ὅλος (holos) is the greek word for whole, all, unity. It is from this, holos, that we derive our word holistic.
When I hear or read the word holistic, my mind is instantly presented with associations of granola eating hippies that live in nature without anything man made, and of people with alternative views on health and sickness than what is conventionally (which is to say, what is agreed upon by the majority, ie. held in convention, ie. convenient) upheld by Western medicine. Perhaps you have the same associations as well.
But there is nothing of the sort that is intrinsic in the word holos, or holistic. Holistic is grounded in ‘the whole’, and makes reference to the fact that in order to understand the parts, (whether that be function(s), role(s) or what have you) the comprehension of these parts are intrinsically connected and explicable solely by reference to the whole.
When an organ does a certain function, x, we can not say that it is behaving properly or not, rightly or wrongly in and of itself. We ascribe a function to that organ solely by how it serves the whole, ie. the body. It is only when the whole suffers, which we recognize by a shift from balance (health/homeostasis), that we determine and make the claim that the organ is not functioning properly.
I have been teaching, both in classes open to the public and in private lessons, for a little while now. I have found that there are some people, people who I am not interested in teaching (and who are not interested in learning), that are perhaps ignorant to the concept of holos, or are too impatient to learn in a holistic manner. Let me provide an example.
I remember one day while I was at Ronin MMA a big man came into the school and had some questions so I talked to him. My coach, Wade, was teaching an MMA class, covering some basic wrestling techniques. The man mentioned to me that the technique he was showing at the time was good, but would never work on him, because he would just do ‘x’. This was not someone who saw things in terms of holos.
In martial arts, especially before the rise of MMA, there has always been an almost esoteric or occult inkling that there existed, somewhere out there, but not currently known, a body of knowledge of a singular unstoppable martial arts technique. Myth would have it that there existed a single technique, the Dim Mak (death touch), that if done correctly, though it appeared painless, would lead to the death of the recipient. Lots of stories like these, always about someone else, exist, where somebody who trained with somebody knows a technique that is just so powerful, it is illegal, or whatever other claims that would make it sound ridiculously powerful.
Though perhaps I am simply ignorant of such a move, I would venture to state that such a move does not exist. If such a technique existed, surely it would rank highest on the hierarchy of moves within combat sports, and from there existing a highest, surely the next best move would be one that lead to the highest, and so on.
And so, in martial arts there is this sense among many that there are some good techniques to learn, and that is it. You don’t need to know them all. This is not holos.
My approach to martial arts or combat sports (fighting) is quite different. Every technique has an advantage and a disadvantage, and those advantages and disadvantages are predicated and can only be understood when you look at the fight as a whole. A jab serves a specific purpose, but shouldn’t be used in other instances. Likewise, a certain wrestling move has its strengths in one scenario, and its weaknesses as well. There is no perfect move in general, or even in a specific scenario; each moment of a combat situation calls for techniques that which each have their pros and cons, and the pros and cons of those moves can only be weighed and understood in terms of the fight as a whole.
When the man said that the technique was no good because he would just do ‘x’ to counter it, he wasn’t demonstrating knowledge of holos. We could have every martial arts or fight expert demonstrate, one by one, each technique known to man. And one by one, we could look at them and say “nope, that wouldn’t work because I could just do ‘x'”. The truth is, if you reduce each technique to itself, they have no meaning, value, or strength. In doing so, we could state, with confidence, that there doesn’t exist a single effective or valuable martial arts technique. We could say that even of the counter techniques, and so on.
But we know this is not true. We know that people, whether highly skilled or not, do actually defeat each other in combat. The reason this is so, is because reducing the system to single instances doesn’t provide meaning. It is through the holos, a holistic approach, by understanding the whole, does true knowledge of the technique, its meaning and value, become understood.
I wanted to use the example of holos in martial arts and combat sports as an analogy for how we come to understand and get meaning from health and fitness. I am quite emphatic and convinced that what is most useful is a holistic approach to healthy living.
The analogy would run something like this. In martial arts there is this underlying sense that there are some techniques that are more valuable than others. These techniques, or the existence of them, are esoteric forms of knowledge, and the existence of them have an almost occult quality. This is quite similar to our belief in our scientific study of health. We believe and operate on the perspective and paradigm that there are distinct, finite things that we can do to reach a state of health, as if it is a state to be reached and has some finality. This body of knowledge, of course, we believe is ‘out there’, and we are hoping to get a glimpse of it. The holders of this knowledge that is ‘out there’ are of course scientists and those pursuing scientific study of health and fitness. This knowledge is passed down through news articles, as most of us do not have access to scientists to share with us their findings in person (unlike martial arts). Articles such as these make claims to the effect of that by doing these 3 things or eating those 3 things you will acquire health. These health articles are heralded as truth, and are often ‘grounded’ in some scientific claim.
We keep holding on to this belief that if we just do this one thing, eat this one food, stop doing this one thing, that we will be healthy, whatever ‘healthy’ means to us in our conceptualization of it.
This is the Dim Mak. This is a myth.
Our scientific approach to health is much like us looking and dissecting each individual martial arts technique one by one, and attempting to gain some sort of meaning or knowledge from it. We believe that if we do a study and control all the variables, and just alter one thing (the addition of this food, of this exercise, of this practice, or deletion of one of these things) that a certain distinct outcome will occur, and that this outcome can be translated into our daily lives, of which, an infinite number of variables exist and are constantly in flux.
Just as the results from the study and analysis of martial arts techniques one by one in isolation has no meaning, neither do these studies of diet/health/etc.(*Additionally, though it is claimed to be scientific in the sense that all variables are controlled, not a single diet, human or health related study can ever control all the variables.)
We need to take a comprehensive, an integrated, a holistic approach towards health. What this means is that health isn’t an end goal that can be reached and then forgotten about, it is more like a direction one moves towards, a way of living and being. It, like the fight, involves all aspects of your life. The whole has to be taken into account, the whole is the measure of the parts.
Does a meal make you feel more energetic or lethargic? Does a meal give you mental clarity or not. Does interacting with a certain social group or setting provide mental stimulation, support and positivity, or do you feel judged and anxious? Does your job or performing a certain event bring fulfillment and ease, or is there stress and suffering? Can someone be healthy with a balanced diet and exercise, but is constantly suffering from anxiety and is unhappy? What does health look like? Is it aesthetics? Is someone healthy when their physical body has acquired physical curves that are represented as attractive in the media? Is someone that spends all their time exercises and is obsessed compulsive about their food intake at the expense of other aspects of their life (social, mental, spiritual) healthy?
I think health is definitely something that can only be comprehended through holos. I don’t see how anything, in itself, in isolation, could ever meaningfully be comprehended as healthy or not, unless it is presented in terms of the state of the whole.
And with that, I must say that I have no witty ending to this blog post. I simply think that a holistic approach and perspective of health is probably a good thing.