Former Hill staffer and small business owner Mara Benner puts policy into practice as an integrative healing provider with a focus on connecting body, mind, emotions and spirit.
By Sheryll Poe
As anyone who lives and works in the greater Washington D.C. area can attest—it can be really stressful here. The traffic congestion, long working hours, the high cost of living, the competitive day care scene: it’s no wonder that Washington, D.C. consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most stressed out cities.
While stress is, unfortunately, unavoidable, Mara Benner of Four Directions Wellness in Del Ray has the antidote—services to relieve tension and stress in both the body and mind. “So many people in D.C. area are stuck in their fight or flight,” Benner said. “When a client walks in that door it’s fascinating for me to see how their stuck in that fight or flight and don’t even recognize it. So it’s satisfying to really help them understand how these ancient healing approaches help us get to that restful state that helps our body relax and helps the mind think clearer and relax. They take a deep breath and you can feel that tension get released.”
Embracing Alternative Medicine
There’s little question that stress can take a serious toll on a person’s health and well-being. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. And more than 75 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
To help combat stress and the associated health effects, more and more health care providers are exploring complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) such as acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, Reiki, herbal medicine, and massage therapy. According to a 2011 survey by the American Hospital Association, approximately 42% of responding hospitals indicated they offer one or more CAM therapies.
“A Second Act” as a Business Owner
Benner opened Four Directions Wellness in April 2016, but her expertise in health care goes back more than 30 years. With a degree in gerontology, Benner has worked in hospitals, nursing homes, home health, hospice, and elder protective services. She spent the bulk of her career working on health care and aging policy at the federal and state level before starting what she calls her “second act,” and opening her own wellness center. “I really wanted to be working directly with people one-on-one, rather than federal policy where I didn’t really get to engage with individuals.”
Benner’s knowledge of national health quality indicators, (for example, U.S. life expectancy is the lowest among industrialized nations despite the fact that health care costs are among the highest)–coupled with her personal journey to learn Asian approaches to medicine, led to the creation of Four Directions Wellness. “It dawned on me at some point that these integrative approaches and looking at the person holistically and as a, whole person because it’s all connected is really what we need to do and how we can help move our health care system in a better direction.”
Four Directions Wellness was born from that idea of treating the whole person’s health, including body, mind, emotions and spirit. Affiliated with the George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine, Brenner partners with her clients to design individual programs for personalized care. Her offerings include a mixture of meditation, guided imagery, Reiki, reflexology, Qigong and coaching. “Most of my clients seek spiritual or health coaching packages to use a mixture of the ancient healing techniques in each session. Although, I also offer simply relaxation approaches,” Benner said.
The Neighborhood for Wellness
Luckily for Brenner, she lives in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, an area sometimes referred to as “Well Ray.” The neighborhood is home to dozens of businesses focused on various aspects of health and wellness, including Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga, Del Ray Psych & Wellness, VITAL Body & Mind, and the Bon Vivant Cafe + Farm Market (right across the street from Four Directions Wellness.)
“Del Ray is starting to be looked at like Tacoma Park, which used to have that recognition” and reputation as a wellness-centric neighborhood, Benner said. “It all started with Dr. Meghan Brown of Mind the Mat who has been here and has been in the forefront of really saying that people need to try out different, alternative approaches in health and healing. And I think from that, the community has just built up overall.”
In fact, 64 of the approximately 190 members of the Del Ray Business Association (DBRA) identify their businesses as health and wellness related. To celebrate and showcase the wide variety of health and wellness opportunities in the neighborhood, DBRA holds an annual Well Ray Festival. The most recent event was on Saturday, June 23.
With the area’s focus on health and wellness, Benner found a built-in support network of other businesses, customers and civic leaders when she opened her practice. DBRA and the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting for Benner when Four Directions Wellness opened. “That was so helpful in getting recognition for the business and promoting what I was doing,” she said. “The Del Ray community was so welcoming and opened their arms, and supported me so strongly, as did Alexandria.”
In return, Benner takes every opportunity to give back to her community, offering local residents complimentary meditation on the second and fourth Mondays of the month (Mindfulness Mondays) and volunteering with several non-profit organizations, including offering grief and bereavement support through the Hospice of Northern Virginia and offering Reiki to patients at the George Washington University Hospital/Center for Integrative Medicine. Benner also serves as a member on the Boards of Directors for both the DRBA and the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.
When she’s not helping clients get healthier or serving her community, Benner likes to unwind with family time. She and her husband of 13 years, Stephen love to play weekend hosts to their three grandchildren who live nearby and enjoy participating in beloved Del Ray neighborhood events like the Halloween parade. “There’s an event here almost every weekend,” Benner said. “They enjoy being part of and around the community.”
After just two years in business, Benner and Four Seasons Wellness have definitely left a mark on the vibrant Del Ray community. “I am just so pleased and excited to be part of the community and so actively engaged. There’s so much going on in Alexandria that I’m excited to have the business launched here and be part of the community,” Brenner said.
Be sure to check out upcoming classes at Four Directions Wellness, including “Seasonal & Anti-Inflammatory Considerations for Your Health” and the new Live Fully support group for chronic pain and illness by visiting https://fourdirectionswellness.com/classes/