We are waking up from a spell, or what I would call a central myth, in massage and bodywork: the belief that massage therapists relax and release clients’ muscles through soft tissue manipulation.
In spite of how common-sense this appears on the surface, the fact is that muscles don’t originate relaxation. They don’t relax themselves any more than lights turn on without electricity.
It is the nervous system that tells the muscles to relax. So, saying, as do most states’ laws, that we do soft tissue manipulation has some truth to it. But, even more therapeutically truthful is this: We engage in nervous system communication. We communicate with the nervous system via the skin, muscles and fascia. These are our communication media.
We are seeing that fascia doesn’t change as much as many people thought, in spite of the speculations and practices that have grown up around its release. The thixotrophic properties of fascia, whereby it becomes more fluid when you add activity to it, is mostly a temporary change; when you press in and melt fascia, it relatively quickly reverts to its original shape soon after you take the pressure away.
The nervous system, on the other hand, considers what is triggered by our quality of touch: pain; pleasure; rhythm; depth; and past associations related to kindness, harsh touch or clarity of touch, as examples. As a result of our touch qualities, sensations and emotions arise, and the brain then either initiates the relaxation response, may make no change in our tension levels, or increases tension.
Colloquially, we may say we introduce the possibility of change through manipulating structure, which manipulation is then interpreted by the brain—and then the nervous system may respond by modifying tensions in the structure.
Therefore, in terms of therapeutic effect, we are more communicators than manipulators. Many Rolfing bodywork practitioners use the term somatic educators, which also makes sense. The most important skill we can have, then, is our ability to communicate with the nervous system of the client. Some of the sage educators who have supported this theory with their teachings and work include Moshé Feldenkrais, Deane Juhan and Fritz Smith.
Touch is the first sense to develop in the embryo. It is therefore the foundation for our entire sensory world.
Just as a signal must be clear to be understood, touch must be exquisitely clear in order to communicate successfully with the nervous system.
Equally important as contacting the client’s nervous system is the message conveyed by the therapist’s nervous system through touch. In other words, we are perhaps doing mindwork more than bodywork, and therefore of critical importance is the awareness and responsiveness of both client and therapist.
What I mean is, what we are doing with our minds is as important as what we are doing with our bodies.
The legacy of mindfulness has given us a tremendous advance in approaching what we can do with our awareness to optimize our touch communications. In meditation, we will focus on an area or sensation, such as the heart area or the breath. This then becomes the home base for our awareness. The point of home is not that we never leave it; the point is we have someplace safe and comfortable to which we can return.
In meditation, sometimes it’s only microseconds that one is at the home base. While massaging, the knowledge that awareness is organized around a center point rather than randomly moving about creates a safer, clearer experience both for the receiver and the giver.
In bodymind work, as distinct from meditation, the point of focus is not oneself; instead, it is centered on the interaction of the therapist and client. The structural and energetic center of that interaction is at the meeting place of the therapist’s touch with the client’s bodymind. Generally this means the home base for our awareness while we work needs to be the place we are touching. This necessitates not only good body mechanics, but equally what I call psychomechanics.
While body mechanics is emphasized in most massage education, the topic of psychomechanics is usually not addressed, nor the skills relating to it taught. Psychomechanics as I teach it means attending as much to the movement of awareness as to the movement of the body.
Working at Interface
During a massage session, the center of our awareness is where the massage therapist is touching the client—or, in some cases, where our force goes, as in the case of stretch; therefore, our work depends tremendously on good psychomechanics as well as good body mechanics.
In Zero Balancing and Deep Tissue: The Lauterstein Method, both of which are offered at the massage school I co-founded, we use the term interface to describe that center. Regardless of the modality or technique employed, working at interface will create a clearer, stronger, more positive effect.
How do we do it? Well, just as in meditation when we bring awareness to a certain place within ourselves, here we bring our awareness to where our touch is contacting our client. Then, just as in meditation or as in a balancing yoga pose, we notice when we get distracted and less balanced—in body, emotion, thought or spirit—and gently, over and over, bring ourselves back to the awareness of working at interface.
When doing therapy, we may temporarily lose focus when our body complains or is in a position that, if maintained, would be compromising. To help with that, when we find ourselves working with excess tension, we need to bring awareness temporarily to unneeded tensions within our own body, let them go, then return to interface with a heightened gracefulness.
This results in a deeper level of physical presence, since we’re not just obeying what we learned as being good body mechanics, but responding intimately to our own body’s tension and freedom to refine how we feel when we touch.
We may get distracted emotionally as we work, and then we need a moment to sort out our feelings. Maybe this client reminds you of a difficult person from the past, and that is distracting. Or maybe this client seems to be feeling a lot of anger, which could trigger your anger or throw you off in some way.
When we are clear about what we are feeling and decide what to do with that, then our touch will be more reassured and relaxed, whatever emotion might be circulating. A common emotion as one works, especially with a challenging client, is anger at oneself. This is also often linked with thoughts about not being a good enough therapist. That feeling and thought can cloud many a session.
At the very least, one can notice the emotion with respect, leave it there, and return to interface knowing it is more important to be truly present with the client than to be inwardly attacking or defending oneself.
We may usefully, or irrelevantly, access thinking while we work; therefore, sometimes we need to leave interface to access our anatomical databanks. What I’m feeling here seems to be more pectoralis minor than major, and what’s the origin and insertion of pec minor? When you get the answer, then you will return to interface with a heightened anatomical clarity palpable by the client.
On the other hand, sometimes you may be thinking, “Boy, I would really love some French fries for lunch!” This will convey no palpable benefit to the client. Centering awareness on interface is in fact the appropriate response to irrelevantly wandering thoughts.
We need to choreograph our awareness as much as our body when we work.
Sometimes, a recalcitrant muscle will cause me to overly narrow my focus. Someone’s hamstring is so tight, there is momentarily nothing but me vs. the hamstring. In these moments, the body becomes an object to me, what the philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) called an I-It relationship, as opposed to what Buber called the I-Thou relationship, where another person is seen as an authentic, un-judged being.
When one aspect of a person becomes too much my focus, I lose the quality of my relationship, my interface with the whole person. So I conceptually step back into a position of holding this client in highest personal regard and re-establish an I-Thou rather than an I-It relation with some aspect of him.
The goal, as in all meditation, is to notice distraction, learn what we can from it, and return with compassion again and again, to interface, to that home base of our work.
Ida Rolf, Ph.D., was famous for claiming that bodies were often randomly organized, and of course Rolfing is a brilliant way to introduce a heightened level of organization and integration.
In psychomechanics, awareness is often randomly organized. Many people never learn to put their thinking on manual; they just randomly scoot around from one thought and emotion to another. How vastly we all benefit from developing a more balanced, usefully focused way of living with our minds, emotions, bodies and spirit.
By embodying balance and working at interface, we help the client by contacting her in a way that invites her awareness with clarity, and so helps her have the experience of a calm center around which she can re-organize her own bodymind.
The beautiful secret is that, the more we do this, the more balanced our own being becomes, not only as therapists but also an individuals. Working at interface is a fundamentally healthy and sane practice that, just like meditation practice, builds a healthier body and mind for practitioners as well as clients.
David Lauterstein is the author of The Deep Massage Book: How to Combine Structure and Energy in Bodywork and Putting the Soul Back in the Body (self-published, 1985). He is the co-founder of Lauterstein-Conway Massage School in Austin, Texas, and received the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2012 Jerome Perlinski Teacher of the Year Award.