How Do You Spell Relief?

Yoga and meditation leave you cold? Give these alternative therapies a whirl.

Drew Hanson, center, leads a Japanese tea ceremony–or chado–at Boukakuan in Columbus. Joining the ceremony, from left, are students Shoko Kato, who prepared the tea; Dave Ryan from Ocean View, Delaware; and Paul Resnick from Elkins Park, Pennsylvannia.
Drew Hanson, center, leads a Japanese tea ceremony–or chado–at Boukakuan in Columbus. Joining the ceremony, from left, are students Shoko Kato, who prepared the tea; Dave Ryan from Ocean View, Delaware; and Paul Resnick from Elkins Park, Pennsylvannia.
Photo by Sandra Nissen

When hobbled by stress, your sister reaches for red wine. Your boss swears by acupuncture for her back pain. And your best friend turns into a hot-yoga junkie when she gets the blues.

But as someone who has tried—and failed—to find your own path to stress relief, you’re starting to wonder: Am I beyond help?

Here is what you should do: Go deeper.

New Jersey, you see,  is teeming with healers. We wound-up New Jerseyans are never more than a exercise-ball toss away from an alternative therapist. Yes, they practice outside the world of medical credentials and clinical trials, but many have followers who swear they are getting results.
So why not you? Below, an exploration of six alternative therapies aimed at refueling a sense of well-being among those of us frazzled, made frantic or otherwise flattened by life in New Jersey. One of them might soothe you, too.

Sensory Deprivation
The Netflix series Stranger Things did not do much for the reputation of sensory-deprivation tanks. On that show, a young girl with ESP is forcibly plunged into a tank to deepen her powers. But what actually happens in sensory deprivation tanks, which also go by the name float pods, is much the opposite, as I found on a recent visit to Serene Dreams Flotation Therapy Center in Kearny.

Here, after an hour floating  in a giant, white-lidded tub that looks a little like an albino hippopotamus with its mouth open, you are likely to emerge utterly powerless—but in the best possible way. Daniel Serecka, a co-owner of the float studio—one of several in New Jersey—espouses the physical benefits of a one-hour session, which costs $75.

“Athletes love it for relieving sore muscles and joints,” says Serecka. “And it helps detoxify you.”

But it doesn’t just relieve burdened bodies. A dip into deprivation, even for those who don’t suffer physical pain, feels revelatory, or at least it did for me.
After a five-minute introductory spiel, I was shown to one of Serene Dreams’ three pods, each in a private room. Here, I was left to figure out how much or how little I wanted to deprive myself. Clothing—in the form of a bathing suit—is  optional. If you’re claustrophobic, you don’t have to close the hippo-mouth lid all the way, or even lower it at all. If you are afraid of the dark, you can keep your eyes open and train them on an optional, colored-light sequence that turns on and off with the press of a  button. If you prefer to hear something other than the cave-like sounds of your body, you can load your iPod with a favorite audio program. One Serene Dream client uses foreign-language tutorials.

“He comes here and listens because there’s nothing else to distract him in there,” says Serecka.  “It helps him focus on learning the language.”

I spent my pod time exploring my options. What I liked best—where I found the most contentment—was in a closed-lidded scenario with the light show going. My mind quieted as I floated in 98.6-degree water rich with pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts. The salts, high in iron and magnesium, keep you from sinking.
When my hour was over—soothing music came on to let me know time was up—I entered post-float nirvana, a state similar to the wet-noodle feeling you get after a session with a gifted masseuse. I was so relaxed, I wasn’t sure I was up to driving home. But I did, and my sensory-deprivation-fueled spell of calm and clarity was broken only when my 15-year-old son tipped me off to the crusty white stuff—dried Epsom soak—on my arms and face.
Tip: Rinse yourself thoroughly in the float center’s showers, as your guide recommends. Serene Dreams, 537 Kearny Avenue, Kearny; to book an appointment, call: 201-997-1000.

Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is no pinky-in-the-air, chintz-print, bone-China affair. Rather, it is a journey both physical and spiritual. The intent is to share a bowl of tea with one or more people with no expectation of return. In an atmosphere of mutual respect, a host undertakes the simple act of making tea and serving it, creating a moment of unity and peace. The precision and purity make the experience unforgettable.

There are a few places in New Jersey where you can get a lesson in chado, or the Japanese way of tea. For mine, I went to Boukakuan in Columbus, an unincorporated community in Burlington County. Boukakuan is located at a private residence; when I arrived—guided by the red koi windsock at the driveway entrance—I was greeted by the proprietor, Drew Hanson, a tall man in a green kimono. But it feels wrong to suggest that Boukakuan is a business. For Hanson and a handful of regular participants who join him every Wednesday for his highly ritualized tea, chado is a passion, and the passion is contagious.

Boukakuan, translated, means “a rustic hut where one may aspire to awakening.” Every Japanese tea ceremony is held in one. The hut at Hanson’s house is separated from the outside world, and the main residence, by way of a garden path lined with fragrant, flowering trees and a koi pond. Inside the quiet, meditative space is laid with tatami mats. Here, tea can be brewed and the mind emptied.

During the ceremony, participants  become acquainted with four concepts: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility—not directly, but through discrete actions, like sipping from the communal bowl and wiping where you’ve sipped before passing it. Silence plays a role, as do kneeling and bowing.

The formality of the ceremony “may appear to be really heavy-duty stuff,” Hanson says. But it’s not. It’s mostly just an effective, lovely way of hitting the reset button on the day.

The lack of stimuli in the hut helps a pure and open heart become a possibility. For me, during the hour I spent with the Boukakuan participants, it became a fact. Boukakuan, 1832 Jacksonville-Jobstown Road, Columbus; 609-481-7321 or [email protected].

Sound Therapy
Sound therapy is not for everybody. Brenda Castano, who leads group sessions three times a week at Aquarian Yoga Center in Westfield, knows this. So when I, a first-timer, showed up recently, she asked if I had sensitive ears before directing me to a bin of yoga mats, blankets and pillows to select from before settling in for the hour-long workshop.

I don’t have sensitive ears, but if I did, she said she would have positioned me farther from the source of the sounds.
Sound therapy—which involves thumping various-sized crystal bowls with a mallet wrapped in suede as people lie on a hard floor in a candlelit room—is loud. At least in Westfield.

“I’ve trained other teachers, and sometimes the way they play the bowls is very soft,” says Castano. “With me, the energy just comes out loud. It varies from person to person.”

She is not kidding. As I lay on the floor with a small crystal on my arm (Castano places one on each prone participant before she starts playing the bowls) and a randomly chosen angel card by my side (these are like Tarot cards and offer insight into a certain aspect of your life), I tried to think of aural comparisons to what Castano was creating. Which was challenging, because the sounds kept changing.

Some of Castano’s bowl playing was pleasant as a bamboo flute. But when she really got going, the intensity got deeper and sharper. There were moments when the bowls—some as small as cereal bowls, others big as punch bowls—screeched like smoke alarms. I wondered if I should have taken a more remote position. At other times, the playing reminded me of the echo-heavy sound effect in movies that lets you know a character has been drugged or is drunk. The woozy, eerie instrument known as the Swarmatron, favored by Trent Reznor and used in the film The Social Network, also came to mind.

Despite the din, the room was packed with regulars.

Here is what you are supposed to get out of sound therapy: cleansed chakras, an awakened spirit and a sense of  forward motion. It happens through the  power of vibration.

“Our bodies are 78 percent water. So basically, when the vibration reaches the cells, the structure of the cells is changed,” says Castano. “The vibrations release tension, soothe your muscles and release blockages.”

Does it really help? Castano says some regulars  no longer suffer headaches. Others feel better equipped to manage daily stress and anxiety.
But the goal is larger.

“My reason for being is to help people awaken to their true purpose. And before they can do that, they have to clean up their emotional baggage,” Castano says. “Sound healing is a tool that lets people get where they need to be in their lives.” Aquarian Yoga Center, 812 Central Avenue, Westfield; 908-232-1613. Sessions are $16 each. Sign up online or drop in.

Drum Therapy
you don’t need to be a drummer to benefit from drum therapy.  You just need to feel the beat and lose yourself in joining the creation of rhythm. Also helpful: a willingness to be transported temporally, as well as mentally and spiritually.

In other words, let yourself summon the ethos of the 1960s, at least if you attend one of the two-hour spiritual drumming workshops Richard Reiter holds once a month on Sundays at Outpost in the Burbs, in Montclair, as I did.

Tattoos, bandanas and bare feet are much in evidence. Patchouli perfumes the air. And occasionally, someone in long skirts and bangle bracelets is inspired to get up and sway, trance-like, to the collective rhythm.

“They can have the feel of New Age sessions,” says Reiter, a Cedar Grove resident and professional musician who played saxophone with Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra in the 1970s  and learned to drum during a trip to Senegal in 1999.

Whatever you call the sessions, they are an effective way of forgetting yourself when life goes berserk. The exertion of pounding out beats on a drum is cathartic. Just listening can be transformative.

“There’s a meditative component to drumming,” says Reiter. “That’s the key point. The steady pulse of drumming does something for us and to us, and that’s the part I don’t really understand…But it’s magic.”

Dressed in clothing inspired by West Africa, Reiter radiates energy and patience as he talks about his practice. Probably one of New Jersey’s best known drum-circle leaders, he has been hauling his collection of 60 djembe and other African drums to locations across New Jersey since 1999. He visits schools, assisted-living facilities, hospitals, corporations and libraries.  (Reiter is not alone; an online search turns up circles in more than a dozen towns, from Blackwood to Lambertville.)

This fall, Reiter took his drums on the road to Vantage Health System, a nonprofit facility in Dumont that offers services to children, adults and elders with mental health, addiction, developmental and elder care challenges.

Around 20 patients being treated for varying levels of dementia were given Reiter’s hand drums. Prior to the hour-long session, some were remote and disinterested. By the end, nearly everyone was interacting with the instrument before them, if not pounding out beats à la Sheila E.

This is how drum circles go; souls get soothed by participating in the primal, heartbeat-like pull of rhythm.

“People really respond to the energy of the drum, the physicality of it, the positivity,” says Reiter. “It brings something out in everyone, like a conduit in their lives to something spiritual.” Richard Reiter, richardreiter.com/DrummingCircle. Public drum circles are $10; open to all.

Pet Therapy
If you are allergic to dogs, cats and other furry animals, skip ahead to the next therapy. If you are not, and you feel a funk coming on, do not discount this uncomplicated emotional upper.

Get yourself to pet therapy with a group like Creature Comfort Pet Therapy, a Morris Plains business that regularly takes its warm, fuzzy show to libraries, hospitals, schools and assisted-living facilities. If you prefer, use your DIY spirit at any local animal shelter. Shelters often need volunteers, and you’ll reap some of the same benefits as a formal pet-therapy session, just with less professionally cuddly animals.

Simply watching pet therapy in action can be rewarding, as I learned recently at a Creature Comfort outing to Lafayette School, in Chatham, where two dogs visited three classrooms of fourth- and fifth-grade kids with special needs.

While half a dozen children petted Maizie—a golden retriever so accustomed to delivering affection that she mashes her giant body into people like a cat—the school psychologist, Chris Magno, watched inhibitions melt away. One shy boy talked with Maizie’s owner, Judy Frankel of Short Hills, about his own dog while running his hand along Maizie’s back. Another child known for an inability to concentrate in class paid determined, careful attention to a primer on how to feed Maizie a treat.

“We do these sessions because they’re so helpful with increasing socialization and reducing anxiety and stress,” Magno says. And indeed, after 20 minutes with Maizie and her fellow therapy pooch, a Siberian husky-Pomeranian mix named Calli, the students seemed calmer and more at ease with their classmates.
Mary Beth Cooney, Creature Comfort’s executive director, says the benefits of pet therapy are scientifically proven to include lower  blood pressure, diminished pain, increased self confidence and improved communication skills.

But parsing the science seems not to be worth the trouble. Animals make people feel better in all kinds of ways. When you can’t lick your own wounds, they will do it for you. Creature Comfort, 973-285-9083.

Aromatherapy
Skeptical? two words: Vicks VapoRub.

That is what Lynda Rountree, an aromatherapist, said to me when I recently visited her studio and boutique, Green Heart Aromatherapy & Massage in Maplewood. She uses the Vicks example as a reminder of the transformative power of a pungent aroma.

There’s a scientific reason scents, especially the dozens of custom-blended potions aromatherapists like Rountree concoct, can soothe our bodies, our minds, and often both. “The simple explanation is that essential oils mix with the chemicals of the body and affect us physiologically,” says Rountree. “They affect the limbic system and the central nervous system.” Limbic system? That’s the part of the brain that, among other functions, experiences emotions.

Massage oils that penetrate the skin and release scents are particularly effective, Rountree says. Other compounds simply waft in through the nostrils.

There is a scent for whatever ails you. For example, if you have PMS, Rountree might massage you with a blend of ylang ylang, rose geranium and clary sage. She has other formulas for digestive troubles, headaches, depression, anxiety and plain old soreness. At Green Heart, she uses a diffuser to waft lavender essential oil through the air. As soon as you enter, you surrender whatever agitation you dragged in. I found myself  speaking slowly, almost in a whisper.

Which is one of the best benefits of aromatherapy.  “Breathing is more powerful than ingesting something,” says Rountree. “When you ingest something, like a tea or a pill, it has to have time to go through the digestive system.” The effects of aromatherapy can be immediate.

Powerful, right? Green Heart Aromatherapy and Massage,  697 Valley Street, Maplewood; 973-224-0660.

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