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This year, resolve to enjoy the healing benefits of the “Relaxation Response” through exercise

Fairbairn Powers
The Rev. Fairbairn Powers

Last month, I asked fellow clergy if they exercise regularly, and if so what difference it made in their spiritual, congregational, personal, and/or family lives. The responses were amazing – but first, I want to tell you a little about how science has been catching up with the age-old wisdom of people of prayer regarding the healing power of the mind-body-spirit connection.

Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells the story of how he moved from being a "respectable" Harvard post-doc cardiologist and researcher into the realms of relaxation and the spirit. He had noticed that it was hard not to overprescribe medication for high blood pressure, as his patients often experienced elevated anxiety and blood pressure when the nurse put on the cuff -- the "white coat syndrome." If he waited until the middle of the office visit, and urged the patient to breathe deeply and relax, the numbers were lower.

This led Benson into research on what he calls the "Relaxation Response," done in the same Harvard lab where, 20 years earlier, the pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye had first demonstrated the negative impact of stress on mental and physical well-being. Benson’s mentors warned him he should stick to "real research," so when a group of Back Bay Transcendental Meditators heard of his work and volunteered to be tested, he sneaked them into the lab at night by a back door.

Benson's research demonstrated a wholistic connection of body, mind, and spirit. Just as Selye’s research showed how stress causes wear and tear on our systems, what Benson calls the “Relaxation Response" takes us into a "zone" where the body, mind and emotions are restored and repaired, with measurable changes in health almost immediately, leading to significant long-term health improvements.

Over the last ten years, Benson has been including the spiritual as a factor in the “Relaxation Response” zone, engaging in dialogue about the spiritual, bringing in healers as colleagues on his seminars, and talking about a healing he experienced.

There are numerous ways to enter the healing “Relaxation Response” zone; deep breathing and meditation are two classic methods. But repetitive exercise also has this effect: hiking and walking, lap swimming or pool running, jogging and running, yoga, and tai chi.

When I asked fellow clergy about exercise last month, over 35 emails came right back. I heard from runners and joggers; the Rev Ed Hasse, Rector of St. Paul's Church in Montvale, leads this list, with 26 marathons and counting -- he prays as he runs in the mornings. I heard from swimmers; the Rev. Canon John Hartnett, Rector of St. Elizabeth's Church in Ridgewood, anchors this group, swimming a mile and a half each morning and finding that this "brings a peace which I rarely experience the rest of the day."

The Rev. Nancy Read, Deacon at Grace Church in Nutley, finds that her long run "frees my soul and feeds my body." A woman priest shifted her schedule to allow time each morning for prayer, meditation, and time at the gym lifting weights after a medical "wake up call."

Many clergy walk; one couple rides horses; some are doing yoga, diving, and dance; several are cyclists. We have hikers -- one priest hikes at least once a week, saying that "it's like prayer... and nurtures my relation to the Creator." Several dance. At least four of us are triathletes, with the Rev. Dr. Cathy Deats, Rector of St. James' Church in Hackettstown as our "dean."

What these clergy are saying is that exercise is a time for centering, for movement into connection with God. Regular exercise leads not only to fitness but to improvements across the board in their lives -- body, mind and spirit.

Bishop Gordon Scruton, recently retired from Western Massachusetts, did his morning intercessions on a treadmill, and counseled me to combine retreat days and days off to build time for a four or five-day backpacking "retreat."

So what about you? How might you get some “Relaxation Response” zone time in the coming year?

It may take some experimenting to find what works for you, because it's different for everyone – in fact, it can be as quirky as your preference for ice cream flavors. While stalwart types make up their minds and then just go do healthy things, I never wake up and think "Oh yippee! I get to exercise and pray now." I need to sign up for a race and then train for it. In 2007, when I realized I had gotten frightfully out of shape, I signed up for the 2008 Myrtle Beach Half-Marathon, which I jogged and walked. This, for me, was the precursor for the triathlons I love.

However you do it, make this your year to find what works for you in making a body-mind-spirit connection for yourself.

Note: As with all new exercise programs, if you're over 40, or have a medical condition, it's best to check with your doctor before you sprint to the corner.

The Rev. Fairbairn Powers is Priest-in-Charge of St. Agnes' Church in Little Falls, and competes in triathlons. Her next race will be the Subaru Banff Triathlon in Alberta, Canada this September, in which she and her daughter Kate Weber plan to compete together as a relay team.