Reflections on 20 Years of Bodywork
I am writing this in March 2021, it certainly has been a strange and challenging year, but also one of recalibration and reflection.
Our challenges have been collectively felt and personally nuanced; as a bodyworker, myself and my colleagues have faced some huge challenges that none of us ever anticipated or could have predicted. Though of course this pandemic has raised some concerns about the practical applications and the economic viability of close-contact work in a post-Covid world, the conversations that I have been having with clients and the treatments that I have been able to continue with have been incredibly affirming; I really believe that as we emerge and build back from this period of lock-downs, protocols and restrictions, we need touch therapies to support our bodies and our minds to restore resilience and connection. This month is also my 20 year anniversary of completing my first massage qualification. I have been reflecting about my life-long involvement with body work and I thought you might enjoy knowing a little more about the path I have taken with it.
I have tried to keep this as a brief summary of my journey in bodywork, really it is a story of renewed returning. Points of question - is this right for me? Is this enough? Can this work? And the resounding answer of yes, and again, yes.
I have often been asked about what led me into massage in the first instance. Feeling slightly that I just fell into it by chance doesn’t quite do justice to the passion with which I have pursued it, but learning more now about what my core values are, knowing that when I make big decisions I lean into my intuition, I realise that big decisions often don’t feel like decisions to me, they feel a lot like letting go and trusting. Bodywork has always felt aligned with my values; doing something that contributes to the lives of others; being wholehearted and compassionate in my actions; empowering others to be the fullest versions of themselves - or at least not fuelling messages that steer us away from that; treading lightly on the earth and doing no harm.
So, to begin at the beginning, I’m sure that aspects of my childhood probably paved the way for this line of work to open up. My dad had a strong interest in yoga, meditation and The Alexander Technique. I was always encouraged to find a way to inhabit my body that allowed free easy movement, to visualise flow in my body when I encountered physical challenge. Difficulties with my knees in adolescence meant I had many opportunities to explore how to lift my thoughts out of the pain I felt rather than to plunge into it and let it dictate my actions. I could visualise a weightless quality in my legs that would facilitate me getting to the top of the hill and overcome physical hurdles. Inhabiting my body in this way was just normal to me as a child, deepening that relationship between mind and body has since been my life long exploration.
Though that ability to transform sensation so as to overcome hurdles supported me, it didn’t make the pain stop all together and I soon found the enormous benefits brought about through touch. Both of my parents were always very hands on and would always give my knees or feet or back a rub. So touch and embodied awareness were just part of life.
When I was 18 I took a year off after finishing my A’Levels. I’d thought about doing various things at university - Psychology, Theology, Philosophy, but I couldn’t find the right course, my teachers kept on telling my I’d find it "too dry". Never really sure what they meant by that, I looked for a course that would really ignite me in some way… In the mean time I did some really quite rubbish jobs…but we’ll leave that out…then I found an evening class doing Body Massage - a light went on in me and I signed up straight away. I got good feedback from everyone I practiced my new skills on, and when you’re doing unfulfilling jobs and failing to find a degree you really want to do, good feedback is like gold dust. I decided that I’d give it a go and take it further, it felt like it could provide me with something that felt worthwhile. I didn’t think much beyond the next six months at that point, I certainly didn’t realise I was taking the first steps into what would be my life-long career.
I moved from where I’d been living for a year or so in Huddersfield to Bristol and applied to the first massage course I could find. To be honest, if I’d had more time and guidance it’s not the course I would have chosen but hindsight is a wonderful thing. It did almost put me off and in the meantime I had found the course I wanted to do at university - Cultural and Media Studies and I got a place at UWE in Bristol.
When I started university I got introduced to the manager of The Relaxation Centre in Bristol. This was a magical place. Set up by a Sannyasin community, it was an amazingly grounded yet deeply spiritual day spa that provided truly healing treatments. It was anything but your average spa and the beautiful people that I had the honour of working with there showed me exactly what I had hoped massage and bodywork could be, providing a space for insight, deep connection to yourself, healing, relief from stress states, access to your higher self. I was insanely lucky to work there throughout the whole of my degree. I found giving treatments alongside my uni work was such an amazing balance.
The Relaxation Centre slogan was, To Relax is To Enjoy Life, and I have brought this into all my work like a mantra, whenever permission is needed to do this simple but essential thing in our lives. Relaxation of course, is more than pleasure and enjoying life, relaxation enables a state in our bodies in which essential biological functions, restoration, healing and integration can take place without being impeded by stress states. What I learned there above all else is that bodies can’t be fixed, but they can heal.
Academic work has always energised me, I love tackling new ideas. I’m also very much a feeling and doing person too and long hours in a library or writing alone can leave me a little hollow; theory and practice need to be brought together for me. As I got to my third year, I had my dissertation to write, by then my interests in body-mind connection had become more of an intellectual interest as well as a felt sense. I was grateful to find a tutor that would support me in writing a dissertation that combined the principles of my degree and my personal interests and I wrote a thesis called Myths, Paradigms and Fragments of Salvation; A Holistic Response to Healing the Social Body. Perhaps that sounds a little pretentious looking back! In brief, I explored the impact of having a scientific paradigm as the primary modality through which we are given information about our bodies; particularly when it is in a dis-ease state. I used a parallel of ancient myth to explore human desire for spiritual completion. Amongst other things, I considered how reductionist science and Cartesian dualism deny us of the whole picture when it comes to defining the human experience. As a lens through which to see the world, this perspective can sometimes miss the very essence of life and consciousness, scientific dominance can lead us to forget that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I did well at university, my dissertation got a First and I thought that I would probably take the research and writing further. I needed a year to get out of my head and back into my body and so I did further bodywork training - another 10 months of Dynamic Deep Tissue, Hands Free treatments. Deepening my massage practice did feel like coming home and again, getting that immediate feedback and knowing that what you’re doing is needed and helpful and worthwhile is very compelling. At the same time my mind was always seeking more to chew on, I attended a lecture with the Nutritional Healing Foundation and the way they explored the body as the vessel for the soul chimed so well with the research I had just been doing that I signed up for that too. Straight into another diploma. I loved it. In the meantime, I had found the next course of action; a Masters Degree in Integrative Medicine. But you know what they say, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Finding out I was expecting my first child meant I put the notion of going to California to do a masters on the back burner, where it still remains to this day. Meanwhile, I always had my massage practice. It held me, it nurtured me and I always loved every treatment I gave. I tried to introduce nutritional advice into my work but, for a number of reasons, I found that I couldn’t really get behind it. I gained a great deal from the course, but it didn’t guide my work in the way that I thought it would. Bodywork has always felt like a modality I could wholeheartedly endorse and inhabit.
My eldest daughter was born in 2006, I committed deeply to motherhood, and bodywork became side-lined for a few years while my girls were little, on returning to work I wasn’t sure if bodywork was right for me anymore. Reflecting back, I see it was an over-load of »giving« to two young children. I returned to work at The Relaxation Centre, this time in the office as Therapy Manager, overseeing and coordinating the team of 60 therapists there. At the same time, I was approached by Julianna, a parent I knew from Kindergarten who managed and worked at The Family Practice -a dynamic and progressive osteopathic centre, quite a different place to work than The Relaxation Centre. I couldn’t turn down the new challenge and I began to offer body work a day a week in the therapy room as well as the office work at The Relaxation Centre. Working at The Family Practice shifted my client demographic to being more about treating pain and impaired mobility than the holistic healing emphasis that underpinned the work at The Relaxation Centre. Much as I missed the serenity of the Relaxation Centre I thrived on the challenge the Family Practice offered. I realised that in order to be energised I always need to be learning. Curiosity and personal development are also core values that guide my life and ignite my spirit. So, despite my uncertainty, I was back in practice and loving it even more.
In 2013, the next phase of family life then started to come to fruition. A long much discussed plan to leave Bristol and start a new life in the Herefordshire countryside began to feel like a now-or-never moment. At that point I felt certain I would have to reconsider my work, I didn’t think there was any chance you could build a thriving practice in bodywork in "the middle of nowhere". I kept up my work in Bristol, going back fortnightly to carry on with treatments at the Family Practice. I started treating local clients too, and soon came to realise that it really could become a viable practice. As I started to spend more and more time working from home and away from the busy clinic in Bristol, I realised that I yearned for the connection of other therapists, their perspectives and support. I decided to take on the role of coordinator for a Local Support Group for Therapists in Herefordshire. I also knew that I needed the next challenge in my bodywork development, but I couldn’t quite settle on what that needed to be. Then, an alignment of things happened. A prospective client contacted me to enquire about whether Myofascial Release could help with healing the effects of her childhood trauma. I have always held the belief and seen the evidence that bodywork can have profound effects on emotional processing and I wanted to help this young woman. I had received some training in myofascial release at that point, but nothing that I felt really equipped me to respond confidently to this request. I felt a strong call in me to explore this avenue further. Shortly afterwards, on a train journey to an integrative health conference in London, I had a moment to read some journals and I found an article written by the teacher I was looking for. Again, leaning into my intuition and trust I found myself on a year long diploma in advanced myofascial release therapy with Emma Gilmore in Exeter. Once again, my passion for and devotion to bodywork had been reignited. The subtlety, depth and interconnectedness of fascia - the connective tissue of the body - brings in a new dimension to the possibilities of bodywork which really speak to me and as such, this new area of study and training is providing deeper and more interesting avenues to explore. I am currently deepening my knowledge around scar integration work and supporting the effects of trauma, stress and anxiety on the body. This potential to support those most in need through bodywork is humbling and deeply rewarding. I hope that I am still a bodyworker in 20 years time. The journey really, is only just beginning.
If you’ve read to the end, I really appreciate your time. If you would like to leave any feedback, or reflections about your experiences of bodywork, I would love to hear from you.
With thanks to the following for the photographic contributions
Photo by Max Saeling on Unsplash