It has been a long journey, a journey driven by my heart and maneuvering my way from the science lab to the community. After receiving my Ph.D. and postdoctoral training in neuroscience from Yale University, I taught and trained students and psychiatric residents at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Then I moved to Chicago and worked as a senior research scientist at Abbott Laboratories. Throughout my 23-year career as a neuroscientist, I dedicated myself to preclinical research in anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. My goal was to develop a better drug to help patients overcome mood disorders instead of simply treating their symptoms.
In my search of conquering anxiety itself, I started training at a Body & Brain center in Chicago, where they use a methodology that consists of traditional Eastern mind and body training integrated with neuroscientific findings. People participate in physical, emotional, and cognitive exercises, as well as postures, breathing techniques, along with guided imagery and games designed to improve sensory awareness, motor control, and balance while sharpening your emotional regulation, attention, and powers of imagination and creativity. Through this training, I understood and experienced the power of utilizing the “qi” energy system — a term originating from Chinese philosophy and medicine — to heal my mind and body.
This experience profoundly changed my overview and approach to understanding disease. So in the summer of 2011, I decided to quit my job to become a full-time instructor at the Body & Brain center in Libertyville, Illinois. You can imagine how my mother reacted at my decision to “throw away the degree from Yale.” But after experiencing the power of this training, my heart knew exactly what I needed to do. I realized there is no need for a particular drug, or a particular technique, when it comes to solving most of our society’s problems. All we have to do is unleash our own capacity and power to overcome illness — however it strikes. Our brains and bodies have this technology built-in within themselves.
As manager at the Libertyville center, I met so many people who were eager to help others in their healing process too. This collective desire created an environment that naturally encouraged me to do community outreach. It was through my fellow members that I could understand the reality surrounding the center. I felt their passion to serve those most in need. Moved by their stories and by their will to help, I just let things happen through them.
Libertyville and the neighboring community have a number of high schools that are academically excellent, but are not without problems. Stevenson High School, one of the most well-known high schools in Illinois due to its high standards, is also known for its competitive environment that brings out high levels of stress upon its teachers and students. Christina Tu, an instructor at the Libertyville center, and a Stevenson graduate herself, decided to create a mindful, living environment within the school for the students to thrive. Through one of her former teachers, she contacted the school and was able to present our training program to the school’s dean and a school psychiatrist, both of whom fully supported the idea and decided to bring the program aboard as an after-school activity. Christina offered free classes to the general student population but specifically targeted the varsity basketball and lacrosse teams. Students immediately became interested in the idea, and their focus in other classes quickly improved. The basketball team even won state championships this year!
Another member of the center engaged us to empower youth in the community. We started with the nearby Hulse Juvenile Detention Center, which receives more than 300 minors per year, all of whom are placed within the facility for issues including chronic delinquency, serious property crimes, as well as sex- and weapon-related offenses. Many of the inmates suffer from mental health issues, besides having special education needs, coming from backgrounds with severe family dysfunction. Starting in the fall of 2013, Libertyville center volunteers have been teaching weekly brain-based mindful yoga classes to minors both in the detention center and in a residential program called FACE-IT (Family and Community Engaged in Treatment). At first, it was very difficult to engage these minors, particularly those in the detention center facility.
Christina reflected on her experience: “They are visibly anxious and having difficulty to even close their eyes for breathing. I could see how brain education and its broad range of exercises and techniques can help anyone quiet their mind even if it is just for a while. Some of the boys who were extremely shy could open up and focus well on the meditation. They were able to express their experience through drawing and writing in their journals.” Working with Susan Korpai, the superintendent of the detention center, our Body & Brain volunteers are preparing to provide a more intensive four-hour workshop that will teach effective tools for physical and emotional grounding in an effort of helping participants unleash their brains’ inner inspiration, all in hopes of creating a better life for themselves.
For the last 18 months, another one of our volunteers, Claudette A. Loiacono-Walker, has been working weekly with children from underserved populations in the community. As a retired lawyer and long-time piano teacher, she has a great affinity and patience for working with children. When one of our members mentioned a local shelter in need of a volunteer to help young children and mothers, Claudette was there for them. The shelter (which will not be named to protect its confidentiality) is for families of domestic violence. It offers a refuge to families for about six months, until moms and their children are able to leave to begin new lives. The ages of the children in a class are between 3 and 11. The older ones learn to help the younger ones. These children are not used to structure in their lives and are very apprehensive about physical touch. The first class we offered was “hands are not for hitting,” to let the children know that hitting is not the only thing that hands can do.
Claudette said: “My class can best be described as playful mindfulness. My goal is to help the children relax, to have fun and laugh, to become aware of their bodies, to introduce them to mindful movement and breathing, to allow them to take leadership in the yoga class and to stimulate their self-worth.”
At the beginning of working with a new group, it can be a challenge to get the participants to engage in exercises because of their past trauma and living circumstances. However, as the weeks pass on, they learn to trust and surrender into the activity just because they don’t want to miss out when the other kids are having fun falling over or laughing. When I ask her what motivates her most, Claudette responds: “Although my time is short with each child, I can see little changes in them as they grow. I also see myself growing and learning in my response to them. I truly believe that in some small way their hearts have been touched with light and as they develop that light they will spread it to others.”
Facilitating the volunteer work from the Body & Brain training center for the various groups within the surrounding community is very natural and deeply meaningful to me. What can be more significant than increasing overall awareness within one’s community in an effort of enabling a more sustainable living in all physical and emotional aspects? The ultimate goal of Libertyville’s Body & Brain center is for us to grow and inspire each other through completely aligning with our mission statement, whose objective is benefiting humanity, as widely as possible, and creating a better world by awakening the potential of our brain and body, and bringing to surface the best in the human spirit.
More than anything, action in the community makes my heart sing and fills me with hope. Science is just science, but when used to help, science becomes energy, and energy becomes spirit. And mental and physical diseases simply melt away. What this experience has taught me is that, when your mind connects with others, we can make magic.