Soft Tissue Therapy

Four Stages of Releasing Tension & Trauma for Lasting, Positive Change

Posted by Paul Cavel on 16 March 2016

healing-qi-gongBodywork refers to a wide range of hands-on treatment therapies characterised by the distinct relationship between a healer and receiver. The healer/therapist operates within the context of the system in which they are trained and selects techniques according to their depth of knowledge and skill in that system, as well as their ability to tune into and assess the condition of the receiver. No one method can ever be exclusively regarded as the best or correct way as each healer and receiver are unique individuals; the combination of the two is even more exceptional. So the methodology that follows is not the be-all and end-all of how bodywork should be performed, but rather a framework for implementing and applying specific principles of the Water method approach to healing.

In the Water method, soft tissue therapy follows the same protocol whether you’re healing your own body through practice of qi gong or someone else’s through bodywork. For the body to shed tension and trauma once and for all, you must work in progressive stages towards the root of the issue(s), releasing bound layers from the outside to the inside, rather than going straight to the core of the problem. In both modalities, some techniques will only access superficial layers, while others will penetrate much deeper. Therefore, as the body’s soft tissues are worked, the correct sequence of techniques used for the job at hand becomes as important as the ability to “listen”(1) and follow the body being worked–self or other.

(1) Listening is a method used by healers to accurately interpret the condition of a receiver’s body, the content within, as well as the response to treatment through sensitive use of their hands, eyes and ears. Listening allows the healer to make necessary adjustments to their treatment in order to maximise healing results.

Mind Follows Body

One of the areas where hands-on bodywork training often falls short is an unbalanced focus on deeper techniques. The incorrect perception is that “more advanced” is usually or always better. In actuality, rushing ahead or skipping fundamental stages of the healing process downgrades the potential of the overall result; it’s the very progression, with each stage unfolding of its own accord in its own time, that paves the way for more advanced techniques to work their magic. Any skilful healer can help to open the body, reduce pain and discomfort, and increase the wellbeing of their client in a single session, at least to some degree, but the question is:

Do the changes hold?

Anyone who has experienced any kind of injury or trauma knows that relief from pain or discomfort–even if only temporary–is always welcomed, but the real test of the healer and their methodology is lasting results. The goal is to positively impact the longer-term prognosis of the healing journey, not only make someone feel better in a moment. Those who are only willing to invest in quick fixes usually resort to pharmaceuticals anyway. So the receiver’s body dictates the distance the healer can go in any session, including how long each stage takes to complete. The healer must listen with their hands, follow the receiver’s body and keep their ego in check. In this space, the awareness of what is bubbles to the surface and both the healer and receiver can respond according to the reality of the changes needed–not mental projections or fleeting emotional states.

Stage 1: Making Space for Healing

Before introducing any techniques aimed at healing a particular ailment, the body wants to be positioned in a comfortable and open posture. This takes the “fight” out of the mind-body, and allows the nerves of the receiver to begin discharging and releasing the habitual clenching patterns of their muscles. To encourage this posture and a relaxed state, the healer can implement a gentle shaking or rocking back and forth of the limbs. A fast, hard or rushed approach will cause the body to contract, so it’s a very light intent the healer must hold in their mindspace and apply to the receiver’s body. Next, the healer gently yet firmly draws out the limbs from the torso, so the receiver can lie flat and open on the table or mat. This has the effect of uncoiling a garden hose, so the water can flow freely without kinks or impediments. Likewise, gently stretching out the limbs from the torso allows blood and qi-energy to circulate more freely.

Through these simple steps, the healer prepares the receiver for the rest of the session all the while building trust with their body and mind. The healer stays mindful not to apply too much pressure, stretch out the limbs too far, invade the receiver’s space or raise their guard in any way in this opening sequence. Now the space to relax and remain open has been created for stage 2 techniques to continue the healing.

Stage 2: Implementing a Sung State

In my last article, I wrote about the concept of sung (enter your email in the upper right box to download the 12-page article PDF now), which is loosely defined as an “open, unbound” state of being. Once the receiver has achieved some degree of relaxation through preparatory, hands-on contact with the healer, the focus shifts to directly injecting sung into their flesh. Although this stage is touched on by many bodywork systems, it is a fundamental principle of the Water method and considered critical to manifesting dramatic and lasting results. The goal of these techniques (of which there are many) is to take the receiver far beyond normal relaxation and induce a deep sense of let go by releasing the superficial layers that surround and contain any trauma or bound tension.

A typical healing session lasts 30-60 minutes, and the healer wants to allocate anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of their time on this stage. Generally, this is the time necessary to release the superficial layers of both daily and accumulated tensions most people carry around inside of themselves before going deeper. In fact, in severe cases of trauma, it may be appropriate to spend several sessions going no further than working towards implementing sung before even beginning to address the root of what drove the person to see the healer in the first place. Whiplash, for example, causes the whole nervous system to clamp down, which is a natural survival mechanism of the body to prevent further damage. The healer seduces the body to give up its bindings, rather than stretching the body open or drilling into compacted tensions with a forceful intent. The same intent is needed for emotional and mental trauma that may (or may not) lie at the root of the problem. Now how long the healer actually spends is a case-by-case scenario, dictated by the one-of-a-kind human being on whom the techniques are being performed. The healer must “see” and “feel” a shift in the quality of the flesh, and listen to what the mind-body of the receiver needs and can handle in the moment. This is where technical skill and artistry entwine in the mind-body of the adept healer.

Of course, any reputable bodywork school includes warm-up and relaxation methods. However, many practitioners approach them as routine; that is what they do before they start the healing, irrespective of the state of the receiver or whether there has been any change as a result of the techniques performed in the first two stages. The bodyworker must tune into their client (if they’re a seasoned professional) or victim (if they’re a complete beginner!), and feel how the nerves of the receiver respond to the techniques being performed. Depth, pressure and speed of touch, as well as the degree of integration moving between techniques, all has an impact on how much the receiver can let go. There’s no substitute for developing sensitivity and a sixth sense about what to do and when to maximise opportunities to invoke lasting, positive change. The deeper the let go, the better the chance that stage 3 techniques will take hold and prevail.

Stage 3: Rooting Out Imbalances by Listening with the Hands

I like to think of this stage as going for gold. If all of the preparations have been made and sung has been implemented, the healer can begin shifting their focus towards rooting out and dealing with the cause of the imbalance, discomfort and/or pain the receiver is experiencing in direct fashion. This is where they get to use their fancy techniques, but regardless of what those might be, they all rely on the healer’s ability to listen with their hands. Of course, an adept healer will listen with their ears and eyes from the moment their client comes into their space and begin listening with their hands from the first point of contact. It’s more critical that a healer knows how to listen well with their hands when working deeper inside a receiver, otherwise they can apply that bit too much pressure to a sensitive spot and cause the nerves to reject their influence. Once this happens, the body closes down, maybe the mind follows (e.g. “This guy sure is rough. I need to stay alert, so I don’t get hurt”.), and the positive effects from stages 1 and 2 are diminished or even completely lost.

I’ve sustained injuries on several occasions in my life and subsequently sought treatment by supposedly “talented” and highly qualified professionals. I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve had to forego even a second session due to their inability to feel and listen to my body. In some cases, they have even caused setbacks to my healing journey. Just as in qi gong practice, you cannot injure yourself trying to get healthy: in seeking professional help, you cannot ride out pain and excessive discomfort in the hope of being healed. The present moment is when all healing takes place, so if you’re not moving towards greater stability during a session, you certainly won’t be able to build upon it afterwards. This is not to say that healing sessions should always be pleasant and free from unveiling pain or discomfort, but they should be done with a finesse that allows the receiver to open and let go rather than generate further stress and tension on the whole.

So assuming the healer has unravelled and released some of the superficial layers of tension and stuck tissues in the first two stages, the game is on and it’s time to “chase out” the invaders that undermine the peace and harmony of a mind-body in its natural, sung state. The healer must work locally at the root to dislodge or release bindings, and take them out through the extremities. All tensions and traumas need an exit pathway to be banished once and for all, or they will simply reset.

There are two simultaneous depths at which the healer must work to address any binding in the body to skilfully and effectively chase out tension once and for all:

  • From fingers or toes to spine.
  • From skin to bone.

Releasing Tension in the Neck and Shoulders

Let’s look at the very common example that all bodyworkers know well in this age of technology: pain, discomfort, limited range of motion and knots in the soft tissues of the neck and shoulders. To start, the veteran healer would have formulated a “map” of the various knots and stuck places embedded in the limb while working the soft tissues in the preparatory and sung stages.(2) Then, the healer works from the most superficial and distal (furthest bound area from the spine), going in slowly and at a depth the receiver can handle, and working down the arm and out the hand/fingers before sinking in deeper at the specific locality. The focus is on the limb as a whole (not the knots per se), and if the muscles contract or the arm pulls away, the healer must back off and work at the depth the receiver can handle without muscular contraction. If the healer successfully releases the first layer of tension out of the body, they would continue in to the next depth. When the knot is cleared, they move up the chain to the next knot closer to the spine and repeat the process.

(2) If the healer misses this dimension, it is necessary to go back and find out what is there via stage 2 techniques. How can you change something that you do not know exists? Furthermore, healers cannot rely entirely on what a client tells them as they may not be ready to share or fully aware of all the interconnected components of a trauma or imbalance.

However, if they can’t get a release, the healer continues working at the same depth for awhile before moving on to allow more time to shift a stubborn, stuck binding. There is always a chance that other tensions could be locking it into place and, until secondary knots are released, the primary knot (on which the healer is working) will not be released. If this is the case, the healer would work the surrounding tensions in that area and, if the receiver becomes increasingly tense through sustained effort to shift the tension, backs off completely and returns to implementing sung before progressing further. It’s a ping-pong match that might take up more time in a session than the infamous drilldown, but this gentle persuasion approach to building trust, opening up the body, releasing tension, and allowing the body to make and maintain adjustments is regarded as the most direct path to healing by Water method therapists.

The aim is to create change at a rate that the receiver can integrate, otherwise it’s one step forward during the healing session, but two steps back in the days and weeks that follow: the body simply resets, defaulting to its conditioned physical, energetic, emotional and/or mental patterns, or produces more protective amour due to the use of forceful techniques. Also, if the healer goes straight for the knots and keeps stretching out or drilling in, the tension cannot escape–it has nowhere to go because the contracting nerves contain it…that is if the healer can manage to dislodge it. So the healer must become aware of the flesh under their fingers. If the tissues tighten or bind to prevent further entry, the only successful way forward is to back off, listen and make the adjustments the body is asking to be made. The best healers are never out of sync with the feedback the receiver offers, seamlessly responding like a well choreographed dance between self and other that moves as one integrated whole. Again, this is not to say that there won’t be periods of discomfort for the receiver just as when they experienced the trauma-evoking event in the first place.

Stage 4: Closing the Healing Session

Eventually, a point of diminishing returns is reached, where the effort needed to sustain the flow becomes greater than the outcome that can be achieved. Either that, or the time allotted for the session approaches the last five minutes or so.(3) Whatever the case, as the endpoint approaches, the healer wants to begin transitioning the receiver into a state where they can continue with their daily activities. It’s inevitable that clients will get spaced out from treatment, but leaving them with a sense of being grounded when they walk out the door is the best-case scenario.

(3) It is a shame that we must all work on such tight schedules as it’s not ideal for healing. Both healers and receivers who can allow for fewer time boundaries and let healing sessions run their natural course will increase potential results.

A mixture of the techniques used in stages 1-2 allows the mind-body of the receiver to settle down and a calm, smooth state to pervade their being. Whereas a sudden or abrupt ending can leave them in a low-grade state of shock, so the healer wants to slowly back off in a way that communicates to the receiver that it’s time to just let go of any residual tension–both at the site of the imbalance and throughout their whole body. The healer can further aid that process by “tapping off”(4) any excess tension for a few minutes. Then, it’s a good idea to let the receiver lie still for a few minutes to allow their nerves to absorb the experience and tune their mind’s intent towards accepting the change created–whether it’s more or less than what they expected. The smoother the transition, the better the mind-body alignment, and the greater the chance that the changes will hold.

(4) Tapping is a technique used by Water method therapists to release tension or stagnant energy and restore balanced qi flow throughout the body. It is very important to know all the caveats of using the technique before employing it in a treatment format.

Accepting Personal Responsibility

In the Water method, the healer and receiver are assumed to take full responsibility for themselves and the sanctity of the healing process. For the healer, this means that they are not only expected to be skilled at the techniques they perform, but also regularly cleanse themselves of the negative energies in their body, mind and energy that prevent them from being clear, available and ultimately doing the best they can for their clients. On the other hand, the receiver must also support their healing journey by doing more than only lying on a massage table and expecting someone else to fix them! It’s rarely possible anyway. Both the practitioner and the receiver specifically manifest and support the healing process through practice of qi gong. Healing takes place in the here and now, not every Tuesday at 12 noon or whenever it is you see your therapist. Whereas being in close contact with others increases susceptibility to picking up and passing along the negative energetic signatures healers encounter from their clients. So each needs a method for creating a continuum of health, wellbeing and stability inside themselves to truly embark on a healing journey with one another. Then, when they come to the table, the healing potential is exponentially multiplied, and all that is possible becomes available in that moment to work towards creating lasting, positive change for a fellow human being in need.

Soft Tissue Therapy: Caring for Self & Others

15-16 April, 12-13 August and 2-3 December 2016
I’ll offer a three-part soft tissue therapy course at The Tai Chi Space in London to teach healers, bodyworkers and therapists of all backgrounds how to develop sensitivity and complement their techniques with the “gentle persuasion” methodology. Tai chi and other teachers who offer hands-on feedback will learn techniques to develop “soft hands”, among other skills such as “listening with the hands”, for working with their students–especially those training to heal from injury and body imbalances. Read more >>

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