions with which you can identify and then determine if viewing the movie has provided any ideas for new behaviors for you. “Watch the movie not as a cinematic plot involving movie stars, but as a story involving human characters,” advises Dr. Grace. “Try not to evaluate the characters of the movie for their acting qualities; instead, look into how their relationships unfold and how their actions affect one another.”

            Dr. Solomon advocates solo viewing; Dr. Grace feels that the experience can be enhanced by viewing a film with a group and discussing its themes and impact. Either way you choose to go, regular movie viewing “will encourage you to enjoy films not only as entertaining distractions,” she says, “but as valuable experiences of personal growth.” So dim the lights and get on with the therapy!         

 

[BOX]

Films for All Facets of Your Life

Here, picks for movies that can help you resolve some of your toughest issues:

Problem

Movies to View

Coping with a difficult parent

Terms of Endearment with Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger

Delores Claiborne with Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Grieving

The Accidental Tourist with William Hurt and Geena Davis

Always with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss

Steel Magnolias with Sally Field and Julia Roberts

Dealing with your family during the holidays

The Family Stone with Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton

Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr.

Managing illness

A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly

The Doctor with William Hurt

Iris with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet

Freeing yourself of guilt

Ordinary People with Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland

Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman

Overcoming fear

Fearless with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez

Defending Your Life with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep

Conquering apathy

Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman

Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson

Aging

About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates

Something’s Gotta Give with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates

Taking chances

American Graffiti with Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss

As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunter

Resolving couple conflicts

Two for the Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney

War of the Roses with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner

 

Copyright Nancy Monson

All rights reserved.