Natural, Free Neck Tension Relief

I don’t know about you, but neck tension is just the pits. I get it bad. Sometimes it gives me pains all down the lateral side of my neck. Other times my occiput gets this stabby thing. Ugh.

Just about every place in your body, you can get to and stretch. You can roll it out with a roller, or do a yoga pose, or rub it out yourself. Neck tension is hard to get rid of, without someone else to do it for you.

I have a very dear friend who lives far away from me. She has neck tension. If I could get to her neck I would, I would just rub the hooey out of it, but I can’t because there are just too many miles between us and that would be — without a shadow of a doubt — the longest distance I’ve ever traveled for a house call.

She was hoping I could give her some “natural, free” ideas of how to reduce some of her neck tension. I started compiling a list in my head and then I thought, why not share it? So here are some ideas, and if you have one that I’ve missed please add it to the comments below!

(And by the way I’m not going to say anything stupid like “reduce your stress level.” I find it more stress producing to say things like that! The chance of our stress level magically going down is pretty slim, and besides, some of the things that stress us out, when considered, give us pleasure and happiness too. Would we take those things out of our lives? Probably not. You know the only thing I think doesn’t have stress? A bagged potato. So. Here are some ideas of natural, free, and manageable ways to reduce neck tension. And by manageable I mean easy.)

Water. Give it a try. I was gonna get all up in my panties about the necessity of drinking water but then I realized it’s just another thing that can stress us out (“am I drinking enough water? Am I doing it now? NOW??”) and besides there is no clear, unequivocable evidence that drinking a lot of water is going to fix anything. Instead, please read this amazing article by Paul Ingraham from “Chronic Dehydration Fear Mongering.”

One of the best quotes, for me, from this article was this:

Drink your 8 glasses per day (or 10, or 14), and ignore anyone who tries to get you to worried about it … or who tells you it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It just doesn’t matter much! – Paul Ingraham

YOU know how much water you should be drinking. When you have neck tension, and you can feel it ratcheting up, just check in: “have I had a glass or two of water recently?” Go have a little. Or a lot. Follow your thirst. It can help reduce your tension, certainly stave off a headache.

If you have no idea if liquid has passed your lips today, what you drank or even what your day was like, then we go on to…

Soak.  Getting water into your system is a challenge. Soaking in a bubble bath? Are you kidding me? Who has time for that? Plan a treat. Soak your feet.

Pick up a dishpan, big metal bowl, even an 8-quart kettle if you have nothing else. Put in some epsom salts or sudsies or smelly-goody thingies, throw a bunch of hot water in there, grab a towel, and have a soak.

You can soak your feet and: catch up on reading, watch TV, listen to someone sing. Or examine seed catalogs. Whatever. If you are sitting down, even for 10 minutes, you can soak your feet. You can even draw water into your tub, sit on the edge of the tub, and soak your feet there.

Believe it or not this can make a difference for neck tension. Relaxed, warmed feet can relax you, overall, and if you are relaxed overall your neck might also let go.

In lieu of a soak, I also heartily recommend a very hot shower with the water pounding on the top of your head for a spell. Speaking of your head…

Orientation. Where is your head? In time and space? (here I must insert a link to the classic Pixies song Where Is My Mind)

Locate it. For every bit of forward head movement there’s more, more and more weight on your neck. If you don’t believe me, please check out this article from The Washington Post, ” ‘Text neck’ is becoming an epidemic and could wreck your spine.”

“Ahh ha ha,” I hear you retort, a little smugly. “I do not text, you foolish woman. So there!”

To which I counter, well. I believe you could replace the word “text” with any of the following: computer, book, cheffing, Kindle…knitting neck even…any activity where your head is dangling off the front of your body as you focus on what’s in front of you.

Your neck is not designed for this. Bring your head back into alignment with your shoulders. If you can’t see your shoulders in your peripheral vision, then your head is probably too far forward. And, you look a lot more like a turtle than you could possibly imagine.

For the health of your head and neck – and, because, like me, you are just a tiny bit vain (just a tiny bit) – get your head back on top of your body.

SWING. Whatever physical activity you do, is awesome. I encourage it. Even if it’s an energetic blitz from the parking lot into the store, or trying to catch a train. What I am encouraging here is getting your arms going. I mean to the point of dorkitude.

WALK with PURPOSE. Dance like you’re at a concert – arms up and waving about. Swim, and really dig into the crawl or backstroke. Just stand in the kitchen and flop your arms around for crying out loud. I’ve noticed, when I mobilize my shoulder girdle, I start to feel blood flow up into my neck and my head clears. Try it for yourself.

Speaking of crying…

Cry. Okay, if you’re like me this is not something you want to aim for. But pushing to get through (and, if you consider it, the physical act of pushing through something requires you to tense up, hunch over and lead with your head…hmmm) stuff, we get winched up: physically and emotionally (there’s no barrier between the two, remember).

We fight back our words, instincts, and tears. Pretty soon we are bottling everything and we might not even be aware how restricted we’ve become: in thoughts, words and deeds.

Crying is, actually, not only good for your emotional/mental health but seems to help the physical health of your neck too. Again, I’m speaking experientially here, but if I allow myself some time to feel what I feel – or, if I can’t go there, feel what someone else might be feeling (ergo compassion) – the tears come.

And my head lets go. And my neck muscles let loose.

And here I must post a link to the classic “Free To Be, You and Me” children’s album from the 1970s: dear Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright To Cry.”

It might make you feel better!



Getting Behind Your Work

As practitioners it serves us to remember there are two people in the room when we’re working who deserve loving-kindness and careful consideration: the client, and ourselves. When we push, we are hurting someone: it might be the client, but I would wager it’s our own dear person that suffers too.
The most helpful idea that I’ve come across to work creatively with this notion of relentless prevailing upon a client – and dialing it down, if not completely off – is “Get behind your work.” I learned it from David Lauterstein during a Deep Massage workshop this past autumn, and I think David might have learned it from Fritz Smith, founder of Zero Balancing.
My Deep Massage Workshop with David Lauterstein came at a pivotal moment this past year, when I had one of the busiest summers of my life. Seeing four to five clients four days a week, I was depleted, and less apt to know where I ended and where my client began. I rely heavily on my Reiki practice to get me through multiple sessions relatively unscathed, energetically, but I knew my body was losing its poise as I labored.
DeepMassageBookimageThis was my first experience with “Get behind your work”: during David’s workshop, we were all engrossed in hands-on learning, seated, perhaps practicing “Making Rainbows” along the ITB. I was hoping for help, and could sense David and Susan Tesar, his teaching assistant (and fellow Mainer/oncology massage/MT) moving around the room behind me.David stepped over to me. I waited, anxiously, to hear or see how he would improve my work.

Rather, I felt it: he gently put his hands on my shoulders, and moved my torso back over my hips. He then placed his hands on the top of my head (not unlike the way one receives a blessing from a pastor or the pope!) and moved my head into alignment with my shoulders.

My body dropped into itself; my scapulas plopped neatly back into their pockets inside my back; my arms went from locked and constricted across my chest and pushing, to rounded and open, allowing my chest to expand and for me to take a deep breath, naturally. All this, and I hadn’t broken hand contact with my client.

“Relax!” David said. I still laugh out loud, remembering the way he said this one word to me: part encouragement, part command, with a touch of: exasperated humor? Is that what I detected? Whatever it was, it was a sea change for me.

As I’ve been reading David’s “The Deep Massage Book,” studying my notes from class and bringing myself back to that moment, again and again, while practicing with clients, my somatic “ah-ha!” from David’s simple correction has formed into some words for me. Here’s what I’ve learned so far from this profound teaching, and would love to know others’ experience with it as well.

Through posture – in lunge, or seated – your arms are kept in front of your body and your hands are at some distance from the rest of your person, as you engage your client. You’re not arched away from your hands, but you’re not crammed in over top of them either: there is fluidity and strength flowing between you and your hands, through the soft angles of your arms, and the openness of your literal and energetic heart.

The temptation, as I see it, is effort. We often associate real effort with shoving ourselves over our client in an attempt to give them the pressure we think they want, or help both of us feel like Something Is Happening. (If they can hear you breathing heavily, it’s deep tissue!)
Rather, we ask our clients to meet us where our hands are: no more, no less. Deep Massage is not an altar call: it’s a polite knock on the door. “Attraction, not promotion,” is one of the Traditions of the Alcoholics Anonymous program: it’s true for us, too.
“I like that imagery,” said Susan, as she and I exchanged emails on the topic.”A gathering of y’self deeply through your heart, then meeting with your whole self through your hand-heart! The client then has an invitation to meet there with as much as they can.”

There’s another way of looking at this, where one considers the many meanings of “get behind.” There’s the physicality of it, but there’s also the emotional/relational aspect that can’t be ignored. What do we mean when we say we “get behind’ an individual, or an organization? Why, it means we support them. We believe in them. We are behind them, all the way.

In the same way, we get behind our work: we trust ourselves. This is sorely needed, especially if we feel betrayed or disappointed in any way by our practice: by the lack of income it has generated for us, or the panic we feel at not being sure we’re making a difference for our clients, or feeling inadequate when others seem to be doing better work or have a busier schedule…any time, basically, we’re consumed by doubt and push, to counteract our fears.
   Stepping back from your work – getting behind your work, with your body – is a chance for you to breathe, remember who you are, and develop faith in what’s happening. The only place it’s happening is under your hands. That’s a good, safe place to put your attention: where the work actually is. (“Working at interface” is the term I believe Zero Balance practitioners use.) You can respond to clients spontaneously, because you’re already right there.
   One of the most beautiful things about Deep Massage is how much respect it has for you as a practitioner. Truly, you are as valued as your client, as you learn the techniques and philosophy behind it. It practically feels self-indulgent, except you realize that by bearing in mind your own self while working, you truly have your client’s best interests at heart.
How relaxing is THAT?!
This blog was part two, of sorts, from the previous: “Love as technique

Don’t Touch Me: Part 1

It has long been my prayer, for the people who need me the most? To be sent to me. Sometimes this gets answered in amusing ways, with challenges I feel are beyond me at the time. “I don’t like to be touched” was how I met Tracy.

“Everyone keeps telling me to get a massage, I finally even heard it from my doctor,” she continued as we went through her first interview. “Dr. Jane (my chiropractor friend and colleague next door), my cousin, and now even him. ‘Please go get a massage.’ ”

It seemed her sour, disgruntled look was due to a number of things: the pressure she’d been feeling to have a treatment she didn’t want, the actual pain she was in, and how conflicted she felt about sitting there. While we discussed her symptoms, what seemed to me to be tears briefly came into her eyes, then left.

Hand Out duskI’d seen this happen before with clients, so I knew not to flinch or feel it my duty to inquire – sometimes the stress and pain of a person’s life is so great that another person showing empathy makes tears spontaneously pop out – but at one point they became profuse enough to spill onto her cheeks. I slid her a tissue across the desk.

“Thanks,” she said, dabbing ruefully at her eyes. “I don’t know why this is happening.”

If I’d been her, I would have had a lot to cry about. Two bulging discs in her cervicals had winched her whole neck – posterior, lateral and anterior muscles – into a nearly permanent state of spasm. The pain, and thereby, stiffness went up into her head, and down between shoulder blades, even cutting off the nerve and blood supply to her arms. I could see it when she walked into the room: her arms were held tightly into her body and she barely moved her head.

She had been like this since May, and tried a lot of things, including seeing Jane for chiropractic. The missing piece of the puzzle was relaxing, something that is difficult to do (let alone without professional help) when a person has bulging discs that are pressing night and day on chunky vibrating nerve roots. Even slight impingement on these cords of electricity and light create waves of unrelenting pain and discomfort that sometimes no remedy abates.

And, since she had been in pain for months, her body, out of self-preservation perhaps, splinted and splinted and splinted the painful areas until she was barely moving at all. Relaxation? Forget it.

I wasn’t even thinking this far, though. The whys and wherefores of her tension/pain/tension patterns were nowhere near my mind during the intake. I was just thinking of how I was going to get her to let me touch her. I was the missing piece. And she wanted me at beyond arm’s length.

I had been thinking of it for a while, actually: her cousin is a regular of mine. “Tracy doesn’t like to be touched,” said my client. “I told her you would take it moment to moment.”

I leaned into this suggestion as Tracy and I discussed her symptoms. Finally I cleared my throat and framed the question as delicately as I could, knowing that depending on her answer I would be wandering blind, without skill.

“Can I just ask…to your knowledge, is there anything in your past that led you to feeling this way? Not wanting to be touched? Negative experiences from people touching you in a way you didn’t like, or…”

“Nope, no, I just, I dunno.” She shrugged (slightly) and looked at me.

I considered this response. I’ve been living in Maine for nearly 15 years and have many natives as friends. They are, to a person, not the most tactile bunch. Perhaps her distaste for physical contact was just classic Mainer?

Maybe she had been abused or hurt in some way, and either chose to ignore it or forgot about it over time. Her body language, her tone of voice, and what she said (and did not say) did not, to me, belie a deeper problem with touch. And, even if it was there? What could I do about it that wasn’t outside my scope of practice?

She looked at me some more with the tense, dubious expression of someone clearly suffering; wholly desperate, and not liking it one bit. Almost like a cornered animal who knows the jig is up, and they have to go inside the pet carrier. My heart opened to her like the sun.

“Actually,” I said — and as my mouth opened I a) realized I didn’t know what I was going to say and b) breathed a quick inner prayer: “HELP!” — “I don’t like to be touched either.”

Really? My mind snorted. Do elaborate, please. I’m all ears.

continued here: “Don’t Touch Me: Part 2

Back to the Future

What a pleasure to know a great massage therapist. What’s even better is when she’s your own officemate. It’s trade time at the RWC and it’s my turn on the table, oh happy day. (What’s more fun than working on a colleague? Being worked on by a colleague.)

WellnessCentersign.June 2013.2Jean begins right where I need the kneading the most: all along my left lower thoracics, through the lower back, planing over the sacrum and its rapids of bumps and ridges, and scouring across the glutes. I have scoliosis, with a significant curve in my low back that pushes out into the lefthand part of my body.

“Gosh, I can feel that down in my fingertips,” I gasp with wonder, as she plies, expertly, around each lumbar and its processes. “There’s no real referral pattern for that, is there? You work on my left lumbars and I feel it in my left hand?”

In the complete darkness of my eyes closed and pressed into the face cradle, I feel my scoliosis beginning to unlock: the fascia all around the curvature warms and melts, and nerve endings shimmer, freed from spasm. Hard dry musculature, packed into the torqued, strained vertebrae, softens with fresh blood and lymph. I feel somewhat akin to a pat of butter lying on a slab in warm spring sunlight.

“Yeah that’s not tBack to the Futureypical,” Jean responded, “but I’ve learned that scoliotic tension patterns create unusual compensation all throughout the body, because of the curve. There’s something about when you use your left arm, you’re reaching down into your back for stabilization. Your left arm might get quite a bit of its strength from the big contraction here in your left lowback….”

“…and then it comes up here. Oh my goodness,” she said, as she followed an imaginary diagonal line across my lumbars and up to my right upper back: trapezius, levator scapula, splenius cervicus.

“oophh….erfggphht…” I responded, as I experienced the  hurtsbutfeelsgood of snarls unsnarled, crap uncrapped.

The place on the body where the massage therapist begins is as varied as what composes a chef’s soup stock: there’s always a reason for the beginning, but the beginning is highly personal and never foretold. Lots of us start with the back for a reason: it is the neural gateway to all parts, and when worked, however briefly or tenderly, gets maximum results. Everything springs forth from the spinal cord: release constrictures at the source, and members experience reunion.

“ ’m drippig,” said I. Having my neck opened up released a torrent of fluid in my head, which, being prone, went into my face. My nose was full.

“Perfectly alright,” as Jean continued to work my cervicals with the devotion and interest of a sculptor carving a minor deity out of marble. I could tell my squishy nose and their contents weren’t a problem, nor did the thought of my facial effluvia gross her out. Out of my own sense of propriety (and nose reaching maximum capacity) I spoke again, to the best of my ability.

“I nee a tisthue,” I protested.

“Oh? Alright, here,” she said and gave me two Kleenex.

While I honked out my nasal passages, I was up on my elbows, and while there became blissfully aware that the great snarl I usually feel around my left sacroiliac joint was gone.  Like a difficult houseguest who, after staying an indefinite amount of time, finally packs his bags and leaves, there was a happy stillness and freshness where occupation once named the game.

Easing back down into the face cradle, I let Jean school both shoulders into their home on my back, unglue muscles from each other and play connect the dots with the patchwork of torsion.

“Are you having as much fun as I would be having right now?” I asked her, knowing full well the answer was yes. I could tell, from how she was working: a nice mix of technique, pauses, and “what’s all this then?” and “oh I see”: all through her hands.

Not only finding tension but feeling how it corresponds through the rest of the body, helping the client understand either through words or touch (sometimes both) and unwinding/unthatching it, much to the delight of the recipient, is about as much fun as it gets for a massage therapist. We crave it. And nothing inspires us (or me, at least) quite like a draped back.

The back is behind us, a great mystery, like the dark side of the moon.  Being visual, we don’t see it and so we forget it’s there (out of sight, out of mind)…until it hurts. I can’t think of anything nicer to happen to our back than having it lavished in loving attention by another human, who not only senses things like we do but can look directly at this mostly overworked and underpaid part of ourselves and give us meaningful sensory input for how all its many layers — deep, snugged up against our spine, all the way out to just under our skin — make it possible for us to stand upright against the persistence of gravity.

When we feel whole – and that means living in what’s behind us, literally and otherwise, understanding what serves us and letting go of what doesn’t – we can move ahead. Until we’re liberated from the back, we can’t move forward.

Muscles unbound, lots of stuff running free, including mouth. I am feeling so good, if I could take everyone I know on a cruise around the Crab Head Nebula, I would.  “I just want you to know you’re wonderful,” I tell Jean, in a snuffly Winnie the Pooh voice.

“Well, you’re wonderful too,” she said, and helped me turn supine.

And so are you.

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.

Going Deep

Two clients come to mind, scheduled within a seven-day span.

I liked Tony – had known him in a variety of capacities over the years – and welcomed him into my office for the last appointment of my week: 6:30 was the earliest he could get there.

“I’ve got these mid-back spasms,” he said, as we reviewed his information. “As usual the neck and shoulders.” In the nearly ten years I’d known him, he worked a bazillion hours a week, and liked to make sure everyone knew it. His back locked up on a regular basis. Did he do any self-care?

“What? Oh yeah. I need to do yoga or something.” He had been next door to see my colleague, Dr. Jane, for chiropractic adjustments. He’d been to a massage therapist in Brooks “but it wasn’t enough.”

“I like deep work,” he said, smiling through a bronzed face.

“Yes, I suspected as much,” I said to him. “And I bet you have a lot more tension in your upper chest and anterior/lateral neck than you realize. I’ll work the back of your head though your traps and down into your low back…why don’t we start with you supine, so I can get all that opened up first, and by the time I get to your back it will have relaxed a little.”

“You might not want to massage my neck,” he said. “Up on Hatchet Mountain all afternoon. Sun cooked it.” Oh, of course! The very muscles I was most keen on addressing were off limits: I could see the deep red all around the neckline of his t-shirt. Also, by this point his cologne had saturated the room and was making the back of my throat burn, almost like I had inhaled smoke.

He was in pain, though. I reminded myself: he needs you in this next hour. Do your best. Pray for strength and it will be given to you.

The session was exercise. I was not in peak form to be giving my all, not on a Friday past 5. Within the first few minutes I gave up using my hands: my fingers, which have been praised by a few clients as being full of strength, seemed as useful as pipe cleaners against the unyielding density of his musculature. It was like trying to knead out rebar.

His intractable tension, combined with entrenched kyphosis and lordosis, could not be addressed without full-body-weight slow work – mostly forearms, some elbow –  and finally, fists, as I gave the tapotement of a lifetime to his glutes, hamstrings and calves. I worked absolutely to and past my limit: damp from perspiration, shaky, peaked, but proud of myself, and hoping I’d made a difference.

“That was nice,” he said as I changed out the table linens and he put on his shoes. Nice? Hmm. That wasn’t quite what I had wanted to hear.

“I feel better. You can put me in as your 6:30 for the next few Fridays if you want!”  My heart sunk a little, as I had no intention of staying late regularly, especially for someone who was so much work…and made the air so hard to breathe. A small voice in me said, “referral?” but I ignored it. I could handle this guy, no problem. I wasn’t giving up yet.

When I called him a few days later to confirm his appointment, there was a lot of noise going on in the background.

“There’s a chance I can’t make it but I’ll let you know. I’ve just got so much going on that day. Yeah, and THIS time,” he said, “you can work on me as hard as you can!”

“Okay!” I said, gamely. “Keep in touch.” I ended the call, and was immediately consumed by a crushing combination of anger, inadequacy, self-pity and dread.

“Referral,” my small voice said, with force.

“Hi Tony it’s Kristen.” I was leaving him a message.

“Look, let me give you a number of a friend of mine who does really deep work.” (Wrings the living crap out of her clients, and does an excellent job of it too: you’ll love it! I wanted to say) “If you want to give her a try, awesome. If you want to come see me again, knowing the kind of work I do” (pretty damn deep and most people think it’s enough even if you don’t) “then feel free to call me back to reschedule…”

A few clients like this can deflate even an experienced MT’s confidence, and I’d had my share during winter: between their first session and their second or third –  when I had time to research their condition, discuss them with colleagues (Dr. Jane and I have done this for years, with mutual clients), analyze what I’d noticed in session and made plans for their next appointment – they would decide, for whatever reason, to cancel and not rebook. I was pretty sure Tony was one of these.

So I was braced for disappointment when another new client booked the following Friday. One of my regulars had given her my card.

“She said ‘this is what you need.’ And that you could help.”

“Let’s start at the beginning. What are your areas of pain or tension?”

“Well…I think it’s my heart.” She spoke with a Maine accent, so heart sounded like “haht.” Her eyes welled and chin wobbled.

Then came the story. I put down my pen and sit back in my chair when it starts: I figure nobody wants to pour their heart out to a preoccupied audience, and if I don’t take notes, at least I’ll listen well.

Within a nine-month span her two young stepsons had died, and her fiancé had left her so he could be with another woman who would help him pursue his “passions.” He saw fit to tell her when she was sitting on her second step-son’s deathbed. Both she and I agreed that it’s a mystery how a person could do that to another person in such circumstances.

“I’m doing all the right things” – talk therapy, eating right, exercising, even going to a chakra balancing workshop – “but something’s missing!” I passed her the box of tissues. My mind was churning, and my soul ached. I was running a list of modalities or techniques to use – more of this, less of that? Someone so clearly laden should be with someone more adept, with more skills, than me.

“What about a bereavement support group?” That just wasn’t for her, even though she had given it a fair try.

Any support systems at all? No one who she could count on.

She crying in heaving waves, and told me how much she hated it because “I feel like it’s all I ever do anymore.” Grief and anger seemed to be eating away at her from the inside, gnawing at her shattered heart. “I can’t work in my yard or in my house; I just don’t have the energy.”

“I feel stuck!” she nearly wailed.

Sometimes you get so accustomed to running the list of what you could be doing for someone, you almost miss the most basic and easy thing of all. In a flash, it came to me. (Thanks, small voice.) After a few more moments of consideration, with near pride, I said, “I think I know exactly what to do for you.”

She looked at me, eyes red and glistening. “Really…?”

“Yes,” I said. “You need a massage. You need affirmation, on a cellular level, that you are more than okay: in fact you are great. And in fact, you are worthy of being taken care of. For a whole hour. And I can’t think of any better way to do that than give you a good old-fashioned rub.”

Her eyes re-teared. “I just don’t know if I’ll be able to relax on the table. I know I’m paying you for a service, see, but I still don’t feel like I deserve it. I feel like…no one should have to touch me, I’m not good enough for anything or anybody…”

As she sobbed I reached across my desk and touched the side of her face with my hand, moved my chair next to her and put my hands on hers. This is not my protocol when someone is falling apart, but in this instance I couldn’t stand the pretense of professional distance. When someone is drowning you don’t proffer a twig from your royal barge: you go out to meet them in the churning cold.

Without looking at her I said quietly, “I want to touch you. I want to take care of you. I am here for you.”

So massage she did have. I could feel her whole energy field drinking it in: as I massaged and gave Reiki, she calmed, breathed deeply, and drifted. For me, the work was easy and blissful: I knew what I was doing, and I knew I could do it well. Who she was, was enough. And what I had to offer was enough.

“Unbelievable,” she murmured, and rescheduled.

It was deep work, and it was a delight.

Looking Up

Hands at work, head bowed. So many of us spend time in this position. I find it curious that, as a massage therapist, I often assume a tense, hunched posture in an effort to relieve the tension and constrained musculature of another human. Lifting my head becomes important.

Early in my career I was thankfully employed by spas and health clubs until I could figure out what I actually had to offer. I worked in many conditions, none of them terrible, but there were some humdingers. By far the most challenging was the spa where I labored in a windowless, slightly musty room on the other side of a women’s fitness club, with no sound insulation.

Without fail, during one of my sessions, the dance music would kick in and end up going for hours. There I was: pouring it on, with carefully selected healing music on my boombox and an array of high-quality essential oils at the ready, the best intentions in my heart and my mind focused purely on the task at hand, and all of the sudden:  nnn-tt-nnn-tt-nnn-tt-nnn-tt– LET YOH BODDY – MOOOOVE TO THE MYOOOSIC . Entire mood blown, train of thought derailed, thanks to “Vogue.”

In my current office, where I’ve been the past six years, there are ample windows and not only do I get to feel and watch the sunlight move through the room, but there is yard and fruit trees, fresh air blowing through open windows, with field, forest and mountains beyond. Even while in session, with the curtains drawn, I can peek out between panels and see. You can be assured I don’t miss much that happens in my bucolic surrounds.

In the summer: Gary’s endless lawn labors, his and Jane’s kids and their friends running amok, incoming storms and tons of traffic. The autumn brings mist, wet grey that goes for days, torrents of rich khaki leaves blowing unending up through the field and into any low-lying place to clatter and gather.  In the winter, the blinding white of sunlight against old snowfall, falling snow itself, aching stillness and dark.

In spring: the gradual dissolve of icy white ground into the browngrey of dead grass, the browngrey everywhere dissolving into green. Songbirds and free-range fowl; this year there will be guinea hens. If I forget to look up, their screen-door screech and the sight of them strutting by in my peripheral vision will snap me to attention, and I will remember: head up, child. Stand proud, like a chicken.

The need to raise my head is not mere scenery appreciation: it serves a purpose, that which I initially spoke of: the need to not be all tense and scrunched while attempting to relieve the tense/scrunch of a client. Remember the sage words spoken to you by your stewardess the last time you took a plane: “Secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” This, and many other things in the standard safety spiel of flight, is applicable to life: help yourself before you think you can help another. (Another of my favorites, which every time I hear it or consider it, is raised to near-koan heights: “Remember the closest exit may be behind you.”)

And I start with how I hold myself while I work: core strength engaged, head balanced on top of my body instead of hanging off the top of my neck: ears aligned with shoulders, shoulders in line with my hips, hips over my knees, and feeling that energy all the way through my feet. My head, therefore, naturally, is up and my eyes are looking a lot of other places than down. I am not on an assembly line, assembling widgets. Bodywork is, for all its proven efficacy and inroads into allopathic medicine, feels more like playing a Chopin prelude by heart, or doing tai chi. So I don’t have to hang on so hard.

Which brings me to my final reason for looking up: it is ultimately from whence my help truly comes. My best work doesn’t come from strain, parsing, fixing – all of which causes me  to rivet my gaze. If I lift my eyes, I drop my agenda for my client because I am not staring at them and their trouble spots. Taking my eyes up from my work and gazing softly ahead, I am insisting on the intrinsic intelligence of my own two hands and their ability to listen/feel and heal, all by their blessed selves, which they do, they really do, and the less I try to help them the better off everyone is for the next 90 minutes.

Lifting up, I drop into the bliss of trust and surrender better. My intention for my client, whatever that might be – a cured headache, an eased heartache, reduced backache and/or utter and complete transformation of their circumstance – is enough. Intention is not intellectual: it is all heart, and with a lifted gaze, my head moves back on top of my spine, and my upper chest opens and expands naturally, allowing my heart to feel its fullness and power.