One of the most complicated things about having a body is that we don’t get a handbook when we are born. The ways in which we care for our bodies are shaped by the course of our lives; by the ways as children we see adults around us care for their bodies, our perceptions of our bodies, how much we suffer from pain, and how much we choose to ignore or listen to our bodies when they talk to us. Finding out the best ways to care for our bodies is a lifelong journey of discovery.
In the last ten years or so, in response to a very widespread increase in illness caused by chronic pain conditions and stress, there has been a shift towards a more holistic way of viewing our bodies and how we need to care for them. But this is still not the norm and for many acts of self-care remain something that is pulled from the box only at times of crisis, rather than being integral to our strategies for living life in a way which acknowledges that our bodies need continual care and attention.
It is worth considering eastern and western paradigms with relation to self care, because I believe that one of the most fundamental reasons why we fail to care for ourselves enough stems from the ways in which dominant western paradigms, handed to us through our health care system, have removed us from the practice of listening to our bodies.
Western medicine focuses almost exclusively on external appearances (symptoms) and concentrates on limiting the external manifestation i.e. the pain rather than the root cause. A classic example of this is having a headache, the symptom of which – the pain – being treated with a painkiller. Thinking about our bodies as something external to us in this way – trying to remove the pain without holistically looking for the cause – removes our ability to listen, learn and respond to what our bodies constantly tell us. Feeling like ‘you’ and ‘your body’ are separate entities isn’t a good place to be, and it is one of the reasons why we tend to suffer from pain yet often feel quite helpless to do much about it.
We all need nurturing and positive touch in the form of bodywork, and we need it more regularly than just a once a year treat. Bodywork is a very powerful medium for self-enquiry and transformation but just what is it about having an hour-long session – even one focused on pain relief or structural alignment – that creates such a sense of well-being, calm, and energy? And why as human beings, do we crave the touch of another?
Whether in giving or receiving, touch is as essential to human survival as food. Infants deprived of touch, even when they are getting adequate nutrition, will fail to thrive. Elders isolated by the loss of partners and friends become depressed not only because of the absence of social interaction but also because of the simple loss of being touched regularly. We calm our pets by stroking them, we greet each other with a hug or a handshake, and we soothe our children by holding them. No other form of connection is as powerful and universal as touch.
Bodywork is powerful because something very profound happens when we allow another person to touch us in a safe, supportive and nurturing way. Through being touched we ‘embody’ ourselves, arriving in the present moment. Stripped of some of our incessant ‘doing’ and allowed just to ‘be’ for an hour we fall into space where we are able to relax deeply. Those 60 mins on the table become the space in which we participate in a dialogue with our bodies, where we start to understand just what they need to feel supported, healthy and pain-free. And often, when we are touched, we realise how much we have been holding tension without even knowing it.
We often live under the misapprehension that relaxation should come easily to us, but the truth is that our nervous system is hardwired to be alert for signs of danger. In the modern world, this is one of the reasons we tend to suffer so much with the effects of feeling constantly stressed. Learning how to relax therefore requires practice in the same way that learning a language or a new type of movement does. We need to do it often so that we can learn from it, not just on a physical level.
Habituation is the simplest form of learning, occurring through the constant repetition of a response. When the same bodily response happens over and over again, its pattern is gradually learnt at an unconscious level. This slow, relentless, adaptive act has the power to ingrain itself within the functional patterns of the central nervous system. Regular bodywork provides us with a platform within which we may subtly change our nervous system, showing it that deep rest and relaxation is possible. This is one of the reasons that massage tends to get better and more powerful the more often you have it! If we consciously choose to step into the space that bodywork provides, the knowledge that is imparted to us from our bodies has the power to change many aspects of our lives.
Making bodywork an active investigation of your body places your body at the foreground. Placing an emphasis on caring for this wonderful vessel that you live in can help to bring into focus the complex nature of life and how integral your body is in determining all of your experiences. Promoting your body to an active part of your experience of life, and not something separate from your mind, allows you to find better ways in which to engage with the world around you. Through regular bodywork, we can, therefore, come to find ourselves in a very whole and holistic way.