For modern-day massage therapists, the concept of holistic massage may seem very 21st century. Yet, for millennia, healing bodywork was intended to balance the physical, emotional, mental, energetic, and spiritual bodies. Just as ancient medical bodies of knowledge incorporated a multi-dimensional model, ancient massage practices also addressed the holistic organism.
When Swedish massage was developed in 19th-century Europe, the Swedish focus on soft tissue manipulation of the physical body probably helped massage therapists gain acceptance in the physically oriented allopathic medical community.
In the late 20th century, as American massage schools began to include a variety of energetic healing modalities in the curriculum, the massage community began a return to its holistic roots. Swedish massage is still often regarded primarily as a physical practice. Let’s take a look at a 21st-century model of Swedish massage that provides for a holistic approach.
A holistic massage session employs a variety of strategies to work specifically with the client’s physical, emotional, mental, energetic, and spiritual needs. Deep relaxation and effective therapeutic results occur most readily when the client’s and therapist’s mental activity is quieted, when clear energy flow is facilitated, and when the client feels 100 percent safe, comfortable, and nurtured.
The Mental Body
Herbert Benson, MD, began to study the phenomenon he calls the “relaxation response” in the 1970s. Benson found that in addition to the “fight-or-flight” response–the physiological manifestation of stress–there is a diametrically opposite physiological response that relieves the effects of stress. Benson describes the relaxation response as “a natural and innate protective mechanism against ‘overstress,’ which allows us to turn off harmful bodily effects [and which] brings on bodily changes that decrease heart rate, lower metabolism, decrease the rate of breathing, and bring the body back into what is probably a healthier balance.”1 These effects may account for many of the diverse medical benefits that have been measured in clinical studies of massage therapy for various medical conditions. However, this result is not achieved solely by physical manipulation of soft tissue. If we can help to induce the relaxation response during massage treatments, every massage can be deeply relaxing and deeply therapeutic because of the therapeutic benefits of the relaxation response.
The relaxation response occurs when mental activity is slowed to a quiet, relaxed state. This is the state generally associated with the practices of meditation and yoga. In this state, the electromagnetic waves of the brain slow to a frequency of 8-12 hertz (Hz), which is called an alpha wave state. The alpha wave frequency is also associated with parasympathetic nervous system dominance and hypnotic trance states. Hypnotic trance is a state in which the organism is receptive to suggestions for positive change, so the client’s healing intention may be fulfilled more readily in this state.
As part of a massage session, we can use specific strategies to subdue various types of mental busyness that prevent the slow brain wave frequencies associated with relaxation.
“Monkey mind” is the Buddhist term for the usual walking-around kind of mental activity that occurs during most of our waking hours. Monkey mind is characterized as an endless stream of thoughts about anything and everything. Monkey mind produces a beta brain wave state (greater than 12 Hz) that prevents the relaxation response. We can help the client reduce monkey-mind thought streams by providing relaxing input for them to focus on, especially at the start of the session:
– Consider using music as foreground sound instead of background sound. Enchanting melodies with gorgeous instrumentation and lots of movement and suspense can captivate the client mentally, drawing her attention away from whatever was on her mind before she got on the table. Some music is specially formulated to induce alpha waves.
– A stroke or movement that is highly soothing and unexpected may attract the client’s attention and help her focus on the pleasurable feelings in her body. Gentle rocking is very nurturing, and according to shiatsu teacher Carl Dubitsky, extended rhythmic oscillation slows brain waves.2 Whole-body rocking under the sheet can provide a compelling and comforting start to a massage. Slow, hypnotic rhythms drummed into the body may also capture the attention, as well as slow down brain waves.
“Worry mind” refers to thought patterns that carry concerns about the bodywork session itself. If your client has had painful massage experiences in the past, you can relieve worry mind with reassurances that you do not want to cause pain, and by checking in occasionally to be sure the client is comfortable. This lets the client feel safe, allowing them to let go of this fear mentally. If your client mentions a specific body area that needs attention during the intake, he may continue to worry about that area until he feels your attention there. If a client tells his therapist that his lower back is killing him and the therapist doesn’t even touch that area for the first 40 minutes of the session, he may lie on the table wondering if he was heard, or whether he should say something again, and his attention may stay focused on that discomfort until it is attended to. As a therapist, you can relieve this worry thought pattern by beginning the session on that part of the body. Similarly, if a therapist has the habit of only visiting each body part once during a massage session, the client may feel disappointed after the therapist covers up the worrisome area. By returning frequently during the session to the area of concern, you can help the client feel that the attention there is never-ending.
“Tracking mind” is the phenomenon of noticing where the therapist is working and anticipating what she will do next. This mental activity is especially likely if you do the same massage routine during every session, or do the same massage sequence on the right and left sides of the body during one session: “OK, now she’s going to flex the ankle, then she rotates and tractions each toe yep, there’s the first toe…second toe…next toe…next one…” You can defeat tracking mind by working in a way that is unpredictable. If the work cannot be tracked, tracking mind gives up thinking about it. You can also deter tracking mind by continuing one lovely, soothing stroke or movement for a ridiculously long time: “That feels great but I know she’s almost done, she only does that four times wow, she’s still doing it wow, that feels so good, and it just goes on and on ” Eventually the mind surrenders the expectation that the good feeling should stop soon, and relaxes into pure pleasure.
“Social mind” comes into play when the client feels an obligation to be engaged conversationally with the therapist, which is not relaxing neurologically. The brain activity involved in chatting generates beta brain waves, which then prevents slower frequencies. You can encourage clients to enjoy therapeutic silence by addressing this in your literature or intake process, and by not allowing yourself to be drawn into chatting during a session. I sometimes respond to a client’s chatty questions by saying, very softly, “I’d love to talk to you about that later. Let’s take a couple of deep breaths right now.” Conversation about what is happening during the session is sometimes necessary, of course, and keeps the attention focused on the bodywork happening in the present.
Recent scientific discoveries in neuroplasticity have demonstrated that the human brain has tremendous capacity to change its patterns, even in adulthood. Brain reorganization occurs in response to repeated new patterns. According to Sharon Begley, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, “The actions we take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, pour more juice into quiet circuits, and damp down activity in buzzing ones.”3 In this regard, if our clients experience slow brain wave states for extended periods of time during massage sessions, this may also stimulate their brains to adopt new, healthier patterns. We can help our clients begin to develop the brain patterns and health benefits of trained meditators.
The Emotional Body
By providing an emotional sanctuary during the massage session, we can help the client relax deeply and let go of emotional armoring which may be associated with health issues. Emotional openness comes from a feeling of being nurtured, accepted, listened to, and appreciated. We can gain the client’s emotional confidence in many ways–before, during, and after the treatment session.
Continued in Part II on Monday . . .
By Linda G. Means, PhD, CMT, a certified Esalen Massage therapist, energy healer, holistic healing coach, massage teacher, and writer. Her holistic massage work is infused with yoga, Brazilian Spiritist healing, and traditional Chinese medicine. To contact her, visit www.peacehope.com.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, November/December 2009. Copyright 2009. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
1. Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 56.
2. Carl Dubitsky, Bodywork Shiatsu (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1997), 101.
3. Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (New York: Ballentine Books, 2007), 8.
4. Peggy Morrison Horan, Connecting Through Touch (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2007), 4.
5. Norman Shealy and Dawson Church, Soul Medicine (Santa Rosa, California: Elite Books, 2006), 92.
6. Masaru Emoto, The Hidden Messages in Water (New York: Atria Books, 2001), 146.
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