A Cynic's Guide to Holistic Healing

Some of Knoxville's most determined alternative healers try to fix Mike Gibson.

It's roughly four in the afternoon on a Saturday at Gypsy Hands Healing Arts Center on North Central Street, I'm lying face down on a floormat, and there's a 320-pound man walking on the back of my legs. And I don't just mean sorta...not like some half-assed touch-feely let-me-put-my-foot-here-and-see-how-it-feels hot-towels-and-aromatherapy swanky day-spa crap. No, I mean that grizzled Manu Korewa, the burliest member of this clan of Maori healers—who visit Gypsy Hands every year from New Zealand for three days or so of spirit, song, and plenty of "deep tissue" healing fun—has placed both of his massive tootsies squarely on the fleshy bases of my gastrocnemius muscles and is walking toward my head as if I were some kind of human tightrope.

Tentatively, I look back and tell Manu I'm worried about my sore right shoulder—a weight-room injury that my regular doctors just shrugged off, unable to offer much guidance without an expensive MRI.

Manu just smiles a little, the kind of smile that adults give when small children start gibbering about cartoon characters and invisible friends. He places a big foot in the middle of my spine, near the shoulder blades, and leeeeeaaannnns. My tender rotator cuff buckles, screams silently, but holds.

I understand the purpose of this rough treatment—to expel deep-dwelling spirits of unwellness, and to ensure that the body's wayward architecture is properly realigned. But sometimes it seems that Manu will grind my very bones to paste in the course of my realignment, splaying my pliant flesh like a dermal rug across Gypsy Hands' wooden floors.

Ten years ago, if you had told me I would be doing something as seemingly strange as partaking of a Maori healing—this being a holistic system of mind/body medicine born in Hawaii, then exported to and nurtured through the centuries by various New Zealander tribes—I would have told you that you were insane. I was a rationalist, after all; a realist; a Republican, even. (It didn't take.) I accepted nothing on faith, especially when it came to issues as serious as health and medicine. Anything that smacked of "alternative medicine" was anathema to me. Hell, I didn't even trust chiropractors.

But I'm older now, maybe wiser, and a little more "into the mystic," as Van Morrison would say. My conception of what constitutes "good health" has evolved: now I'm looking for spiritual salve as well as physical repair; holistic wellness beyond mere maintenance; prevention as well as cure.

A new shoulder would be nice, too.

While I don't find many answers for myself in this particular Maori healing, I have to recognize the value the session holds for many of my fellow visitors today, some of whom are having profound, cathartic emotional experiences. Every so often, Manu snatches up a beleaguered old guitar and adds a delirious burst of color to the whole carnival scene, weaving spritely island melodies through the spiraling crescendos of laughter and tears.

Why didn't it work for me? I think the truth lies in something a friend told me, a former magazine editor with vast experience in the realm of holistic health: "The healing that's best is the healing that works best for you." In other words, I'll have to put aside my skeptic's instincts, and thus my one-size-fits-all notions of what "healing" is all about.

So, I've been exploring the range of holistic healing services available here in Knoxville—giving myself over to some of the more, um, intriguing methodologies—in the hopes of finding something that resonates.

Ayurvedic Medicine in Bearden

"The demand for so-called alternative healing now is huge," says Will Foster, who operates his Traditional Health Clinic out of an office complex near Bearden High School. "People aren't happy with how they're treated in traditional medicine. The doctor doesn't spend any time with you; he gives you a drug and then you're talking to the back of his head."

Voluble, fiercely intelligent, and boundlessly curious; given to mixing eastern and classical philosophy with pop culture references ("Welcome to the real world, Neo," he says at one point during our recent conversation, in making a point about the collective unconscious. "The Matrix is such a kick-ass movie."), Foster is the renaissance man of the local alternative health community.

A yoga enthusiast as a young man, the now 50-ish Foster took an interest in Ayurvedic medicine—the ancient healing modalities of India—and spent time living in Indian spiritual communities learning the Vedic arts. His studies and travels since are too numerous to detail, but suffice to say that his expertise now encompasses Chinese medicine and clinical nutrition, too.

Foster's background offers a vivid reminder that the range of methodologies that fall underneath the huge umbrella of "alternative medicine" is staggering, so much so that it almost seems like folly to lump them all in the same heap. Within the directory for the Knoxville chapter of CHEO (Complementary Health Education Organization, a non-profit association to which many of these healers belong), you'll find listings for bodywork and massage; energy work such as Reiki and Quantum Touch; light healers and sound healers and herbalists and acupuncturists and nutritionists…

Nonetheless, CHEO members seem to feel strongly connected through their divergent arts, and many—like Foster—claim expertise in more than one field of study. Says Foster, that sense of community owes in part to the fact that homeopathic healing arts are often either directly or indirectly descended from philosophies and traditions in other, usually non-Western cultures—the millennia-old practices of Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine offering two particularly venerable examples.

"These ancient methods rest on a different paradigm, a different model of life," Foster explains. "That paradigm is linked to the overall paradigm of life, with how the human being fits in with the rest of the world."

Local acupuncturist Prasad Robert Hutter puts it thusly: "When you have pain or illness, it's the universe's way of prodding you to get better. We look for physical causes, but deep down there are usually environmental causes, emotional causes, attitudinal causes. It's inevitably a call for you to get more in touch with the fabric of life."

According to local cranialsacral therapist Marty Austin, many physical problems are attributable to the manifold stresses of modern living. "Lately I've seen a rash of neck shoulder, and lower back issues," she says. "People carry around the burdens of stress in their bodies, particularly in those area."

Divorced in 1991, Austin says she subsequently found a new source of inner guidance, a spiritual muse which directed her to heal others—and by extension, to heal her own psychic pain, as well—through the power of touch. Her studies eventually led her to craniosacral therapy, now her primary mode of healing. Founded in the 1970s by an osteopath, craniosacral therapy (CST) employs sensitive touch and body manipulation to influence the movement of cerebrospinal fluid along the spinal cord, and practitioners say they have found it useful in treating a plethora of conditions.

But while Austin can elaborate at some length on how and why CST offers soothing redress for many different ills, she believes much of the magic of CST owes to sweeter, simpler truths. "Just being touched is so important to human beings," she says. "And being touched safely and compassionately is healing in and of itself," she says.

The Alexander Technique in Sequoyah Hills

My hips are swiveling, my body is quaking, and my voice has that tremulous, stuttering quality usually associated with heavy vibes—like talking in the car whilst rolling across unfinished streets: "Y-y-y-y-eeee-u-u-u-u-uhh, I-I-I-I s-s-s-s-ee-ee-ee-ee."

I'm standing in front of a mirror in Lilly Sutton's Sequoyah Hills home, and Sutton has one hand on my back, the other on my sternum, shaking me to and fro with all the strength she can muster. Shades of the Maori healing?

Hardly. Sutton's weight would have to nearly treble—supplemented with a side of heavy hormone therapy—for her to summon the same kind of potent realignment muscle as mighty Manu. And this is, by far, the single most physically assaultive moment of today's lesson in the Alexander Technique, a generally pacifist method of learning to move with greater ease and efficiency. It's a technique often employed by actors, performers, speakers, but which promises long-term benefits beyond the mere physical.

"Alexander Technique is notoriously hard to explain," says Sutton, a gracious, ever-smiling lady who speaks with in a fetchingly slow, musical drawl. "People usually don't understand until they've experienced it themselves."'

The technique was forged from whole cloth by Australian stage actor Frederick Alexander, somewhere around the turn of the previous century. Alexander's career was in jeopardy from a persisting tendency to lose his voice onstage. After months of intensive self-examination in front of a mirror, he finally realized that every time he moved to speak, he tensed his neck muscles, placing pressure on his larynx. He discovered other dysfunctional patterns, too, bad habits that affected his stride, his breathing, and his posture.

Over time, he developed a system of corrective measures that effectively enabled practitioners of his method to divest themselves of poor kinesthetic habits—a method that has since proven effective in addressing problems ranging from chronic pain to breathing difficulties.

On the face of it, Alexander's system would seem to represent the pinnacle of linear Western utilitarian methodology—a format for considering the proper relationship of the body's component parts, then taking corrective action where those relationships are corrupt.

But there's a surprisingly Eastern bent to the ways and means of his technique, an aesthetic evident in the bits of received wisdom handed down through its students. "'Trying' means just doing what we already know," Sutton quotes Alexander as saying. And: "Alexander is not about doing something; it's about getting out of your own way."

The concept has yielded benefits in several areas of Sutton's life. She took her first Alexander lesson around 20 years ago for chronic laryngitis. The laryngitis cleared up after her first session, but the benefits continued: Her posture improved; she stood a half-inch taller; an imbalance in the level of her shoulder girdle corrected itself.

About seven years ago, she began studying more intensely. The results were correspondingly more remarkable; Sutton's demeanor changed; her confidence improved dramatically.

"Most people come to Alexander for physical reasons," she says, "but it affects everything about us. It opens up our thinking, opens up new possibilities. Most people find it makes them more confident. And more creative. It helps you get out of the box you're in."

All of this becomes clearer during my own lesson. Sutton stresses that the objective isn't for me to learn rote new postures, or hold a particular pose. Instead, she has me examine myself in a mirror; then she uses gentle but firm hand pressure to help wayward joints find a new level. All the while, Sutton never instructs or commands; she converses, soothes, suggests. Her lessons stress awareness, followed by awakening, rather than conscious adaptation.

Sutton shows me pictures of different bones and bodily structures, usually in illustration of how their actual operation runs counter to our perception. (The skull's pivot on the neck, for instance, is actually near the temples, not at the lower portion of the jaw. And her shaking my torso, as mentioned earlier, is her means of demonstrating to me that the rib cage is a flexible, dynamic entity, rather than a static box meant to stay rigid when we shift and walk.)

I mention my painful right shoulder; she gives me some helpful tips. She notes that unnecessary tension is often held in the shoulder due to poor habits, and that I can rid myself of some of that tension by allowing my hand to take the lead when I move my shoulder, and by understanding the role of the clavicle, a key lever in shoulder and arm movement.

But what impresses me most about my lesson in the Alexander Technique is how I feel when I leave. I have a sense of real peace, the everyday cares and anxieties I carried into the lesson having been, at least for time being, lessened or relieved. The Alexander Technique isn't necessarily my own best solution for the things that trouble me, but I would recommend it to anyone seeking an easier, more graceful carriage and calmer mind.

Reiki in Rocky Hill

Energy medicine—the seemingly mystic notion that we can manipulate and channel invisible energy fields that constantly surround us, all for the purpose of promoting health and general psychic well-being. Once upon a time, I would have told you just what I thought about that particular little piece of fancy. Two syllables. Compound word. Rhymes with "pull-snit."

Yet here I am. My eyes are nearly closed; my jaw slack; my head heavy as stone, and melting into the padded massage table beneath me. I feel relaxed and even euphoric in ways I've seldom experienced, except in situations that involved potent pharmaceuticals.

The source of my bliss is an energy medicine treatment by local Reiki practitioner Caroline Munday. And here's the kicker: As I lie on her table in street clothes, she does administer some light massage at various points throughout the session, but mostly, she's lulled me into this freakishly wonderful trance without even touching. For 90 percent of the treatment, her hands float inches above me, galvanizing blocked energies and conducting them in invigorating torrents through chakras (bodily energy centers) hungry for nourishment.

After the first few minutes, the effect is so absorbing and powerful that I'm only dimly aware of Munday waving her hands feverishly overhead, like some benevolently mad sorceress weaving spells.

Energy medicine is conceptually rooted in Chinese medicine, Munday explains later, but has analogues in several healing traditions. Perhaps the most popular form of energy medicine today is Reiki, a system invented the early 1900s by Dr. Mikao Usui, a Japanese businessman, healer and spiritualist.

Like Marty Austin, Munday first explored Reiki as a means of finding her own healing in the wake of a divorce in 1990. "It was an emotional period, and somehow I knew I couldn't do massage, that that would be too invasive at that time," she says. "I found a Reiki master in town and decided to see what it felt like. That's how I found my path."

She began taking classes in 1993, and eventually became a Master Teacher herself. Spurred by her love of Reiki, she also learned other, compatible energy-healing systems, forms such as Quantum Touch and Healing Touch. But Reiki remains at the core of her practice: "I tell my students that you start doing Reiki, then Reiki starts doing you," she says, chuckling.

Like many homeopaths, Munday works with patients suffering from a host of different ailments, but she indicates that energy healing is most effective as an emotional salve, as an adjunct to standard medical treatments. "I never discourage anyone from going to the doctor," she says. "Reiki and energy medicine are more about wellness than as a primary means of dealing with chronic illness."

For me, Reiki with Munday is my eureka moment; she's a miracle worker, as far as I'm concerned, and I look forward to future treatments. And though I look at Reiki foremost as a means of fostering inner healing—my session was tantamount to receiving a 60-minute transfusion of contentment and inner peace—I find other, unanticipated benefits, too.

In our pre-session conversation, I told Munday about my ailing shoulder; she tells me afterward she made special effort to direct healing energies to that area of my body. For the next 24 hours, my troubled rotator cuff feels better. Pain-free bench presses: That's a pay-off even the younger me could appreciate.

Spiritual Counsel on North Central

And so, strange though it may have seemed to my old self, I've found in Reiki a homeopathic modality that resonates with my own particular needs. But my exploration of alternative healing in Knoxville has an important epilogue. I've scheduled a soul reading—also known as an intuitive counseling—with Sara Griscom, proprietor of the aforementioned Gypsy Hands Healing Arts Center.

That's right; a "soul reading." Stick that one on the "loopy" scale and see how much it weighs. And yet—and here's where I blow any lingering shred of credibility I may have once had as a registered cynic—the experience is as profound and moving in its way as was my time on Caroline Munday's table.

Versed in several bodywork traditions, and a Reiki master herself, Griscom says her earliest calling was as a counselor, the natural extension of an otherworldly gift she discovered as a child. "When I was little, I saw deceased loved ones around people," she says. "I saw souls just hanging out.

"I spoke to my parents about it. Fortunately, my dad never told me what I saw was wrong. Later, when he passed on, it was as if I had this partner in crime, because I would know he was around. After being told I was weird a hundred times, I started feeling like I had an ally."

And for every person who told Griscom she was "weird," others would ask her for guidance, for predictions and advice. Increasingly aware of her gifts as a counselor and healer, she studied anthropology, linguistics, and psychology in college; while researching native medicine and midwifery in Guatemala, she says she received her calling from a Mayan shaman.

Now she says counseling is an integral part of all her healing, energy and bodywork included. "People come in for bodywork, then they say, ‘Sara, can we spend part of the time talking?' Which is fine—whatever I can do to promote their self-awareness."

Though we've never met before, Griscom describes some of my tendencies as if she were my long-standing therapist—the recurrent theme of my reading is an inclination to "hold back" (guilty as charged). She also intuits my family relationships with a level of accuracy and insight that would probably be frightening, had the information come from a different reader, one with a less soothing manner or a less palpable sincerity.

Griscom records every counseling session for the benefit of the client, and when I listen back to mine later, I'm even more taken aback by her accuracy, by the affecting quality of her presentation. A skeptic might claim she's merely an expert cold reader; and yet her power of truth and her gift for motivation would still be worth the price of a sitting.

I reflect, later, that Griscom's counsel is the perfect complement to the rest of my sojourn into the world of alternative healing. In Reiki, I've found a modality that connects, a treatment I can turn to on a regular basis that makes me feel better, body, mind and soul. And in Griscom's reading, I've been given a plan, of sorts, a spiritual blueprint for building a better life. One I'll have to implement myself, of course, through the agency of my own (sometimes) petty and mean-spirited little devices. Have to get back to you on that one.

In any case, toward the end of our meeting, Griscom ties it all together, this pervading notion that body and mind are of a piece, and that it's folly, when contemplating our wellness, to separate one from the other. It happens when I share with her the facts of my nagging shoulder.

Her intuitions tell her, she assures me, that the physical issues probably aren't serious. But there's another, yet unexplored dimension to my problem. "Shoulders are connected to the heart," she says. "If your shoulder is talking, it's usually about extending your heart—it's about not holding back.

"Remember that our bodies are messengers for the divine. When we hold back, it compromises us. So please tend to yourself, okay? And say thank you, shoulder, for showing me that I need to pay attention to me. Then you'll have a loving relationship with it rather than an antagonistic one."

I give Sara many gracious goodbyes, and take my leave. Then, in the parking lot, as I open the door to my car, the shoulder tweaks. Only this time, rather than cursing its damnable recalcitrance, I say a prayer of silent thanks to my rotator cuff for reminding me, after its own fashion, to open up my grudging little heart and do something nice for the rest of the world.