More Than Muscles – What Hands Can Do
Bodywork is often thought of as a “muscle thing”. Bodyworkers rub your muscles until they relax, right? Well, yes.
But the bodyworker meets more with their hand than meets the eye.
As the bodyworker’s hand connects with the client’s skin, it can pick up the whole person, like a prism that generates a full-color spectrum. Information passes back and forth hundreds of times a second, and both parties change continuously. If the interaction is skillful, some of the benefits remain. How much remains varies depending on (a) the abilities of the practitioner and (b) the readiness, openness, and whole life circumstances of the client.
It’s impossible to listen to one part of the self without listening to all of it. What a given practitioner or client experiences consciously depends on what they are tending, attending, and intending. My life’s work as an educator is to illuminate multiple dimensions of the self to my students and clients to expand their consciousness of the full human self. This makes space for bodyworkers and clients to expand into greater ease and efficiency, whether it’s spiritual, energetic, kinetic, sensate, cognitive, or something else.
The more sensitive and clear you are, the more metaphors and images you have for understanding the self, and the more you can help other people, whether you’re a bodyworker or not. Somatic attunement and engagement are something we – and our culture as a whole – need now more than ever. I believe that people who feel their bodies with sensitivity and discernment and receive touch are more resilient and far less likely to shoot into crowds of strangers.
Putting language to subtle perceptions expands and clarifies them. Learning about new dimensions of the self brings unconscious perceptions into the light. The more dimensions of the client a bodyworker perceives, the more likely they will find the right intervention for a given client, one that leaves the client with ease, wisdom, and power.
Listening solely to the client’s muscles – length, size, and balance – the bodyworker hears other parts – indeed, all – of the client. How much they can work consciously with those parts has to do with where their sensitivity lies, what they’re choosing to attend to, how much language they have to define their experience to themself or their client, and their intention. Intended or not, bodywork still affects every part of the client’s self – remember, the client’s own consciousness, sensitivity, language, attention, and intention are active even when they fall asleep in a session.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, our culture has come to accept the ideology of science, meaning that we usually equate scientifically derived perceptions as equal to reality. We tend to believe this despite the fact that the scientific method itself involves replacing “a proven hypothesis” with another one as more information comes in. When it comes to complex holistic events like human touch, the scientific method is not the best way to explicate nor define what is going on. Nonetheless, here are some basic, scientifically derived ideas about what bodywork can do:
The “Motor Unit”
Muscles engage when the nervous system tells them to, and with a few exceptions, these muscles move our bones at the joints. So, nerves, joints and muscles unite to create human movement. This is what we call our “Motor Unit”. Bodywork – indeed all intentional touch – automatically affects the bones and joints as much as the muscles that move them.
Whenever you press on a part of the body, you are moving the joints it crosses, whether you’re trying to or not. You’re also triggering the nervous system, not just the part that controls muscle tone and length, but also the part that registers joint position and movement.
The “Relaxation Response”
The major drugs sold as anti-anxiety medications are in the muscle-relaxant family. Bodywork is also a muscle relaxant, but unlike its pharmaceutical counterparts, a session can actually train the central nervous system to relax itself.
The switches in the nervous system are thousands and thousands of times more complex than the traffic lights in Manhattan. During bodywork the practitioner and the client navigate the switches that control tension. Together, they help the whole system work more simply and efficiently, improving the mechanism whereby a person relaxes at any moment of the day or night.
The client can retain some of the changes in a session because releasing muscle contraction is something the client does, not the bodyworker. The bodyworker’s hands may make a suggestion, but the person’s own nervous system has to stop messaging the fibers to contract. Tell as many people as you can about that.
Blood provides nutrients to the whole body, and our muscles are one of the biggest consumers of blood. Only kidney tissue, which cleanses the body of toxins, rivals muscle tissue in its use of blood. But each kidney has roughly the volume of your fist, whereas the two quadriceps alone have the volume of six fists.
Working on the muscles can alter the flow of blood through the body in a dramatic way, removing waste, nourishing tissues, and keeping you warm, among other things. Blood is the supply superhighway of the body, and improving circulation helps the entire body function better. It also helps the blood itself to stay clean, oxygenated and potent.
Muscles contract throughout the day and night at varying levels based on activity and intention. They never turn off completely (if the muscles that move your skeleton turned off completely at night, your joints would literally fall apart!). Each microscopic muscle cell uses energy to contract and more energy to stay contracted.
Muscle contraction is a huge part of the body’s energy budget. Besides keeping our structure intact and giving us the ability to move, muscles are our internal heat source. When we “warm up”, we’re using our muscles to generate heat. In the winter, when we shiver, we’re contracting muscle to turn energy into heat. When a bodyworker releases muscle contraction, they are releasing energy for you to use somewhere else and release heat from the local area.
Ever notice how you can feel both quieter and more energized after a treatment, and often cooler as well? The tired, relaxed feeling comes from less holding on in the muscles; the energy comes from no longer wasting energy by holding tightness in muscles; and the coolness comes because less energy is being expended, and thus less heat is being produced.
There are countless more ways the hands of a bodyworker can “know” and help, many of which are dismissed because science can’t figure out how to measure and test them, and therefore dismisses them as wu-wu (sp?) or worse yet, charlatanism. I help my students and clients to find a new language and a new methodology for holistic experiences of the self.
I think of my hands and eyes and ears as forensic tools. Observation on every level meets with pattern recognition and openness to information, allowing the data to stack up in a way that, in a good session, reveals and heals. Here are two categories of perception that are familiar to just about every bodyworker.
Bodyworkers may know from touching an area that it is the site of former or current trauma, even when the client is not consciously aware of it. Most bodyworkers have had the experience of commenting on the unusual tightness or complication of an area only to have the client suddenly remember a major accident they had, or an asymmetrical sport they’ve played for decades, or another kind of trauma, that they forgot to mention in the intake.
The body’s tissues, especially the fascia, are like the rings of a tree. They record all the events that have happened to a person and the ways the person has responded. The body shrinkwraps to match your habits, and even when you build new habits, the old ones are still in the record.
Detecting details of a person’s history through touch or visual observation is an ordinary part of doing bodywork. But to people who only believe in what science can validate, it tends to seem either magical or coincidental.
Any event is recorded in the body’s tissue and movement. That includes traumatic events that are not explicitly physical, though the body’s reaction is physical. a client may flinch when the therapist’s hand casts a shadow over their face or initiates a light touch somewhere. Or the practitioner may perceive a “heavy heart” while mobilizing the ribcage. There are many other examples.
If you have worked long enough as a bodyworker, you’ve probably had emotions pass through your body that you know are not your own. Where did they come from? How can you prove it to a scientist? Do we have to keep running our truth past a committee of people who need to break down everything into pieces and study them separately?
When we understand the subtle and deep ways in which bodywork affects us, we enrich our experience of it, whether we are the giver or receiver. My goal as a teacher and practitioner is to expand the breadth of language and physical awareness and to validate the many effects bodywork has. The challenge of my field is to educate the public as to the radical ways that touch and movement can radically alter their lives for the better.