Musings: Healing With Bodywork
Despite all the visionary and spiritual ideas I work with everyday, I’m actually a very logical person. I like things that are practical, easy to work with and that make sense. This is why I include bodywork as part of my regular healthcare routine.
Skilled and professional bodyworkers can be found just about everywhere, there is plenty of variety among practitioners and treatments to choose from, but most importantly, bodywork is an enjoyable and relatively inexpensive way of getting healthy and staying healthy that works. You can even learn to use it on yourself and others right at home.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, bodywork refers to the many healing modalities that involve manipulation of the body by another person for the purpose of physical, mental, emotional or spiritual healing. (See Paulette Richard O’Rourke’s “Glossary of Healing Bodywork” this issue.) The most popular types of bodywork include massage, chiropractic and physical therapy, some of which are even reimbursed through insurance. For the most part, however, western medicine does not endorse therapies or treatments which involve touch between patient and practitioner except to examine, diagnose or perform a medical procedure. In fact, any touch other than what is medically necessary could be misconstrued as sexually-oriented and grounds for malpractice!
This is unfortunate because we are blessed with the ability to exchange rejuvenating and healing energy between people through touch, our first and most primal sensation. The moment a baby is born, he or she is immediately placed in skin-to-skin contact with his or her mother to bond and be cradled. Primal therapists suggest that these first few moments of tactile sensation, among others in the total birth experience, can set the course for an individual’s entire personality development over a lifetime — for better or for worse. The brain instantly begins creating pathways of information about the new experience of life outside the womb: warmth, pain, fear, bright, metal, soft, mother, arms, cold, breathe, air, struggle, etc. If you can imagine the intensity of this barrage of senses bombarding the body and brain of a tiny newborn — and the skin, in particular, the body’s largest sense and immune organ — you might agree with the wisdom of birthing practices which promote calm, homelike birthing situations, or birthing at home entirely. You might also question the sanity of etching a permanent mark of violence into the consciousness of male children on their first or second day of life by slicing their genitals without anesthesia, the routine practice we call circumcision.
Even though medical and scientific studies have documented how developing infants and children not held or touched “fail to thrive” and can actually die from lack of physical contact, the powerful element of healing touch remains virtually absent from our mainstream healthcare system. Hospitals and nursing homes, which would benefit the most from including touch therapies in the treatment of their patients, are integrating holistic medicine into their programs at a snail’s pace. The idea of an invisible, yet potent healing energy within each and every person has yet to take hold in our culture. Eastern cultures, however, have benefited from over 5,000 years of knowledge and practice in charting the rivers of energy called “meridians” which circulate the life force (chi or prana) throughout our bodies and generate healing energy. Bodywork techniques like acupressure, shiatsu and reflexology combine physical manipulation of the body with techniques to flush, revitalize and balance the body’s energetic system. The effect of this energy rushing and shifting through the body sends nourishing waves of vitality coursing throughout the system and pinpoints areas of blockage for more focused attention. Practitioners who are trained to work on this energetic level can be very skillful in helping to activate and strengthen the body’s self-healing mechanism and clear these blockages which are the roots of illness and pain. Once you have learned how to recognize this energy flowing through the meridians of your body with even just a few bodywork sessions, you can become more attuned to what your body needs in order to be healthy in other areas of your life as well.
If you are just beginning to consider bodywork as a healthcare option, first of all, congratulations! We receive far too few hugs and shoulder rubs in our lives everyday, and adding bodywork either weekly, monthly or even just few times a year nourishes our touch-starved bodies and strengthens our immune system. In addition, it shifts our attitude about healthcare from one of fear and unpleasantness to one of empowerment and enthusiasm. For most people, the greatest obstacle to seeking out and benefiting from this simple, yet profound healing method is overcoming their resistance to being touched by a “stranger.” Fortunately, bodywork is available in as many varieties as there are preferences: clothed/unclothed, active/passive, physically intense/purely relaxing, etc., each with its own unique benefits. Once you have given yourself permission to utilize and enjoy this innate capacity to heal through touch, you will eagerly look forward to each session as your own private oasis of safety, personal attention, learning and growth towards health.
Begin by considering what type of experience would feel comfortable for you and research the services available in your area. Spirit of Change is an excellent resource for this purpose with hundreds of holistic practitioners, schools and clinics to choose from. Take some time to read through the listings in our holistic directory; a well-rounded education on the different types of therapies offered is in store for you there. Trust your first impressions about who and what looks appealing to you; this is your “inner healer” communicating to you about what would help you the most. Unlike conventional medicine where our choice of modality or practitioner is often limited by insurance policies or the convenience of the closest medical office, the choice of a bodywork practitioner is a much more personal decision. Distance and cost cannot be your primary considerations. Just as you would only choose certain people as friends or associates who are on the same “wavelength” as yourself, you want to choose a healing practitioner who feels comfortable to you. This is an energy exchange, after all, so it’s highly unlikely you would receive much healing benefit from a practitioner you don’t like, no matter how close or affordable their services are.
If your goal is to begin the process of self-healing, this also means taking responsibility for yourself. Our insurance-based healthcare system has influenced most people into believing that they must accept the choices made for them by the insurance industry. Many people also believe they can’t afford healthcare without insurance so they are reluctant to and unfamiliar with the practice of simply paying cash for their health services, the same way they pay cash each week for their groceries. I’ve often remarked to friends that if someone invented “grocery insurance,” pretty soon everyone would start believing they couldn’t afford groceries unless they had insurance to cover it. Most holistic healthcare services are paid for out of pocket, so it does require a change in thinking to value your investment in your healthcare as much as paying your electric bill each month or changing the oil in your car every 3,000 miles. Even at the cost of $50-100 per month, bodywork sessions cost far less than yearly health insurance premiums or other expenditures we make on a regular basis to help us “feel better.” Is there any dollar value that can be placed on good health, on waking up each morning and feeling good, or on being able to strengthen your health and the quality of your life by your own efforts?
The same commitment applies to your time in traveling to each session and choosing the right practitioner for you, who might not always be the closest one. No matter how conveniently available it is, a handy little garden trowel is not much help when it’s really a rake that you need. When you find yourself thinking about a particular technique or noticing the name of a practitioner over time, it’s a fairly good sign that a call to get more information or make an appointment is in order. Your practitioner should make you feel welcomed and respected from your very first phone call, and certainly if you choose to schedule a visit. The space for bodywork sessions should be peaceful, private and a place to which you would want to return. If it isn’t, then don’t return. Question your practitioner about their training and experience; those who have been in business the longest are usually there because they are committed to their work and good at what they do, but newly trained bodyworkers can also be very gifted as well. Remember, it’s the positive connection between therapist and client which is most important, and only you can make that decision for yourself.
Of important note to mention is that sexual touch or innuendo should never be part of any professional bodywork session. Although both healing energy and sexual energy are two very powerful and positive forces within the body, the relationship between a client and therapist must remain free of the emotional attachment which sex inevitably brings. A therapist who crosses this professional boundary is taking advantage of the trust a client has placed in him or her for healing, and ultimately ends up wounding a person even further. Report these practitioners to professional licensing boards, town administrators or publications which carry their advertisements.
Married or partnered people, however, can benefit from their own type of “domestic” bodywork which can include not only sexual activity, but sleeping or cuddling together. This, too, is healing touch, and is greatly intensified by the healing power of love shared between the two. Statistics reveal that married people generally live longer than unmarried people, which may be due, in part, to regular intimate and caring touch between them. On the down side, emotional issues from the baggage of a relationship can prevent this type of energy from flowing freely between two people, or cause the energy exchange to become depleting rather than rejuvenating. This is why a professional bodyworker is usually the best choice for healing work; the time is reserved especially for your needs with no compromises necessary on your end.
Be patient and persistent with your holistic healthcare efforts. Your body did not develop its symptoms overnight and most healing efforts take some time to begin reversing unhealthy conditions. However, sometimes just one treatment of exactly the right bodywork “medicine” can produce amazing relief and even complete cures because bodywork heals on the energetic level. This is where disease is held in place within the body and also where it can be released. Make a commitment to yourself to follow through with a certain number of treatments and keep a positive attitude which affirms your faith that healing is possible and you are now on the healing path. Quite often, the real benefits of healing work are not seen for days, weeks or even months after you’ve started, and then when you least expect it, a breakthrough occurs.
I recently had the good fortune of undergoing a Pancha Karma Ayurvedic bodywork treatment at the Boston Shiatsu School in Cambridge, MA with doctors Linda Reynolds and Cathy Quill. The treatment began with abhyanga — external oilation of the body including foot reflexology and cranial massage and a unique herbal oil massage using both Ayurvedic practitioners so the two sides of the body are massaged at once. Next I was treated to swedna — an herbalized steam therapy treatment. While still lying on the massage table, I was cocooned in a portable steam tent, billowing with hot steam and fragrant aromas. Without a doubt, this two-hour-plus bodywork treatment is the ultimate of all bodywork experiences because it ends with 20 minutes of relaxing shirodhara — pouring warm oil over the third eye which expands consciousness, synchronizes brain waves and increases spiritual energy. The sounds of a heavenly mantra filled the room and transported me beyond my own awareness; to where, I do not know. With my previous consent, Channel 5’s “Chronicle” film crew had set up their cameras and bright lights in the room that day to film parts of the treatment for a segment on holistic health. I can honestly say I never saw or heard a thing. I was totally blissed out on bodywork. Logical? Absolutely! I can’t think of a more rewarding pathway to good health!