I wish I hadn’t learned this lesson. I wish I hadn’t seen the grief that writes its name on the soul and leaves it there. I have learned of the exquisite pain of loss of a loved one. I can’t say I’ve experienced it, or even that I can understand a fraction of the pain it causes. But I see how it marks an individual and how it shapes their every action afterward – it becomes a self-defining moment.
There is no silver lining for some events. There is no understandable reason or explanation for some things. There is no turning back – only moving forward into grief and loss. I’ve watched you fight to understand what can’t be. I’ve watched you struggle with the meaning for these losses, whether they are parents, brothers and sisters, or children. Divorce and the end of relationships cause a different, but no less affecting grief.
I knew that grief could mark the body, causing pain, discomfort and restrictions. But I didn’t understand how it shaped the soul and how it could redefine the way you see yourself and the world. A person isn’t the entirety of the losses they have sustained, but that loss shapes them in a fundamental way.
This is one lesson I wish I hadn’t learned, simply for the pain it’s caused. But it’s one I’m honored to begin to understand and one that I know massage and therapeutic touch can help heal.
Once I accepted the power of stillness in my sessions, I became more convinced that there is a place, no, a need for stillness in life. We live our lives in constant connection with one another. We watch tv, blast our iPods, email, text, blog, tweet and connect to others in a hundred different ways. But the most balanced of us are the ones who carve out time for stillness in their day. They find moments of emptiness where existing in a still moment is all the input they need.
Some create that stillness with meditation. Some create it through meditative actions or walking. Others create it through prayer. As stillness becomes part of a person’s daily life, the body reacts differently to massage. It starts to bring more awareness of the body and its emotional or mental connections.
It’s easy for me to find stillness in massage. I find the strength in stillness in a hundred small moments a day. Stillness is the breath I take when I first put my hands on a client. It’s in the deep breath I take to encourage my client to breathe. Stillness is the pause I take mentally before I open the door to walk into a massage, or the pause I take as I step out on my way home.
Neck and shoulder pain are the two most common complaints I see in my practice. I’ve just found two YouTube videos that animate the anatomy of the cervical spine and surrounding area to show more of what happens when you move.
In the first video, you’ll get a look from the outside in of the cervical vertebrae, the spinal cord and the intervertebral disks. Notice the amount of space between the bones to allow the nerves to branch out into the body. It’s not a lot of room. Also, as you watch this first one, take a peek at how flexible the spinal cord has to be to account for the range of motion of head movements. The spinal cord must connect into the brain AND be able to adjust to lateral flexion, rotation of the head and anterior and posterior tilting of the head.
Now take a look at this next video (embedding disabled so you’ll have to open YouTube to watch it), and you’ll see an animation that starts with the cervical spine, and then shows all the layers of muscles that support and move the head. It’s not just a muscle or two, but many dense layers of muscles that control how the head moves, supports it while you’re sitting or standing and allow for movement as your head or your body moves.
My clients not only teach me how to be a better person, they also teach me to be a better massage therapist. One thing I didn’t understand for several years of my practice was the effectiveness of “stillwork.” Acupressure, Craniosacral Therapy, fascial work – all of these types of massage work with the massage therapist holding tissue in one place for an extended period of time.
If you’d asked me as a student if I would ever use stillwork, or even if I found it effective on myself, my answer would have been a resounding, “No!” But eight years later, I rely on this same stillwork on some of my most bodywork-savvy clients.
Why would lighter, sustained holding be more effective than a well-placed elbow? I’m not sure I have a good answer, but I do know that for people with extensive experience with massage and a strong mind-body connection, this type of lighter, less-active massage usually succeeds where deeper or more invasive techniques fail.
It’s almost as if instead of pushing change into the body, stillwork requests a change in the body, coercing it and shaping it with tiny, soft movements. It often brings intense moments of meditation and relaxation to clients when I use it, and generates an enormous amount of energy in the body.
You’ve taught me to use these techniques to calm clients down when emotional issues arise, or when the mind seems to keep racing ahead. You’ve shown me the body craves stillness and connection, and the patience of a few minutes lingering on a spot that needs tending to.
I have a low risk tolerance. I tend to over plan and under execute. My clients have taught me that sometimes you have to jump without the net. You might hold your breath or you might relax into the fall, but that first step, it’s always a doozy.
Something happens on the massage table. Some sort of truth-serum spills into the brain when the body relaxes. The tongue loosens, and a client shares a story with me. Every day, I am humbled by the vulnerability of people. As humans, we wake up, put on our armor and charge inot the world, fighting our battles, winning our cause, driving toward goals. Some goals require a ruthlessness or tenacity that shields our weak spots and protects our exposed areas.
But on the massage table, I hear the vulnerability that must be hidden during the day. I hear about risks you’ve taken that made you vulnerable to another person. Chances you took that exposed your true self to the scrutiny of others. I hear about the meaningful connections made when we make ourselves vulnerable.
Most of all, I sense the strength and acceptance of self of that person who has the courage to stand vulnerable in front of others. It’s a strength that grows with the telling. It’s a strength that unnerves or unbalances adversaries and foes. Vulnerability requires an acceptance of self that opens up the mind and body even as it exposes you to others.
And that acceptance of self, that mastery of your own weaknesses and foils: that is true strength.
Everyone has a weakness, a secret vice, something they love doing even though they know it’s not the best thing for the body. I’m not talking about Krispy Kremes, cheesecake or pinot here. Rather, we all have things we love to do which are hard on the body.
Take, for example, knitting. I have quite a few knitters, and though it’s rough on the hands and wrist, and sometimes kinks up the neck from staring down while working, it’s not something they’re willing to give up. Likewise, I have golfers with bad backs, runners with achy knees, and guitarists with carpal tunnel syndrome.
If it’s something you love, you’ll figure out a way to reduce the damage to the body. You’ll figure out how to stretch after a set, how to hold the needles with your wrists relaxed, or how to pot new plants on a table so you don’t have to bend over. You might slow down your pace in marathons or rides, or you might settle for 9 holes instead of 18. The lesson I’ve learned from you is that the mental acuity and challenge of those hobbies more than makes up for a little discomfort. And if massage helps you keep doing what you love, keep getting massage!
Finding a hobby that truly engages you and makes you happy is a beautiful and meditative use of your time. And for those who keep searching, learning one new thing after another? Their love is the search, the acquisition of new experiences and knowledge and the pride that comes with mastery of a new skill.
Louisville massage therapist Heather Wibbels, LMT has been showing clients how massage helps since 2003. Her Saint Matthews massage therapy practice is centered around chronic pain, stress-relief and injury work.
This blog is Heather's way to reach a wider world than those she can lay hands on, and self-massage and partner massage videos are a large part of that. View her YouTube Channel at MassageByHeatherW: