“Mindful touch and movement grounds people and allows them to discover tensions that they may have held for so long that they are no longer even aware of them.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking 2014).
Who doesn’t love a bargain? I know I do. Still, when licensed massage therapists I know told me that not only would I learn new skills in massage school but I would find healing for myself as well, I was skeptical. Not that I didn’t believe them, but I was arrogant enough to think I had done so much work what more could be left?
It’s ok to laugh here. Guffaw even.
Earlier this year when I was emotionally wrung out by yet another bodywork class, I asked a friend, “How much more old stuff can be stored in my body?”
“A lot,” she replied.
“Fine!” I huffed, and we both laughed.
Thus, in May I began the first 50 hours of Traditional Thai Massage on the Mat with some trepidation. I had never heard of Thai massage until I began looking at massage school but I was immediately intrigued because of its connection to yoga. The therapist works on a large, cushioned mat, using compression and massage strokes, while moving the client through yoga poses. Even though the client is clothed, this modality sounded so much more intimate because the therapist uses her body to move the client passively through stretches. Plus, there were only 4 students signed up for the class, so it would be small and intimate. Nowhere to hide. Still, I was determined to try it and knew the group would be dedicated.
I found myself preparing for the 6 full days of class like I did when I was an attorney preparing for trial or oral argument – cleaning the house, stocking up on groceries, doing laundry up until the evening before the first class when I practiced yoga to calm myself. I had to be battle ready.
The first few days we did a lot of work opening up each other’s hips as we practiced Thai massage on each other’s lower body. By the third or fourth day, I was more than happy to move on to the upper body because my hips were sore. Bridget had me lie on my back on the Thai mat so she could demonstrate how to pull a client up to a seated position. She bent down, asking me to take her forearms, as she squatted and slowly pulled me into sitting. She asked me to stop helping along the way. This wasn’t the first time I heard that. A number of times one of my classmates would ask me to “relax” or “let go” as they worked on me because I have a tendency to try to control the movement even when I’m playing the part of the client.
After the third demonstration, Bridget sighed, “You’re still helping.” I was baffled by what she meant. I had consciously relaxed my limbs so the only part of me that was working were my hands connecting to her forearms, I thought. At her direction we partnered up to practice the move; Bridget stood nearby as my classmate asked me to reach for his forearms.
“Relax your neck,” Bridget admonished while my partner gently pulled my upper body off the mat.
“What?” I asked.
“Here,” Bridget said, tapping gently on my forehead with her index finger. “Let your head fall back while he pulls you up.”
“That is so annoying,” I replied through gritted teeth as she continued to tap. Grudgingly I let my head fall back as I relaxed my neck. “I feel like a newborn! YUUUUUCCCKKKK!”
Bridget told us to practice the move again. Hating every minute of it, I practiced again with my head hanging back. I told myself this was a lawyer thing – a consequence of being so cerebral and having spent my life on intellectual pursuits. “My head goes with me everywhere!” I protested to Bridget. To prove my point, for the last day of our class in May we invited friends to practice a 2-hour Thai Massage; I invited a lawyer friend of mine, certain she would also hold her head up during this pose. Imagine my dismay when I slowly pulled her to sitting at the end of our session and her head lolled back in a relaxed manner. My friend and I were similar in many respects – only a few years apart in age, we both practiced the same type of law for nearly the same amount of years, and we both held a deep love for animals and reading. But I knew one of the deepest differences between us was a starkly different childhood experience.
When the first half of Thai massage concluded, I had to admit to myself once again the great lengths to which I have gone to in my life to avoid letting others do anything for me. I am extraordinarily good at doing things for myself. Only last year I began seeing an energy healer recommended by a friend. During one session we talked about the faith it would take for me to make the leap from a stable income in a job I no long had passion for to teaching yoga and attending massage school. On paper, to my rational self, the leap didn’t make one bit of sense. It was not well planned and carefully controlled like so much of my adult life. My healer told me softly, “You’ve been thinking and planning ahead since you were 4 to 6 years old. You’re safe now. You don’t need to do that any longer.” I wept at the thought of a child so young feeling the need to do that. And then, all rational thinking aside, I took the leap and quit my job.
Just as I acknowledged my unwillingness to let others help me, the universe gave me the opportunity to do just that. At the beginning of June as I started a course in Acupressure, my car broke down and spent 3 days in the shop. Gritting my teeth, I asked friends for rides to the mechanic, to school, and to a meeting. They rose to the occasion marvelously, helping me without a second thought, even as I felt guilty for needing help. “I should be able to do it on my own” – the resounding theme of my life – played endlessly in my head.
A couple weeks later, one of my Thai massage classmates and I got together to practice before the second half of our class began because Bridget had encouraged us to do so and we didn’t want to forget how to do this new modality we loved so much. When my classmate suggested we try a pose from a Thai massage book, where the model’s head was relaxed back as the therapist pulled her up, he said, “Your head will be sticking straight out.” I laughed. I really did try to relax my neck, but as he pulled me up, he said, “Relax, let your head go.”
I was stumped. “I thought I was!” I said.
“Nope, sticking straight out,” he replied, and we both laughed.
Later in June, as I walked my dogs, I was pondering the fact that I have completed half of my massage training already. For the first time it hit me how much I enjoy touch, both giving and receiving. This came as a surprise to me since I was well into my 30s before I even liked for people to hug me. I had known massage school was a gamble for me since I did not come from a touchy-feely family. So enjoying touch seemed very new to me. But as I let that feeling sink in I realized this enjoyment of touch is actually very old. It’s a part of me I suspect I suppressed very early on so I could fit in to a family that valued intellect and strength but not emotional displays.
As July and the second half of Thai massage rolled around, I began relaxing into myself as a yoga teacher and student massage therapist. So one day in class when Bridget demonstrated a sequence on me, she pulled me up from the mat a number of times as my head dangled. “Way to go, Rach!” one of my classmates called. It had been a conscious effort to relax my neck, but only a momentary one. I knew I could trust Bridget. I knew that I was safe.
That night as I was lying in bed pondering the day’s events, an old memory surfaced that I hadn’t thought about in years. Events transpired in my home that caused me to run away and land in a youth shelter for a week when I was 12 years old. I had shared that memory with close friends and a therapist over the years, but for the first time I could stand back and see it not with anger, fear, or resentment but with compassion for my girl-self and the difficult choices I made at such a young age. I believe bodywork brought that memory to the surface so it could finally be healed, nearly 30 years later.
My mother invited me to lunch the weekend after I completed the 100-hour course in Thai massage. After we shared what was new in our lives she told me that she had caught up on my old blog posts and she read the one where I described my parents as unreliable and asked what that meant. I winced. I knew she and my dad might read that and it wasn’t my intention to hurt them, but it was my truth. Over the years my mother has approached the subject of my childhood a number of times and each time has been met with my barely-suppressed rage and rapid departure. For the first time I was able to respond instead of react. At the end of our conversation I told her, “I have shamed and blamed you for years but I don’t anymore. I don’t want you to feel bad about my childhood. You don’t need to worry about me, I’m fine – I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Plus, the flipside is that I’m grateful. I have friends who had great childhoods but are too scared to leave a way of life that makes them unhappy. The way we lived gave me the courage to make this leap and know I’ll be just fine.”
Questions for reflection: How has bodywork or movement been healing for you?