Not all paths to health involve exercising the body in the outer world. Both scientists and clergy have long recognized that a huge component of health is the ability to turn inward and find spiritual peace. Fortunately, the Mother Lode offers dozens of churches, temples, studios and other settings where residents can follow their inner paths.

Many of these institutions have long histories in the Gold Country. Catholic churches were among the first community centers established when people of European descent arrived in large numbers during the Gold Rush. The Mother Lode also has a number of Orthodox Christian churches and, of course, dozens of Protestant Christian churches. Other faith traditions have also taken root in recent decades, with at least one Buddhist monastery and a number of venues offering the yoga methods that come from Ayurvedic tradition.

The path to spiritual wellness may vary depending on the individual, but in general, all roads lead to finding inner calmness and peace needed to get through whatever life brings, no matter what cultural background or faith heritage a person brings to the task.

The work may involve searching for meaning and purpose that are often associated with values and beliefs. The results of this search can give individuals the spiritual strength to survive difficulties with grace. A side benefit is often that these seekers become physically and mentally healthier through spiritual practices.

“Everyone needs someone outside of themselves, whatever and whoever it may be. For me, it’s God which allows me to not have to rely on myself but to believe in the hope that all things are possible,” said John Lawless, Calaveras County deputy director of Health and Human Services.

Before coming to lead the various Calaveras County programs that address behavioral health, addiction and mental health, Lawless had a long career as a minister. He said that work taught him that those who seek out faith benefit emotionally and mentally and tend to have more stability.

In particular, he said that those in his faith tradition take great comfort in the wisdom of the Bible. “Having faith can demolish feelings of hopelessness, which I try to exhibit to my clients by the impact it has had on me,” said Lawless.

When families face tough situations including health problems, spiritual practices and religious beliefs can help fight feelings of helplessness and restore meaning and order to life situations. And this isn’t just a matter of faith. Science agrees that there are benefits.

Medical studies have confirmed that spirituality can have a profound effect on the mental and physical states of individuals

“Depending on how much you believe, or involve yourself in seeking a higher power, one can experience a feeling of relaxation, which seems to really help make a positive impact mentally and spiritually,” said Lawless.

No matter how it is accessed or described, research points to spirituality’s strong and positive effect on health. Spirituality has been shown in multiple studies to reduce depression, eliminate negative, health-busting habits and increase quality of life in the face of disease and illness.

Believe it or not, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence, enough to say without hesitation: prayer, including prayer shared with other members of one’s faith community, is healthy for those who practice it.

“None of us are an island. We see it in mental health: isolation can create more problems but reaching out to someone else who is likeminded can give a different perspective and lead one to developing one’s own sense of sense and belief,” Lawless said.

Students practice meditation in yoga classes

Cherie Newman, Yoga Loft owner and instructor, demonstrates a twisted lunge.

So, what exactly can you do to improve your spiritual wellness? It’s best to figure out what techniques work for you and stick to them. This may include mediation, yoga, affirmations, prayer, or a connection to a higher power through faith.

Prayer groups are a traditional method used by Christians to know God and grow spiritually well. Group prayer is just as powerful, natural and necessary as private prayer. It will benefit believers as they grow in their faith by being involved with a community of other believers.

Students practice meditation in yoga classes

Nicole Kikugawa practicing spiritual health through a supported bridge pose.

Meditation can slow down the hectic pace and demands of life. It offers a direct route to addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of those who may not want to participate in prayer tied to a particular faith.

“The spiritual journey of meditation moves us toward who we are. A lot of us are fragile and hurt, and meditation allows us to come to a better understanding of ourselves in a nonjudgmental way,” said Cherie Newman, a yoga instructor at Columbia College.

Newman said that to reap the benefits, it is important to set aside time to focus on yourself and get out of your head. “Meditation is an integrated way to enjoy our lives fully and to learn to be true to our spirits,” she said.

Students practice meditation in yoga classes

Yoga integrates both internal meditative practices and physical exercises. It can be a relaxing, yet challenging spiritual practice that aims to create a sense of union in individuals through physical postures and breathing techniques. “It tends to be a noncompetitive and very accessible for everyone to focus on spiritual health through movements of the body, breath work and learning to get control of the mind,” said Newman.

The benefits bring together physical and mental disciplines to achieve a peaceful body and mind, to help manage stress and anxiety and increases flexibility and muscle tone.

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Shasta Garcia, a 20-year-old graduate from Columbia College where she earned an associates degree in communications, has worked at the Calaveras Enterprise since 2013, first as an intern and then as a Web Content Coordinator.

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