by Shelly Meurer and Theresa Pettersen-Chu

Have you ever worked with a client who had some emotional issues and sensed it was affecting her physical healing process? Have you ever experienced the surfacing of these emotions while doing a massage and wondered if there was a method that would address both body and mind?

Jodi Peppel, an experienced massage therapist with a successful practice in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, wondered about this. She felt confident in her skills when working with the body; however, her therapeutic touch often evoked deep emotional responses from her clients, leaving her feeling confused about how to proceed.

Professionally, I knew deep down that a major piece was missing for me as a clinician and the people with whom I was working,” Peppel said.

While attending a weekend Rubenfeld Synergy workshop, Peppel found a modality that addressed her desire to support the physical and emotional well-being of her clients. She enrolled in the Rubenfeld Synergy training program and now has a successful Rubenfeld Synergy practice.

Guided by touch
The Rubenfeld Synergy Method is a holistic approach distinguished from other methods by its combined use of gentle touch, talk and compassionate listening. Sessions are done on a cushioned table or in a chair. Clients are fully clothed.

Throughout life, stress, memories and emotions are stored in our bodies. They show up as aches, pains and tension, which can cause us to feel chronically tired, emotionally drained and disconnected. Gentle touch with supportive listening, a defining characteristic of Rubenfeld Synergy, is used to heighten the client’s awareness of these areas.

Unlike massage therapists, Certified Rubenfeld Synergists do not use techniques to directly release muscular tension. Instead, they support and pay close attention to any changes in the body that may reflect a holding on or a letting go.

By incorporating talk with touch, the client becomes an active participant in the process. As clients notice what is happening in their bodies, guided by gentle touch, they are invited to express their experience verbally.

This combination of talk and touch helps clients listen to themselves more fully, which can help access stored memory and emotions. Clients begin to see how the stress and tension in their bodies relates to the stress and tension in life, making the body-mind connection.
Creating awareness
Rubenfeld Synergy client “Sophie” began receiving sessions when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. The stress of his disease and the responsibility of his care weighed heavily on her shoulders. Her body was dense, often tight and constricted, as if she were trying to hold it all together.

As Sophie lay on the table, Rubenfeld Synergist Theresa Pettersen-Chu gently made contact with her feet and ever so slightly moved each foot from side to side. The movement to Sophie’s feet startled her.

“Every time I relax, something else happens,” Sophie then said. “So now I just stay tense.”

“It’s like the ground is always shifting and you have nowhere to land,” Pettersen-Chu responded.

This resonated with Sophie, and Pettersen-Chu wondered, as a synergist, what it would be like for her to experience the sense of having her feet on solid ground. She gently lifted Sophie’s right leg, invited her knee to bend and placed her foot on the table. She did the same with the left leg, and placed the palms of her hands on Sophie’s feet. Sophie felt the warmth of Pettersen-Chu’s hands and the solidness of the table.

“This feels safe and comforting,” Sophie said. “I wasn’t aware of how unsafe I felt.” Her body relaxed, and she felt her shoulders sink into the table.

Orchestrating a technique
During the late 1960s, Ilana Rubenfeld, an orchestral conductor, suffered from severe pain caused by the repetitive arm-and-hand gestures required by her profession. Seeking relief, Rubenfeld went to a practitioner of the Alexander Technique, a method that teaches how to use posture and balance.

Touched by the gentle hands of her teacher, Rubenfeld felt the tension in her back soften and a sudden welling of intense emotions. Untrained in the realm of emotions, her Alexander Technique teacher referred her to a psychoanalyst. When she met with her psychoanalyst, the intensity of her emotions subsided, and Rubenfeld was unable to access her feelings the way she did when she was touched. Recognizing the need for an approach that combined touch with talk, she embarked on a journey to create one.

Rubenfeld’s first step was to become an Alexander Technique teacher. She then trained with Moshé Feldenkrais, who taught people how to become aware of and release habitual holding patterns in the body.

At the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, Rubenfeld met Fritz Perls, co-founder of Gestalt therapy. Perls’ approach to psychotherapy focused on the client’s experience in the present moment. As Perls worked with the client’s verbal story, he asked Rubenfeld to use her experienced touch to track the body’s story. She noticed subtle muscle responses, as clients shared their emotional experiences. Rubenfeld realized the next step was to have one practitioner facilitate the somatic and emotional work simultaneously.

Like orchestrating a symphony, Rubenfeld brought together the work of her three teachers, creating a duet of talk and touch. She found a powerful, yet gentle, way to address body, mind, emotions and spirit.

The word synergy, which means “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” was suggested for her work.
“Using gentle touch, I try to help people listen to the emotional undercurrents of their experiences that are frozen in their bodies,” Rubenfeld said.

Multiple benefits
There are many benefits of Rubenfeld Synergy, including the relief of stress and tension, improved self-esteem, increased ease of movement, transformation of unhealthy habits and recovery from physical or emotional trauma.

You may have worked with clients who experience the same physical issues over and over again, and nothing seems to help. Maybe you have clients who are so stressed out they can’t relax, or they say the only time they can relax is during massage. These are the people who could benefit from Rubenfeld Synergy.

“As a massage therapist, I know when it’s time for my clients to go deeper, to let go of tight muscles and stuffed emotions,” said Cindy (who requested her last name not be published), a massage therapist in Cincinnati, Ohio. “That’s what I call ‘hitting the wall.’ I find Rubenfeld Synergy to be a wonderful complement to resolving hidden issues … an incredible tool for self-exploration.”

Rubenfeld Synergy adds a whole new dimension to bodywork and provides the tools for developing more presence, in mind and body, with yourself and your clients. Learning to listen to the body in a different way gives you the ability to empower people to make the body-mind connection, which enables them to release both physical and emotional tension. This can improve the quality of their life.

Mastering the technique
In 1977, Rubenfeld began teaching students in the first Rubenfeld Synergy training program. Although many students in the early years of the training built professional practices, including Joe Weldon and Noel Wight, now co-directors of the training program, others used the training for personal growth.

Ten years ago, Rubenfeld and the faculty revamped the Rubenfeld Synergy training program, making it an intensive, four-year professional certification program. The last year of the program is an internship, with an emphasis on supervised Rubenfeld Synergy sessions, mentorship and practice building.

The training program meets three times per year. Each of these training modules is seven days. Each student also participates in three regional group meetings per year, scheduled between the main training modules. Students in the same geographic area meet with faculty to practice, review and deepen their skills. During the training, students are required to have 20 personal Rubenfeld Synergy sessions per year.

The Rubenfeld Synergy Method does not strictly fall under the category of bodywork or psychotherapy. It is a unique body-mind paradigm. Currently, Certified Rubenfeld Synergists accept and adhere to extensive standards of practice and ethical code. A governing board monitors and oversees practicing synergists in the areas of certification maintenance, professional practices and ethical principles.

To find out more about Rubenfeld Synergy or locate a practitioner, visit

To learn how Rubenfeld Synergy helped author Shelly Meurer avoid surgery, read “Rubenfeld Synergy: The Missing Piece.”

Shelly Meurer, L.M.T., is a Certified Rubenfeld Synergist and licensed massage therapist in private practice in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. Theresa Pettersen-Chu is a Certified Rubenfeld Synergist in private practice in Summit, New Jersey.