Have You Encountered the Wellness Conundrum?

Maybe western health care has fallen short for you, or maybe it has even caused you more grief than good. Maybe you rely on “alternative therapies” like yoga, acupuncture, or chiropractic adjustment.  Or maybe you are a “wellness practitioner,” or use another description for your practice.

For me, I hit a pivotal change in my understanding of health care when I first encountered this description of traditional Chinese medicine practice:

You pay your doctor to keep you well -- and if you get sick, you don’t pay.

What could stand in more contrast to our western medical system? Most health insurance covers a yearly exam meant primarily to assess if you're on the path to illness. But you pay through the nose if you get “sick enough to need a doctor.”  A study last year by Kaiser and the New York Times found that, even among people with health insurance, one in five (20%) working-age Americans have problems paying their medical bills.

Clearly, something is wrong. And a central cause is that our system is based on a disease model, not a wellness model.

So this is where Sarahpeutics tries to step in to fill a gap.  This idea of helping people stay well -- rather than waiting until they get sick and rushing in with pills and surgery -- this idea is the single most important message that Sarah Vosen and I seek to communicate to our clients, patients, and students.

But it's so far outside the norm, that our western medicine culture has no definition for our offering.  I’m far more than a massage therapist.  I dislike the word “healer” because it implies that I’m healing other people, where my attitude is that I offer support so that people can heal themselves. I’m not just a myofascial release therapist, nor a yoga teacher, nor a nutritionist. And our combined forces, Sarahpeutics, arises from an alchemy of Chinese Medicine and AcroYoga, two things even an educated person may never have heard of.

The best description I have found is to say that I am a “wellness practitioner.” It’s bland, not evocative, but it is at least truthful. My practice is to help people find not just relief from pain or symptoms of disease, but to also support them in seeking the constant growth and self-love required to practice high level wellness.

AcroYoga is a big part of our inspiration. It offers healing and strength from playful acrobatic connection, and the supportive community that blooms from that connection. It also uses Thai massage, which is easier and more efficient than any form of table massage, and is based on a meditation on unconditional love. Play, community, and unconditional love -- three things we crave hard, in the modern world, and need, in order to thrive.

The other big inspiration, for Sarahpeutics, is Chinese Medicine, which I started seriously studying with a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncturist -- Sarah Vosen. Western medicine is based on analysis -- and "ana-lysis" means "with-cutting," so it's no surprise it's main tools are surgery and pills. But we need something to put us back together again, a whole-istic tool.

Enter 5 element theory: a truly holistic framework for understanding how all aspects of our existence play together to create wellness or disease. That includes exercise, nutrition, emotion, relationships, the seasons, and our environment. This is the Big Picture that unifies all the pieces, lets us see ourselves as whole and connected, not fractured and separate. It also empowers us to see the connections between what may have felt like confusing and disparate symptoms. In short, it’s an amazing life-hacking tool.

So, in the spirit of whole-ness, Sarah and I smushed it all together, and developed a system to teach the fundamentals of 5 element theory through Thai massage and AcroYoga, with the belief that the way humans best learn is through play. We think it's pretty awesome. But when people ask what we do, it can be a long elevator pitch.

How I got here

Looking back, I can see that it all started when I was first introduced to the idea of “wellness” in massage school, in 2004. Right off the bat, they offered us the idea of a wellness continuum -- where you look at a person’s state of being as going not just from disease to functional/comfortable, but extending the scale all the way to “optimal wellness.” What a concept!

I was inspired to go to massage school, originally, by having my first real dip toward illness, when I turned 24. I’d been a roaringly healthy kid, with an insatiable appetite for exercise. But at age 23, as a result of chronically sprained ankles from the abusive pounding of gymnastics, I tore my ACL. The doctors said I needed reconstructive knee surgery, so that’s what I did.

The recovery from that surgery caused a cascade of other problems that weren’t addressed by the post-surgery care -- depression and weight gain from the immobility, compensation pain, chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs) that showed up when my usual sugar-addiction wasn’t countered by constant exercise, chronic candida overgrowth (yeast infections) caused by my unchanged sugar-habits plus antibiotics given to me to “fix” the UTIs (which kill off the good bacteria that help keep candida in check), chronic strep throat (3 times in a year and a half) also, I think, caused by inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions that created a sort of super-strain, egged on by sugar.

Just after my surgery, I was laid off from my administrative job at Chicago’s playwright’s theater. I started copywriting part time for an educational publisher, but I wanted more time to work on my own writing. I also needed to find a way to feel better, and had always loved massaging my hurting gymnast friends.

So I began my journey as a massage therapist, thinking it would be a fun way to earn a living in fewer hours per week. I learned about postural patterns and how they contribute to pain, injuries, and even disease. I started to understand that there were emotional underpinnings to my injuries and joint pain.  

In pursuit of other writing opportunities, I moved to LA, and stumbled into the huge and vibrant yoga scene, where I discovered the power of breath, intention, and alignment -- and healed my knee and cured my chronic anxiety/depression pattern.

Yoga led me to AcroYoga, where the emphasis on play and human connection revealed a fast track to well-being and a deeper sense of happiness than I’d ever experienced.

AcroYoga led me to Chinese medicine, which cured the UTIs, strep, and candida, and connected all the dots.

So, what the hell am I, now?  

To be sure, I have a whole community of friends who are in the same boat -- an exceptional group of educated, thoughtful, talented practitioners with long elevator pitches.  They have no institutions or even nomenclature to describe what they do. A few of them are working within existing western structures as physical therapists or medical doctors, finding ways to blend their “alternative” modalities with western medical practices.  But most of us don’t really fit in the existing structures, so we are hustling, self-employed, with no sick days, 401k, paid vacation, maternity leave, or company health insurance. What we do have is flexibility, and the freedom to serve our clients from an authentic, highly individualized sensibility.

But I do hope that we can find more structured support for our “alternative” practices, and that western medicine can shift its intentions to the wellness side of the scale.

What is your experience with aiming to stay well? Does western health care work for you, and if so, how do you use it? Or has it caused you more grief than good? Do you rely on alternative practitioners, and if so, what kinds of modalities, and how have you found them? Or are they too expensive, because they’re not covered by your health insurance? Are you a “wellness practitioner,” or do you have another name for your practice?

Please share with us -- your stories, experiences, challenges, wisdom.  You can leave a comment below to join the conversation, or send us a private email. We can hardly wait to hear from you!