[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen we approach wellness from a whole perspective, we look not only at the physiological aspect of health, but we endeavor to care for the mind and spirit as well. Meditation, cognitive healing, visual and positive imaging, empowerment coaching and varied forms of therapy and counseling are all considered complementary and alternative options that can nurture the mind, lift the spirit and support mental health. This is an important task when we consider the depression and anxiety that can accompany living with HIV. What precisely do we wish to accomplish by engaging in treatments that focus on the mind and spirit? Certainly, the answer to that question will be personally driven and different for each of us. For me, the one word that often comes to mind, and that I often hear from clients, is “empowerment.”
In addition to the vast array of options available to us through trained professionals, we can find empowerment on our own, within ourselves, via our own choices and actions—through setting and achieving pertinent goals, reaching landmarks, lending our skills and talents to a cause and becoming a part of community working toward a common goal.
Often times it is a shared experience, such as the fight against HIV/AIDS, which forms the strongest of bonds. For three days in the month of September, I, along with people from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, traveled from Boston to New York City for one such extraordinary shared experience. I had the privilege of being part of a team of volunteer massage therapists on Cycle for the Cause: The Northeast AIDS Ride; an annual event where hundreds of people ride 275 miles to raise funds for the HIV/AIDS services at the New York City LGBT Community Center. Along the way there are flat tires, broken bicycle chains, and worn-out brake pads. There is the occasional fall or crash. Without question, there are aching forearms and shoulders after a day of gripping tightly to handlebars. There are cramped calves, sore feet, tight glutes, contracted quadriceps and hamstrings in need of a helping hand after hundreds of miles on bike. There are sunburns, dehydration, and a variety of injuries and ailments along the way. But the cyclists, no pun intended, are driven. And the crew is there to support them every step of the way. Each individual, rider or crew, lends his or her strength, skill, talent and caring to achieve a common goal.
The cyclists who challenge the blacktop and assorted elements along the way train all year long for this event. Supporting them in their journey are hundreds of crew members—medical teams, road crews, pit stops, bike repair, safety teams, command centers, and more. This event is a community of people from every station in life brought together by a common goal and bound together by a common thread. It is indeed an empowering experience for all who participate.
The riders train for many months, if not more, for the journey. Practice rides take place that increase in distance over time. To set and achieve this type of goal is not only good for the body from a physical standpoint, but such an accomplishment strengthens the mind and spirit. It addresses wellness from a whole perspective. Every cyclist and every crew member has a story to tell and a reason why they do what they do. One such inspirational group is known as the Positive Pedalers. I had the opportunity to speak with Scott A. Kramer, LCSW-R, who is a crew member of the “Pos Peds.” Scott explained that Pos Peds is a larger organization that includes riders and crew from many different rides and walks of life. Pos Peds are riders or crew living with HIV that participate in the ride. They can choose to display the Pos Peds flag or not, it doesn’t matter. It gives people a sense of belonging.
As a crew member, the preparation for the ride, in addition to fundraising, provides a creative outlet. If someone is on the crew at a rejuvenation station or lunch stop, they can figure out a fun theme for their station so when riders come through, it can be a fun experience. Scott continued, “The experience for a crew person is amazing. I was assigned to a lunch stop and I was also the Emotional Fitness Coach. I felt like I was really helping the riders and crew! It was empowering because I knew that I was not only helping people get through the ride emotionally, but also helping them through physically—making sure they were hydrating, wearing their helmet as they rode on, etc. It’s amazing to hear stories of what the riders were experiencing on the road, why they were on the ride, and what they do in everyday life. Waking up at 4:30 am was not easy, but that was okay because I knew the day would be invigorating and wonderful. I felt like I was part of a special family that comes together once a year and does something extraordinary.”
I asked Scott, from a mental health perspective, why is taking part in an event like this helpful, important and empowering? He replied, “Taking part in a ride like this gives a sense of belonging and a sense of doing something good for a cause. It also feels empowering to be a part of this larger group that people see once a year. A shared experience creates a real sense of bonding and strength. This can carry people throughout the rest of the year and that’s why people keep coming back. It also forms a community and this helps people feel less isolated, less lonely, and more connected with others in a way that doesn’t happen in the everyday routine.”
For me, participating in this event in such a hands-on way and lending my skills to support the cyclists and other crew members is an uplifting and empowering experience that challenges my body, fosters my spirit and clarifies my mind. With every stretch I provide to an aching cyclist and with every stroke of a taut muscle belonging to a crew member, it does my heart and soul good to know that I, in my own simple way, am providing a service and support that helps these unparalleled people to rise, shine and wage their own battle, in their own way, another day. Collectively, these types of experiences serve to address ourselves from a whole perspective and contribute to our whole wellness.
After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Robert Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.