Where my story begins…
I remember when I was taking my very first yoga teacher training, escaping the high piles of snow and below zero temperatures of Canada in January 2013 by whisking away to the Sivananda ashram in the Bahamas. I assure you, it was a disciplined ashram lifestyle, having only a few minutes here and there to steal a swim, and where oat cookies were the treat we looked forward to. I ended up in the Bahamas because it was one of the few opportunities at that time to study yoga intensively by the time I would finish my university degree. A very head-in-the-books, stare-at-the-computer-writing-long-essays type of degree. At that stage all that was driving me was a deep desire to practice yoga everyday. I wanted out of my head and into my body.
It felt so good to free up all those bound up knots, become aware of blind areas in my body and to simply feel lighter. I had absolutely no intention to “become a yoga teacher” (let alone ever be doing bodywork) and distinctly remember telling people so. It seemed I was too young and still living in the university-degree world that the yoga-teacher-lifestyle-craze was still unknown to me. I just wanted to practice, and to find refuge through the understanding of how applied yoga helps our mind to rest and our soul to experience peace.
How bodywork came into the picture…
Five years later, I have continued to take courses of various sorts, mostly in my own time as a personal interest and to deepen my practice. It was only when I began looking to understand more on how and where emotions are held in the body that I came across a week long intensive Ayurvedic massage course. It seemed that there were very few places to really learn about emotions in the body unless you got straight to it and began touching bodies. The sciences that have advanced this type of knowledge through experience – such as traditional Chinese medicine, yoga and Ayurveda, Shiatsu and Thai massage – have been studying and documenting these very aspects of how mind affects matter (the body) through practical exploration, deep listening or intuition and meditation.
These go back thousands of years when our western concept of scientific understanding (that is, cause and effect of individuated and separated entities) did not exist yet. The whole body was seen as a whole – all levels of the being, including the emotional, the psyche, consciousness, the body, etc. – and respected for this. It was understood to consider all other factors that relate to the body that could be causing injury or pain, including the environment and diet and other external factors that are nevertheless part of our being as a Whole in the wider sense. We are also not separate from our environment, the land, or our culture.
So, after that initial course in Ayruvedic massage, and my first real introduction to touching bodies, I continued to incorporate other bodywork courses in my learning path. Shiatsu came next, until I found a magical place in the farmlands of Greece, surrounded by low rising mountains and calm, still waters, where the journey of Thai massage finally found me. From the beginning of that first course in Sunshine House in Evia, I knew I had found a modality I could finally dedicate myself to, to sink deeper into and cultivate a deeper understanding into one particular practice.
I’m doing what?? Massage??
Now, I have to laugh at myself because I can look back and remember so many times that people had mentioned or suggested Thai massage to me due to my interest in yoga, and yet I had always disregarded it since it sounded like it had nothing to do with yoga. I was very wrong indeed, as I felt my years practicing yoga were the essential preparation required for me to fully appreciate and understand how to apply and practice Thai massage and bodywork in general. I believe it came at the right time, when I was ready and willing to make the commitment.
Three years later, after that very first Ayurvedic massage course I had never anticipated taking, and the years of a self-practice seeking for other forms of constructing our understanding of our world and what we are doing here, I ended up in a career I had never really chosen, but was led to instead.
After all those years, what have I learned?
The therapist is not there to “fix” you
I can relate to those who come for a therapy looking for some answers, some fixes, mainly some understanding. Though it is by no means the therapist’s role to “fix” their patient, I know that feeling of quiet desperation and suffering which motivates someone to seek help in health care professionals. At the beginning, it has put pressure on me as a professional, believing I could not share this work with others because I did not know enough. Who was I to know the direct answers to other people’s illnesses or pain? Most of the time we can barely understand our own.
The more I study, the more I see an increasing amount of contradictory beliefs, advice or solutions. Over the course of my practice, however, and over many years of my own experience seeking answers from a variety of therapists and programmes, I’ve come to believe therapy has a different function. Though guidance and applied knowledge are part of what we give to our clients, could the fundamental purpose of therapy be to receive compassionate listening, rather than to be told what is “wrong” with you? This listening can be verbal or physical, but most importantly involves a sort of silence or allowing for whatever the issue is to present itself. This is called holding space.
It allows a blank canvas for the reflection of what is occurring in the body or psyche, which is often beyond our understanding from our rational mind to decipher and pick apart anyway! Often it allows the space for what we may already be saying to ourselves to surface, such as negative self-beliefs or our own feelings of what might be going on. In this way, the space is given for the client to come to realizations of their own awareness and intuition, thus empowering them for self-healing and, in a sense, to be their own therapist. When we fill the space too much with our suggestions and conceptions of what the patient is going through, then we may actually be interfering with their own self-healing. There is a balance to be made here.
Who really knows anyway?
On top of that, there are very few doctors or therapists who really know what is going on with you and can provide an adequate solution. There is definitely usefulness in seeking help in this way, but we must remember to Know and Trust ourselves first, and take every bit of information with a grain of salt. Use your therapist’s recommendations with critical thinking and see how they adapt to the learning you have already done in regards to your own body, your own experiences in your own body and apply it to what you have already learned about yourself. Take a second look if those prescriptions or intrusive medical exams are really necessary. It doesn’t mean that you are always right, but in the same respect the clinician is not always right either. Add what they have to offer to the mix- but don’t take it as the ultimate end all solution. No one has this for you.
Only steady self-observation and practice of different lifestyle changes will lead you to your healing. The therapist is there as a guide, she is a vehicle that is moving something else more cosmic and more knowing than what any of us can truly comprehend. The nature of the universe is too complex for our minds to grasp. This includes our bodies, which are microcosms of the universe. After a treatment, observe the effects, notice any shifts in the body, and allow the body to integrate the work. This part of the healing is the patient’s responsibility and the effects of treatment continue well after we have left the therapist’s room. We can ask for others to solve our problems as much as we like, but ultimately we must take responsibility for our own well-being.
Bodywork is, above all, a self-practice
In the same respect, the bodyworker is not there to heal you, as she is only healing herself. And because she is offering a safe and sacred space to assist you on your journey, it is essential for the therapist to be on her own path of self-healing. In order to truly hold space for another person, we must be well aware of how our own egos work: our reactions, defense mechanisms and other internal dynamics and how these are affected by our environments. We are attempting to provide a clean space, an empty space in our minds, to allow presence into the therapy room so that we can see what arises for our patients, without going into the drama of our own stories.
It is true that I am also observing what arises in myself in a treatment, especially as Thai massage has become part of my own healing journey and my own meditation. The difference is made when we consciously let go of what is arising in the moment to allow that space to be for the other person and to give them the attention that they need.
This is what we are asking for when we go outside of ourselves to seek healing, isn’t it? There is no ego telling you to do what I say, no doctorate degree telling you that your personal experience does not fit into the theories, or any quick fix and over-simplistic medication and prescriptions promising cover-up solutions without adequate understandings of the source of the problem or cautions of how they may also damage you as well (1).
We can have compassion for the suffering of others through understanding our own…
To get back on track, in order to let go of what arises in the mind and in our own bodies, the therapist needs to be aware of themselves. We must also understanding the fluctuating nature of our own suffering and contentment as we learn how to apply compassion to ourselves, before we can show this to others. If we do not know how to receive, how are we meant to give? Thai massage in particular has taught me about compassion being the key ingredient in a massage, to observe the body without judgement and without making a story around someone’s “illness”.
The suffering we experience as humans is universal. It is not to deny that it is there, but it is also not to label it or make it into a drama. I’ve been there. Victimizing myself for my pain because of what the world brought onto me. I’ve dramatized all of my difficulties in life based on what other people had done to me, what type of society and environment I grew up in that contributed to low self-worth and blaming the world around me for not recognizing my value simply for being a person. I blamed others for my pain that they caused me, and I thought I would never feel freedom from this pain.
What I’ve learned through working directly with people, not only in bodywork but through years of traveling, sharing and speaking with people all over the world from many different cultures and many different types of communities, is that we are all the same. Our suffering is universal and so is the remedy. What we are all looking for is understanding, recognition, compassion, and love. With this intention in bodywork practice, the body is being listened to, and will naturally heal itself. The more we resist, or use cover-up solutions that address the symptom and not the source, the more the body will continue to scream out at us.
I slowly began to understand my own story while dropping the victim act. This is the type of healing that opens us, lightens us, makes us free as birds. Once we understand the nature of our own suffering, we begin to understand the nature of all human suffering, and then we can assist others.
Knowledge may come from textbooks, but knowing comes from inside
I used to struggle with teaching yoga because I thought everyone expected me to be an anatomy expert, to know everything in the books, all the body parts, how to explain perfect alignment through explanation of what muscle goes where and what arm bone should be pointed in what precise angle yada yada yada. Knowledge of anatomy is useful, but also limited. These are useful tools and ways to practice that do help with structural adjustment and does allow energy to move more freely in the body. But, we can practice this alignment and also have a safe practice without being anatomy experts. The ancient yogis who discovered these tools did so through practice, through feeling and through meditation.
They did not always have textbooks explaining the body parts. Maybe there were some diagrams showing pathways through the body, though these were also constructed through the felt senses. We can guide our students and ourselves in our yoga practice, and when applying bodywork, through conscious awareness and presence in the body. As long as we are paying attention, and responsible enough to listen to our bodies and our own judgement, the practice is safe. This is what I’ve always loved to teach in my classes. It is a shame that I let my cultural conceptions of what knowledge is get in the way of that. Yet another lesson: trust yourself. What you have to share is completely unique to everyone else and equally as valid.
Stretch both legs on the ground like sticks. Grasp the toes with both hands. Rest the forehead on the knees. This is Paschimatanasana. – Verse II:28 from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2)
Is there a time you have heard this pose described this way? The shape is explained, but how to get into it then comes from feeling through practice, or guidance from a teacher watching your unique body.
A different cultural context of learning…
It seems my commitment to my path was challenged yet again when I began to practice bodywork professionally. Coming from Canada, a country very strict on its regulations and standards, it was not acceptable for me to be practicing this work with the type of training that I had. I didn’t have at the very least five years in a classroom setting studying diagrams and knowing the Latin name of each muscle, cellular function or direction of movement. It took me a long time to accept for myself that my training and education comes from a different lineage and a difficult cultural reality.
This training came from an experiential nature, where we learn through practical experience first and foremost and then use theory to support our experiences. We have close student-teacher relationships to slowly, over time, gain an understanding of what we are learning through our experience. The learning comes through actually interacting with others and listening for ourselves at what the bodies are telling us. This is the real training- the training of our own intellect and intuition in the practice. In many older, indigenous cultures, their healers spent years with their teachers working closely beside them and learning by watching, interacting and being guided through practical and real life applications.
I realize now that this is the path of education I believe in and belong to. By finally understanding this, I am actually more comfortable with how I have come to learn bodywork then I would have if my background came mostly from a classroom setting. These ancient art forms have been shared for thousands of years through the simplest form of compassionate touch before being applied through textbook definitions through a limited scientific understanding. Through an understanding of this in my work, my approach now feels more whole and with a greater ability to share with my clients honestly and authentically.
With bodywork, we simply do the work
I believe what we are doing as therapists (and doctors/healers/medicine people) goes beyond most of our understanding. Of course we can study and apply knowledge, and of course this is extremely useful and has its purpose and place. We go to ‘experts’ who focus their time and energy to learning about these processes because they may know something we don’t. What I am trying to convey is to take it all with a grain of salt. With bodywork, we simply do the work. Using the body as a means to access the whole Being, with humility we seek to encourage deep relaxation, create space and remove blocks that then allow for self-healing to take place. If this is done consciously, we drop any concepts of thinking we have the answers for people.
In the end, theories are just theories. As long as they resonate with you and feel like useful tools on your path to self-development, then go with it. But remember that they are all limited perspectives in some way or another. The cosmic workings of the universe, including the functioning of our own body-mind-spirit complex are way beyond the understand of man’s logical brain. Answers can only come from looking within. And ultimately, it is our own responsibility to heal ourselves.
(1) Peter Levine: The Body Keeps The Score – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53RX2ESIqsM&list=WL&t=331s&index=48