Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dwelling in the Body

I read the books -- I've just been paging through Beck's Therapeutic Massage -- with some impatience. This is a field in which what you can learn from books is limited. I learn most from two things: getting massage, and massaging myself, and thinking about it. When I'm going to work on someone the next day, I lie in bed and try things out. What ways of opening the chest are there? What feels good and right, what awkward and bad? How should a person breathe while I'm pressing in on the ribs?

A wonderful thing about massage school, all along, was that our own bodies were always there for a cheat-sheet, and our teachers were enlightened enough to encourage us to use them. Where does the pronator teres attach? Well, take hold of it and feel it bulge as you pronate the forearm, and find out. It's all right there.

If I have a mission as a therapist, it's to encourage people to explore their own bodies. It's a variation on the theme that I keep returning to: to dwell in our lives, instead of camping in them. Applied to the body, it's: live in this body, here, now, not the perfect body we ought to have or will have. There's so much that can be done to open it, to release what's tight and stuck, to relieve what's suffering. What I was trying to get at a week or two ago, clumsily, is just that the shame so many of us have about the body makes us stupid about it. It makes us neglect to learn the simplest things about it, to take the simplest steps to make it work more comfortably, rest more deeply. It's a profoundly malleable system, in many many ways. Losing thirty pounds may be beyond the power of most of us, but learning to sit untwisted, with nice support for our arms and lumbar spine, is not. Finding our own trigger points and working them out it is simple and pleasurable. Stretching out comfortably -- not trying to lengthen anything or force anything, but just stretching, like a cat -- is almost always an option.

But we'll do none of those things if we're holding our body, as it were, at arm's length. We have to be inside it, be noticing it, and be kindly toward it.

Before I went to massage school I was in physical pain or discomfort, probably, more often than not. The spooky thing is that I didn't even know it. I wasn't paying attention. It becomes normal: the stiff neck, the aching lumbar spine, the shoulders hunched forward, the head thrust down, the breathing rapid and shallow. I didn't realize that I was uncomfortable; I didn't check in often enough to know. I came to think of it as normal that closing my eyes brought relief from a burning sensation, that lying down made my low back gratefully but gingerly let go a desperate clutch.

I used to look at middle-aged or old people, with their bowed shoulders and forward-thrust heads and leaden gait, and wonder how they got that way. Now I know precisely how they got that way.

The body does wear out, no matter what you do. I've no patience with the prophets of eternal youth -- it's another part of the shame culture; now you're supposed to be ashamed of being old, as well as of being fat and wrong-shaped. That's not what I'm getting at. What I'm getting at is a basic attitude of kindliness and openness to the body. Listening to it. Assuming from the start that what hurts hurts for a good reason, and that's there's something you can do for it. Maybe it has to hurt. If so, by all means, bring out your stoicism and just cope. But only after you've explored it and found out what it really is, thought about what you do that makes it better and what you do that makes it worse, after you've experimented with manipulating it, and moving and sitting and resting in different ways. No one else has access to anything like your wealth of information about your own body. It will talk to you, if you'll talk to it.

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