Though the holidays may highlight our desire to give thanks, gratitude practices are being applied year-round in therapeutic and spiritual settings across Western North Carolina. From yoga studios to salt caves to counseling and crisis centers, folks in diverse healing vocations seem to have a common appreciation for the power of gratitude.
According to a 2018 white paper published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, “A series of meta-analysis studies have attempted to determine the efficacy of gratitude interventions, and most have concluded that gratitude interventions do appear to significantly increase happiness, well-being and positive mood.” The white paper concluded that gratitude practices are more effective in adults than children, more readily adopted by women than men and, not surprisingly, provided more benefit to those who were motivated to change their lives.
The white paper’s authors cautioned against assuming that gratitude interventions are effective in every situation. For example, promoting gratitude among groups that have experienced significant systemic disadvantages, those in abusive relationships and other challenging situations may benefit individuals but should not deflect a realistic acknowledgement of the difficulties some people face.
Taking on trauma
At Our VOICE, a nonprofit agency that serves individuals affected by sexual assault and abuse, regular expressions of gratitude promote resilience. “Gratitude can radically shift what we identify with. … It’s like a perspective shift — a zooming out of our attention,” says Our VOICE counselor Sarah Gettys.
Gettys talks about gratitude as an invitation to widen one’s lens of awareness. As a result, she says, “the heart can soften around the problems.” In her work counseling trauma survivors, Gettys uses gratitude as a healing tool in both the early and late stages of recovery. Gratitude works to promote resilience when the nervous system has been disrupted by trauma, since gratitude and fear cannot exist together at the same time, she says.
Angélica Wind, executive director of Our VOICE, says that focusing on gratitude can also serve a protective function for the organization’s staff. “We have found that gratitude is a key protective factor for our staff as it relates to compassion fatigue and/or vicarious trauma. We work with really hard material, and it is important for us that we create a culture where we can minimize the trauma that our staff is at risk of being impacted by,” she explains.
Tricia Hinshaw, program director of outpatient services at RHA Health Services, also highlights the role that gratitude plays in the organization’s work culture. A couple of years ago around Thanksgiving, RHA staff added a gratitude board to the break room. The board provides a place where employees can write down anything that they are grateful for, with the focus on appreciating other staff members.
And RHA’s embrace of gratitude practices doesn’t stop there. All staff meetings begin with appreciations. These shoutouts, Hinshaw explains, help create a culture of interdependence and helpfulness among co-workers. Hinshaw says the organization’s shift toward a culture of gratitude and appreciation has made a real impact on employee satisfaction and retention. “People seem happier,” Hinshaw reports. “Being grateful that we are able to serve an amazing community” has improved staff morale overall, she says.
From stable to cave
Sometimes animals can pick up on the subtle emotions that humans struggle to articulate. Eliada Homes equine therapist Carrie Melear reports that she uses gratitude to help children and teens interact with the horses. Since horses do not respond well to children who are upset, angry or in a negative emotional space, Mealer encourages the children to find something they appreciate about the horse and concentrate on that. The shift in focus changes the energy and attitude of the child, allowing the horse to respond positively, she says.
Tami Ruckman, Eliada’s director of development, says that an attitude of gratitude and focusing on the glass half full is part of the children’s social and emotional learning. As she explains, “Part of resolving trauma is learning to be grateful for what you do have.”
Not only do gratitude practices support folks who are doing deep, difficult work in the community, but modes of giving thanks are also being incorporated into spa and wellness settings. On Nov. 14, Asheville Salt Cave owner Jodie Appel led a healing ceremony focused on cultivating gratitude. Held in the serene environment of the cave, the occasion combined time for quiet personal reflection along with community sharing and intention setting.
Appel asked participants to bring an item from the natural world, such as an acorn or a leaf, as a vessel for their intentions for the new year to come. Honoring this time of year, she says, is challenging in the face of the busyness of the holiday season, but appropriate and beneficial.
“I think Thanksgiving tends to get kind of overlooked, but it’s so helpful to slow down and honor what are we grateful for. This world is sort of heavy and crazy right now, so we want to help people connect with and capture the gratitude.” That’s something Asheville Salt Caves urges its clients to reflect on as they enter the healing space at all times of the year, she explains.
Speaking personally, Appel says, she values a morning meditation practice that focuses on both gratitude and her intentions for the day to come. “It brings me back into balance. We’re all connected, so it reflects into the next person I come into contact with,” she says. “We live in a little bit of a selfish world. Pausing and taking the next moment with gratitude helps, because it goes fast.”
On the shoulders of giants
Randy Loftis, co-founder of Iyengar Yoga Asheville, comments, “At the end of class, students often thank me. I typically smile and thank them for being there. It is not my place to accept the student’s gratitude. It is the teachers that came before and yoga itself that they are truly thankful for.”
Loftis expresses his debt to the examples and insights of those who have paved the way for his own teaching. “I am grateful to benefit from the knowledge that BKS Iyengar shared with the world,” he says. “The depth of the subject of yoga can be overwhelming. With this in mind, I start each class paying respect to the teachers that came before. It is because of their efforts that we are able to progress on the path of yoga.” Iyengar Yoga Asheville will be holding a benefit class on Thanksgiving Day. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to MANNA FoodBank.
Tom Ball of the Asheville Transcendental Meditation Center echoes the importance of honoring the teachers who came before. “As a teacher, whenever we instruct someone in this meditation, first we honor the tradition of meditation masters from whom the practice has been handed down over thousands of years.”
Furthermore, Ball underscores the inherent value in starting from a place of thankfulness. “People from all cultures have recognized that gratitude warms the heart. It opens the heart and allows the heart to flow. Gratitude thereby opens us to receive even more blessings, because nature itself — the universe, natural law – rewards an open heart.”
While TM is based on science and evidence, Ball says, “The preservation of this ancient practice, as with many other traditional practices of meditation, is actually based entirely on gratitude.”
While a number of studies have found evidence that gratitude practices can promote an increased sense of psychological well-being, the physical effects haven’t yet been as clearly linked. Still, results overall “suggest that grateful individuals experience better physical health, in part, because of their greater psychological health, propensity for healthy activities, and willingness to seek help for health concerns,” a study published in 2012 concluded.
Many local practitioners feel strongly that gratitude is a key element in overall health and well-being.
Teah Boswell, founder of Well.Fit, an Asheville cycling studio, believes that gratitude and sharing abundance contribute to emotional and physical fitness. Well.Fit will host a benefit ride on Thanksgiving morning. All proceeds will go to the Student Assistance Fund at Asheville High School, which provides food for youths who wouldn’t otherwise have access to food over the holidays.
With a background in meditation and bodywork, Boswell values the opportunity to create a different kind of fitness culture at Well.Fit. She comments on the cathartic aspect of spin class, saying she has seen tears shed on the bike more than once. Spin class isn’t just about building cardiovascular fitness and strength. It is also a way to process emotions stored in the body, which provides an opportunity for “shutting down the chatter and just being,” Boswell says. Sweating hard and feeling gratitude for what one’s body can do are part of the experience.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Waterhouse of the Center for Spiritual Living Asheville is a huge proponent of the power of gratitude. “Gratitude can absolutely change your attitude,” Waterhouse says, and acknowledging all that congregants are grateful for plays a central role in the teachings at the Center for Spiritual Living.
“We train people to look at what the blessings are in life … what we are grateful for in life, and we create more and more of that,” Waterhouse says. She emphasizes that she sees people spending too much time focusing on the 10 percent of life that isn’t going well, while missing out on all that is going right.
Waterhouse encourages, “Use gratitude as a tool to lift up your awareness, to see all of the great things. We have First World problems here!”
Though modes of practicing gratitude may vary, most agree that gratitude helps us soften our hearts and gain perspective, thus opening us up to the good in our lives.