Dating back to Descartes, the metaphor of the human body as a machine has permeated the way western medicine approaches healing. Mechanistic in its view, healing in the context of western medicine provides diagnosis through dissection. Practitioners of western healthcare determine what needs healing and how to heal by focusing on searching for the specific element within the human machine that is malfunctioning. In other words, western medicine practitioners foster health through the removal, elimination, treatment, or modification of that particular part or system. Although the system of western medicine is changing to become more incorporative of mental and spiritual health, training focuses primarily on the physical.
Holistic healthcare, by contrast—some of which dates back to some of the earliest parts of human history—implements healing from a much broader view. Holistic healthcare providers put the disorder, disease, or illness into the context of the entire human experience, paying thought to the mind, body, and spirit.
Holistic healthcare practitioners also view a patient or client’s issue within an even greater context of the person’s social, environmental, and personal circumstances. With this global view of a patient’s health, a holistic health practitioner will use a combination of the conventional, alternative, and ancient healing modalities most likely to address as many circumstances as possible.
According to the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA), holistic health practitioners also may differ from conventional health care practitioners in their focus on the positive. They frame illness as an opportunity and encourage unconditional love. They call on patients to evoke the healing power of positive emotions (love, hope, humor, etc.), to release the toxicity of negative emotions (shame, depression, prolonged fear, etc.), and to strive not just for lack of illness but for the highest quality of human experience.
Medical doctors who wish to add more integrative approaches can pursue post-doctoral training to shift their careers into the realm of the holistic. Those interested in earning bachelor’s- and master’s-level degrees can also find many accredited degree programs that prepare them for a wide range of careers in holistic healthcare. There are even roles in holistic healthcare for those without formal educational attainment.
Keep reading to learn more about holistic healthcare careers, what these professionals do, and how to pursue these careers. Also, discover the certifications available to help holistic health care practitioners inspire confidence in clients, become competitive in the job market, and ensure they provide the highest quality of care possible.
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An acupuncturist undergoes training to understand how to place thin, sterile needles at specific points on the body to address physical or emotional disorders. While health providers in many disciplines can utilize acupuncture as a modality to create a generalized effect, acupuncturists typically have three to four years of formal training, which enables them to engage in deep, personalized assessment and customize treatment patterns to each patient’s specific needs.
A license is required to practice acupuncture in most states, and the standard certification for licensure is administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). To qualify for the NCCAOM credential in acupuncture, practitioners must have completed a three-year master’s degree that covers oriental medicine/acupuncture theory, biomedicine, communications, ethics, and practice management, among other areas.
A biofeedback practitioner assists patients in changing physiological activity, improving health, and optimizing physical performance by using sensor technologies to assess the respiratory system, heart rate variability, muscles, sweat glands, and temperature.
Biofeedback practitioners use the measurements taken from devices like electrocardiographs (ECG), electromyographs (EMG), and electrodermal graphs (EDG) to understand which practices or interventions would be the most useful to a patient experiencing health struggles like excessive sweating, asthma, COPD, PTSD, high blood pressure and more.
Those providing biofeedback can become voluntarily certified by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (BCIA). Qualifying for entry-level certification requires biofeedback professionals to earn a BA/BS in a clinical health care discipline, complete a human anatomy and physiology course, complete a 42-hour (three-semester) biofeedback education program, and receive 20 hours of practical training under a BCIA-approved mentor.
A chiropractor helps patients treat neuromuscular or spinal disorders via manual adjustments and manipulation of the spine. Chiropractors can help patients with ailments like back pain, cervicogenic headaches, coccydynia, myofascial pain, sciatica, herniated discs, piriformis syndrome, kyphosis, and more.
To become a chiropractor, a healthcare professional must earn a doctor of chiropractic (DC) degree and then become licensed in the state where they want to practice. The simplest pathway to licensure is to complete a DC degree program accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE).
Because there are several specializations that a chiropractor can pursue throughout their formal education and career, certification is offered by a wide range of certifying bodies. The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) works with the American Board of Chiropractic Specialities (ABCS) to adjudicate and ensure quality certifications for the various chiropractic specializations.
Health and Wellness Coach
A health and wellness coach is a holistic health practitioner who partners with clients to catalyze positive change in the client’s approach to their health and wellness. Through a perspective that empowers the client to be their own solution, these coaches utilize techniques like health assessment, motivational interviewing, positive psychology, habit formation and reversal, theories of change, and accountability and goal setting to help a client understand where they are and empower the client to get where they’d like to be with their health. Health and wellness coaches are also often trained in functional health and nutrition.
The pathway to becoming a health and wellness coach varies but can be achieved with a minimum of an associate’s degree in a health-related discipline. There is a multiplicity of credentialing bodies for health coaching, and a general theme in qualifying for a credential is a student completing formalized training approved or designed by the credentialing agency. Examples of certifying bodies for health and wellness coaches include the National Society of Health Coaches (NSHC), the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC), and the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Holistic or Integrative Gynecologist
Holistic or integrative gynecologists help their patients achieve reproductive health using treatment modalities that consider the entire body as a connected unit. While classical OBGYNs focus on pinpointed treatment options that myopically look at the disease or that idealize the body as a machine (hormones, surgery, pharmaceuticals, etc.), holistic gynecologists are mindful of restoring the body’s natural functioning and rhythms by choosing methodologies that zoom out and focus on the whole person (botanical medicine, nutrition, mindfulness).
To become a holistic gynecologist, a professional must complete a medical doctorate in OB/GYN and become board certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG). While there are no specific specialty credentials for integrative or holistic gynecology, a holistic or integrative gynecologist can earn a generalized credential in integrative medicine from the American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABOIM).
To qualify for this credential, holistic gynecologists must complete a fellowship in integrative medicine or have graduated from one of the following: a four-year naturopathic college, a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission on Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM), a college accredited by the Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE).
With a deep understanding of how food impacts the human body, classic nutritionists work with clients to idealize, plan, adapt, and implement eating patterns that improve physical health, help with disease management, improve physical performance and functioning, and work within the client’s means and lifestyle.
Holistic nutritionists train to understand the impact of food on the mind and spirit, in addition to the body, and extend this discipline to help clients with mental and spiritual wellness as well. The minimum education required to become a holistic nutritionist is a bachelor’s degree, and most states require licensure to practice as a nutritionist. Holistic nutritionists who eventually want to pursue voluntary professional credentialing can look for nutrition programs approved by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).
NANP and the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board (HNCB) offer two levels of certification for holistic nutritionists: the board-certified in holistic nutrition (BCHN) credential and the certified nutrition professional (CNP). Earning the BCHN requires 500 contact hours in holistic nutrition practice, and the CNP requires all the prerequisites of the BCHN plus 1,200 supervision hours by a CNP or other highly qualified nutritionist.
Holistic Skincare Specialist or Esthetician
A holistic skincare specialist or esthetician improves their clients’ skin health using natural, environmentally friendly, non-toxic, and non-invasive methodologies.
Like a standard skincare specialist, holistic practitioners will engage in a formal training program that prepares them to practice proper sanitation, hair removal processes, treatment of skin conditions, implementation of skin and cosmetic procedures, nutrition, exfoliation, aromatherapy, and more.
While all skincare and esthetician programs cover the same essential topics, holistic programs work from the framework of interconnectedness. Licensure is required to practice as an esthetician or skincare specialist in most states, requiring a holistic skincare specialist to complete a certain minimum threshold of instructional hours in the craft. While professional certification is not required for licensure, a holistic esthetician can pursue certifications approved by the Association of Holistic Skin Care Professionals (AHSCP).
A homeopathic doctor helps patients to heal from certain acute or chronic conditions based on the philosophy that plant, mineral, and animal-derived methods can be used to encourage the body to heal itself. At the core of a homeopath’s practice is the philosophy that what causes a sickness can also be used to create a cure; an outlook that patients should always use the minimum dose; and that the symptoms profile for the patient should match that of the remedy.
The homeopath will either create or prescribe homeopathic medicines to treat illnesses like ear infections, migraines, sore throats, asthma, depression, arthritis, and more. A homeopath is a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathy (DO), who is licensed to practice medicine in their state of residence. To become a board-certified homeopathic physician through the American Institute of Homeopathy (AIH), health practitioners must complete 350 hours of approved coursework in homeopathy, plus documented treatment of ten chronic cases.
A hypnotherapist blends hypnosis and psychotherapy techniques to help patients understand, cope with, or overcome struggles, including phobias, stress, eating disorders, grief, transitions, addiction, bad habits, and more. Hypnotherapists can also help improve clients’ sleep quality and communication at work or in close relationships.
Although hypnotherapy skills can be added to a mental health career in social work, psychology, or counseling, formal education at a university is not required to become a hypnotherapist. To become a hypnotherapist certified by the International Association of Counselors and Therapists (IACT), all that is required is 220 hours of approved coursework in hypnotherapy.
Dance and Movement Therapist
Dance and movement therapists (DMTs) utilize movement modalities to promote health and well-being in individuals through physical, social, cognitive, and emotional integration. Using specifically curated dance and movement forms for both assessment and treatment, DMTs work with mental health issues such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, autism, and PTSD. They also can work with other medical conditions, including neurological disorders, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, cancer, traumatic brain injuries, and more.
Licensure is required to practice as a dance therapist (sometimes under the umbrella of art therapy) and, in most cases, a combination of a master’s degree and practical experience hours. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) offers certification for dance therapists, enabling new DMTs to earn an entry-level registration credential (R-DMT) and for experienced DMTs to become board-certified (BC-DMT). The R-DMT requires 270 hours of education, 700 hours of clinical practicum, and five years of concentrated study in one dance form. The BC-DMT requires an earned R-DMT, two years of clinical practice (or the equivalent of 3,640 hours), and 48 hours of clinical supervision.
A massage therapist uses hands, fingers, forearms, elbows, and sometimes feet to rub, manipulate, apply pressure to, and positively impact muscles and soft tissue in the body. Massage therapists can be trained in different or multiple schools of massage (Swedish, Thai, deep tissue, myofascial, etc.) in ways that can improve clients’ mental and physical well-being. Through training, massage therapists can relieve or eliminate pain, reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, and prevent or rehabilitate injuries.
Massage therapists must be licensed to practice in most states, and licensure requires graduation from an accredited massage therapy program or the equivalent amount of training, a minimum number of training hours, and passing the Federation of State Massage Therapy Board’s Massage & Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx).
Though certification is not required to practice massage therapy, those seeking to become certified in massage therapy can pass the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork’s (NCBTMB) Board Certified Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (BCTMB) exam. Qualifying for the BCTMB requires graduation from an NCBTMB-approved school (or the equivalent) and proof of licensure in the applicant’s state of practice.
Reiki practitioners use attunement and their hands to open energy channels, clear energy blockages, and trigger the body’s natural healing ability by focusing the heat and energy within a client’s body toward places that need healing. Reiki is an ancient Japanese methodology that can foster stress relief, relaxation, better sleep, inner peace, pain relief, and general improvements in physical, mental, and spiritual wellness.
Becoming a Reiki practitioner requires moving through three levels of Reiki training: Shodun, Okuden, and Shinpiden. Level 1 (Shodun) is Reiki performed on the self; Level 2 (Okuden) opens the student to deeper Reiki self-practice and practicing on others; and Level 3 (Shinpiden) is where a student can achieve enough mastery to attune others to Reiki practice.
To practice Reiki professionally, some states require Reiki-specific certification in energy and healing from the Reiki Licensing Board (RLB. The RLB offers instruction in the three Reiki levels for new Reiki practitioners, culminating in two years of licensure and certification. Self-taught or practicing reiki professionals can sit for licensure and certification without programming.
Tai Chi or Qigong Instructor
Tai chi and qigong are martial arts of cultivating the capacity for life’s energy to flow smoothly and powerfully through the body. Tai chi and qigong instructors enable students to practice the essential principles of mind integrated with the body, controlled movements and breathing, internal energy generation, mindfulness, loosening, and serenity.
The pathway to becoming a tai chi or qigong instructor is achieved through practice and expanding capacities in the art to the point where one can teach it to others. No training at the university level is required, although aspiring tai chi instructors can take formal classes or programs if desired.
Certification is not required, but the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association (ATCQA) provides a six-tier certification pathway that can inform the career progression of qigong instructors. The first two levels qualify students as practitioners (150 training hours) and associate instructors (200 teaching hours) in tai chi/qigong. ATCQA offers three levels of solo instructor certification at 500 hours (level 1), 1,000 hours (level 2), and 2,000 hours (level 3) of experience teaching. At 5,000 hours, with demonstrated leadership and influence in the industry, a tai chi or qigong instructor can earn a master Instructor certification—the highest offered by ATCQA.
Yoga is a physical practice that integrates stretches, exercises, and breathing to improve posture, flexibility, strength, and foster mindfulness and spiritual wellness. Yoga instructors are responsible for engaging deeply in the practice of their chosen form(s) of yoga: Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar, Yin, and Vinyasa, among others.
These instructors confer their learning, understanding, and wisdom to students in their classes. Yoga teachers are responsible for planning the session flow, helping students perform poses and postures correctly, clearly communicating transitions between positions, and ensuring students have everything they need to complete the practice (music, a calm space, yoga mats, yoga blocks).
The most common training format to become a yoga teacher is to engage in a 200-hour yoga teacher training in the yogic discipline of the student’s choosing. Licensure is not required to practice as a yoga teacher, nor is certification. Yoga Alliance provides Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) certification that indicates a yoga instructor’s ability to teach classes, train trainers, teach children, and teach prenatal yoga.
Becca Brewer, MEdWriter
Becca Brewer is building a better future on a thriving earth by healing herself into wholeness, divesting from separation, and walking the path of the loving heart. Previously to her journey as an adventurer for a just, meaningful, and regenerative world, Becca was a formally trained sexuality educator with a master of education.