Mind & Body

The Rite Path

Since the beginning of time, rituals have provided a powerful route to healing. Discover how to chart your own road to recovery.

The Rite Path
Pin it Philippe Lardy

When Willow Joines, a yoga teacher and massage therapist in Oakland, Calif., discovered she had chronic late-stage Lyme disease, her life became a strict routine of meds, sleep and a bland diet. But even as she mourned her new circumstances, Joines realized she needed to find a way to accept—even embrace—the new protocol. So she transformed it into a ritual. “I had to turn it into something special,” she says. “If I kept it routine, it would have been a burden instead of a journey back to health.” Joines began by changing the way she saw her meds—literally. Instead of tucking away the pills, supplements, tinctures and capsules in a kitchen cabinet, she displayed them on her dining table, surrounded by flowers and cards people had sent her. The coup de grâce? She wrote the words “health” and “om” on her bottle of dreaded antibiotics in big, bold letters. Says Joines, “When I swallowed that fluorescent yellow liquid, I thought of it as sunshine that would bring me back to health.”

Loosely defined as a sequence of symbolic actions, rituals can be public or private, complex or basic, and may run the gamut from preparing for childbirth to coping with the trials of an illness or treatment, and from marriage ceremonies to memorial services.

Intuitively, Joines tapped into something that anthropologists, healers and spiritual leaders have always known: The ways in which we frame our beliefs about health and sickness have a dramatic impact on our ability to get better. “One reason rituals work is that they move people into mental states of surrender, gratitude and asking for help,” says Karen Lawson, M.D., director of integrative health coaching at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Indeed, all medicine involves some form of ritual. “Doctors, for example, wear special clothes and write sacred words on paper,” says Jeanne Achterberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saybrook Institute in San Francisco. These seemingly ordinary circumstances and acts engage multiple senses—sight, sound, smell and emotion—and can create a powerful atmosphere of healing, adds Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., a pioneer of integrative medicine whose most recent book is Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive (Hay House). In essence, rituals are like placebos. They work simply because you believe they can. To wit, a 2011 study published in Science Translational Medicine found that positive expectations of a treatment doubled the natural pain-relieving effect of the drug administered, while negative expectations canceled out the drug’s effectiveness.

Positive thinking also has a physical effect. “Physiologically, being at peace with our present circumstances manifests as a state of low adrenaline and heart rate associated with immune support and reduced stress—similar to the way the body responds to yoga and meditation,” says Lawson.

In fact, countless studies suggest that practices such as meditation and yoga can change brain structure, lower cortisol levels, reduce pain and significantly increase well-being.