Keen bodyworkers are always on the lookout for good information about body mechanics. We often focus only on the physical aspect of what this means, and forget that cultural, psychological, and physiological factors come into play for each one of us. Here is a way to look at traditional ergonomics through an alternate paradigm, all while becoming a more productive (and healthier) therapist.
I was talking recently with my fellow Rolfer, teacher, and friend A rt Riggs about the shortcomings of the usual one-size-fits-all prescriptions for “proper” body mechanics demonstrated in many massage and body work classes. In a profession that emphasizes the interconnectedness of the body and mind, most instruction on body mechanics for MTs and body workers focuses on physical and structural rules without considering the importance of the mind and mind-sets that determine the ways we use our bodies.
Years ago, in an early training practicum, a fellow classmate asked me to “work harder.” Like most new therapists when encountering what is perceived as negative feedback, I felt that comment meant I was somehow inadequate. To please my partner, I continued to give essentially the same massage but just began to press harder. After muscling my way through the rest of the session (“muscling” meaning using an inordinate amount of effort and muscular exertion), I was sweating, my wrists ached, I was emotionally drained, and I had serious doubts about body work as a career.
Luckily, I learned from that experience. Now that I’ve been teaching deep-tissue and myofascial skills for years, I’ve seen how one’s mind-set is the precursor to the physics of force. Without a healthy state of mind, it is almost impossible to work properly with power and ease, no matter your posture.
Don’t misunderstand me—of course proper body mechanics are important, but education that only emphasizes physical and postural rules, especially generic rules that don’t take into consideration the vast differences in strength and structure of practitioners, is inadequate and oftentimes counterproductive. An example of this is the long-accepted rule that table height should be set at a level where the therapist’s knuckles barely brush the surface of the table when standing next to it.
Would two therapists whose knuckles are at the same level need the same table height? What if one had a longer or shorter torso than the other? I propose that any discussion of this subject expand beyond the usual postural physics to include the cultural, psychological, and physiological
aspects of proper body mechanics.
The Cultural Component
We have come to admire the term hard as it relates to our work and our efforts. When John F. Kennedy made his famous “Moon Speech” he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” People applauded and cheered, essentially for hard work. Most cultures regard hard work as the steppingstone to success and fulfillment, but Kennedy might also have added the importance of working smart to his famous speech. If a client asks for more intense or deeper work, the implied message is that the therapist either isn’t strong enough or isn’t trying hard enough, and all that is needed is to work harder by pressing with more force rather than with more focus and intelligence. Often the culprit is the “no pain, no gain” adage, which can be compounded by our clients’ incorrect impression that body work should be intense, even downright painful, in order to be beneficial. If we are trying to simply press harder, then of course Newtonian physics applied to body mechanics might work. But the reality is that hard is not deep in deep-tissue massage. A n aggressive touch may actually create resistance and armoring in superficial tissues, preventing access to deeper layers. The cultural idea of working hard is not only unproductive and a waste of energy in this instance, but—combined with our own psychological processes of striving for perfection and approval—it can have profound effects upon the next component to consider.
Our psychological responses
Most of us try to deliver the best massage possible, but problems arise when “best” means so many different things to different people. Particularly with deep- tissue body work, trying to please clients expecting intense work translates to self-judgment and anxiety. If we feel that things aren’t happening, or that our client wants work that is beyond our normal effort, it is easy to strain our bodies and our energy reserves in an attempt to live up to our own or others’ expectations of excellence. This is an easy trap to fall into, not only because we put the pressure on ourselves to do a good job, but because we depend on rebooking. If we sacrifice our well-being attempting to please our clients, these psychological mind-sets affect our bodies’ homeostasis.
Our physiological responses
The first response to the induced anxiety of trying harder and the pressure to perform well is the fight- or-flight response. When stressed, either physically or emotionally, our adrenal glands kick in—heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and blood is shunted from our deep internal organs and core and sent to supply energy to the muscles of our appendages. The increased blood flow to the muscles of our appendages, which are now on high alert, results in us increasing and using an inordinate amount of muscular effort and exertion. Eventually, of course, our body mechanics disintegrate. Is it any wonder our bodies eventually break down and we feel depleted and burned out after a tough day’s work?
The key to a truly integrated understanding of body mechanics is to be aware of the sometimes-subtle signs when the physical and emotional components of body- mind mechanics are not in sync. The first step is to be vigilant to the first stages of this breakdown of balance.
Be aware of your thought processes. Notice the signs of self-judgment and the sacrifice of your well-being to please your clients. If they ask for deeper work, be clear with your boundaries and capabilities. Communication is paramount. Rather than attempting to alter your
way of working, help clients understand it. Often, explaining the difference between deep and hard, or the fallacy of the “no pain, no gain” philosophy is all that’s
necessary to put you and your client on the same page.
“Most instruction places almost all of its emphasis upon the simple physical mechanics of posture and leverage without consideration of the vast differences in individual structure of both the therapist and client. More importantly, limiting a discussion of body mechanics to Newtonian physics without taking into consideration the emotional mind-set of the practitioner is like showing someone banging their head against a wall how to do so with proper posture.
“Even with perfect physical mechanics, therapists who work too hard, or try to make things happen by working with a sense of urgency or over-control, will not only risk injury and fatigue, but will have a harsh touch that limits their success. It’s like performing a perfect yoga posture while listening to rap music.”
— Art Riggs, author of Deep Tissue Massage
Notice your physiological responses as you work. A re you holding your breath or breathing shallowly? A re you using superficial muscle power rather than the whole body and gravity? A re your muscles shaking, and your joints hyperextended and complaining? A re you perspiring from physical exertion? These initial signs will often alert you to strain before fatigue or pain manifest.
Be open to amending your goals and techniques. If you find yourself straining, rather than simply pushing harder or altering your posture, figure out a smarter way to work.
Use a different tool. If straining with a broad surface area, use a more compact tool such as an elbow rather than a broad forearm, or a single knuckle rather than a fist. A tool with a smaller surface area requires less effort to accomplish the same amount of pressure.
Gain a mechanical advantage with gravity. If you’re straining your shoulder girdle when using extended arms, either shift your position in relationship to the table to better use your body weight or switch to a tool with more leverage (such as an elbow) that allows you to lean in.
Work more slowly. Often, the problem is simply working so fast that your client’s tissue doesn’t have time to release, and is instead fighting you. When I feel myself straining, or not getting the release I am working for, slowing down and backing off pressure will almost always do the trick.
Don’t be too attached to outcome. I often remind myself that release of tension is a communal effort. I can open the doors for release, but the client must also be involved. Let the client’s body- mind adjust rather than forcing a shift.
Adjust biomechanical rules to suit your own needs. Don’t be afraid to alter one-size-fits-all rules to suit your strengths. If your back is a weak link but your shoulder girdle is strong, you may want to experiment with a slightly higher table so you aren’t leaning too far forward into low-back flexion. Conversely, you may want to try a slightly lower table so you can lean in with gravity, instead of muscling with your shoulder girdle.
Rest! Take a break not only between clients but also during your session to recharge your energy reserves. No session should be entirely composed of intense work. When you feel fatigue or a breakdown of your body mechanics, give yourself and your client a break by moving to lighter and more superficial work, integrating your deep work with surrounding areas. Not only will you recharge, your client can ingrain some of the benefits you have accomplished.
In this new paradigm, we need to be aware that our state of mind and cultural perspectives affect how we work, and that we can inadvertently stress ourselves into improper or unsafe body mechanics.
Being open to a new or different way of working
and contemplating all aspects of body mechanics can bring us to a new level of sophistication in our work.