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!



There is No Cure

I was listening to my client talking, but it might as well have been me.

“I’ve been detoxing and eating better and resting and I cut back on my caffeine, and I still feel like crap.”

For those of us who wield self-improvement like a cudgel – I am doing this because I am going to experience this, or else – there’s nothing more frustrating than not getting what we want. I am personally acquainted with the feeling.

“I’m doing everything right!”

“Except getting massage…” I said quietly, noting that I hadn’t seen her for nearly four months. She had even paid for a bunch of sessions in advance. She just hadn’t booked any appointments.

She leaned in to me. “But I shouldn’t need it,” she continued. Candid exchange between us had never been a problem. I was up for a brief tete-a-tete.

I leaned in too. “Why?!” I insisted. She stared at me, and I pressed the point. “What, do you think you’re better than massage? Than people who get it? Like me, for example?”

She sighed and flopped back in the chair. “Ughhh. Good point.”

I waited. She continued.

“I just didn’t think I needed it. It just feels like palliation.”

Much as it made me bristle, I identified so strongly with my client: with the “doing everything right” and the indignity of slowing down for anything that’s not getting me somewhere.  When I’m knee-deep, ankle deep, in improvements of whatever kind, everything I do is grit, hustle, a shoving aside of everything in my path to get to the thing.

Sometimes we really need to be like this to make changes. Sometimes it’s all force, for a long while, until we start to notice things shift slightly.

Hence a distaste for anything that slows us down.

But wonderful things happen, you know, and not necessarily because we were good or wise or healthy. Miracles do occur. Even the most undeserving (me, you) get unbelievable second chances.

We might not notice it if we’re standing up in the middle of the river of our lives and charging upstream.

Palliative means fixing without curing. Certainly there are some things that are cured: the headache, the broken leg, the broken heart. I’m all for making the bad stuff go away for good. I’ve done it for others, and had it done unto me. It is terrific.

But I’d like to know what we are about, when we say we’re cured? From the very condition of being human, which is, in two words, no guarantees? Supplies dwindle. Shops change hands. We got it, and then we don’t got it. We get it back. It goes away too.

So what’s the problem with palliation? It is holding hands with someone, after all. Here we go, hand in hand into the dark and hopefully through it, but you never know.

It’s a problem when you believe, as I have, that you’re entitled to not having to walk into the dark because you’re a good person doing good things. You’re entitled to health and happiness, world-without-end-amen, especially – only – if you’re doing everything right.

We have a lot less control than we thought. What does massage do for that? Every time we go into session, as either practitioner or participant, we put ourselves – literally – into someone else’s hands. We surrender. We have a good idea of what can happen, especially if it’s someone we’ve worked with for a while, but improbable things happen all the time.

When I’m a client: there’s stuff I had no idea hurt. The places that feel completely bound and hopeless are occasionally more supple and interesting than I expected. I make connections between my tense spots. I relish in what feels good for once.

When I’m the therapist: Today I see you and hear you as different from last time. Yes this is where you’re always tense but look at how you soften if I change my depth of work by degrees. And you are as lovable as you ever were. And that’s a nasty scrape, when did that happen?

From massage therapy we also learn improvisation within a safe framework. We do this all the time in our own lives, even and especially when we are really steering ourselves big time, but in session we are – again – in the reliable caring hands of someone else who is confirming for us that –  indeed – this is a great spot to be curious.

We go charging into our tension, thinking we know. In massage, with the help of the therapist, we catch on that our instincts might have been right all along, but here’s this new tidbit we hadn’t considered, and it informs our next choice. This is also great practice for whatever else is going on in our lives.

We learn it’s not only okay but very good for us to let go. To feel our whole being soften, fiber by fiber. “Oh my gosh I feel so much better” is not something we say after we’ve worked ourselves into a panting lather. It’s usually something we say after we’ve had the chance to lay down for a while, breathe, and be, with someone who cares.

Doing something right, by not doing anything at all.

Take Good Care

Even an “easy” day in the life can be fraught, if I’m not cognizant of details. For example, last Tuesday I had two 90-minute clients booked. Ah, piece of cake: walk in the park. Both long-term clients: needs understood, preferences noted. Presence adored. Can’t wait.

On further examination however, I know I’m in for it: my first is a house-call to my young client with muscular dystrophy. Packing up and traveling, wending my way through a variety of animals (she lives on a beautiful horse farm),  getting set up (there is a massage table there, but still, where to put what) and then doing a long session, is work. She needs deep tissue massage, yet I’m always cautious as I plow around her back: there’s a lot of tension here that’s chronic, unexercised, fatigued, dry…and getting worse. Checking in becomes part of the art.

My second 90-min. session is my longest-term client, whose body and stories and predilections are as familiar to me as episodes of Blackadder, a BBC comedy we both have vast portions of committed to memory. On the one hand, he’s my frequent flier, my regular, and I don’t have to convince him of the benefits of regular massage: he’s devoted.

On the other hand, having a ton of time with a client is equally perk and privilege, so I don’t take his loyalty for granted. There’s always an opportunity to learn more about him, and what I can do for him now…and now…and now.  I live to hear him say, as he often does, “That was the best yet.” How many “best yet”s will I earn in the years to come? Will I earn one today?

These two 90-min. sessions can suddenly feel like a burden. But I got into this line of work because I wanted to rejoice and be exceedingly glad, not so that I could further entrench my perfectionism. Over the years I’ve learned that how I treat myself has everything to do with how well I work, and how good I feel, bringing forth the “ahhh” in massage, for both myself and my clients.

How to take on the burden/blessing of bodywork? Self care.

Everything you long to do holds the key. It’s whatever you tell yourself you don’t have time for. It might be a discipline, but it might also be a past-time. If, when you’re doing it, you hear a soft knock on the door of your heart, and you can hear the door swing open and happy animal noises ensuing, you might have found one of many fine ways in which to take good care of yourself. Including:

3 legs to the triumvirate of self care:  journaling, walking, resting.

3 legs to the triumvirate of self care:
journaling, walking, resting.

Here’s what else self-care looks like to me:

Time. Time and I are not close. There are two genes in my family, the chronically on time, with hot indignation sprayed on those who can’t manage the same. The other, the chronically late, sometimes breath-takingly so, filled with profuse apology and repeated offense. Guess which one I have.

Having my own office and being responsible for getting the whole thing rolling first thing has, if nothing else, taught me to respect time. And it takes immense focus for me to get out the door every morning, which means I have to keep on top of myself to make sure I do. There is only one task: leave.  Move it, Burkholder.

Phone. It gets turned off. Sometimes at 7 p.m., sometimes 9. If I think someone can reach me, I’m not completely at ease. Never a phan of the phone, I am happy when it’s phlipped shut.

Little Me. Hearing my need for daily supplements and doses. There are herbs, vitamins, minerals and tinctures I take to keep myself feeling good and able to work with stamina for every person, no matter when they’re booked. I’ve also added Emerita’s Pro-Gest, as I find I’m trundling down the trails of peri-menopause already, and a little dab of this in the a.m. and p.m. has made a big difference for me. So has Avena Botanical’s Restorative Root Powder.

Being accountable to myself: listening to the little me inside who hopes the big me is listening: planning ahead enough so that I have my pills and potions, meals and snacks, green tea and gum for the ten-hour, sometimes twelve-hour, day ahead. Very much “what do you need, honey?” in my tone. Yes, speaking tenderly to myself: this is self care.

Consciousness. I’m not a natal MT. You? It’s not in me to spend vast tracts of time in meditative silence, massaging. I am a daydreamer, an entertainer, a giggler. A good part of my early years of practicing massage therapy was learning how to not to do too much of any of those 3 things while working.

Everyone has their own way of being present to clients, maintaining a high level of consciousness. Myself, I have relied heavily on the application of Reiki in my massages, something I can’t recommend highly enough. This sweet, powerful energy work gives me Source, something to channel when I feel lost or depleted, something to lean into for insight. I also call it prayer.

This enables me to bring loving attention, but not so much attention that I start to drift into hypervigilance, which makes for excellent business acumen, but lousy mental health. At a certain point: it’s good. It’s good enough. The client will pick up where I left off. Healing will flow when my hands stop moving. I don’t matter, and as Dale Favier says, that is a “radical blessing.”

Thoroughness is a curse. Leaving some things up to the Great Mystery is essential, otherwise there I am vacuuming again, or taking copious notes, when I could be unwinding and making time for the things I really want to do (like read, doodle, brush my cat, and watch the Mighty Boosh) which is what I encourage my clients to do…for their own self care.

Many thanks to the ABMP’s Jul/Aug 2013 edition “Take Care of Yourself, So You Can Take Care of Clients”  for the inspiration.

Ah, the ol' pink ball trick! That's a happy ped, because I roll this lil' dude around under both feet while doing client intake. A real waker-upper.

Ah, the ol’ pink ball trick! That’s a happy ped, because I roll this lil’ dude around under both feet while doing client intake. A real waker-upper. And so good for – well, everything.