For most people, bodywork is about working on bodies, and muscles in particular. And this is a peculiar thing, because if one asks the same people what their main reason for getting a massage is, the #1 answer is to relax or reduce stress, and their #2 answer is to relieve pain. Relaxation, or stress reduction, is much more about the mind than it is the body, and while pain is a very complex topic, it, too, is also much more about the nervous system than it is about muscles.
Clearly bodywork has relevance far beyond the body and bleeds over into the realm of psychology whether it wants to or not. In many bodywork sessions, clients find that emotions arise during the session that don’t normally arise outside of a bodywork session, and most clients leave a session with a feeling that isn’t fully captured by the word ‘relaxed’ but more often is better captured by a word such as ‘aliveness’ or ’embodiment’. At PCAB, we think the feeling of aliveness or embodiment is a good thing to have more of.
Ultimately, massage is being undersold when it’s thought of only in terms of muscles, because touch is an extremely powerful thing for humans, and all mammals–far more powerful than smell, taste, sight, or hearing. For instance, human infants will die without touch, even if their food and water needs are met, and the amount of early neural development is directly related to how much touch is received beyond the minimum required for feeding. Touch plays a huge role in the short and long-term health of premature infants, and the amount of and type of touch received during childhood sets the stage for an entire lifetime of physical and mental health conditions, the understanding of which is very much the realm of psychotherapy and psychoneuroimmunology.
There are many branches on the psychotherapy tree. One of those branches is somatic psychotherapy, which contends that the mind and body are not separable and that to understand thoughts, feelings, and behavior, one must understand the body’s inextricable role in these phenomena. How do the body and mind affect one another? Why does one person panic in a situation where another does not, and what kind of touch has what kinds of effects, and why? What does it mean to feel good or feel happy, and what gets in the way of this? These are all questions within the three realms of somatic psychology, affective neuroscience, and contemplative practice.
At PCAB, we integrate insights from these three realms into our bodywork program for a number of reasons. First, while one can be an effective massage therapist without this integration, the depth of appreciation for what is happening beneath our fingertips becomes far more profound with this integration. Second, integrating the insights and skills from these fields makes a massage therapist a better human being and (therefore) a better massage therapist. Third, if a massage therapist doesn’t understand how emotions work and why they come up, s/he cannot optimally work with a client who is having emotions arise during a session. Lastly, the additional insights allow the therapist to provide the client with a much more powerful experience while still remaining within the massage therapy scope of practice.