Body work - A way of deep cleansing
by Paula Horan
Having studied bodywork at the outset of the body/mind therapy revolution in America 20 years ago, I was amazed on a recent visit to the US to see the number of full-fledged massage and bodywork magazines that are now available to support the professional therapist. Whereas 20 years ago people were still shy about the idea of having their bodies touched and manipulated and often associated the word massage with the illicit "massage parlor", today therapeutic touch is widely accepted. With the universal need for stress release in a now highly stressful culture, it is no longer considered just a luxury for rare occasions.
In the early '80s I worked aboard a passenger cruise liner in the Caribbean, serving as spa director and full-time massage therapist. Each Sunday when a new group of passengers came on board, the officers and head staff were introduced. This was my opportunity to give a brief talk about the spa facilities and the wide variety of health benefits, which could be had by signing up for a massage or bodywork session.
Those two years aboard ship were an exciting and rich time in my life. Being on the sea—one of my great loves-combined with the opportunity to really help people, at times in a profound way, was a rewarding experience. The sheer variety of people and physical ailments I treated combined to teach me a great deal about the human psyche and the powerful tool that the healing touch is. Previously I had been fortunate to train at one of the top bodywork schools in America, the Institute of Psycho-Structural Balancing, in San Diego, California.
One of my professors at graduate school had been a student of the famous biochemist Ida Rolf, who through her creative genius came upon the idea of Rolfing, or "structural integration", during her search for solutions to family health problems. Finding available methods inadequate, she investigated the effect of structure on function. Her technique, a particular form of bodywork, is primarily designed to relieve painful conditions such as humpbacks, severe pelvic dislocations or generally withheld postures.
What Ida Rolf perceived is that much of our emotional and mental turmoil is due to structural imbalance in the physical body. She saw clearly that certain body postures reflect certain types of emotional withholding—indeed that we literally store our thoughts and their concomitant emotional reactions throughout the cells of the body. In other words, memories are not only stored in the brain but throughout the entire body/mind. As Rolf also discovered, different types of emotions and memories are stored in specific areas of the body.
On the basis of this revolutionary insight for that time, Rolf created a type of bodywork that can rebalance the body/mind of an individual in 10 one-hour sessions of systematic manipulation, which loosen and reorganize the myofacial, or connective tissues, surrounding the muscles. As different areas of the body are treated, depending on the individual's areas of 'stuckness', many emotions and memories may rise to the surface, to be felt and then let go of. After 10 sessions of Rolfing you stand taller, look better, and move with greater ease. Most of all, you have more vitality and a greater sense of well being.
The evolution of bodywork in the West is based to a large degree on the systematic research and therapeutic innovations of Dr Wilhelm Reich, the brilliant renegade student of Sigmund Freud. Reich's student, Alexander Lowen, MD, later popularized Reich's work and called his new therapeutic approach Bioenergetics. Bioenergetics incorporates both bodywork and certain physical exercises to break down 'body armor', which is muscle tension held in the body wherever repressed emotions and memories are stored.
MEMORIES AND EMOTIONS
The main theme, which most modern bodywork addresses, is the observation that the lack of physical energy and even depression is a result of chronic muscular tension, a condition caused by a suppression of feelings. When certain emotional release points on the body are stimulated, or when pressure is applied skillfully to chronically tense areas, long suppressed memories and emotions are released leading to a freeing up of the psyche. Bodywork has thus become another tool for helping people learn how to be real—to acknowledge what they are truly feeling and to become healthy, authentic and grounded individuals.
For example, a fact that I share constantly with my reiki students is that depression is not a feeling, but a repression of feeling. Energy work like reiki helps a depressed person by raising his or her life force energy, thus gradually and softly de-densifying emotional and physical 'stuckness'.
Skilled practitioners of deep tissue bodywork who understand body psychology can help a depressed person by noticing where the emotions are held physically. While manipulating the armored musculature, they can then train them to address the withheld feelings that are stored in a particular area.
IN SPORTS AND AT WORK
Besides training people how to feel through uncomfortable feelings so that they simply dissipate, bodywork benefits health and well being in many ways. One technique that I have often taught, the James Cyriax method, can even break down post-operative scar tissue, utilizing a brisk cross-frictional rub. In the West, bodywork is currently often combined with applied sports psychology . Sports massage before and after athletic events, along with specialized techniques to correct sports injuries such as sprains, is highly sought after.
Many corporations now have weekly in-house massage therapists who give the employees 20-30 minute sessions in special massage chairs, which the client can lean into. Special attention is given to the wrists to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects a large number of computer programers. Also, the stress and strain of long hours of hovering over a computer is relieved by thorough treatment on the neck and shoulder areas. Many of these office goers then also seek out Swedish or Esalen massage on their own.
BENEFITS FOR THE DISABLED
Massage is now being taught to the mothers of disabled children to help decrease the effects of certain disabilities. One example is Peggy Farlowe, a massage therapist with an extensive background in speech therapy who combines the two to help special-needs children interact and communicate. Her program Touch to T.E.A.C.H. (Touch for Early Language, Attending, Cognitive Development and Healthier Children) is now state sponsored throughout Alabama in the USA.
Some of the general benefits of massage are: increased circulation; lymphatic drainage; reduction and, very often, complete elimination of migraine headaches due to increased blood circulation to the brain. Back pain is greatly reduced with massage therapy, and these days chiropractors most often work with massage therapists, who first release spastic muscles in the back before adjustments are done. This approach ensures that the adjusted vertebrae remain in place.
Along with this flowering renaissance in body/mind therapy, many scientific studies have vindicated the incredible efficacy of this drugless therapeutic approach. For example, a study mentioned in Mental Health Update reported that physical and emotional support by a labor doula (birth assistant), especially the father, provides substantial benefits to women in labor. Results included: Caesarians dropped 58%; the need for epidural anesthesia dropped 85%; forceps delivery by 70%; the use of oxytocin (a pituitary hormone that stimulates uterine contractions) by 61%; labor duration was shorter by 25%; and neonatal hospitalization dropped 58%.
BREAKING OLD PATTERNS
To the person who prefers to treat himself, Chua Ka-an ancient form of Mongolian self-massage applied by warriors to remove fear from their bodies before they rode into battle—is one possibility. I teach this system to my own students as a prelude to deep tissue work on others.
I will never forget the amazing results I noticed in my own psyche when I first learned this practice, as well as the visible effects it had on several of my fellow students in massage school. In one session as we sat on the floor wrapped in our sheets, progressing up our own skeleton, we were focused on the inner thighbone. One of the students at a certain point cried out and soon regressed to the age of five, to an incident when she had suffered severe sexual abuse—a memory she had long suppressed.
The instructor skillfully led her through the intense emotional pain of the experience, until she could come out on the other side, finally liberated from a long unconscious memory. I heard from her later that this incident had a profound effect on her life. Previously having experienced inexplicable fear of touch in her sexual relationship with her husband, a fact that had almost caused a divorce, she was then able to enjoy sex, and her ability to communicate her feelings improved vastly.
My own experience was of an incredible lightness of being—the sense of tremendous weight being lifted both physically and mentally. I can honestly say that of all the schooling I have been through (B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) massage school was the most satisfying. Not only do you get to practice on a lot of different people, but they also practice on you, twice a day. So much nurturing is rare. So you automatically begin to process and let go of a lot of mental and emotional baggage.
HEALING OUR LIVES
The following quote from this year's October/November issue of Massage & Bodywork by an American massage therapist, who survived cancer and AIDS, best describes the spiritual depth bodywork can evoke: "I continued to investigate the source of my fear and my rage, my grief and my self-hatred. And slowly but surely, these demons are less powerful as I shine the light of awareness upon them. The surprise is that as I am empowered to explore my past, I also discover a whole and complete self that has survived despite what this body has lived through. That is the beauty of energy medicine. It has given me what I was searching for in all my addictions. It has given me a way to make a deep connection with myself and with others. I feel that connection in my body, and I can sustain it. Energy medicine, bodywork, and an honest confrontation with my past allows me to transform the wounds of deep suffering into tools for service to others."
Whether you are moved like this therapist to study bodywork and reap the benefits of such a profound letting go, or simply choose to periodically receive massage from a professional for stress release, great benefit and a deep sense of well-being are the happy end result.
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