We have a problem. It’s a knot, a tangle; we’re not quite sure whether to pull or push or just set it afire. It’s thorny, unapproachable, but we want a solution, we want to ditch this pain, this tension, the one in our shoulder especially, the right shoulder, the one that always bitches at us as it takes on our woes. (Or does it cause them?)
This big bag of skin, encasing these mysterious organs moving blood and bile, and this exquisite system of levers and pulleys and pivoting joints, muscles for climbing and lifting, smiling and punching and kissing—our servant or our master? Do we pound it into a solution or beg for its bestowal of grace and relief?
I have a body encasing a mind and spirit, I am a body of mind and spirit, I am a bodyspiritmind. I am that I am. That’s a quote reportedly from God himself, but it feels pretty right for this body and its fingers typing these words.
Meanwhile: My massage therapist and my chiropractor are both quick studies, often able to discern, with a glance as I walk in or reach to shake their hand, not only that I have a problem, but also where it might be. Then onto the table, and the least little probing on their part has me gushing forth with revelations, the story of my week, my month, my life. All without my mouth even forming a word.
Some people on that table aren’t nearly so reticent, my massage therapist Lindsay Segbers tells me.
Lindsay is 30, as wiry and sculpted as it is possible to be at 5’1” and 115 pounds on a good upright day. She was 24 when she started, fresh out of massage school and determined to make her own way, free of the massage mills at spas where they have you leaning into body after body, 10 of them and more a day, a sure recipe for the high burnout factor that dogs the industry. She needed to build her clientele, and she took them on where they were, which was often surprisingly emotive, unguarded, overflowing.
“When people get touched they start talking,” she says. “They open up on the table, start telling me they’re having an affair, getting a divorce, their kid is on drugs, their wife has cancer. I was only 24 and I took it all in, but three or four years ago I started to get so sad and exhausted I’d literally curl up in the fetal position on the table after the client left and go to sleep. You pick up other people’s stuff, but I’ve got my own crap. I’ve done triathlons, rowing and crew; I’ve pushed myself to my limits, but this exhaustion from clients was more than anything I’d ever felt. I realized I needed to change my approach, that I needed to go back to manipulating muscles. I made a conscious decision to not connect on a heart or emotional level with my clients.”
That lasted for a while. But massage is tricky on this muscle/heart/emotional axis. Lying there naked on a table, submitting to intense touch for an hour, sighing, moaning, gasping in pain and relief, sometimes spilling forth on the affair, the divorce, the drugs, the cancer—anyone who has experienced this knows how completely it gives the lie to the Platonic mind-body duality we have inherited and have futilely tried to sustain in our western civilization. In between Plato and the Puritans, we have been one heap of a mess. Massage is but one part of our recovery process.
She dug, she felt a knot, she dug deeper, and as I tensed, she’d just double down, stronger than I was, me being naked there on her table, in her room, paying her good money for her hard working therapy.
Lindsay’s body-only approach worked pretty well on the predominantly athletic clientele she began to attract. Many of them were from the serious, highly motivated cycling and running communities that were growing steadily in the outdoor wonderland of Sonoma County. Athletes are interested in performance, and they know how to suffer for their sport. Lindsay dug in.
My chiro referred me to her, warning me it would hurt and she would likely push me to pain thresholds I hadn’t encountered before. So it was important to feel free to give her the high sign whenever it became too much, to opt out of her thumbs and elbows digging too deeply beyond my endurance. I took that as a challenge, of course. I, too, know how to suffer for a good cause.
So, how does change happen? I’ve been to many massage therapists in my life, and a couple of different rolfers (deep tissue work focused on opening the fascia that encases tissue and can restrict free-flowing movement). Every last one of them was different, I’m glad to report. Whenever it is that they do develop a robotic bodyworker, I won’t be signing up.
When I first went to her, Lindsay followed along the lines of one of my rolfers in simply overpowering any resistance I put up. She dug, she felt a knot, she dug deeper, and as I tensed, she’d just double down, stronger than I was, me being naked there on her table, in her room, paying her good money for her hard working therapy. At times, I began to get a glimmer, I thought, of how torture victims must feel, helplessly awaiting the next painful ministration by tensing their muscles and armoring up, reflexively resisting what was to come until resistance proved futile.
“Most of my clients have been much older than me, so I think part of my aggressiveness was maybe me needing to be the boss and in control,” Lindsay says, meeting now over coffee and a croissant rather than a table with oil and dreamy music. “And just because my clients knew how to suffer and would give me the green light didn’t mean that’s what they needed. I began to realize when you started asking me questions last year about how to manage your resistance that I was maybe teaching my clients to be too guarded. But we’re all guarded enough already in life, so why add to it? I started changing my practice again after those conversations.”
This suggestion that my questions to her and our recurrent conversations about the tension/relaxation dynamic had led to changes in her work was news to me. But it suggested much else, not only about how muscular and any sort of change happens, but also about the nature of the therapeutic relationship. Let me probe this a little bit, and I’ll try not to inflict any pain on you, dear reader.
I had a rolfer years ago who was very much of the power-through school (formerly) practiced by Lindsay. He’d lean and push and blow through all my resistance. A different rolfer I visited subsequently, though, was more along the lines of a previous massage therapist, who would probe, dig a bit into a knot, encounter resistance, work a few inches away and around from where my muscles were tensed, wait for them to relax again, then return and probe some more, until resistance resurfaced.
Probe, dig, back off, return. Attend to what the muscle was doing, how intense my resistance was. Eventually, the knot would give way and dissolve. The therapist would not so much push as coax, not so much brute through as tenderly tease. We’d get to the same place (I think), but in a less direct and confrontational way, with less pain and likely less inflammation and waste product from that pain. (Lindsay had warned me on my first visit to her a couple of years ago that I’d likely be sore later that day and into the next day. She was right.)
More than half a life ago, I was training to be a psychotherapist and was doing my own therapy with a kind and gentle humanist. This was the era of the encounter group and all manner of offshoots, some of them highly confrontational, battering through a person’s psychic defenses to purportedly reach some true and honest core, liberated at last.
Sometimes the confrontation worked and a new being was born from the rubble. Other times the rubble was transported to a mental hospital, shorn of all previous identity and no new identity ready to stand up whole in the former one’s place. Confrontation as a corrective in any area of life can have its limits. I was glad my therapist wasn’t of that school.
Change is a fearsome thing. If we’re comfy and collected, and this day is beautiful as yesterday was beautiful and we have every reason to hope and believe that tomorrow will be the same, why would we invite change to come knocking? Why would we dig and probe, down there where pain and resistance might be lying in wait?
But life has a way of intruding with its incessant demands for change. It’s rude that way, pushing into our space with a tight shoulder, a troubled relationship, a polyp, a pink slip. Demanding that we dig in and root around a while, see what might reveal itself on the table as we grope toward the future.
The table may be for massage, for chiro, for psychotherapy, for sociability with long neglected friends or a spouse, but as you hoist yourself upon it, exposed, my advice is to talk it up, to create a feedback loop, to pay close attention, to feel, to breathe, to breathe again, to relax. To let change in, with a careful blend of the direct and indirect, the hold and the release, conversation and silence. Getting a sense of when to push and probe, and when to relax and wait.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle,” Lindsay says. “I want to know what’s going on with my clients, what they’re bringing into the room. The more feedback I get, the better. The emotions we’re having go into the body as physical manifestations, so we can’t avoid them. I’m older now and I think I can deal with them better, because I can deal with my own stuff better. I don’t want to take anyone’s crap into me, but I do want to connect with them on every level—mind, body and spirit. They’re all connected, just like all the parts of our body are connected, and all people are connected. We sure know that.”
For my own part, I have realized massage therapy probably works best as a conversation—not about baseball or vacation plans, but about what’s going on in your body, on that table, under those hands, therapist and client engaged in whispers and murmurs to gauge what’s possible, how deep, when to inhale, exhale, rest, when to shift elsewhere. As such, this most literally touching human encounter, probably second only to sex in its intimacy and exposure, stands as a guidepost, clients monitoring as closely as possible what’s going on as Lindsay or whomever else in whatever area of our lives probes and pulls and circles around and toward the change for which we are forever heading—ready or not.
It’s been a few years since my daughter was Sesame Street age, and I am glad to report it still appears to me to be as charming as ever:
Praise as always to the photographers who lend such depth and dimension to these pages. Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Hands photo near top of page courtesy of Sarah Horrigan of Nottingham, England, under Creative Commons licensing. See more of her work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/horrigans/
Other photos (giraffes, caterpillar, butterfly, rose) courtesy of Farrukh, based in the United Kingdom, under Creative Commons licensing. See more of his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/with/3149480819/
Special thanks to Lindsay, whose openness and native joy are the very things that make her such an effective healing agent. (Her incredibly strong hands have something to do with it, too, I’m pretty sure.)