The root of the word "health" is "whole." Which kind of makes sense.
In many ancient worldviews, disease or corruption or even evil weren't so much distinct entities in themselves, but were rather a fall from the original and good whole. Augustine of Hippo, that famed North African Christian Saint and philosopher of the third century, used the analogy of a hole in a shirt: the hole, while bad, isn't itself a thing, but the absence of the shirt. He was working toward a description of evil and sin as being various degrees of "without God," and he represents one ancient application among many of this wholeness-worldview.
The running assumption of this holistic worldview is that health and wellness are the norm, the expectation, the way things are supposed to be, and that disease or illness represents a disruption of that wholeness, an imbalance, if you will.
When my wife and I were pregnant with our first child, we were living in the Netherlands, where midwives and home-births are the norm. At our first visit with the midwife we were stunned and delighted when she described pregnancy as "just another stage of health." It wasn't a budding emergency, or a crisis waiting to happen. Our midwife didn't start with a battery of invasive tests to rule out all the possibilities of potential disasters. At every point during the pregnancy we were encouraged to understand this as a healthy and dynamic process. Only if concerns arose would there be more intensive follow-up. To our delightful surprise, our first child was born with relative ease and joy ("relative," mind you) and that pregnancy remains one of our cherished memories.
Contrast that with our second pregnancy, by which time we were living in the States again. Granted, there were complicating factors to the pregnancy (twins, among other things), but the medical apparatus of the US was startling: beginning with all the tests to rule out the rarest and worst possibilities, and then moving across the spectrum of tests, examinations and procedures to the point of "I guess we're as safe as we can be at this point." It felt the opposite of our experience in the Netherlands. Thankfully, our experience with our twins, while more anxious and quite a bit different procedurally, also resulted in healthy, wonderful children.
The contrast was between a medical worldview that assumes health and wholeness is the norm, and one that assumes illness and disease is. Or better yet, between systems that focus on wholeness and those that focus on particular, distinct problems.
Holism, or the holistic approach, is a view of wellness and health that looks at the whole person and their circumstances, inside and out. Holism assumes that if something is wrong, it is at root because of an imbalance in the person's life.
We know that psychological states can affect a person's health - stress, for instance, can cause physical symptoms like headaches and blurred vision as well as psychological problems such as lack of focus or poor decision-making. We take advantage of this mind-body link whenever we drink a cup of coffee to get us going in the morning. Mindfulness based stress reduction has been a subject of scientific study since the 1970's.
It turns out that medical science is also documenting the inverse relationship: our thoughts and behaviors can physically change the shape and wiring of our brains (sometimes called "neuroplasticity").
Holism isn't some far-out, ungrounded, hippy notion. It turns out to be medically measurable, and taken for granted in our daily lives. It is usually only when we run into a serious problem that we turn to compartmentalized specialists - doctors or psychologists or priests. Don't misunderstand me, I hold these specialists in very high regard and trust them to have my best interests at heart and a great wealth of knowledge and experience to offer. I also believe that we sometimes (all of us) tend to assume a problem is separate, fixable, changeable, instead of looking at it as a symptom or sign of a perhaps-unrelated problem. (I am not advising anyone to stop visiting their medical professionals or to not follow instructions! A good holistic wellness coach works in partnership and cooperation with all the wellness modalities that are important to an individual.)
A holistic approach assumes that, for the most part, we are complex beings with multiple contributing factors and inter-related systems. A cardio-vascular problem might be traced to a weight problem traced to an emotional relationship with food traced to a belief about themselves traced to a notion received in a religious upbringing grounded in a particular view of people. A good holistic approach will work on several "levels" at once: a healthy diet, physical training, working through emotions, identifying and evaluating beliefs, and so on.
Most importantly, holistic coaching asks what the individual wants. It suggests; it doesn't prescribe. It offers; it doesn't demand. It points out many possible options and asks what resonates with the individual. It doesn't offer one-size-fits-all solutions. Holistic coaching is a cooperative venture, because the individual is the best expert on themselves.
Wholeness and health are not just linguistically related. They are rooted in the same idea, the same reality. Health isn't just about illness or disease, but about making things right, finding balance, and being true to our best selves. That's a wellness regime I can get into.