Just the other day, I was asked “what is it that you do?” This isn’t an unusual question, I get asked this a lot. The difference this time, was that the person asking me had just had a treatment.
As they had left to see me that morning, their husband had said “…enjoy your massage…”. And they had felt, “it’s not really a massage”, but they felt unable to explain what it actually is.
Which made me think, perhaps, that exploring some of the concepts and ideas that underpin myofascial release therapy and therapeutic bodywork may be useful, even for those of you who already receive treatments, and perhaps give some explanation as to why it's not quite like massage.
When I am asked the question “what is it you do?” I confess, I squirm a bit. It’s just a very difficult question to answer without sounding evasive, because what I do depends entirely on what you bring and your response depends even more on what comes up for you during the course of a treatment.
A founding principle of any therapeutic intervention is to meet someone where they are. I like to see this as a process of standing alongside you, getting a sense of what you would like to resolve, what your experiences are that have led you to where you are and what might help you to achieve your goals and expectations. As you can imagine, this varies enormously from person to person. Sometimes, your needs will be best met by more traditional massage techniques and most people know where they are with that, but more often than not, I incorporate myofascial release techniques and this can feel a bit less familiar which is why, that even having experienced it, it can still feel less tangible. Let me explain…
The fascial work that I have been trained in has a strong foundation in trauma-informed bodywork and cranio-sacral therapy, most people experience this as qualitatively different from massage. The gentle tissue-led listening touch that characterises fascial release creates a treatment that is gentle and responsive while often reaching a lot deeper into the system. Because change in the fascia relies on receptivity of the whole self - the tissues, the mind and the nervous system - forcing change is never an option and pressure that isn’t received gladly by the body is simply counter-productive. Fascia responds best to slow sustained pressure, that sits lightly at the edge of any barrier in the system until change begins to occur, I often think of it as gently knocking at the door and then stepping back until invited in, honouring the threshold and being a respectful guest. If you want to sit politely at the kitchen table, that’s what we will do, if you want me to help sort through your attic - let’s do it. It’s your home, it’s your body.
Fascia research and personal clinical experience has led me to feel that the fascia holds not only physical memory; in the sense of adaptations based on postural choices, injury, surgery, inflammation, repetitive movements, but also emotional history, the back story. It is not uncommon for vivid memories to emerge in the course of a treatment, or images or metaphors to surface. If this is unexpected, it can knock you off centre for a moment, like an old photograph falling from a book that stirs a long forgotten memory. To be honest, even if your mindset is very holistic, it can still be surprising that connecting with and unlocking physical tension can lead to a sudden resurfacing of emotions or experiences.
I’m going to give you an example, which I know I can share, because it happened to me. Recently, I received a treatment after having been winded, I hadn’t been looking where I was going and I had walked straight into a bollard, right in my solar plexus. It was actually really uncomfortable for a good 24 hours, but I was so embarrassed that I’d done it, I didn’t want to say. When I received some treatment, I was unexpectedly met with a vivid memory; I was 10 years old, visiting relatives in Italy, but without my mum, just my brother, there was a high diving board into the sea that everyone was going on. I really wanted to try, I climbed up and when I got there I couldn’t face jumping… but equally couldn’t face climbing back down… I was shaking with nerves. I finally dug really deep and mustered the courage to jump, or maybe I was pushed…either way, I launched into the water, I jumped badly, belly flopped really, and the impact of the water took all the air out of my lungs and I felt as if I’d been winded, I climbed out, everyone was watching me (so I thought) and laughing and talking in a language I didn’t understand… I wanted to cry, I felt skinny and pale compared to my beautiful Italian cousins and too young and extremely vulnerable and I didn’t really know where my safe place was. But what did I do? I laughed it off, and probably went on to try again later knowing me! But what I realised in that treatment was that the embarrassment I had felt about walking into the bollard, which was rather daft, went much deeper than I credited it, the physical memory of being winded linked to a much deeper sense of feeling deeply vulnerable and embarrassed. Damn. What do we do with that? I reckon, just be with it, stand with the 10 year old you, and hold their hand, befriend the past that has given you your own rich tapestry of experiences. Just take time and stay curious about your personal physical story so that it informs your responses rather than hijacking your reactions.
Knowledge of the way that our body responses and sensations connect with and reflect our experiences is called Embodiment, and I feel it has much broader implications in our life beyond just achieving physical health, it is about living authentically and honestly. Prentis Hemphill who founded the Embodiment Institute defines Embodiment as
“The awareness of our body’s sensations, habits and the beliefs that inform them. Embodiment requires the ability to feel and allow the body’s emotions. This embodied awareness is necessary to realign what we do with what we believe.”
So whenever we are presented with the opportunity to have a clear and open dialogue with what our body is telling us, we must pay deep and caring attention, without trying to fix it or label it. Ultimately, I see the role of therapeutic bodywork, with myofascial release being a particularly useful technique to use, as holding a space in which that dialogue feels safe and guiding an enquiry into where it might be stuck.
Because creating safety and ease in the body is central to successful bodywork, supporting down regulation of a stressed, over-stimulated or traumatised nervous system is a large part of the process of myofascial release therapy. Often, working with this will include verbal prompts to facilitate a connection with your physical sensations in the present moment. Using this mindful awareness of the felt sense makes the process of discovery, connection and release safe and enduring.
Often, physical touch is enough to offer a sense of safety and support which allows the settling and recalibration to take place. Again, the amount of verbal engagement within a session depends entirely on what works best for you. It is all at your pace and with your direction.
I would be really interested to hear how you would describe your experiences of bodywork. Perhaps some testimonials would help someone else to understand how they might benefit from receiving treatment. If you would be happy to share, then please do email me a paragraph or two. Also, if you have any questions that you would like me to answer, I would love to respond to any thoughts or questions that you have.
With love, Carina
Thanks to Bart Kerswell on Unsplash for the image, which has given me a slight reframing of how my jump may have looked. and also Valerie Faiola and Abbie Bernet. Unsplash is fabulous for free images and without it my blog would be very dull to look at indeed.