"Holism" and "holistic" get thrown around as buzzwords pretty frequently - but most people may not actually know what holism is. To make things more confusing, many people using the terms don't understand it either, leading to misconceptions about the philosophy. So let's clear up a couple things to make sure everybody's on the same page...
What is "Holism?"
Holism is a branch of philosophy used as a blueprint for keeping healthy. It is one of three main branches of health philosophy - the other two being Monism and Dualism. Monism, and those who practice it being called monists, believe that the key to health lies in the body. The mental and emotional aspects do not factor in to states of health and can be ignored when treating an ailment. This is one of the most common and traditional approaches seen in Western medical practices, and is also called "orthodox medicine."
The second branch is Dualism, and the dualists. Dualism acknowledges that there is a strong mental/emotional aspect to our being, and that this influences the body. This is oftentimes what is referred to as the "mind-body" connection. Dualists believe that the mental state of the person is going to influence the body, and vice versa, and that both have an equal impact on our overall state of health. In the West, doctors who practice dualism are sometimes also said to practice "alternative medicine," for their non-traditional approach.
The third branch of philosophy, of course, is Holism, with practitioners being holists (Spoiler alert: this is our philosophy!). Holism believes that the body and mind must be considered in health, but also that there is a third level of consciousness that cannot be ignored - you can call it consciousness, spirit, energy, it's that thing that makes us individuals. Everyone has a body full of muscles and bones that bend and move, everyone has a mind that releases adrenaline when excited and dopamine when happy. But everyone doesn't have the same inner stuff that differentiates how we move, what makes us happy, what brings us peace and joy and fear and sadness - that is the third piece that holists incorporate into overall health. If it seems like that third piece of the puzzle is a little vague - that's because it is! The concept of that piece of humanity (I call it spirit, though you may refer to it as something else) is something very difficult to fully conceptualize and explain, and it is responsible for so, so many different parts of the human experience, as we'll talk about in a bit. But the bottom line of the spirit is this - it is just as important to our overall health as our bodies and our mental states. All three must be addressed to create total wellness - to live wholly.
What's the difference?
It may seem a little confusing to understand how each branch of philosophy differs when it comes to actual practice, so let's use an example...
You go to a doctor with a headache. A monist will look at the body and say "ah, yes, a headache, the problem is only in the head - take this headache medicine, and drink more water" and send you on your way. A dualist will look at the body and your emotions say "oh, a headache, the problem is located in your head and is worsened by how you're feeling - are you drinking enough water? Are you upset about anything? Is there a significant amount of stress in your life right now? Let's try removing stress from your day, and here is medicine if you need it." A holist will look at the body, mind, and that extra layer of the spirit and say "okay, a headache, is the headache the actual issue, or is it just the current manifestation of a deeper root cause - let's look at why you have a headache and what the headache is a symptom of."
The holist may then seemingly ignore the headache for a moment while he or she gathers information about your home life, your job, your nutrition and exercise habits, your health history, stress levels, sleep habits, environment, and you'll find them circling back to the headache. Is it really just the result of tension in the neck muscles? Or could it be a symptom of a different condition - such as lack of a certain vitamin or mineral? Could the headache be your body's way of telling you that you're pushing yourself too hard and need to slow down? Sure, sometimes a headache is just a headache, but what if it keeps coming back over and over, no matter how much medicine you take? This is where the holist will shine as they look over every part of you and your lifestyle (which is, of course, an expression of your spirit!) in order to make certain that the root cause is found and addressed. A good holist will not make a big deal out of a minor occurrence, nor will they be adamant that there are only spiritual solutions to all of life's problems, but they will be thorough and explore more realms of your life than a monist or dualist will.
Each branch of philosophy has its strengths and weaknesses and most individuals will find that they firmly align with only one of those practices. Whichever you feel is right for you, know that they are all valid, they all have extensive scientific research validating practices used by their practitioners. None of the philosophical branches is better than the others!
Okay, we may be biased towards holism... but you already knew that.
What It Isn't
This may be where most of the confusion comes from. There is a very strong correlation (though a correlation only socially!) between people who practice New Age lifestyles or religions and those who define themselves as holists. But remember: holism is simply a philosophy - it does not dictate a lifestyle. You do not have to be vegan, religious, minimalist, go to music festivals or wear llama wool-spun cloth clothes in order to practice health from the three-pointed lens of mind-body-spirit connection. There are no codes of ethics, lifestyle mandates, or religious doctrines you need to adhere to in order to follow holistic health.
At the core of all practice is - or at the very least, should be - science. We've seen as far back as Tesla that there is a holistic nature in the human body in regards to health, and if you were to search research studies done you would find page after page of results validating this. A big problem in the West is that people forget that holism is science, not religion! I've come across "holistic practitioners" who try to force their religion on their patients in the name of health, who use their dream symbolism as a diagnostic tool, who will argue that you're not a true holist if you take vaccines or conventional medicine... the list, unfortunately, go on and on.
The cool thing about science is that it doesn’t matter what religion you practice, what guru you follow, or what your oracle cards say. Science is true regardless of culture, religion or upbringing. We are children of the universe, and science is the universe's rule book. True holistic practitioners follow scientific practice and protocols at all times when treating a client.
Don't get me wrong, I love my tarot deck and dream journal as much as the next witch, but those methods have not (yet at least) ever once been validated by science, and so that is not a valid tool for helping to heal someone. A good holistic practitioner will use a blend of both Eastern and Western medicine to fully address the situation. Because let's face it: antibiotics every time you have a stuffy nose is absolutely overkill, but you're also not going to kill Ebola with essential oils.
How To Find The Practitioner For You
So you've figured out that you are holistically inclined, and now you want to learn more from an expert on how to live to your fullest potential. There are two main ways people find their holistic teachers; 1) backpacking in the Himalayas for four years, grow a beard to make Tom Hanks in Castaway proud, learn to speak the ancient language of Sanskrit and then find your guru sitting in padmasana on a cliff somewhere, or 2) Google. No, really, it's that easy! There is no longer a need to travel to the far East for these teachings because they have (finally!) become mainstream here. And let's not forget, holism is a philosophy that can be adopted and practiced by anyone. Your doctor may be a holistic practitioner, your accountant may follow holistic protocol, your neighbor may be reading about holistic health practices - we're everywhere! It's no different than finding yourself aligned with a particular political party or parenting strategies. Philosophical leanings apply to everyone outside the boundaries of any other classification. Holists are liberal and conservative, Caucasian and Black, religious and atheist, vegan and omnivore, male and female. Anyone can practice a holistic lifestyle, which means your potential teacher or role model isn't too far away.
So now you're on the hunt to learn more. Unbiased empirical information is always a great place to start, but it's human nature to be biased, so nearly everything is going to be tinged with an individual's personal beliefs. The goal is to find a source, be it a person or book or anything in between, that is going to be truthful about the facts. A good teacher will be honest with you about what is, regardless of whether or not they agree with it. For example - many traditional yoga instructors will teach that dedicated practice and rigorous meditation and enlightenment training can not only heal mental illnesses, but get rid of any need for their medications altogether. This is a very commonly held belief in the yoga community, however there is not currently any evidence that this is true for the entire population. Therefore, regardless of what I feel is the correct path, I will never tell a yoga student that coming to their mat will clear up any condition or to stop taking any prescribed medications.
And in my opinion at least, when it comes to biochemicals and hormones - if you can't make your own, store-bought is just fine :o)
Okay, you've found a few people that say they're holistic. Maybe it's a doctor, maybe it's your local yoga teacher (*ahem* yes that's me!), or a friend down the street. How do you know who to believe when you're getting different information from each one? Again remember - holism is rooted in science. Do some sleuthing! A great resource is to use the "scholarly article" search function on Google. Read up on a couple studies about a health trend. What's the truth? What are people telling you? Do their statements match scientific evidence? If they don't, it likely means that the individual is basing their practices off of belief alone and not science, or they aren't keeping up with continuing education. Sure, people are wrong from time to time and science evolves so quickly that is happens to all of us! A big sign of someone who follows that scientific rule book is when they can acknowledge they were wrong and present the correct information, or instead of giving an answer just to seem like they're knowledgeable, that very vulnerable but oh-so-telling phrase, "I'm not sure, let me look that up and I'll get back to you!"
Bottom line: use common sense. If what someone is saying to you doesn't sound right, if it contradicts what has been researched and found true, or if there is no factual basis for it, then it's likely not something you should be listening to.
Now you've found your crew and you're learning the holistic way of combining healthy mind-body-spirit practices for a lifestyle that has been calling you from the start and feels like home to finally be in. Now you, too, have an obligation to uphold the truthful practices of holism. Just as you look up to your teacher, someone else will look to you in the future for guidance and truth. It’s important to practice authentic holistic as much as possible, not only so that we continue to back our practices with scientific foundations and continue to grow our field, but also to ensure that you maintain optimal health! And of course there will be times that you may feel confused about something, but that’s what teachers are for. No matter how long it’s been, you can always come back to us for guidance and grounding.
I absolutely love discussing holistic health and wellness with people, sharing my knowledge, and helping people reaching their goals. If you ever find you have questions about anything in this field, please do reach out! I didn’t become a yoga teacher, kinesiologist and nutritionist for money. I did it so I am well equipped to help as many people as I can in this lifetime. My inbox is always open, and I am holding sacred space for all of you. Namaste!