The Changing Seasons of Bodywork

By Cindy Williams

We are nature. Whether one looks to traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, Tibetan medicine, or traditional Native American healing ceremonies, one common thread is that we are not separate from the natural world.
Just as the sun rises and sets, the moon waxes and wanes, and the seasons shift from warm springs to hot summers, and from cool autumns to cold winters, so do human beings fluctuate in ongoing cycles of change. Even in climates with less ebb and flow on the temperature spectrum, there are still wet and dry seasons, and human beings are intimately intertwined with them on a basic biological level.    
While this may not be news, how many of us are truly aware of how these environmental fluctuations affect us and our health? Even if we do recognize that our health is affected, how many of us alter our patterns to support our alignment with the rhythms of nature? Perhaps we drink more warm beverages as the autumn begins to whip around cool, crisp air. That one is pretty simple. But, have you considered that even the type of bodywork you receive might need to be revised when looking for optimal support of your wellness through seasonal transitions? 

Heat It Up!
If you have joint problems or a previous injury, you likely do not need convincing that the body has different needs in autumn and winter than in spring and summer. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence of how weather and temperature affect joints and other body aches is conflicting, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the weather is cooler and you apply warm, moist heat to a chronic aching joint, in most cases you will experience soothing relief.
So what does this mean for your bodywork session? How about trying heated stone massage; hydrotherapy treatments, such as moist heated towels, a warm foot bath, or moist hot packs; or paraffin wax treatments for providing relief to specific aching joints? While dry heat feels good, moist heat can more easily penetrate body tissues, providing better movement of fluids into, out of, and around the body’s cells. With freer movement of fluids in the body, there is optimal chance of circulating fresh, oxygenated, and nutrient-rich blood, as well as lymphatic fluid to boost your immunity.

Move It Up!
The lymphatic system is possibly the least understood system of the body and yet it is a cornerstone to staying healthy throughout the year. This system removes waste from every cell of the body, in addition to creating cells that specialize in fighting foreign microorganisms (a.k.a. germs). One of the natural biological changes that occurs in the body during cooler months is an increase in the production of specialized cells that circulate in your body like little police officers looking for law breakers or intruders. The problem is, lymphatic fluid (and any fluid in the body except for blood moving away from the heart) is circulated by mechanical movement, primarily muscle contraction. In cooler temperatures, we tend toward hibernation rather than motivation, so while the body’s processes are ready to rock and roll, most people don’t support those mechanisms appropriately.  
So, what can you do to support yourself through bodywork? Well, the simple answer is to move! Find exercises you can do inside or outside; it doesn’t matter as long as you are moving. Even taking a walk encourages lymphatic function, as does yoga or jumping on a small trampoline.  
However, another excellent approach is to find a practitioner who is trained to offer manual lymphatic drainage therapy. There are specific protocols that can be used to move lymph fluid through lymph vessels toward lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are essentially filters, so moving the fluid toward the body’s filters helps to stave off colds and flus, while also enhancing your energy and vitality. Imagine not changing your car’s fuel, air, or oil filters. Your car would be pretty sluggish and not run optimally, causing you to take it into the mechanic sooner than you’d like. Your body is no different.

Stir It Up!
If your bodywork sessions tend to be slow-paced and soothing, which is great for cooling the body and slowing down during the flurry of summer activities, cool weather provides an excellent reason to stir things up! While some might have the perspective that we should hibernate with the bears in the autumn and winter seasons. Indeed it is valuable to slow things down to be in rhythm with this darker phase of the year. It is also helpful to try bodywork styles that focus on body movement as a primary source of stress and tension relief in order to be in balance.  
Deane Juhan, author of Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork (Barrytown/Station Hill Press, 2003), explains, “Connective tissue shares with many other gels a phenomenon called thixotropy: it becomes more fluid when it is stirred up and more solid when it sits without being disturbed. Skillful manipulation (manual therapy) simply raises energy levels and creates a greater degree of fluidity in organic systems that are already there, but are behaving sluggishly. The effect can be analogous to that of turning up the temperature and humidity in a greenhouse that has been too dry and cold.”
There are some excellent bodywork modalities you can seek out to facilitate this kind of internal stirring and fluidity. Examples are: the Trager Method, which utilizes gentle, passive body movement to release deep physical, mental, and emotional patterns in the body while the client is clothed; Thai yoga massage, in which the client is also fully clothed and is moved in specific passive yoga asanas—or postures—in order to free up stagnate energy and blood/lymph flow along designated meridians in the body; or a brisk form of Swedish massage, where the client is disrobed and appropriately draped while the practitioner uses fast-paced strokes toward the heart in order to enhance the body’s circulatory processes and induce warmth through friction of, and with, the tissues. As previously noted, inducing heat, movement, and circulation are all key factors in supporting the body’s natural processes designed to keep us healthy, happy, and vital on all levels, especially in the colder months.

Eat It Up!
Finally, one of the best ways to stay in alignment with our natural resources is to eat foods that are in season in the region we live. There is a reason why squash grows in certain climates and at certain times of year. Are strawberries growing in your yard in the winter?  If you live in a cold-winter climate, likely not. So why eat them? As we live in our unique environments, be they four distinct seasons or two primary seasons with shorter transitions, your body adapts to its environment and will be best served by eating seasonally. Combine that with adequate hydration and sprinkling in some season-specific bodywork, and you are guaranteed vitality no matter how many hours the sun shines.

Cindy Williams has served the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor since 2000. She enjoys the challenge of blending structure with creative flow to provide balance in her classroom, bodywork practice, and life.