Mindful Touch and Massage
Massage and touch are essential skills, which everyone should be taught from an early age, as is the way in some eastern cultures. Touch is a fundamental aspect of communication between beings which tragically has become wrought with anxiety and fear for many people because it has been abused. Although I was not abused, I was not brought up to be easy around touch, that was my English heritage.
When I was in my twenties, living in London and searching for deeper meaning in my life I had the great good fortune to meet an inspiring woman, Gerda Boyesen. I can’t remember the exact date but it was in 1977 (she would have been in her late 50’s) and that day changed my life and opened me up to seeing the world and myself in a completely new and exciting way or, rather affirming, reconnecting to some way of being that I seemed to have long forgotten but that was my right and heritage. A way of openness and deep personal and spiritual connection.
Gerda Boyesen was Norwegian and had trained and worked in hospitals as a physiotherapist, she was deeply interested in psychology and the study of the mind-body connection. She met and subsequently trained with one of Dr. Wilhelm Reich’s students. Reich, a psychiatrist, had been a colleague of Freud, and he was one of the earliest pioneers of mind–body awareness and his observations on sexuality made him very controversial for decades and his muscle armour theories were radical at the time. To Reich, healthy function meant a natural healthy, free flowing connection to sexuality and a healthy, functioning body should ideally be relaxed and flexible. His observations however showed that this is not generally the case. Reich’s view was that trauma and conditioning are held within the physical body, impeding natural breathing flow and stiffening the muscles (armouring) and skeleton. The purpose of his approach was therefore to release both the psychological and physical inhibitions. Not only did he encourage emotional expression in his patients but he also created physical massage techniques to loosen up the ‘muscle armour’ thus freeing up the patient’s“ character armour “ (defences) to loosen the vital energy and allow freer flowing healthy function.
As a physiotherapist, Gerda Boyesen was fascinated by Reich’s muscle armour theories as she realised that many of her patients were presenting with physical tensions which in her opinion were masking deeper emotional issues. She went a step further with her own innovative approaches to massage especially with her discovery of ‘psycho-peristalsis.’ She maintained that peristalsis in the digestive tract is noiseless, and the sounds that she heard whilst massaging clients are ‘energetic sounds’ corresponding to emotional release and rebalancing inner homeostasis. She heard these sounds when there was release of residues of repressed emotion held in the particular muscles she was working on. The massage was freeing vital locked energy allowing emotional tensions to be released and traumas to be resolved at the somatic level. Being massaged in a particular way, which she called ‘ Energy Distribution’, enables the body to self regulate and literally digest emotional residues that were stuck in the tissues. (“Issues being in tissues” is actually a fact!) This is why massage can be an emotional experience for many people and why they may experience a range of effects eg: crying, shaking, trembling ,breath release. Emotional release is a natural energy regulator and balancing mechanism.
According to Boyesen, these psycho- peristaltic sounds are elicited by emotional expression, movements and catharsis. She also taught that they can also be deliberately elicited by massage, working either on the skin level or in the auric field depending where the blockage registers. I learned, in those years, working closely with Gerda that massage is a far more mysterious therapy than simply placing and moving ones hands and fingers on someone’s body! I learned that the essence of touch is as much emotional and spiritual as physical, perhaps even more so.
For the first 10 years that I worked with massage, I listened not only with my hands and eyes but also I listened very attentively with my ears. As I moved or rested my hands I listened to these mysterious peristaltic sounds with a stethoscope in my ears and the membrane resting on my client’s abdomen. I listened very attentively and learned to interpret the colourful vocabulary of not only the sounds but also the silences, sounds such as,’ the creaking door ‘, the ‘zone of firing’ and the ‘sunny brook’. These are the sounds one hears when the energy is sluggish, over stimulated or simply in harmonious flow. I also listened attentively to the silences. Silence alerts one to the areas of the body where the energy movement is blocked by trauma or negative thoughts or memories. It is fascinating how the position of the hands on the body can track the energetic and emotional blockages of the client. The aim of such massage is to free up the sounds and thus release whatever is preventing the natural distribution of energy flow and to regulate, balance and harmonise the client’s energy. When this release and natural flow is re-established the client experiences a wonderful feeling of ‘ present independent well being and often a deep connection to all that “Is”. This process can never be forced. When the client is ready what is needed “impinges from within“. It’s a beautiful event to witness. The massage therapist simply provides the space for Grace to be present.
Massaging in this way requires great attention and focus, not only concentrating on the sounds but listening to the body with one’s hands, watching the breath with one’s open eyes and being present with one’s heart. Massaging in this way is a deeply mindful experience.
We hear a lot these days about ‘mindfulness’ practices, the intention of being present in one’s life and to oneself, how to watch the wanderings of the mind and how to catch oneself drifting from the present moment. In this way one cultivates the ability to witness the emotional vagaries and distractions of the mind and in so doing one frees oneself from habitual responses and makes the choice moment to moment to either contract into oneself and embrace fears and inner neurotic dialogue or to expand from the heart and fully embrace what is the present reality. This is a constantly evolving, conscious act of remembering.
Massaging with intense awareness and focus enables one to stay mindfully present and thus the act of massaging becomes a mindful practice in itself, a meditative experience for both practitioner and client.
Clients respond very positively to this mindful approach to massage because they feel that the treatment is one of undivided attention and intention from the therapist. This way of working is deeply connected, one works with the energy and literally flows with
What is the present emotional reality of the client. Nothing is ever forced but all is mindfully witnessed and accepted in a non-judgemental way.
This is my lineage and heritage. In my work with massage these days, I still work with my stethoscope from time to time but not always. What I do work with though is awareness. My days listening to the peristaltic sounds finely tuned my consciousness and heightened my awareness to body responses. I am acutely aware of the way a body responds to touch, can read the slightest quiver of a muscle or the change of a breathing rhythm.
To conclude, for more than half of my life I have been working with massage. Little did I know when I met Gerda Boyesen and then trained in bio dynamic psychology that massage would become such a big part of my life. Since then, I have massaged and taught countless people with the intention of passing on the wisdom and gifts that I have received. When I teach massage I endeavour to pass on what I was taught by Gerda and my meditation teachers. That is to stay present in the presence of simply what is and to trust that this will bring balance and independent well being to students and clients alike and that we are all blessed in the flow of love. That is ultimately what it is about.