What Can Bodywork Do?
Article by Deane Juhan from Job’s Body (Barrytown Station Hill Press, 2003)

One of the debates that has accompanied bodywork throughout its history has been about what specific things various manipulations actually accomplish, and to what conditions it can therefore be applied with some expectation of success. Almost all of the physicians and practitioners just mentioned have agreed on one or two fundamental points. One is that most of the body's processes rely upon the appropriate movement of fluids through our systems, and that bodywork can be an effective means of promoting these circulations. Whether it is blood in the arteries, capillaries, and veins, the contents of the digestive tract, lymph in its vessels, secretions in their glands, or the fluids that fill all of the spaces in between our cells, manipulation can move them around much like I can push water back and forth in a rubber tube; and with a clear knowledge of these fluid pathways and some practice, I can become quite sophisticated in the ways in which I can stimulate their flows.

Now these flows, or the lack of them, can have far-reaching consequences upon many tissues and functions. Nutrients, oxygen, hormones, antibodies and other immunizers, and of course water, must be delivered to every single cell continually if it is to survive and respond the way it should, and all kinds of toxic wastes must be borne away. There is no tissue in the body that cannot be weakened and ultimately destroyed by chronic interruptions of these various circulations.

Another argument frequently made for the efficacy of bodywork is that both our musculature and the connective tissues which hold us together often become stiffened or shortened or thickened, distorting our posture and limiting our movements. These tissues can be especially troubling after surgery or any other trauma, when the muscles are either tightening up in order to brace an injured area or are contracting in a general withdrawal reflex, and when the connective tissues are scarring over a wound.

These bracing and healing mechanisms often overdo their functions, and it is very common that individuals never recover their full range of motion or their normal levels of comfort after an operation or a serious injury. And these stiffenings, shortenings, and thickenings can also happen as a result of a wide array of overuse, disuse, spasm, injury, illness, fatigue, aging, poor habits, or the innumerable physical strains that various occupations demand of us. Bodywork has been used for thousands of years to relax muscles, eliminate spasms, diminish fatigue, soften connective tissue to make it more supple, and so free up the joints, restoring a fuller range of painless movement.

These kinds of effects upon our fluids and upon our solids have been rightfully cited as benefits of any number of approaches to bodywork throughout its history. They would certainly be enough to establish its therapeutic value. But it is my feeling that they do not go half far enough in describing the positive changes that can happen as a result of skillful touching. Even though they are accurate identifications of benefits, they reflect almost exclusively the mechanical aspects of bodywork and of our own system's responses-the laws governing hydraulics, the elasticity and tensile strength of tissues, and so on.

We are, of course, mechanical in many of our physical aspects, so there is a great deal of justification for focusing upon these sorts of effects and explanations, as far as they go. But we are much more than mechanical. We are a confluence of physics, chemistry, and consciousness, streams and quanta of energies that interpenetrate one another in enormously complex ways, that moment by moment create layers and layers of effects, and in which the subtle and the gross are always inextricably intertwined.

These chemical substances are not merely three-dimensional material particles floating in an aqueous medium. This is an oversimplified notion, another surface disguise. The underlying reality pattern is once again of energy currents, of energy interplays.... As one substance or nutrient attaches to another in metabolic transfer, or as they detach in a catabolic phase, we call the exchange "chemical." With equal justification we can see it as an energy phenomenon. Application of pressure (energy) through muscular expansions and contractions fosters these transfers. To get more economical flow, we must start at the macrolevels of muscular and fascia! systems in order to influence the microlevels of cellular metabolism.

In my experience, the plasticity of the body goes far beyond such matters as the mechanics of the circulation of fluids, the local contractions of muscles, the stiffening of connective tissue here and there, and so on. There is something in the actively organized relationships between all of the body's various tissues which is more interesting-and more relevant to our overall health-than are local tissue changes in and of themselves. The skin, the connective tissues, and the muscles are vital organs, organs with multiple functions which profoundly affect each other and all of the other organs of the body, and which are affected by these other organs in turn. Every part of us is continually undergoing dynamic changes from liquid sol states to solid gel states and back again as we grow, move, learn, and age, and no single part ever changes its state without sending reverberations out to all the other parts. Our organic life is an interconnectedness that goes far beyond the mechanical relationships between fluids, tubes, levers, cables, and springs. If we can genuinely affect one level of this interaction, then through it we can reach many levels, and the more sophisticated our sense of these interpenetrations are, then the more varied and precise the manipulative facilitations used in bodywork can be.

And no matter how hydraulic, mechanical, or chemical we may be in many respects, the physical laws which govern these kinds of relationships among our elements are only a part of the organization that forms and sustains human beings. Our other great principle of organization is neural, mental. And regardless of how hard purely mechanistic theorists try to explain the basic functions and the subtle nuances of our mental lives in terms of elementary physical laws, there is still a great deal about our states of mind and the consequent states of our tissues, about our experience and our consequent behavior, that so far at least has utterly resisted satisfactory explanation in those terms. The belief that such mechanistic explanations will one day prove to be adequate, once we have discovered and quantified all the details, is a philosophical stance, not a scientific one. Given the array of evidence before us at the present time, there is perhaps equal justification for maintaining that a great deal in our mental lives may inherently resist mechanical explanation. Indeed, the behavior of organic chemical compounds sometimes suggests that even they have some kinds of "feelings" for one another, rather than that they combine in some complex way to produce "feelings."

Neural activity is the most pervasive organizing principle in the body. There is no cell whose environment is not directly sustained or adjusted by the activities of the nervous system. It ultimately determines the plasticity of all other tissues and systems, and it is itself the most radically plastic of all the systems in the organism. There can be no movement, neither free nor limited, without muscular activity; there can be no muscular activity without neural stimulation; and the specific quality of every muscular action-its timing, duration, style, effectiveness-is a summation of all the activities of both the central and peripheral nervous systems at that moment. These muscular actions, in turn, are absolutely of the essence in our mental and physical development. Ida Rolf observed that for the therapist of the psyche, as well as the therapist dealing with the physical man, the goal is appropriate movement. The psychotherapist senses immobility in the dimension of time rather than of space. The individual, bogged down, unmoving in time, unable to escape from his infantile or adolescent assumptions or traumata, manifests this physically as well as psychologically. His lack of movement, his general or localized rigidity, are unequivocal in their statement.

Or, as Dr. Milton Trager has alternatively expressed it:

The mind is the whole thing. That is all that I am interested in. I am convinced that for every physical non-yielding condition there is a psychic counterpart in the unconscious mind, corresponding exactly to the degree of the physical manifestation.... These patterns often develop in response to adverse circumstances such as accidents, surgery, illness, poor posture, emotional trauma, stresses of daily living, or poor movement habits. The purpose of my work is to break up these sensory and mental patterns which inhibit free movement and cause pain and disruption of normal function.