Natural Born Leaders

Photography by: Edel Rodriguez
Natural Born Leaders

A pioneer in exploring the connection between emotional and physical health, Alice Domar is a psychologist, founder of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF. Her latest book is Be Happy Without Being Perfect (Three Rivers Press).

In the beginning » I always wanted to be a pioneer. In college, I heard about a new field called health psychology that looked at people who were psychologically OK, but physically ill. The idea of a mind-body connection was new then. I studied with Joan Boysenko and Herbert Bensen, who did research on the relaxation response, then I took it a step further to focus on infertility and women’s issues.

Taking care of women » I realized that the women I was helping to get pregnant would come back to talk about new forms of stress related to babies and marriage; I was teaching them how to self-nurture. A couple hundred years ago, women were living among women, and when they got overwhelmed, there was always someone to swoop in and help. But we live isolated lives now. Women need to learn to care for themselves as well as they care for everyone else.

Looking on the bright side » Why is it that we pressure ourselves to be so perfect? Why is it that when we have 10 things in our lives and nine are going well, we have to focus on the one that isn’t? We all need to learn to focus a little more on what’s going right. It’s really OK if your closets are cluttered or if you’re a little on the round side—in fact, the research shows that the women who live longest have a body mass index [BMI] of 25 to 29.

Grandmother’s wisdom » A lot of what I tell women is to lighten their loads. I listen to all the things they have going on, and I tell them ease up on A, B and C. They are thrilled to have that permission. I ask them: “Is this really any different from what your grandmother would have told you?” Take good care of yourself, eat good food and go out and play.

How to stress less » Humans have evolved to live simply in nature, and they have a flight-or-fight instinct not to get eaten by a tiger. But now we have those reactions 50 times a day. We have to learn to calm down or we will end up sick and uncomfortable. My favorite stress-relieving technique is a mini-relaxation: Sit down, breathe deeply and count backward from 10. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can always do a mini.

What’s next » Western medicine has gotten good at keeping people alive, but doesn’t pay much attention to our quality of life. That’s where alternative approaches can really be helpful—massage and acupuncture when surgery isn’t possible, for instance. I think we’ll see the Western medical establishment continue to open up to new approaches—and offer patients choices that will make their lives better.

Dean Ornish spearheaded much of the research that shows how lifestyle choices can affect health. Founder of the Preventive Medical Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., he has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association among others, and his first book, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Ballantine Books), forever changed the way Americans think about heart disease.

In the beginning » I began researching lifestyle and health in 1977 as a medical student. I was learning to do open heart surgery. We would cut people open, bypass their blockages and send them home thinking they were cured. But then they’d do the same things that caused the problem in the first place: smoke, eat junk food, not manage their stress, not have much love in their lives. When their bypasses would re-clog, we’d cut them open again and bypass the bypass. For me, that became a metaphor for an incomplete approach: We were literally and figuratively bypassing the problem without treating the underlying causes.

Outfoxing genetic destiny » To a large degree, the modern diseases we see are caused by lifestyle choices. Clearly there is a genetic predisposition, but our genes are just that: our predisposition, not our fate. Changing diet and lifestyle can modify genes. A study we did two years ago found that when people made the changes I suggested—eating a low-fat diet, getting enough exercise, managing stress and focusing on relationships—500 genes were changed. We saw a turning on of the genes that prevent disease, and a turning off of the genes that cause disease, particularly those that cause breast and prostate cancer. Our bodies have a radical capacity to heal themselves, very quickly.

Embracing the joy factor » The most toxic emotions —shame, guilt, anger and humiliation—are inherent in lifestyle change programs because nobody’s perfect. If you indulge yourself one day, it doesn’t mean that you cheated or you failed. It just means eat better the next day. If you don’t have time to meditate for an hour, meditate for a minute—the consistency is more important than the duration. The body’s mechanisms are so dynamic, people feel so much better so quickly that it reframes the reason for making changes from the fear of dying to the joy of living.

Meditate on it » Meditation is really the practice of focusing your awareness on one thing; it could be a mantra, word or symbol. One Harvard study found that meditation alone is enough to change genetic expression. What’s next » Nearly 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion of our health care costs are due to chronic diseases that could be prevented or even reversed simply by lifestyle changes. The costs are reaching a tipping point. I think the next 10 years will see an integration of traditional and nontraditional approaches. Drugs and surgery have their place, but they’re not helping people use their inherent healing power. All you really need to do is see what you’re doing to prohibit your own health and then stop doing it.

Judith Lasater helped establish the alignment-driven Iyengar style as the go-to practice for injury and illness. She holds a doctorate in East-West psychology and is also a physical therapist. Her books include the seminal restorative yoga book Relax and Renew (Rodmell Press).

In the beginning » Growing up, I was drawn to two things. I loved dance and I loved worshipping—going to church, praying, the communion among worshippers. When I took my first yoga class in the 1970s, it was a combination of those two things—it felt fulfilling, like I was home. I could use my body to worship and to connect to divinity. It was inevitable that I would make teaching yoga my life’s work. As of this July, I will have been teaching for 40 years.

The practice of practice » As I practiced more, I began to notice how what I told myself about the current situation changed the way I felt about it. Then I became fascinated with how much my mind creates my happiness and wellbeing— or not. None of these thoughts are unique in the history of humankind, but they were new to me. And it is the self-discovery of these thoughts that is the most important thing. You can read about it all you want, but when you discover it yourself, it has great power. You find the potential for change and choice.

Love thyself » Buddha said if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone. The practice of yoga is the ultimate of kindness. When you start paying attention to yourself during practice, you’re more likely to pay attention at other times of day, and that leads you inexorably to path of better health. I teach people this mantra: “How human of me.” Whenever you do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing, and you start judging yourself, say that mantra. I find the more I embrace my humanness, the more I can feel compassion for myself—and for others.

Relaxation prescription » It’s hard to feel good or be compassionate toward others if you’re in a hurry. So, try to relax for 20 minutes every day—I like to spend 20 minutes in Savasana (Corpse pose). Just lie down on the floor, set your iPhone timer and close your eyes. It makes a huge difference. My kids got to the point where they would say, “Mom, you’re being a brat. Go svanas yourself.” And it never failed. Make relaxation a priority; take it seriously.

What’s next » The word yoga has become as common as the word guacamole—it’s woven into American life. That’s good; I like to think of more Americans taking time to focus on themselves. I’d like to see Registered Yoga Therapist become the equivalent of a master’s degree, to see the level of yoga instruction go up, so that all teachers understand the traditional teachings and are adept enough to offer them in a modern context. Then teachers will be able to offer their students exactly what they need in this moment. Yoga is a practice of happiness, after all.