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Holistic: To Define or Not to Define?

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When asked to define ‘holistic’, a room full of nutrition and skincare experts might respond with seemingly contradictory interpretations of what holistic is and what holistic is not. On one hand, you have traditionalists who have studied ancient healing philosophies of the Egyptians and Greeks, as well as whole body healing practices like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Many of these experienced practitioners have learned to trust their intuition to guide them on what’s right, rather than having the need for a standard definition. For others, however, this ambiguity leaves some feeling disoriented and disjointed; lacking the confidence to begin practicing because they don’t want to practice “wrong.”

But is defining the word “holistic” the solution?

We’re not sure that it is. The need to dissect, define, pinpoint, and specialize is something that came about as a part of a system that doesn’t recognize the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Is it possible that by trying to reduce the term holistic to a singular definition we could contradict its very purpose?

Please read the following scenarios we’ve created to represent conversations and questions we’ve observed surrounding “holistic,” and see if any are familiar to you.

A holistic diet:

Client: In order for my diet to be ‘holistic,’ I should make sure I only buy food that’s organic, vegan and non-GMO.

Coach: So you see ‘holistic’ as being healthy, in the strictest sense?

Client: Yes. ‘Holistic’ is the pinnacle of health.

Coach: It’s definitely true that ‘holistic’ takes on that meaning for many people, but try thinking about the term as being more inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Client: Meaning that I can include anything I want in my diet and still call it ‘holistic?’

Coach: To some degree— but not exactly. ‘Holistic,’ comes from ‘wholism,’ a theory that looks at the whole rather than its independent parts. When you apply that type of thinking to your diet, it might inspire you to include greater variety in the foods you eat, to look at the bigger picture of how and where your food is made, and to notice how your body reacts to those foods. That’s my understanding of a holistic approach to eating.

Client: Interesting. I must admit I feel a bit relieved that I can include some splurges in my diet! I was just thinking, maybe we don’t need the word ‘holistic’ at all. Shouldn’t we always be doing those things— varying our foods, thinking about the source. and reflecting on how food makes us feel?

Coach: I couldn’t agree more. Maybe someday soon ‘holistic’ will just be ‘typical.’

girls-602168_1280On holistic skincare:

Client: “I heard that products have to be all-natural, organic, cruelty-free, preservative-free, and chemical-free–otherwise they’re not holistic. I was really bummed when I found out that products I thought were holistic that I loved had chemicals!

Aesthetician: You’re not alone, and I know there’s so much conflicting information out there! First of all, you should know that there’s no such thing as “chemical-free skincare.” Everything in skincare–even water–is a chemical.

Client: Oh come on, that’s a little extreme!

Aesthetician: But it’s true! It takes a chemical reaction to create water! And while water is probably the friendliest chemical out there, it’s not the only one. Antioxidants and vitamins, for instance are other friendly chemicals. However, chemicals like synthetic fragrances, certain foaming agents, certain preservatives, and other additives do have known health risks and should be avoided. But not all synthetics are bad, and not all preservatives are toxic depending on what they are and how they’re used in the product.

Client: But how can I tell if a product contains good or bad chemicals when they all seem to call themselves natural these days?

Aesthetician: Good question! Terms like “natural,” “organic,” and “cruelty-free” are confusing on labels. These terms are unregulated and are more often than not used as greenwashing marketing hype. If you’re not sure whether a product is all that it claims to be, just ask me about it!

Client: I’ve also heard that you shouldn’t get facial treatments like peels, steam, or use machines. I’ve even heard that extractions shouldn’t be part of a holistic treatment.

Aesthetician: To peel, steam, zap, or extract  — or not — that is the question! But it’s really only one part of the equation.

Client: What do you mean?

Aesthetician: I believe that the ultimate goal of a treatment is to support the whole person by addressing habits, behaviors, diet, lifestyle, and stress, rather than just focusing on treating a single condition with a single method or piece of equipment.

Client: What do you mean?

Aesthetician: Remember how I asked so many questions during our consultation that didn’t seem to be about your skin? Your answers helped me to choose treatments that I feel are best for your needs as a whole–of which your skin is a part.

Client: That makes sense!

We realize that these examples barely scrape the tip of the holistic iceberg.

11109021_827233840664253_1522109390239637616_nWhat we’ve come to realize in our own discussions of what holistic means to us is that the definition is continually evolving as the paradigm continues to shift. The NAA is proud to hold a safe space for this dialog–and this shift–as it unravels.

There’s no magic formula that if you apply it with enough intensity, enthusiasm and skill, you’ll get predictable results each time. We want to make clear that holistic is certainly NOT a competition or score card. You don’t succeed or fail at being holistic.

We believe that a holistic approach is one that values the PERSON who has a problem more than the PROBLEM itself. A holistic approach also honors the body’s ability to heal itself, and recognizes that the healing process is as unique as the individual. The role of the practitioner–be it nutritionist, health coach, or aesthetician–is to artfully support that person as his or her healing process unfolds.

Now we want to hear from you!

What does the term “holistic” mean to you? What does it NOT mean? Sound off in the comments below.


*Image 2 from Pixabay, image 3 credit “FerrisWheel” by Care_SMC, 2007. Some rights reserved.

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Beth July 3, 2015, 5:14 am

Thank you for the “Holistic Skincare” section of the article. You gave me the words to help clients. What does holistic mean to me…. Making thoughtful choices

Rachael July 3, 2015, 3:14 pm

Beth, we’re so glad you found it valuable! Yes making thoughtful choices is a big part of the process.

Grace Emmerson July 7, 2015, 5:12 pm

I’m find this discussion interesting and would like to add my perspective to the ‘holistic’ debate. I generally avoid using the term as it is overused and undervalued. I work holistically because I am holistic; it is how I think, feel and see. So, I work holistically and my customer responds to their particular experience. Some customers name it afterwards (‘you are a healer, do you know that’); some become emotional after a treatment (‘I have never been touched like that before’); some make no comment but travel a long way and come month in, month out for years. Some are visibly moved and never come again. All I offer is myself and the customers response is their own.

We agree that the term ‘holistic’ refers to seeing the bigger picture, the whole as larger than the sum of its parts. The reason it is difficult to define and articulate is just that; we all are larger than the sum of our parts. How we express and manifest our work ‘holistically’ has as many varients as there are human beings. We have our individual influences and experiences. There is no right or wrong way to be ‘holistic’ in the true sense of the term. We simply offer our best selves; our higher self, our biggest, most generous, most honest self and meet the customer with an open heart.

For me ‘holistic’ applies not just to the customer but to my products, to the ingredients, ethos, providence, integrity etc. and to every other aspect of my business.
I don’t normally describe myself as a holistic practitioner although I sometimes describe the Treatments I offer as being ‘holistic in the truest sense of the word’. Normally I allow my customer simply to recognise it even if they don’t have the words to describe it. They are the ones who become my loyal customers.

We will continue to have personal definitions of the scale and language of ‘holistic’ practice. But at it’s essence (I believe) it is simply who I am. And who you are. And you. We’re all different. And all the same.

Jolene Hart July 7, 2015, 9:07 pm

Thank you for weighing in with this thoughtful and personal contribution to our discussion. We love your perspective that ‘holistic’ is simply and inherently who we are!

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