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Judi's Journal 12-31-2010

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The many health benefits of religion

By Judi Siegal

It’s the New Year and no doubt many of us have made New Year’s resolutions. Some of these resolutions may be in the form of being better to our bodies and striving for better health. You need only look past the Christmas sales to see the ads for fitness equipment, active wear and gym memberships. But before you run out to join a gym, I have another way to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve memory.

Research has shown that daily prayer can do many wonderful things for our bodies. Now I wish it could make me 30 pounds lighter, erase some wrinkles and improve my knee function, but alas, that it cannot do. It can, however, reduce stress and it one have a better overall feeling of peace and contentment.

It has been long known, that spiritual health and physical health are connected. In the special prayer Jews say for one who is sick, we pray for a complete healing, a refuah shelaymah, a healing of body and soul. Thinking positive thoughts, focusing on getting well are all part of the process of healing. It is a very powerful feeling when others are praying in your behalf and you are aware of their actions. This helps to lift the patients’ spirits knowing that others care about them. Being loved and cared about is a fundamental human need and believing that a loving God cares about us can contribute much to our spiritual well being.

Attending religious services more than twice a week or being involved with religious activities can lower your blood pressure. This could be because services have a calming effect on people and by helping others you give of yourself and your problems seem less intense. It also helps with depression because attendance at a house of worship puts you in contact with others with similar beliefs and practices so that you feel part of a group. Jewish Sabbath services are especially calming and peaceful. The theme for Shabbat is peace and rest, the greeting we give others is “Shabbat shalom”, a peaceful Sabbath. I can personally attest to the fact that when I attend Shabbat morning services on Saturday morning, I really feel good and I am sure the spiritual atmosphere has something to do with it.

Regular prayer can help with memory loss. Repetition of a mantra, saying the rosary or reciting the Shema, helps to keep you in focus and helps you to concentrate. Regular meditation has the same effect because you are connecting with something greater than yourself. I am fortunate that the prayer book that is used in the congregation I belong to, has many beautiful and inspirational readings and these readings reflect the feelings of Jews in the modern age as well as those of a more traditional nature. Reading the Bible or perusing whatever liturgy you follow, can help to destress you. And when life throws punches at you, thinking about God or other spiritual matters can keep you calm and help you overcome adversity. This helps to promote healthier, longer lives.

It is good to put your spirituality into daily practice. When the disposal dies on the day company is coming or your insurance check crosses in the mail, step back, breathe, say a little prayer for patience and work things out. Put your religious beliefs in practice: visit the sick, recycle waste, and respect others.

As time goes on, science, no doubt, will explore the connection between mind and body. In the meantime, religious rituals, songs, services and practices can all contribute to a healthier body and soul. May you live to be 120! Happy New Year!