Bodywork On the Next Level

Going beyond massage

I once subscribed to the “no-pain-no-gain” school of thought. If it didn’t make sweat pour from my brow and my heart leap from my chest, it wasn’t worth doing. Going to a 90-minute, chaturanga-filled Ashtanga yoga class was only permissible if I had also run (at least) five miles earlier that day. Fast equaled good. Slow was bad.

Bodywork was the same. If I wasn’t sucking in my breath and clenching my jaw, it wasn’t deep enough.

Not until searing stomach pains and nighttime panic attacks became weekly events did I start to shift my thinking. Like many people, I’d tried lots of methods to “fix” myself — over-the-counter and prescription remedies, aggressive massage and chiropractic treatments, more running and more (even sweatier) yoga. All the “fast stuff” was helping me blow off steam, but it somehow wasn’t making me feel healthier. I was ready for something different, but what?

By accident, I discovered yin yoga when I misread my studio’s class schedule. “I’ll just have to run when I get home,” I told myself. Afterwards, I was so relaxed that I opted for studying the backs of my eyelids instead. A few weeks later, a friend referred me to a somatic therapist and I started seeing a Chi Nei Tsang practitioner (also a referral) for my stomach stuff. Maybe slow was the way to go.

Somatic Psychotherapy, Chi Nei Tsang, The Rosen Method, The Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Craniosacral Therapy and Yoga Therapy are all, at their foundation, “non-doing” practices. This means that they help guide the body back to its most natural and neutral state. This isn’t to say that to heal you need to toss “fast and sweaty” aside for a snail-paced existence. Instead, it’s about recognizing that huge shifts (physical, emotional, and energetic) can happen through very subtle movement and touch.

Many people come to these modalities as a last resort — often because they’ve never heard of them before. Each requires patience, a solid commitment to change, and the willingness to turn up the volume on our own self-awareness. And while the information here only scratches the surface, I hope it will inspire you to explore further.

Chi Nei Tsang

Also known as Chinese Abdominal Massage, Chi Nei Tsang (pronounced chee-nay-song) is a form of deep abdominal massage with Taoist Chinese origins. It literally means “working the energy of the internal organs” or “internal organs chi transformation,” and it’s based on the assumption that emotions first arise (and often get “stuck”) in our bellies and internal organs. (For example, anger is associated with the liver and worry is linked with the spleen.)

I started seeing Bay Area Chi Nei Tsang practitioner Jada Delaney (jadabug.com) after battling a long history of debilitating digestive and menstrual pain. I was completely divorced from my belly and was uncomfortable having it touched by anyone — myself included. After an hour of Delaney’s gentle and intuitive touch I felt my stomach go from rock hard to soft and pliable. I was surprised to realize how infrequently I breathed into my belly on a daily basis. Even more astonishing was my ability to find comfort and relief from something so simple when I had previously been resigned to suffering. “No one has the power to heal you in the way you can heal yourself,” says Delaney.

How It Works: Chi Nei Tsang practitioners massage the abdominal area using intention and deep, gentle touches to purge unwanted emotional charges from the body and remind us of our optimal state.

What to Expect: Clients wear loose fitting clothing and lie on a massage table. Sessions typically last about an hour. Homework can include changes in physical activity or nutrition and self-massage.

Recommended Dosage: Some clients experience huge breakthroughs in one session, but three to four is generally enough to feel an immense difference.

Average Cost: $75–$120

How to Find a Practitioner: Visit chineitsang.com or pick up a copy of Unwinding the Belly, by Allison Post (unwindingthebelly.com).

Somatic Therapy

Somatic Therapy helps us listen to our own body’s wisdom. If you have been in therapy for years, talking circles around the same relationship and work-related issues, but still don’t see and feel the results that you are looking for, Somatic therapy could be for you.

“When we are connected to our body, we can make decisions from the cues it gives us rather than from external pressures,” explains San Francisco–based somatic practitioner Charna Cassell (passionatelife.org). “We can start to pay attention to the tightness we feel in our belly when we spend time with that new person we’re dating, or the expansiveness in our chest that signals something feels right.”

How It Works: Somatic Therapy supports shifts in our somatic shape through talking, embodiment and experiential practices, deep breathing, and gentle bodywork. “By opening connective tissue and breath we can begin to reoccupy parts of our bodies that we’ve abandoned and feel a wider range of emotion and sensation,” says Cassell.

“We use the body as the primary tool to gain insight into who we are and to learn how to stay connected to the deepest parts of ourselves,” adds Somatic Psychotherapist and long time yoga teacher and practitioner Devorah Sacks.

She emphasizes that although touch can be an important part of this practice, it’s not necessary if it doesn’t feel comfortable to the client.

What to Expect: Each 50-minute session is likely to be markedly different from the next. Your therapist may walk you through an embodiment practice that can be as simple as noticing when your jaw feels tight. Or they might suggest an experiential exercise (also called standing practices) to help illuminate your response to situations that pull you off center. Unlike traditional talk therapy, Somatic therapists will sometimes self-disclose, but only when it helps to facilitate the client’s own process of awareness and discovery.

Recommended Dosage: Because the practice builds momentum over time, it is common to see a Somatic therapist once a week for a year or more.

Average Cost: $70–$120. Many Somatic therapists offer a sliding scale.

How to Find a Therapist: The California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), John F. Kennedy University (JFKU), and Naropa University all have alumni directories. You may want to visit traumahealing.com/registry.html. Sacks recommends calling a prospective therapist and asking to schedule a brief phone interview before making an appointment.

The Rosen Method

Founder Marion Rosen describes The Rosen Method as a process of transformation “from the person we think we are to the person we really are.”

This “quiet” yet powerful practice is based on the idea that experiences and emotions can be physically stored in our bodies long after we are consciously aware of them. This “holding” can lead to chronic muscle tension and contraction. Using hands that “listen rather than manipulate,” a Rosen practitioner helps clients relax and release holding patterns without effort or “doing.” As this process unfolds, habitual tension and old patterns maybe released, freeing the client to experience more aliveness, new choices in life and a greater sense of well being.

“A lot of people find Rosen when they are older, when their lives just aren’t working anymore,” says San Francisco–based Rosen Method Practitioner Kristyn Demko Marshman. “Through this work they end up uncovering things that have been too painful to deal with on their own.”

How It Works: “I make contact and listen, waiting for a shift,” says Demko Marshman. “When I catch a glimmer or glimpse I try and name it.” For example, the therapist might ask, “What just changed? Your shoulder feels different now.” The client is also invited to share his or her own insights aloud. Through this verbal and nonverbal dialogue, memories or emotions linked to a place of holding will often surface. With the therapist’s support the client learns that while this holding may have at one time been appropriate, it no longer serves them.

What to Expect: Sessions typically last an hour. The client lies unclothed on a massage table under a blanket or sheet.

Recommended Dosage: Clients typically come once a week to once a month. “It all depends on the amount and degree of change they can tolerate,” says Demko-Marshman. “People need to want to uncover their ‘stuff’; it’s a delicate dance.” Rosen is often used in conjunction with traditional talk therapy.

Average Cost: $75–$110

How to Find a Practitioner: Visit rosenmethod.org or Google “Rosen Practitioner.” Most practitioners will welcome a brief phone interview before scheduling an appointment.

Craniosacral therapy

Craniosacral therapy uses gentle touch and intention to help improve central nervous system function and alleviate the effects of stress. Traditionally, the focus is on the head, neck, and base of the spine or sacrum, although any part of the body may be touched or held. The process is one of “non-doing;” practitioners assist the body to help it find its own vitality and healing resources.

Chicago–based practitioner Emily Klik (peacethroughhealing.com) found Craniosacral while searching for a cure for her frequent migraines. Because the nerves that originate in the brain radiate out into the entire body, she doesn’t limit herself to touching only the head and neck. This is especially important when treating carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries, she says.

How It Works: Craniosacral therapists often focus upon optimizing the position, fluid movement (or “wave”) and energy (or “chi”) of the craniosacral system. The therapist’s gentle, conscious touch detects blockages and reflects this information back to the body, helping it to gather the necessary resources to reestablish harmony.

What to Expect: Clients wear loose-fitting clothing and lie on a massage table. During the hour-long treatment, the client usually enters a deeply relaxed state. There may be tingling, shaking or heat sensations as structures and tissues release. Emotional responses and memories can also be triggered.

Recommended Dosage: As the therapeutic partnership builds over several treatments, the body recognizes its own innate healing abilities and begins to respond more rapidly. One or two sessions may cure some ailments but chronic conditions may take up to four.

Average Cost: $75–$120

How to Find a Practitioner: Visit milneinstitute.com or iahp.com/pages/search/index.php.

The Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique

The Feldenkrais (rhymes with “rice”) Method and the Alexander Technique encourage transformation through conscious movement and increased body awareness. Practitioners of both teachings focus on re-education (or “undoing”) through touch and verbal guidance that introduce new movement possibilities and patterns to the student. Considering their many similarities, it’s not surprising to learn that physicist, engineer and judo master Moshe Feldenkrais was one of Frederick Mathias Alexander’s original students.

While the Alexander Technique emphasizes releasing tension from the head, neck, and spine, the Feldenkrais Method tends to regard the entire body with equal priority.

Through lessons and prescribed exercises, Feldenkrais students become more aware of their habitual neuromuscular patterns. This enables them to increase their range and ease of motion and improve flexibility and coordination. “The lessons help bring the magic of awareness to how you do things,” says Seattle Feldenkrais Practitioner Bryce Mathern. “As you find new movement patterns pain and discomfort melt away.”

Less concerned with specific exercises, the Alexander Technique helps students fine-tune their internal awareness to recognize unnecessary tension in the body. Students become more aligned with the natural organization of their bodies and learn to “step out of their own way” to perform everyday activities with an innate sense of ease and grace.

“The practice is all day long, every day so we can learn to access relaxation even in stressful situations,” says Alexander Practitioner Elyse Shafarman (bodyproject.us). “The most difficult part of this practice is learning how not to do.”

Shafarman explains that the Alexander Technique is not about stretching, strengthening or adding exercises to your daily routine. Instead it is about how you sit on the subway, answer the phone and hold the steering wheel.

How It Works: By analyzing your whole movement patterns — rather than just your symptoms — Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique practitioners are able to provide gentle and encouraging verbal and hands-on cues that allow you to begin to move in a freer, more integrated way.

What to Expect: Feldenkrais sessions typically take place with the student lying on a massage table in loose, comfortable clothing. Alexander sessions may begin in a chair or in simple movement (walking, standing and sitting) and eventually move to a table. The student remains alert with eyes open. After a session, students can usually sense a physical difference — whether it’s feeling their feet more solidly planted on the ground or noticing a change in their posture.

Average Cost: $65–$85 per session. Sessions may also be purchased in packages or series.

How to Find a Practitioner: Visit alexandertechnique.com/teacher or feldenkrais.com/classes/find_a_practitioner

Yoga Therapy: No Experience Required

Despite its name, you need not have logged countless hours on a sticky mat to benefit from Yoga Therapy. It’s simply about showing up.

“Yoga is strong medicine. It can heal or injure,” says yoga therapist and instructor Elizabeth Herrick. “This practice uses yoga to create balance by working through the different layers of the emotional and physical body. Asana is just one component.”

Yoga therapy comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be physically or psychologically focused. Some therapists may emphasize structural alignment or prescribe a series of asana to help alleviate a particular injury or condition. Others may incorporate breathing exercises and meditation.

“We live in a culture that overstimulates our sympathetic nervous system,” Herrick explains. “Yoga helps the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in.”

Dina Amsterdam, yoga therapist and popular San Francisco–based yin yoga teacher explains the benefits of yoga therapy this way: “When we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel our emotions, we experience stress and physical congestion.” By just “being with ourselves,” we develop greater sensitivity and learn to use our physical and emotional energy more wisely, which according to Amsterdam, can lead to making healthier and more authentic choices.

Amsterdam encourages anyone interested in yoga therapy to spend time interviewing potential therapists to get a good sense of his or her background, training and philosophy. “Only someone who has worked to address the unpleasant or unattractive elements of their inner world is equipped to guide someone else there,” she says.

Sessions run from an hour to an hour and a half and cost between $90 and $150. Click here or here to find a yoga therapist near you.

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