We know what it takes to live healthily, overcome challenges and maximize our potential – eat well, get exercise, have good relationships and find some creative outlet. But a lot of people have lousy dietary habits, don’t get their emotional needs met and suffer with chronic diseases. And unfortunately a growing number turn to drugs, alcohol and other addictive processes like food or gambling to cope.
With the crushing reality of worsening health outcomes compounded by drug and alcohol abuse in mind, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, outlined Eight Dimensions of Wellness in this model:
The idea is that “making the Eight Dimensions of Wellness part of daily life can improve mental and physical health for people with mental and/or substance use disorders.” Forgive my yogic myopia, but when I look at this I see yoga solutions in each area – there’s incredible potential for yoga to meet the demands outlined in this model.
- Emotional: “Coping effectively with life and creating satisfying relationships.” Yoga is a practice that can help people create internal resiliency – an ability to moderate behavior in the face of adverse personal and social effects. Yoga helps to cultivate awareness or mindfulness – an ability to respond rather than react to challenges. There is also mounting evidence that shows how yoga changes the brain – yoga practitioners have more gray matter in areas related to sense of self and positive outlook, pro-social behavior, memory and parasympathetic activity.
- Environmental: “Good health by occupying pleasant, stimulating environments that support well being.” I don’t know anyone who is better at creating “pleasant, stimulating environments that support well being” than yoga studio owners. But regardless of where you practice, yoga helps heighten aesthetic awareness so that practitioners can make those changes to their own environments. Addictive behavior is something often triggered by environment. One of the things we teach in our Subtle Yoga training programs is the idea of creating “sacred spaces” at home. You don’t necessarily have to build a labyrinth in your back yard or a temple in your living room, but making spaces that feel clean, clear and sacred can help remind you of the importance of your practice in maintaining balance and peace of mind. Yoga can help us slow down and strip away the non-essential so that we can see what we value, what makes us feel happy, and who and what we want to be around. It develops and heightens subtle, aesthetic awareness and helps us to take the time to enhance that part of our lives.
- Intellectual: “Recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills.” I’m not sure I would categorize “creative abilities” as “Intellect”, but I get the general idea. Many meditators report that their most creative ideas are downloaded during practice, not thinking time. There is a growing body of research showing how yoga improves attention networks and increases gray matter especially in the front brain – and IMHO this means that yoga is an excellent “way to expand knowledge and skills.” More gray matter in this part of the brain may also correlate with increased executive function – which improves the capacity to make healthy choices and good decisions.
- Physical: “Recognizing the need for physical activity, diet, sleep, and nutrition.” Meditation, breathing and mindful movement practices feel good and improve health. There is a growing body of evidence that yoga improves physical health including benefiting most of the systems of the body, and improving sleep. As for diet and nutrition – the practices help you to tune into your body and make more mindful and less reactive decisions about what you put in it.
- Occupational: “Personal satisfaction and enrichment derived from one’s work.” It’s not necessarily easy to find solid, meaningful and satisfying work. But yoga practice can improve your outlook about your current employment and give you the strength and energy to make changes. It can also inform and deepen how you understand and express your skills, talents and interests.
- Spiritual: “Expanding our sense of purpose and meaning in life.” Yoga practice and philosophy orients away from disease models (treating the disease rather than addressing the whole person), and toward flourishing. It doesn’t limit you to labels about your illness or addictive tendency. Yoga is a spiritual practice – with the goal of deepening the connection to your higher power. No matter what you encounter in your life, having a strong spiritual connection can get you through the most difficult situations and help you find inner strength, faith and a deep abiding sense of peace.
- Social: “Developing a sense of connection, belonging and a well developed support system.” I have a friend who has moved several times in the last few years because of work and life circumstances. I asked her how she’s coped with so much change. She said when she gets to a new town, she finds the yoga community – it’s helped her find friendship and support during so much turmoil. Yoga practiced in groups in a supportive setting is a great way for people to feel connected to others who share similar values. Neuroscience has demonstrated how practicing together can be an important aspect of stress management. Additionally many practitioners feel their practice has opened them to a deeper source of inner peace and, wanting to share that, are drawn to participating in social change movements.
- Financial: “Satisfaction with current and future financial situations.” In a society as financially precarious as the one we live in, it’s difficult to feel secure. Not only is yoga a relatively cost effective health strategy, it’s also a practice that can provide a sense of security beyond the strictly material.
To a yoga enthusiast, these 8 dimensions of wellness may seem pretty obvious. It’s not reality, it’s just a model and models are useful in terms of organizing our thinking. Lifestyle change, medicine or therapy are hot buzzwords in healthcare right now – but they are exactly what yoga has always offered.