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Touching on all levels: Gerda Zölle

Gerda Zölle, Head of the consultancy service for caring professions at WALA, in conversation with our author Ulrika Bohnet.

On a rainy day in May, in the WALA Cosmetics house, I meet Gerda Zölle, who set up the consultancy service for caring professions at WALA and has supported people experiencing exceptional life circumstances for over 40 years. An expert in anthroposophic nursing (IFAN), she shares her rich stores of experience through lectures and publications, as well as by teaching students of caring professions. While beyond the windows the foothills of the Swabian Alb shine green and wet with rain, I am both excited and curious: I am about to experience an external application for myself. And, as my return to work following maternity leave and organising this new day-to-day life are often quite a strain for me, I am open to inspiration on the subject of providing care and attention – to others and to myself.

Health – a state of individual balance

I have read that the origin of the German word ‘Pflege’ [‘care’] means to take responsibility for something, or to advocate for something. Hardly has Zölle entered the room than I think back to that definition – she is a friendly presence, full of watchfulness, awareness and energy for what is to come. She welcomes me and all my questions so warmly that I forget my shyness and we quickly end up deep in conversation.

‘Each person is an individual. I am always involved in the process of illness and of health. Health is a state of individual balance. To be ill, conversely, is to be off-kilter.’

I have to care for myself

Zölle describes finding the source of this excess or deficiency as a fascinating process in which each person, in their very individual circumstances, can participate. While she talks, I notice how well she draws upon real-life circumstances – whether everyday life in a hospital, a palliative ward, or our digitally dominated working lives, with their paucity of genuine human contact and care and attention – to both others and ourselves.

‘If we don’t look at ourselves in a caring way, we can’t care for anything else either. This needs to be recognised in professional care, in private care.’

Self-awareness leads to self-esteem

Self-awareness leads to self-esteem – this is fundamental according to Zölle, but it is also hard work. After all, it seems so much easier, if we feel out of balance, to take a pill to become functional again. But the body, like life itself, is a gift, not a machine.

‘Self-awareness is not egotistical. On the contrary, it means you can go back to being available to another person; to the person you’re with; to yourself.’

To train yourself to do this, it is very important to stop once a day and ask yourself: What have I experienced today? How am I? How do I feel? Who am I? What do I need? Repeating this review of your day creates a rhythm. And rhythm supports, strengthens and activates your powers of self-healing.

‘The beat of a metronome is heartless. Rhythm is filled with soul. Rhythm helps me stay healthy. Rhythm is the be-all and end-all of healing.’

Hand and foot baths are small cures for home: they can relieve many everyday ailments or prevent diseases.

We are people of warmth

According to Zölle, a human being is a ‘Wärmemensch’ – literally, ‘a person of warmth’. She reminds us how indispensable human touch and contact are for the warmth that is absolutely essential for a living human being: for the physical body as well as for the soul and spirit. And the tools of touch are our hands, which we always have with us.

‘We are in the warmth. We are conceived with warmth, we are born with warmth and we grow up with warmth.’

External applications: a gift to the sick body

One effective remedy that, in addition to the qualities of warmth and touch, also makes use of specific active substances is the practice of external applications. Zölle calls them ‘a gift to the sick body, a therapeutic service that aims to bring misalignment back into balance’. External applications can be used as a complement to conventional medicine, for the patient’s physical and mental health. Working from outside to inside, they are among the oldest natural remedies ever used by humans in healing processes. In addition to wraps, compresses, rhythmic massages and therapeutic washing, hand and foot baths are also used.

Now Zölle invites me to have a foot bath, after I have told her of my headaches, and how exhausted and cold my body feels. I instinctively choose rose as my active substance – the ‘queen of flowers’ brings lightness, and envelops and supports those who are generally weak or convalescing. Zölle mixes one tablespoon of the oil with two tablespoons of milk, and adds this emulsion to water at 37°C. The mixture should ideally come to halfway up the calves. A big towel laid across my lap catches the rising heat, and soon I feel comfortingly blanketed in warmth. To my astonishment my permanent headache fades, and Zölle explains that, according to the anthroposophic understanding of the human body, the feet certainly do interact with the head:

‘Bathing the feet always affects the metabolism of the entire body; another factor is that the skin on the soles of the feet is especially adept at absorbing the healing active ingredients of plants.’

It is also essential, she says, to spend 20 minutes resting afterwards, so that the body can process the ‘conversation’ initiated by the application. I do indeed feel clearer inside, and filled with new energy to embrace whatever life now has in store for me.

‘Please don't forget that in your role as caregiver you are part of the healing process.’

This inspiration, which can be applied to the care and attention I give as a mother, as a partner, in my work and to myself, is something that I am glad to take away with me. This encounter with Gerda Zölle was very special – it touched me deeply, and its effects still linger long afterwards.