The Heat is On

The discussion started over a microwave. I had a cute black one, relatively new, that I used infrequently but needed for warming soup in the winter. (Cold soup + February in Maine = sad face). My officemate Jean needed one for warming up little things to put on her clients’ trigger points.

“Once I work a point,” she said, gesturing briefly, “I’d like to use a small hot bag of something – that I make myself, probably filled with rice? – heated in a microwave. If I put it on that spot after I’ve worked it, when I come back it’s all mushy and the tenderness and tension is gone.”

“Well, I have a microwave that I don’t use often. I can clean it out for you. If you don’t mind putting it on your desk…we can share it. You, for your clients, and me, for my lunch!”

WellnessCentersign.June 2013.2Jean and I were at this thing for about eight months now. She had an office, I had an office, and we shared a small waiting room and tiny bathroom. There were some initial hiccups to our co-habitating, as can be expected from any two professionals who are working alongside one another for the first time, one of whom had been there for years and set in her ways (me) the other who was new to the space and ready to establish her practice (Jean).

I will admit I was initially horrified that I had to share – what was supposed to be shared anyway – my working space. Somehow I thought I’d have it to myself forever. I was also horrified at my freakish displays of territorialism, snobbery and self-importance. I really thought I was a much nicer person than all that.

But I liked Jean, from the get-go. So that meant I had to get over myself. We sparred a little, then happily we established some mutually beneficial protocols. Not that we weren’t ever going to have conflict again, but I was heartened we had passed our first test. If we could get through our first summer together (summer + Maine = busy busy MTs) I knew we’d be alright.

It made me really happy that my hardly-used yet rather nice microwave could benefit us both.

“Yeah, when you put heat on a muscle all the toxins get pushed out. I go back into work it, and the knot’s practically melted away,” she continued.

“Don’t you find,” I said, “that it’s also such an emotional response, having something warm on the place that you don’t like?  I know I put so much negative energy towards a spot that hurts. That spot,” I said, grabbing at my lumbars where my scoliosis curves out palpably.

“Yeah, that spot!” Jean replied and poked at her hip.

“It fills me with all kinds of upsetness, just thinking about it,” I said, and Jean agreed.  “When I get it massaged, sometimes I put even more mental, accusatory energy towards the part that’s bothered, simply because the therapist is working it and I’m just like, yeahhhh yeah yeah! Kill it!”

“But when he or she lets it go, and then throws a hot thing on it, that instant gratification is so overwhelmingly positive, all my nerves in that area just go ‘zzzzt’ and the brain has nothing to say but fleh. And then I can relax, more deeply than ever, because my storyline about it is silenced. It’s like lifting the needle on the turntable: the album is still spinning, but the noise has stopped.”

We both knew that because most of us equate warmth with comfort – perhaps leftover from our in utero days, when we first experienced life as nothing but cushy meals in a 98.6 degree bath? – incorporating heat into session works. It works because it flushes out the sludge in a trigger point. It also works because being warm makes people feel good.

I’ve been using hot towels in my sessions for years. I heat them in an old, reliable crock pot.  Believe me, it took some trial and error (the smell of scorched towels is not optimum aromatherapy, let me tell you) but now I’ve got a system where I am more or less constantly wrapping or draping my clients in towels that I scent with Young Living essential oils.

I keep the towels dry, so as they cool the client’s skin doesn’t wind up damp, which invites chill. I have three different sizes, so that I can either tuck them under shoulder joints or drape them over the back when prone, or roll them up under the neck when supine. And can I just say: feet. People’s feet can be cold 365 days a year. And who can relax with cold piggies? Not I!

Applying heat mid-session gives the client a nice surprise, a veritable “yikesooooh!” to the nervous system. It’s not for everyone: besides contraindications, there’s client preference. (My one client, as I lovingly tucked in her shoulder towels while she nestled her noggin in the face cradle, gave it 20 seconds before calling out in a muffled yet unmistakable tone of pique, “Okay, what is that supposed to do? ‘Cause all it’s doing is making me HOT.”)

But “Loves the hot towels,” is a frequent client note I take. I’ve had people open their eyes and look at me appreciatively or say “ahhhh!” as if they’re viewing fireworks. Anything that elicits this kind of response, in my book, gets checkmarks in both the therapeutic and pleasurable box. As the Brits say: spot on.

Ischemia is reduced blood flow, ergo reduced oxygen. Where there’s no oxygen, there’s no fire: muscles bind, blood chunks, hearts close. There’s no warmth in a place that’s not kindred. I’m grateful for all lessons of heat: it opens and restores. And makes it possible for two completely different practitioners to find common ground over a microwave.

And it is very spiffy with a kitty on top.

And it is very spiffy with a kitty on top.

All of Me

Anatomy class teaches us about the body in hanks and steaks. Books diagram it out like an architectural drawing or a car parts catalog. It’s what makes us geeks, no matter how urbane or dreamily we carry ourselves: show us the latest renderings of suboccipitals, subscaps or splenius capitis and we slaver, ooh and ahh, frighten our partners (“WOW LOOK AT THIS!” “Eyooooo…”) and boggle our clients. It fascinates us from day one.

Who doesn’t find this part of our training totally electrifying? (hint: if the thought of studying anatomy for the rest of your days makes your eyes glaze over, massage therapy might not be for you.)

Sure, we have to know individual muscles and their groups; antagonists and protagonists; lines and spirals. But you can’t map an illustration, graphic, or even 3-D rendering onto a human. For one thing, unlike the books, when you’re massaging you can’t see what you’re working on. It may pop out under your hands, or you may have exceptionally good “finger eyes” (palpation clairvoyance, as I like to think of it) but not a single one of us gets to see anatomy.

What we see, as we gaze with adoration at our recumbent client, is skin. Everything else is guesswork. Educated, experienced, compassionate, inspired guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. This puts all bodywork practitioners –  from the CST to NMT – rather in the same boat.

For another thing, there are no parts to study, really. Check it out: there are no parts. There is no way you’re working just a piece. The very muscle you push your thumb into is enervated, juicy, swimming in chemicals, and has memories. That muscle talks up to your thumb, and out in a corresponding radius to everything around it, which might be the lunate and the ring finger, recently absent from its wedding band of 15 years. What is that telling you? Why are you thumping around the forearm, anyway? A thoughtful touch to the sternum and its attachments – a careful, brief gaze at the face, frozen in desperate sleep. Suddenly there is corporate work to be done, but you would not have caught on to what this session really means, if you were insisting on fixing a piece.

Yes, here’s the rhomboid and that hiccupy snarl where it gets hung up on my clients’ rib. (Maybe the nearby vertebrae is out of alignment. Maybe here is an old story: all of us got so pummeled on the playground, we all took spills out of the sled.) I can rub, tap, smooth, hold, and squash the snarl. However, however, however: there is a rib under this rhomboid. And mere millimeters deep to that is the body’s rain forest: a gorgeous, plumpy, sodden mesh of lung, alveoli glistening and sparkling with air and blood. Hormones, nutrients, waste products and alien life forms sloosh in perpetuity, like a battle scene from Battlestar Galactica.

I may be hyperfocused on the rhomboid, but let me consider what lies beneath, and beneath even that, where the person resides, both everywhere and nowhere inside this humble bug that lies swaddled in linens.

Whole volumes could and should and have been written of the fascia that binds and weaves every strand, from the freckles on the backs of our hands to the bile sleeping in our spleen. When we touch our client, fascia is the firm water of our body that makes the stone thrown into the far end of the pond somehow felt on the other shore. I try to avoid the ungracious act of only massaging feet, and missing out on scalp, or vice versa. Even if it’s only 30 seconds of contact, we know how it feels to either be wholly embraced or given the massage equivalent of a side hug. Why not take all of me?

Finally, when we study anatomy we understandably have confirmed for us that the seat of the human, the most important part of him or her, is on top. Brain. Talk. Everything that brings us to life comes from headquarters. Most ways we communicate also happen to be draped off the front of it.

But head does not equal person. It’s down front, and along the proscenium arch, but you do not have live theatre if you don’t have everything that’s upstage too, and up in the fly space, not to mention the tech and costume crew. When you take your client by the hand and you both walk into the Ganges of your session together, you get that bigger sense of everything (yourself included, I hope?) and suddenly – what fun – you don’t know where your client is.

So – name them. Susan, here you are in your hips. You are your knees. Susan I see you most clearly in your feet. Now with every finger of serratus anterior. There is no quadrant more or less important; no portion where your client cannot be found.

You might live forever. I might too.

Lately I have been meditating on organs. My Reiki training tells me there is no place healing energy cannot go, so I send it there. To my satisfaction, I have heard the happy sound of borborygmus and hyperpnea, if not right after I set my intention, then shortly thereafter.

If I’m called to the lowback, I am also praying for the guts, illiopsoas and anterior spine. I am not pushing aside everything that is around it. I am not pulling ridiculous stunts to get to it. I am seeing it as it is: fully guarded by the house of person. I hold my boundary and see, while respecting what I see and the house that surrounds it.

I think of my own spine and how it might feel to have the warmest, purest, gentlest, sweetest water pour down on the inside. Immediately my toes come alive, and stars burn bright.

I look at the books, I talk to colleagues, I take workshops (and long to take more) but the moment I, you, anyone sets their hands to work on another out of love and concern we are clothed in majesty, given powers beyond rational ken, and authorized. We can touch, which surpasses popularity, savoir faire or credentials. The simplicity of it angers the modern mind, yet cannot be denied.

Many thanks to David Lauterstein for the words “borborygmus” and “hyperpnea” and quite a few other things.