Ouch! That hurts.

I’ve been experiencing intermittent pain in my left foot for almost a year now. It comes and goes mysteriously, aggravated by hiking, dancing, and bouncing- basically the types exercise that bring me joy. At first I tried to ignore it; after all it’s usually a dull ache, with short spurts of intensity, but generally tolerable. Obviously this strategy was a failure!

For several months I’ve been using all my tools: anti-inflammatory diet, healing essential oils, ice packs, rest, elevation, and of course loads of massage and Reiki treatments. Nothing seems to have any lasting effect. A friend suggested castor oil packs, which did seem to allow for more mobility immediately afterwards, but now not so much. As summer is approaching, the idea of sitting still with my foot in a castor oil-soaked sock wrapped in a heating pad is decidedly unappealing.

So what to do when all the healing techniques you know aren’t helping? It seems there are four basic answers for me, and I’m exploring them all with full gusto. First, get some help. Sounds obvious, right? Trading in fierce independence for a more balanced regime of giving AND receiving through interdependence is a big lesson for me. I am determined to keep practicing this skill. I’ve started receiving acupuncture twice a week to relieve pain and to balance the energy flow through my body.

Secondly, can I accept that forces bigger than myself are at play? Can I acknowledge that I’m feeling frustrated at my seeming failure to heal myself and the resulting lack of mobility? And at the same time, can I investigate the possible silver lining? Can I react favorably to a forced rest period that allows me to read <gasp!> novels and to journal? Can I learn to accept that this is what I have to work with in this moment, and release all my attachments, judgments, and expectations that only increase my suffering? Although I’m not 100% there just yet, I’m convinced that yes, I indeed can do this.

Thirdly, what is the message my body is trying to deliver? At first glance, asking for and receiving help and enjoying more stillness are answers that float to the surface. Yet I want to tap into the deeper layers. Yesterday during my acupuncture treatment, I asked my inner self, “What am I not seeing?” I had an instant vision of dense roots reaching up from the earth, trapping me in place. While I’m still contemplating the full meaning of this experience, it seems obvious that fear of moving forward, of stepping into my full potential, and rising above my current belief system has been tethering me.

It’s tempting to be lured into the story of why, when, and how I got here; I have the tools to release fear and tap into my inner strength, purpose, and willingness to heal without intellectually understanding this ailment. That’s the beauty of Reiki; it is spiritually guided and I don’t need to know. Now that I have a goal of getting unstuck and releasing fear of the unknown that change is certain to bring, I can begin to appreciate the final answer to my question of what to do when nothing is working. Gratitude, mingled with trust. Clearly the universe has a plan in place for my growth and awakening that I am unable to see.

For some reason, this chapter is a part of my journey. For now, I can accept this on faith and remain open to the lessons at hand. I’m also reminded of my upcoming role on a panel for Healthy Aging at my neighborhood holistic health fair. It’s a fantastic opportunity to share my knowledge about growing older while prioritizing health, recharging Ki (life force energy), and heeding pain as a messenger. This helps create a healthy lifestyle that cultivates wellness and vitality, regardless of the hand (or foot) we’ve been dealt.

You’re Teaching Me to be Kind to Myself

“You’re Teaching Me to be Kind to Myself.”

A client said this to me during a massage treatment a few weeks ago. The concept of treating our bodies with kindness is somewhat uncommon in our culture of harder/ faster/ deeper/ push-through it mentality. In this particular case, I was working on an inflamed tendon that had been causing quite a bit of pain for over a month and interfering with her quality of life. I was using gentle pressure to soothe and comfort the entire area to encourage circulation and the release of muscular tension.

She had been braced for a painful session and was quite surprised at the results she experienced from my gentle approach. During the treatment she noticed how various body parts connected to one another and then began to see a bigger picture. While it is true that one particular tendon was inflamed due to overwork and a moment of excess strain place on it, all the surrounding muscle groups had been recruited to assist and protect the injury. Tension spread out from the source and had enveloped the entire quadrant. As relaxation settled in and muscles began to release, she could feel the internal structure settle into a more neutral position and breathed a sigh of relief.

When she returned two weeks later for a follow up treatment, she reported much less pain, more ease of movement, and a greater sense of harmony in her body. The persistent pain had been downgraded to a dull ache and the surrounding muscles were no longer locked in defensive contraction. Again I worked gently; this time spending a greater portion of the session integrating the limb with the torso while explaining how the whole body works as a team. She became intrigued with the idea of this one small tendon affecting distant areas and realized how she had adapted posture as well as movement to accommodate the injury.

She left that day encouraged to be more aware of her body mechanics and overall attitude towards her body. Introducing clients to the transformative belief that treating ourselves and our bodies with kindness produces lasting and deep effects is perhaps the most helpful input I have to offer as a bodyworker. I could explain this in terms of the nervous system triggering the fight-or-flight reflex vs the relaxation response and get into the biological effects of an aggressive approach vs a more gentle on; yet I think that deep down we can all intuitively grasp this concept. Be kind to your body; and it will respond by letting go of stress and pain.

Radical Self-Care, Happy Massage Day!

I try to get a massage twice per month. My muscles really need the therapy because giving bodywork is so physically demanding. And my psyche needs the nurturing and soothing release that results from relaxation and touch. I also learn new techniques and have “stolen” some of my best moves from other therapists. Finally, I am reminded of what it’s like to be a client, to anticipate a session, and to be cared for. This inspires me to bring my best to each and every session.

While it may just be another day at work for me, often it is the highpoint of a client’s week. I’m incorporating an attitude of celebration into my work. A friend and coworker offers a cheerful “Happy massage day” as a greeting to clients when they arrive. While I may not use these words, I intend to embody the feeling behind them, and to appreciate the efforts required for people to actually show up for themselves and receive a session.

In addition to aspiring to be the most caring and compassionate self at work, I’m upping my earlier statement. Forget about “trying” to get two massages each month: I schedule a massage at least every other week. This is my new statement of intent. As Yoda, the beloved Star Wars guru, said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

I Can Bend!

These were the words of my elated client as she walked out of my door this morning. She had arrived 45 minutes earlier, stooped and fatigued, wearing slippers because she was unable to tie her shoes. Being a landscape artist causes her to misuse and abuse her body all day long, constantly. Being a determined and driven woman led her to push on through until the pain was unbearable. 

It’s not uncommon for people to be in extreme discomfort when they finally seek my help. I do my best to educate folks that bodywork is most effective as a maintenance practice, rather than emergency care, and that if they commit to listening to the body’s signals they can avoid pain altogether. Often times the suggestion of daily stretching is met with a look usually reserved for divorce lawyers and dental drills, and routine massage schedules fall by the wayside. 

Like I said, I do my best to educate clients. When their resistance to self-care outweighs my informative presentation, I’m always willing to offer support when it is urgently needed. I wish they wouldn’t wait until they can’t bend to call me, but when they do, I’m humbled and filled with gratitude to have the skill and training to promote bendability when it’s lacking. 

Speak UP!!

I can’t express strongly enough how important it is for clients to speak up during a bodywork session if they are uncomfortable for any reason or think their needs are not being met. If you are receiving a treatment, that time is for you, for your healing and benefit, and you are ultimately in control. Clients often tell me that they are nervous about their massage because the last time they were on the table, it hurt, and they were afraid to speak up. I am here to encourage you to never ever, never ever allow someone else, even a trained professional that you have hired, hurt you. And if they try to tell you to breathe through it or that pain is necessary to achieve your results, you have the power to end the session.

Over the past eleven years, I’ve had a handful of complaints from clients. The befuddling thing is, usually they don’t complain to me, but to the front desk. After the session is over. And after it is possible to rectify the situation. Someone complained once that I used too much oil, another that the lights were too bright, and one that there was too much noise in the spa. Once I passed a man I had just massaged in the waiting area, seething because his wife hadn’t come out yet. Her therapist was gifting her with extra time, and he was so angry about waiting that he complained I shorted his time, even though he was happy when we parted. These episodes were all quirky issues that I couldn’t really have done much to fix. The legitimate complaint that surfaces once or twice every year or so is that I didn’t use enough pressure.

I’m pretty tuned in to a client’s nervous system and am reading their muscles’ responses during a massage. Generally, I am using enough pressure to encourage release without triggering a defensive reaction. That means that I never want my client to feel pain while on the table; they might very well feel some discomfort if their goal is therapy for an injury or unsticking a long term stuck-ness; but not actual pain. So naturally the client who believes “if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not working” is not a good match for me. Overall, I’m pretty good at weeding this personality type out, and either educating them to my approach, or admitting that I can’t meet their needs. Sometimes, though, they slip through the cracks, and end up feeling frustrated on my table.

The reason I encourage people to speak up, is not to demand that I do what they want, but to at least make it possible. If someone is wanting more pressure than I am willing to deliver, if they ask, I can explain my reasons. If theydisagree, and the session is just beginning, we can stop, and they can go on their way without paying, and find a more suitable match. A few weeks ago, I was working on a woman who had run a marathon the day before. Essentially, her muscles were traumatized. She asked for more pressure, and I slightly increased to the maximum I felt appropriate, and she commented “yeah, that’s good.” She answered “good” to my check-in during her turn-over, and again at the end. But she told the front desk that she kept waiting for more pressure. If she had repeated her request, or been truthful during the check-ins, I would have explained that I was worried about impeding circulation in muscles that desperately needed fresh oxygen delivered and toxins to be carried away, that her fight or flight response was already right on the edge, and that I was supporting her desired goal of relaxation and circulation by using a medium-firm pressure. If she disagreed with my technique, I would have offered to stop then and there. We were only 15 minutes into a 60 minute session, so I wouldn’t have charged her and she could have booked with a more aggressive therapist.

It is really important that clients learn to stand up for themselves. Don’t be afraid to speak up, especially if the bodywork is hurting and you haven’t requested an intense session. Don’t ever let your therapist bully you, or believe that they know more than you do about your own body. If your temperature or position is uncomfortable, let us know- we can help you! We don’t want you to be shivering or wish your head was half an inch higher. It is our job to make you comfortable. It is your job to tell us if you are not. If you have special needs, it’s best to discuss them ahead of time so the therapist can decline or be prepared as they see fit. If you’re wanting something and you’re not getting it- ASK! Don’t wait until it’s over and too late. You might not receive exactly what you’re wanting, but at least you won’t have to pay for something you don’t.

It’s Not What You Think!

Yesterday I worked with five different massage clients. Four of them complained of stiffness, tightness, and/or pain in their right necks and shoulders- the top of the shoulder, around the top inner corner of the scapula, and up the back of the neck. (In case you’re wondering, I do know the technical terms for these body parts, but wish to keep this blog accessible to the average person who might not.) The fifth client just wanted an overall relaxing massage, but I did find tension in that same area on him as well. The four who presented with pain obviously wanted me to focus on the troublesome area, and one of them said she would be delighted if I spent the entire time squeezing her traps because they hurt so much.

This is a common problem in our modern culture. Our bodies were not designed to sit all day at a keyboard, nor to be exposed to constant stress, nor bombarded ceaselessly with visual and auditory stimulation. Shoulders creep up to the ears, chins jut forward, upper backs round. Slouching happens, seemingly naturally, without constant awareness. Chronic postural challenges overburden the antagonist, or opposite, muscles to keep us upright, and the result are painful. Bodywork is an excellent technique for addressing these issues.

Yet… there’s a piece of the puzzle that often gets overlooked. It’s not what you think! Or rather, the problem is often not where we feel the pain. Merely rubbing, squeezing, or pummeling the overstretched and achy muscles does not address the imbalance at its source. Certainly it does provide relief and accelerates the release of toxins and the flow of fresh blood and oxygen, which is important; but targeting the symptom does not allow for any lasting change to occur.

I noticed in all five of my clients yesterday that the muscles on the left side, in the front of their necks were super tight. This is the exact opposite location of the complaint that the right back of the neck hurt. I was personally not surprised to find this. I noticed such patterns in the beginning of my career after doing the first two or three hundred sessions. Yet the clients were incredulous. They had no idea that tightness in their pecs and anterior deltoids and anterior necks were causing the pain. I explained that the body craves structural balance and that overuse in one area creates a reaction in the body that is often felt in the weaker, opposite muscles. (I am reminded of Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” and wish I had a better understanding of science so I could tie it in here. Alas, I don’t, so I will leave that to someone else and stick with the experiential data at my disposal.)

These revelations have led me to believe in the power of a full body massage. It’s all connected! An imbalance in the right ankle can ricochet up the body, lodging eventually in the neck or jaw. Imbalance in one area of the body affects the surrounding areas. Sometimes it is the surrounding areas that complain more loudly and capture our attention. Of course it is important to acknowledge the pain that a client is feeling and to address that area. AND it is equally as important, if not more so, to look at the big picture and question why? Why is the right shoulder tight? Where is the tension originating? How can this structure be supported in returning to neutral? Once we begin to explore these arenas, the benefits resulting from bodywork grow exponentially.

Less is More

“Less is More.” This is a seemingly- heretical philosophy I learned while studying the gentle, energetic bodywork called Ortho-Bionomy. Over the course of giving more than 6,000 massages in the last ten years, I realize that this quite frequently applies to sessions I have given and received. I could expand this theory into many aspects of my life as well, but that is too big a task for this post. How I can most efficiently interpret the phrase “less is more” as it relates to massage in my humble opinion, is to say that bodies very often are more responsive to a gentle touch than to extreme pressure. When I say very often, I mean in 99% of the time, in my experience. Very often.

Yet, popular culture would have us believe that more is always better, or worse yet, “no pain, no gain”. This is essentially the antithesis of my work. Which is not to say that I never go deep, or that every moment of a therapeutic session is luxuriously pleasant. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to restore deep, postural muscles to their original, lengthened state. However, my approach is a slow, gentle one that works with the client’s ability to let go and breathe deeply. I call it a sneak attack and when performed well, the muscles don’t react because they never even knew I was coming. Once the nervous system perceives pain, or even anticipates pain, the fight or flight reflex kicks in and muscles tense, adrenaline is released, and the mind becomes super- alert. This is the exact opposite of the relaxation response in which stress and tension are released and the muscles soften.

It is a huge goal of mine to re-educate the public about the myth of more pressure being the antidote to soreness or pain. The object of healing or releasing tension is not how much “you can take” but rather how much you can release. Bracing yourself to experience deep work in the name of relief is as effective as drinking a triple shot of espresso and riding a roller coaster to help you sleep. People in our society are already super-stressed. Aggressive bodywork is perceived by the nervous system as more stress and most certainly does not create relaxation. It might create an absence of busy thoughts because the mind is focused on sensations, just as being in an emergency situation would focus the mind. This is not the same as relaxation, letting go, feeling safe, or being at peace; and these are the conditions necessary for healing to take place.

Somewhere humans have gotten off track and started believing that having more stuff is the key to happiness, that doing more is the key to freedom, that punishing our bodies will make us healthy. It is beyond time that we re-evaluate our beliefs according to our current values and the reality that we seem to be less happy, less free, less healthy than ever. I encourage everyone to take time out of their busy schedules to experience true relaxation in the form of a flowing, soothing Swedish massage and to feel the true benefits of escaping the adrenaline loop and enjoying the peacefulness that is our natural state. And begin to think about how doing less, spending less, feeling less pain can actually be more. More healthy. And more you.