More Thoughts on Energy Work: Massage as Ritual

Yesterday I posted an article about my thoughts on energy work. I was surprised at the discussions it prompted among some manual therapists on forums off this site and was pleased with the thoughtful, respectful comments. I had actually been just a little nervous, afraid that my science-based friends might have thought that I'd gone daft and abandoned science, but they totally got it. I'm glad.

So now, I have a confession to make. I don't do it often but yes, I have engaged in energy work. In fact, some of the most profound experiences have occurred during sessions when my approach has come from this direction. Now, before you think I've gone over to the dark side, let me explain. Most of my work is done from a physiological approach, its purpose being to solve a particular physical problem. Some of my work, often with clients who have suffered trauma and have been referred from a psychotherapist, comes from an approach that is less focussed on physiology and more attentive to the emotional state of the client.

However, sometimes massage can be ritual and when done well, it can generate a profound experience for both client and therapist. I'll tell about my favorite personal experience of massage as ritual.


The ritual of massage

Several years ago a dear friend was about to be married and asked if I would do a massage on the morning of her wedding. I went into the office early that day and began to think of my friend, of what a momentous occasion this was and what an honor it was for me to be a part of it. It occurred to me that this is a big transition in a woman's life and that I would be the first person that she would see at the beginning of that important day. I was like the gatekeeper, the one who would open the door as she stepped into her new life. I would be the first to welcome her into the sisterhood of married women. This should be no ordinary massage, but an experience to match the occasion.

In those days, I sometimes burned Japanese incense in my room. I went to the shelf and found that I had seven types of incense. I laid them out in an order that made sense to me, thinking about their traditional uses, starting with cedar for purification and dispelling negative energy and ending with sandalwood for elevating one's consciousness. I lit each in turn and circled the room with it, building for myself a ritual to create a sacred space and putting myself into a focussed, meditative state.

When my friend arrived, I greeted her, congratulated her, and told her what I had done, of my intentions, and suggested that rather than chatting as we often did, perhaps this morning we could proceed in silence. She liked this idea. She got on the table and I chose a recording I didn't ordinarily play. It was some very lovely, hypnotic, rhythmic chanting that seemed perfect for this occasion. I began the massage and, in many ways, it was not so terribly different from many other general relaxation massages, but my focus, the music, and my thoughts about the significance of this particular day brought out the best in me. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had giving massage.

After it was over, my friend described her own experience on the table. When she first laid down, her mind was busy with all the preparations that lay ahead that day: going to get her hair done, then her makeup, her dress, photos in the park. There would be lots to do but it would be fun and festive. And then she began to relax. Her mind quieted. She began to listen to the music and to focus on the sensation of my hands gliding over her skin. We like to say the skin is the surface of the brain and her brain was being soothed and calmed. Her mind emptied, she found herself sinking into a deep state of relaxation, and in this state she saw, in her mind's eye, three women that, one by one, came and stood before her. As she described them, I recognized them as The Maid, The Mother, and The Crone, archetypal images for the different stages of a woman's life.

It was a beautiful and rare experience that we were able to share that day.

She went on to make her preparations and have fun. She was a beautiful bride and it was a beautiful and fun wedding.

I think that massage as ritual is a very valid approach. It is not one that I use often but I do not dismiss it.


Is this energy work? Maybe, but from a different point of view.

Was I engaging in "energy work"? In a certain sense, I might say "yes" but with the understanding that it is not the manipulation of a magical energy field that exists outside of us. The "magic" occurs inside our brain. Through ritual, we create a sequence of events meant to focus our attention in a particular way. If we are attentive and skillful, we can set up conditions that can evoke some very positive, sometimes very profound emotional responses in both client and therapist. This is not mysterious. Psychologists, musicians, artists all know about this and make use of it. One does not need to add a layer of an imaginary force field to the picture to have this experience. I think it's rather amazing that our minds can generate such wonderful experiences and that we can share those experiences with others.

I think this is about all I have to say about energy work for now. I shall probably return to my regularly scheduled program of more physiologically and science oriented interests. However, I've felt a need to acknowledge this aspect of the massage experience from the point of view of a therapist who embraces science. To deny these experiences would be to deny reality. As I learn about brain science, it has only excited me even more to have a deeper understanding of our experience as human beings. I want to be able to share that excitement and awe.

I will leave you with this "Ode to the Brain" from the Symphony of Science, a beautiful tribute to the amazing thing inside our head, the brain. 


For more on the subject, read this brilliant series of articles by Ravensara Travillian at POEM, the Project for Open Education in Massage.

Submitted byRich (not verified)on Mon, 07/16/2012 - 2:05am

What a wonderful story, about you and your friend. For some reason it reminds me about being there when my daughter was born, and I thought of the ways massage has made our life better, brought us closer. Ritual helps us focus, and to appreciate meaning in our lives.

I was just saying something and/or thinking about energy today, that it is the quality of interaction between two people, and my state of mind as a therapist, my intent and focus, that creates the "spell" that relaxes our client and gives them a temporary, transcendent experience, a sort of vacation from ordinary reality, or an entering into another state of mind. We what we create is perhaps an illusion, but then, like any affirmation, believing it makes it become true.

I used to give a massage as a ritual, of a sort. I used to believe in energy work too, or at least, I suspended belief long enough to try it out years ago. Although I do not see it having therapeutic value by itself, that magical quality that we can feel and share drives and inspires us.

More recently, I have become more of a pain relief mechanic. That is not such a bad thing. There is a lot of pain in the world, and I am a damn good mechanic. While I do feel good about that work, I miss the deeply spiritual, other-worldly feeling of seeing bodywork as a ritual. Some people need that first, to let us in to do the therapeutic stuff, relax muscles and get blood flowing. Sometimes it is kindness and respect that makes the rest possible, and our sense of ritual communicates those feelings.

Thank you for reminding me. I am going to get some of that "energy" back into my work.

Submitted byAliceon Mon, 07/16/2012 - 5:22pm

In reply to by Rich (not verified)

I have no qualms about using the word "energy" in a poetic or metaphorical sense. It is quite useful to describe a quality of experience. I think we can cultivate those meditative, somewhat transcendental states without apology but I think it important to understand that the experience is subjective and comes from within. There's nothing wrong with that!

Although I'm a very science-oriented therapist, I'm also a musician and a dancer. I have a strong sense of wonder. I want people to know that understanding science does not take the awe out of experience but can enhance it!

Thanks for your beautiful comment, Rich!