Rocking during a massage session can help lull and comfort clients and create openings in ease and trust. Gentle rocking can also benefit structure and function and help clients let go of habituated patterns.

Here I will share three examples of clients who have benefited when I have rocked all or parts of them gently, rhythmically and appropriately. (David Lobenstine’s introduction to rocking as a massage therapy approach, in his article, “Rock On! Soothe Clients with Satisfying Contact,” in the June print issue of MASSAGE Magazine, offers advice on why and how you can subtly move your clients.)

See if you can find some inspiration from these stories: a mother of two expecting and then caring for her third baby; a retired computer programmer with arms and hands still numb from decades of work; and an 11-year old working through her parents’ divorce and the transformations of her own maturing body.

Both hands wrap the occiput, and then gradually traction it away from the atlas vertebrae. With traction maintained while subtly rocking this articulation and those of the cervical spine, waves of rhythmic nudges begin to travel throughout the client’s core.

Janet: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby

By the time Janet settled into my Side Lying Positioning System, this mother of two small girls was 32 weeks into her pregnancy, aching with piriformis syndrome and emotionally and physically challenged.

At our final session 17 months later, she was preparing for the family’s move back to Germany with some apprehension and significantly improved physical and emotional resiliency, despite now caring for three children younger than 7 years of age.

Here are some of the highlights of how we rocked through her perinatal and postpartum challenges in our mostly weekly sessions.

Janet’s trust in me built rapidly so that very quickly she confided about how exhausted and in need of nurturing she felt. Clearly the side-lying position would both accommodate her taut, swirling belly and her need to talk and periodically cry it out.

With her in this position, I undulated her spine with small amplitude, heartbeat-paced waves of posterior-to-anterior motion to help loosen her core and connect her from brain to sacral plexus.

To address the recurring sciatica-like pain in her left buttock, I often combined deep tissue work on all of the attachments at the greater trochanter, the lateral sacral edge, and into the sacro-iliac ligaments with focused, slow, space-nudging waves of movement at her sacrum, ilium, trochanter and ilio-tibial tract. Similar simultaneous deep tissue sculpting of her quadratus lumborum and other more superficial posterior structures while rocking her pelvis rhythmically toward her legs coaxed more space for both mama and baby.

After baby Leon’s birth, our postpartum work focused on easing the upper-body strain of breastfeeding and other infant care and secondarily on abdominal healing. Loosening the grip of scapula attachments, particularly trapezius, supraspinatus and levator scapula was my localized goal when shifting her pectoral girdle inferiorly and omni-directionally.

The systemic, emotional intention of these waves of slow, rhythmic and focused micromovements were to contain and soothe her, providing this weary mother a kinesthetic experience for her autonomic nervous system reminiscent of maternal safety and support.

She often reported getting her deepest, most rejuvenating sleep after our sessions, even though one or all children constantly interrupted that much needed rest.

All came full circle for me when Janet and her husband requested infant and child massage instruction. Although Leon nursed his way through much of that lesson in their living room, the two older girls delighted in receiving massage from their dad and doing some massage on mom’s shoulders and baby brother’s legs.

Deep myofascial release of pelvic attachments while subtly rocking either the ilium or femur with the other hand is intended to create deep release for piriformis syndrome. (With pregnant clients side-lying positioning is not only safer; it provides easier access and more movement possibilities.)

Mitchell: A Movement Revolution

After decades of computer programming, Mitchell came in with hands and arms that bore witness to attendant overuse, static postures and performance pressure—yet he’d been retired for more than a year. Now he had creative projects, both computer-based and in his home, calling him for which he needed his hands and arms to be fully functional.

Unfortunately, his dominant left arm and hand were numb; the right arm and hand had evaded a diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome several years before but, nevertheless, it was painful and tense. Of course, his neck and pectoral girdle were quite rigid too. Truly his was an upper body needing to remember the inherent fluidity and novelty of movement possibilities available to him.

Mitchell’s long, lanky arms, almost lifeless on my table, slowly awakened to my gradual traction that I filled in with tiny waves of micro-movement, subtle whispers to his fascia, muscles and nervous system to expand out and down rather than retracting with concentrated assignments.

Repeatedly, rhythmically rocking his shoulder girdle inferiorly and laterally, coupled with multi-directional micro-undulations of his cervical spine gradually began to thaw his rigid neck. By blending these rocking movements with my other hand delivering focused, responsive compressions to muscle attachments and fascial sheaths, release and relief began.

I could almost hear his impinged brachial plexus heaving sighs of relief! (Go here for a video sample of rhythmic deep tissue techniques such as these.)

With two to three sessions and his committed ironing-out of his forearms in between, Mitchell was very encouraged by the lessening of pain and tension and the increased sensation in both arms and hands. I think that he was learning to let go of habitual holding patterns while remembering a wider movement-and-feeling repertoire.

From his perspective, he shared his in-session image of being a vintage tractor in a barn as the farmer was getting the wheels turning again so it could return to plowing the fields.

He called his increased functionality “revolutionary,” in that he was considering further life changes so that he could continue to feel this good more often: more breaks from the keyboard and staying “wavy” when he was seated there, increased exercise and less pressure to get things done immediately got his revolution going.

As Mitchell reclaimed his arms and more joy of movement, he wanted more freedom for his lower body too. In our ongoing work, we’re progressing toward fewer calf cramps, less knee pain with squatting, and ease in the running and extensive walking that he enjoys.

Of course, we regularly reinforce and further extend throughout his neck and pectoral girdle too.

The side-lying position makes for a fuller exploration of movement possibilities of the scapula on the ribcage while sinking through rhomboids and other scapular attachments.

Aubrey: Control Over Her Experience

Aubrey’s dad accompanied her to the first few of 15 sessions he arranged for his 11-year-old youngest of two daughters. He hoped that our work could coax her from the emotional shell she seemed to be in since the dissolution of his marriage with her mother.

Aubrey’s collapsed ribcage, shortened neck and resulting shallow breathing reflected and helped maintain her affective flatness. Only talk of her gymnastics could spark any flame of her vitality, giving me a direction to frame our work: We’d lengthen her spine and torso for more gymnastic flexibility.

She initially stated a preference for medium pressure; however, by our third session, she wanted the “moving stuff” that I’d been incorporating into deeper compressions at her occiput, clavicles and spine, what I call rhythmic deep tissue sculpting.

The more I dissolved any deep pressure, allowing Trager Work developer Milton Trager’s “What is lighter? What is freer?” to echo from my mind to my hands, the more animated Aubrey was after her sessions.

The more I internally intended to rock this hurting child who was so ambivalent toward her mother, her dad reported her sleeping better and more clearly requesting parental presence at school and home.

At the end of our fourth session, she giggled and then asked him to “carry me out like a baby,” and he playfully complied. That same session she smiled at me for the first time as she announced that she’d gone from handstand to backbend to stand up for the first time. High five!

So what kind of rocking was I doing? A heartbeat pace and consistency. Gradual traction of her occiput from her spine, maintained while subtly rocking these same articulations, to give her more space and connection throughout her core; slow, small undulations into her spine, ribcage, shoulders and hips; and waves of subtle rhythmic nudges to facet and intervertebral joints, scapula-ribcage articulations, and shoulder and hip joints so they might remember the spaciousness and flexibility of a safer time.

What happened? I theorize that this type of rocking offered a satisfying level of contact that didn’t overwhelm her, or feel forceful, ticklish or abrupt. Because I met her stated request for “the moving stuff,” she regained some control over her experience, a contrast to so much being out of her control.

Perhaps this also helped her regain some trust that the feminine principle would hear and respond to her appropriately. Her autonomic nervous system, challenged by the disruptions in her home and the hormonal changes in her body, balanced in the familiar rhythms I bathed her in.

With more joint space and soften myofascial tissues, she could expand more into the joyous movement of her gymnastics.

Over the remaining 10 months we worked, other family members also accompanied Aubrey to sessions, usually her paternal grandmother, occasionally her older sister, and finally her mother. When her dad showed up too at her last session’s end, both parents gave me a thumbs up as they left.

Aubrey waved absently toward me, chattering with both about her sixth-grade camping trip. That was my last contact with any of the family so I don’t know what happened for them subsequently, but I do know that Aubrey left taller and more expanded, and not just because of a year’s physical growth.

Habituated Patterns

As you reflect on these three client stories, I invite you to think of clients you will see this week who need to be calmed and lulled into greater ease and trust.

Which clients’ structure and function could improve by letting go of habituated patterns and by remembering other possibilities? Who would benefit from an increased meditative alertness to kinesthetic input? Which clients’ needs call for contact that encourages rather than attempts to force change?

Get those clients rocking.


Carole Osborne, 2008 American Massage Therapy Association National Teacher of the Year, has a practice focused on facilitating somato-emotional integration, particularly related to childbearing, trauma and nurturing. She is author of Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy, 2e, and Deep Tissue Sculpting, second edition, a contributing author to Teaching Massage Therapy, and a widely sought after continuing education provider. See her teaching schedule or read about and watch videos of her work at her website. She says,”My writing of this article was buoyed by waves of deep gratitude for my rock star mentors: those unknown, lost-in-the-mists of time Japanese trepidators and my contemporaries, Kai and Thom Underwood, who demonstrated the profundity of those most subtle of passive movements; my more rollicking, wider amplitude, fully hooked-up role model from the 70s and 80s, Milton Trager; and last, but surely not least, my colleague, James Stewart, who synthesized both while weaving in imagery, dream and awareness to create Sensory Repatterning.”