(Brain) Waves of Relaxation

By Mary Kathleen Rose and Mary Ann Foster
[Talk About Touch]

Mary Ann Foster: During a massage, a new client started to sink into a deep state of relaxation. Her breathing slowed and her muscles softened, but all of a sudden she jumped up and said, “I’m sorry. I should be paying more attention. I could kind of hear the music and feel your hands, but I think I was falling asleep.”



doesn’t it, that someone apologizes for relaxing, since that’s exactly what we want our clients to do.

MAF: I reassured her that there was no need for concern, saying, “Falling asleep is really OK. Just let your body sink into that state, because it’s a very healing place to go.” When a client enters the state between waking and sleeping, it indicates that she or he is generating theta brain waves.

MKR: And those are the waves of relaxation. Understanding the significance of brain waves is valuable knowledge for bodyworkers.

MAF: The brain emits small, oscillating voltages that can be detected by an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. Researchers have identified four types of brain wave patterns—beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Each one is measured by wave cycles per second and is associated with a specific state of consciousness. Beta waves are the fastest frequency, ranging from 14 to 38 cycles per seconds. They are produced during active thinking and can be recognized by several cues: a furrowed brow, eyes flitting around under the lids, questions or chattiness, jaw tension and bruxism, and, most obvious, overall body tension.

MKR: Stressed clients often arrive in a beta state, and massage can assist them into the slower waves. Alpha runs from 8 to 13 cycles per second, creating a relaxed, alert feeling. To generate alpha, it helps to close the eyes and focus internally.

MAF: As a person sinks from alpha into deeper relaxation, theta waves occur from 4 to 7 cycles per second. A classic sign of theta occurs when a client feels your touch and hears the music, but from a faraway, altered state of consciousness. Theta induces deep psychological relaxation, as well as physiological regeneration. Touch is usually just enough outer stimulation to keep a client in theta from actually falling asleep, which is when the slowest waves of delta occur.

MKR: How can a massage and bodywork practitioner encourage alpha and theta waves during massage to allow the client to reap the benefits of deep relaxation in the nervous system?

MAF: We can take a cue from the field of biofeedback. Trainers in this discipline have a body of knowledge about what induces the relaxation response. They also practice what they teach by developing the self-awareness of, and proficiency at, traversing the different brain-wave states. We, too, can cultivate brain-wave skills through self-awareness and meditative practices.

MKR: We need to embody these skills in order to facilitate the deep trust required to induce slower brain-wave states in our clients. Our challenge is to maintain a quiet, attentive state as we work. Be sure to keep the client warm and comfortably covered, work slowly with consistent pacing and pressure, and respond appropriately to any verbal and nonverbal feedback from the client.

MAF: We can also facilitate healing waves by giving our clients relaxation cues. For example, “Allow tension to flow out of your body on each exhalation.” But here’s a caveat: some clients work so hard to relax that their efforts induce even more tension, so keep your cues minimal.

MKR: Clients usually love these altered states and want to know how to sustain them. Biofeedback therapist Jinny LaRock recommends the following to clients after a session: “Imagine this feeling in your body any time you wish to re-create this experience.”

Authors’ Note: This is our last Talk About Touch column. We wish to extend our heartfelt thanks to our readers for your interest, feedback, and encouragement. We have enjoyed sharing these conversations with you over the past four years, and now we look forward to writing about our individual areas of interest and expertise. We hope to hear from you as you spread the word about the benefits of massage with your own talk about touch. Stay in touch with us at mafoster@somatic-patterning.com and rosevine@comforttouch.com.

Mary Kathleen Rose, BA, CMT, practices shiatsu and integrative massage and is a consultant for massage training in medical settings. She is the author of Comfort Touch: Massage for the Elderly and the Ill (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009). www.comforttouch.com.

Mary Ann Foster, BA, CMT, specializes in movement education for massage therapists and is the author of Somatic Patterning: How to Improve Posture and Movement and Ease Pain (Educational Movement Systems Press, 2004). www.emspress.com.