RhythmMobility – article 2003

Most massage practitioners have had the experience of massaging a client who seems to be “stuck” in his tension and wants the masseur to work more deeply; but the firmer the massage the more s/he seems to “resist”, and it feels more like s/he needs “a good shaking up”.

Or the experience of wondering how to coach a client into “giving over” her arm when you’re trying to massage it – she won’t “let it go” for you to move it.

Or of giving a massage to a client who says he’s stressed and wants to be more relaxed, but who seems more in need of a boost of energy to deal with the challenges of his life.

Over the years, as I’ve tried to make my work more effective in response to these and similar challenges, and also easier for myself, the twin qualities of rhythm and movement have come to the fore.

Attempting to “force” clients to release long-term tensions merely by increasing the power of application beyond a comfortable point (“pummelling them into submission”) is, in fact, counter-productive. Instead, gentle vibration and rhythmical movement present a means of circumventing rather than provoking the automatic (unconscious) protective response of tensing when the body feels “attacked”. (1)

RhythmMobility Techniques

When shaped by the essential massage qualities of pacing, fluidity, continuity, and monitoring and adapting to the client’s responses, these techniques can complement and extend the release engendered by “classic” massage techniques such as stroking, kneading, pressure and friction. They can be used to “flavour” those classic strokes, to extend passive movements (a growing part of the massage repertoire) or as “pure” techniques on their own. 

RhythmMobility techniques are used to simultaneously energise the client and encourage the release of deep tensions. They include muscle shaking and vibration, “tremouring”, push-pull, rhythmical joint releases and stretches, body rocking and combination R-M strokes (such as maintaining rhythmic rocking of the body while simultaneously rhythmically shaking out or stretching a muscle or rhythmically applying deep pressure to areas of tension).

They are applied by the practitioner in a fluid, vibrant ‘dance’ that can vary from gentle to vigorous, from quiet to very lively, and from soft nurturing touch on the skin to deeper work on specific tensions and postural habits. The effect can be primarily relaxing, stimulating or both. R-M treatments can engender a sense of interconnection throughout the body, and help the client to regain forgotten flexibilities.

People remain clothed in these sessions, but are asked to remove jewellery, glasses, belts and shoes. R-M work is generally done on a massage table – with the client lying face up, face down, or on their side – but can be applied to a seated client. What happens in the session will  be shaped by the person’s build and tensions, their expressed needs and responses. 

Massage, as well as releasing physical tensions, is often used to address a client’s need for friendly nurturing touch; RhythmMobility also speaks to another basic need that is often restricted in our modern sedentary lives – the need to move and be moved, as children are in games.

Massage, Movement and Rhythm

In my early years as a massage practitioner, I learned to emphasise the energising “rhythmical” strokes of massage (percussion and vibration – 2) with clients who intended to return to work after the treatment, and therefore wanted to leave my studio unstressed but also alert. This led me to experiment with various massage machines such as hand-held vibrators and vibrating cushions. I liked their general effect, but soon found that I could be much more specific and adaptable to my clients’ needs and responses than a machine in applying “shudders” through the muscles.

Creative dance and Tai Chi classes fed into my developing sense of pace, rhythm, movement and continuity. When I learnt some body rocking techniques from a Shiatsu practitioner, my clients responded with enthusiasm. This inspired me to add rhythmical elements to Yoga stretches that I’d learnt to use with clients. Later when I added rhythmical/rocking elements to many conventional massage strokes, made them more acceptable and effective with clients when I was applying pressure.

So for a long time my rhythmical work was very much an aspect of massage, added in to the “classic” strokes. It made my work easier – for both the client to receive, and for me, the practitioner, to give. And the older I get, the more important the ease of working has become.

When used sensitively and with patience, this gentle addition of movement and vibration offers a way to “get round” many clients’ ingrained defences. It feels almost like “tricking” them into letting go.

As with massage, the focus of a session can be on a general release of tension throughout the body, or to address particular problem areas or movement restrictions. The difference is that after a good massage one can feel absolutely “zonked”; a good R-M session leaves one with an inner “buzz” – relaxed but also gently invigorated.

Gradually it was born in on me by the responses of clients and colleagues that this could also be a whole approach in itself, using massage sensibilities to encompass much of the range of qualities that are essential to massage – such as “flow” and continuity, an awareness of pacing, sequence and integration, gauging the appropriate use of pressure, a knowledge of anatomy, and an understanding of muscles and tension.

Training in the Feldenkrais Method® in the 1980s further developed my understanding of movement, flexibility and balance in the body (3).

Training in RhythmMobility

To give more of the scope of this approach, I’ll describe some of the considerations in training practitioners. Like any bodywork method, it can easily be done badly – to the detriment of both the practitioner (straining the body) and the recipient (bruising or worse). Therefore it’s only taught as an advanced training for massage practitioners, who have the necessary background skills and attitudes that are essential to using it well. 

It assumes and builds upon their experience in handling bodies and in monitoring and adapting to the client’s build, tensions and responses, and their practical understanding of the importance of coordination, continuity and pacing. They also have the ability to “translate” from their previous massage experience into these new handling skills, and can quickly learn to blend this way of working smoothly into a massage session.

Training is initially focused on the types of techniques that can be used throughout the body, and the qualities of touch that need to be developed.

An important starting point is learning to search out “natural” body rhythms and resiliences in response to oscillating movements. Time is spent exploring how this varies on different areas of the body and from person to person. It is like learning how to push a child on a swing – discovering what force gives maximum effect and minimum disruption (which, of course, varies from child to child and can change if the child sits differently, or you stand at a different angle to push), and at what point in the movement to apply the push and how (i.e. not too suddenly or jerkily). 

It takes time to gain a feel for this, as there is no single rhythm that fits everyone. Each body has its own rhythms (“every-body got rhythm”), and so does each body part or area, due to the individual structure of each person, the distribution¬ of their weight and their build. This can only be approached with an exploratory attitude, feeling your way until you find the easiest way of doing it – which signifies that this is the easiest movement for the client’s body to respond to, as well as the easiest for the practitioner to do.

Appropriate bodyuse by the practitioner, an area of growing importance for massage teachers and practitioners (5), is taught as an integral aspect of working, so that the techniques are comfortable and effective for both giver and receiver. There is a special emphasis on reducing the workload and consequent strain on hands, wrists and fingers, a developing concern in the world of massage (6).

This is addressed by emphasis on using the whole body to gain power behind  the techniques, and considerable use of the forearm, and even elbow, where appropriate. The R-M worker is encouraged to “dance” their invitation, coaxing the recipient to enter into responsive oscillations, like the “dance” of moored boats in lapping water.

As in massage, there is a world of difference between merely imposing a set of routine techniques on the client and actually discovering what fits him/her. R-M training teaches the practicalities of finding techniques that are pleasant and comfortable for each individual client. This is interwoven with a search to discover the level of operating that “speaks” to the recipient (so that they feel that you are “engaging” with their tissues – not so light that they feel untouched, or so heavy or forceful that they feel brutalised).

 When the practitioner is comfortable with this process, and can find the easy “meeting place” anywhere in the client’s body, creating a sense of ease and trust, he/she is ready to learn how to extend the possibilities inherent in the movement. This is initially done by introducing easily manageable challenges for the client, and then, if appropriate, more testing ones. Specific skills are learnt to encourage and amplify movements. Further practical instruction covers the establishment of related overriding rhythms, movements that incorporate other or extra directions/dimensions, or complementary counter-rhythms in other body parts.

These techniques are usually more testing for the practitioner too, needing a refinement of physical handling skills (e.g. maintaining a rocking rhythm throughout the client’s body, while initiating a smaller rhythmical movement or pressure in one particular area). Composite movements can be hard to learn – like a musician’s early struggles to master coordinated but different hand movements necessary to playing an instrument – but are worth persevering with because of the deep release they can promote.

Students are also trained in both specific applications and general strategies to use for problem areas – areas of chronic stiffness, pain or lack of mobility – and how to “work around” them, if necessary, in order to minimise their interference with the overall sense of the moving, vibrating body.

The R-M practitioner learns to look for movements that the client enjoys. The aim is to give clients, even those with severe restrictions, the experience of comfortable, enjoyable movement, albeit with a limited range. This needs to be significant proportion of a treatment. For people in pain, R-M can be done in very gentle and soothing way, with the quality of the quiet lapping of water at the sea’s edge on a calm day. 

Once an enjoyable sense of comfort and relaxation is established, there can be more focus on challenging and expanding the range of movement. However, if most of the session consists only of pushing at the client’s limits, they will be more wary and less compliant. And if this is done forcefully without the preparatory groundwork, it can cause pain and tends to reinforce a negative and dis-empowering self-image for the client.

The practitioner is also encouraged to cultivate an attitude of curiosity in their work. Bodywork should not applied as an undeviating routine for everybody, but as a search to find out about the particular client at that moment (e.g. about how this person’s  flexibilities and restrictions; their ability to respond to your movement invitations; and how to “tease”/coax/coach more suppleness and mobility).

Cautions and Contraindications

The standard massage cautions and contraindications concerning the application of pressure and passive movements also apply to RhythmMobility. 

RhythmMobility techniques should always be applied gently at first, working initially well within the client’s comfort zones. They should only be used to nudge the limits of initial comfort, guided by the client’s verbal feedback and non-verbal responses, when trust has clearly been established.

Those who are weak, frail, easily bruised or emotionally unstable should be treated cautiously. Great care also needs to be taken with people who have joint problems, or recent or unhealed injuries or fractures. 

Some people cannot take shaking or rocking movements. People who are prone to vertigo or motion sickness sometimes find it unpleasant. R-M is not appropriate with those with conditions that are aggravated by movement of their head (e.g. some forms of glaucoma). 

It is also not suitable for people who’ve had major spinal or neck accidents, people with undiagnosed injuries (e.g. from sporting activities), or those with osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis in the inflammatory stage (although some gentle, local “shimmering” techniques can still be used on muscles to help loosen them in course of an “ordinary” massage).  

In cases of uncertainty, a medical specialist should be consulted. 

Summary

This article is intended to give a flavour of an approach that overlaps with and extends the scope of massage – to release mus˛cle tension, and help increase joint mobility, and encourage suppleness and energy throughout the body.

I am not by the only person exploring this territory, but I do have a particular background, particularly in massage and Feldenkrais, that shapes the sensibilities that I bring to it. The evolution of my approach has also been fed by an active interest in singing, dancing, music and drumming.

I see it as a part of the rich weave of developments that are extending the field of bodywork. This one specifically addresses the natural human inclination towards movement and rhythm – expressed throughout human history by dance and music making – but now sadly being diminished through extended sedentary working environments and lifestyles.

 RhythmMobility article – ©  Darien Pritchard, 2003

References

1. Cash, Mel. ‘Sports and Remedial Massage Therapy’. Ebury Press, London: 1996. (p 48).

2. Tappan, Frances. ‘Healing Massage Techniques – A Study of Eastern and Western Methods’. Reston Publishing Co, Virginia, USA: 1980.

3. Feldenkrais, Moshe. ‘Body and Mature Behaviour’. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London: 1949. International Universities Press, New York: 1970.

 Alon, Ruthy.Mindful Spontaneity’. North Atlantic Books, California: 1996.

4. Liskin, Jack. ‘Moving Medicine : The Life and Work of Milton Trager’. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York: 1996.

5. Fagg, Andy & Pritchard, Darien. ‘Dynamic Bodyuse in Massage’ in Positive Health 40, May 1999.

6. Greene, Lauriann.Save Your Hands’. Infinity Press, Seattle, USA: 1995.

Pritchard, Darien. ‘Dynamic Bodyuse for Effective, Strain-Free Massage’. Lotus Publications, Chichester: 2008.

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