Movement Therapies

Strengthen Your Body and Accentuate Your Healing

By Cindy Williams, LMT

How long did the healing effects of your most recent massage last? A few days? A week? Longer? For many recipients of commonly known forms of massage therapy, unless you receive frequent sessions, or your massage therapist follows you around pointing out when you regress to old compensation patterns, it is likely the healing effects aren’t permanent. Why is that? And more importantly, what can you do about it?

This is where other types of bodywork come into play: namely, movement therapies. These modalities can be the secret weapons in your body’s holistic arsenal.

Patterns Exist for a Reason
Let’s talk about compensation patterns. To compensate means “to offset or counterbalance.” Any time you experience a weakness in the tissues of your body, other tissues step up their game to offer a helping hand for the weak tissues.
Sounds friendly and helpful, right? Well, it is helpful if it’s only short term. However, your brain is wired for efficiency, so if the compensation is “working,” the body will keep on compensating. The problem with this pattern is that after a while, those friendly and helpful tissues that lent a hand become tired. In most cases, they are performing a secondary role rather than their primary role, so they must work even harder to move in the ways you are demanding they move. The result: weak tissues get weaker and the compensating tissues become hardened and painful. Essentially, those helpful tissues start complaining.
Here’s an example: I severely broke my ankle eight years ago. Because the experience of walking normally was painful, I developed a pattern (unconsciously) where I would roll around the painful spot as I walked. Over time, the result involved walking more on the outside of my foot than evenly across my foot. Like most joints, the ankle is structured in such a way that it is supported by muscles and connective tissues designed specifically to perform unique tasks.

When movement patterns “turn off” certain muscles and “turn on” others to keep you out of pain, the design of the joint and surrounding supportive tissues is compromised. Eventually, if not addressed, a whole new challenge has replaced the original one.

Massage Can Work Wonders, But You Can Work Miracles
Every time I get a massage, I ask for additional specific work to my ankle and lower leg, which feels nothing short of scrumptious. There are many benefits to getting massage on my ankle and lower leg, including increased blood flow, softening of hard tissues, awakening of nerve sensation, and releasing of trigger points. For about two days after, the pain in my ankle is greatly reduced. But what hasn’t changed is the pattern of how I walk, which I created during the last eight years.
Here’s the truth. Unless you are actively involved in unwinding the pattern and returning to the way the body was designed to move in space, you will only heal so much. You will eventually go back to your compensation pattern, unless you are taught how to move differently. You must be involved in retraining your body back to its optimum function utilizing muscles and surrounding tissues as they are designed to work.

A Sampling of Therapies
So what are movement therapies? Of the many modalities available to choose from, here is a sampling and explanation of a few of the most commonly known. (The following descriptions are taken from the bodywork glossary at

• Aston-Patterning (neurokinetics)—Aston-Patterning is an educational process developed by Judith Aston in 1977 that combines movement coaching, bodywork, ergonomics, and fitness training. The movement work (neurokinetics) has two divisions. The first part involves instruction in the most efficient way to perform the simple activities of daily living and then progresses to complex activities. The second part teaches the client how to use movement to decrease accumulated tension in the body. The practitioner uses specific assessment methods to create sequences of movement and fitness depending on the movement pattern of the client. The client’s current, observable, and palpable condition, as well as history of injury, trauma, scar tissue, and habits are taken into consideration when designing the approach to repatterning. How you do what you do in every movement you create is the baseline of this work.  

• Trager Approach—The Trager Approach was developed more than 65 years ago by Milton Trager, MD. Two aspects make up the Trager Approach: one in which the client is passive, and the second in which the client is actively involved. The passive portion is done on a table with the client fully clothed and passively guided through effortless, natural movement in order to find restrictions and bring freedom to locked-up areas. It is a gentle approach and does not induce pain or discomfort. The active portion includes a series of movements you can easily incorporate into your daily life to more deeply root the effects of the table work as well as your own awareness within your body. Essentially, these are designed to empower you in your own healing.
• Feldenkrais Method—This method establishes new connections between the brain and body through movement reeducation. Two formats of instruction are used: awareness through movement and functional integration. In the one-on-one functional integration session, a teacher uses hands-on manipulation to guide the student toward new movement patterns. Awareness through movement classes are group sessions in which the teacher verbally guides students through repatterning. Feldenkrais proposed that nearly our entire spectrum of movement is learned during our first few years of life, but that these movements represent a mere 5 percent of all possibilities available to us. Habituated responses to problem areas in our lives are ingrained in our movement patterns. By retraining the central nervous system through the skeletal system, old patterns are eliminated and replaced with new skills that improve the body’s physical, mental, and emotional functioning. In this way, unconscious movement is brought into conscious awareness where it may be used as a tool for opening the human potential.

• Alexander Technique—As with the other movement therapies described above, the Alexander Technique sheds light on the areas within the body that are not moving efficiently and, therefore, require more effort to engage in even the simplest movements in day-to-day life. Each individual is empowered through active participation, awareness, and mindfully chosen movement. The student is taught to sit, stand, and move in ways that reduce physical stress on the body. Alexander Technique teachers use gentle manual guidance and verbal cues to improve students’ posture and movement patterns. A lesson or group class typically involves basic movements such as sitting, standing, walking, bending, reaching, carrying, and lying down. It may also involve more specialized activities such as playing a musical instrument, working at a computer, etc. The teacher’s hands-on guidance stresses the adjustment of the head, neck, and torso relationship.

No Matter What Happens, Your Body is Always Responding
For every life experience you are involved in, your body has a response. As you read in the various descriptions, compensation patterns are not limited to physical injury, but are also developed from thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. Any time you experience something impactful, such as physical trauma or ongoing criticism, your body provides a deeper ingrained response. Even when you witness another’s trauma, fear that it could happen to you can create a compensation pattern. The reason for this is protection. The sympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. the fight-or-flight mechanism) plays a crucial role in keeping you safe. You might hold your right shoulder up close to your ear and tuck your chin as if shrinking away from a threat. This pattern is as important to recognize as compensating one’s gait around a painful broken ankle. It just might be a little more difficult to uncover the origin. Luckily, identifying the origin isn’t necessary for you to heal the pattern. Engaging in movement therapies with a trained professional who knows how the body is designed to move will help you illuminate patterns you may not even realize you have.
True freedom from pain and discomfort can be achieved using movement therapies incorporated with consistent massage sessions. The value and benefits of massage alone are far reaching, but this bodywork partnership is very beneficial. As with anything you wish to master, your participation, dedication, and daily practice are required. Consider this an invitation to your freedom!

Aston Patterning:
Trager Approach:
Feldenkrais Method:
Alexander Technique:
Bodywork Glossary (more than 300 modalities):

Practitioners of these movement therapies can be found on each of the websites listed above, along with additional information on the approaches.

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.