Leon Chaitow

Author, Teacher, Healer. His Prolific Life

By Sasha Chaitow

“If you want to write a book, then pick a subject that fascinates you, and that you want to know more about, then do the work and write it,” my father Leon Chaitow often said, and he led by example.

Like every one of his books, Fascial Dysfunction (2nd ed., Handspring, 2018) was born of a deep, insatiable curiosity and burning passion to know more, and then share what he had discovered. His method was to seek out the newest and most important research with which to build a solid scientific foundation, and from there, to translate and apply that knowledge into practical, usable terms applicable in clinical practice across the many bodywork disciplines, while remaining academically and scientifically sound. Overwhelming though this must appear, it is precisely how he approached every topic he covered in a career that spanned over 50 years.

During those decades, medicine in general, and the bodywork professions in particular, took great leaps in their development, regulation, and professionalization. Leon’s greatest priorities were to support that professionalization by encouraging and disseminating the hard science that emerged, and bringing it to clinicians in terms relevant to their everyday practice. A further urgent need he perceived was for the necessity of learning from one another. The fine differences between the many disciplines in the world of bodywork appear baffling to those outside these professions, yet Leon often spoke with frustration of the often entirely imaginary—yet often apparently insurmountable—barriers to understanding that were born of ideology, ignorance, urban legend, and sometimes, sadly, pure egotism. It was these barriers that he sought to overcome in his teaching and his writing.

To do so, he selected a formula that, while not new, was ideal for his aims; he edited volumes in which he provided the core material and direction, while handpicked colleagues contributed chapters in their areas of expertise. Leon was passionate about supporting early-career researchers, and was never more enthusiastic than when, with a little encouragement, he was able to watch them develop in their chosen field through their writing—sometimes by contributing to his textbooks. He had an eye for talent, and although—as testified to by many, myself included—he was a demanding editor, the results were worth it. He had a knack for making the extraordinarily complex inner workings of the body easy to understand; his excitement was infectious, and his explanations were always balanced to avoid reductionism or complex jargon aimed only at a few. These were the features that made his books so accessible to so many, and most importantly, practically useful.

As a staunch proponent of holism in medicine, this worldview extended to the way Leon taught, wrote, and edited. His particular talent lay in being able to see the big picture and piecing it together in a way that would allow others to see it too, by contextualizing new findings and having the foresight to highlight sometimes controversial, always cutting-edge methods and discoveries. His attention to detail was intense, his insistence on clarity in thought and writing proverbial, and the results speak for themselves.

In his second edition of Fascial Dysfunction, readers will find a testament to all these characteristics. Yet, this book is also testament to his sheer force of will. Leon had already become severely ill when engaged in the revision of this edition. His determination to see it to completion was not born so much of the fear of death as of his dread of breaking his word to his publishers and the participating contributors who had placed their trust in him. He worked round the clock to submit the final manuscript. As his health deteriorated, he continued to work on the proofs and the cover art, giving his approval for each detail. Although rumor has it that I finished the book for him, in truth I simply became his hands and eyes; the decisions were fully his until the book went to print, and my only contribution was to approve the publishers’ tribute on the inside cover.

It is a fitting swan song; for not only does Fascial Dysfunction comprise a practical handbook based on solid, recent evidence on one of the hottest current topics in these related fields, but it also contains contributions from both long-standing and up-and-coming experts in their respective areas, all of whom Leon thought highly of. And this commentary would be incomplete without mention of Handspring Publishers, whose directors Leon knew personally and maintained a warm and greatly fruitful relationship—and friendship—with, precisely because of their shared work ethic and vision. This book is thus a snapshot of his very philosophy of working, teaching, and living, combined with the effort and care he put into it in the face of all the odds, and a fitting parting gift to those in the professions he served.

The Man, His Legacy, and the Mantle

The tributes that poured in from around the world after my announcement of my father’s passing all speak of his wit, sharp humor, sharper intelligence, and great generosity of spirit and kindness, as well as his tendency for crabbiness when he felt his time was being wasted or shoddy reasoning was afoot. Yet, two features that stood out to all those who truly knew him, and that are perhaps the greatest marks of his legacy, are his integrity and passion.

On one of our many excursions for coffee and window shopping, Leon and I took sips of our espressos, and I leaned back and watched his face light up as he talked to me about telocytes and the microscopic wonders they worked in the repair of damaged cells. On his return home, he tapped out yet another editorial, sharing this latest discovery with his readership. This was not a new experience. I was 6 years old when, in 1984, I stood reading over his shoulder as he typed out one of his many articles on his brand-new computer—always an early embracer of technology. Of course, he insisted I learn to type too—“so that you can help me one day!” I was 7 when words like gastrocnemius, scapula, and deltoid began to enter my vocabulary, and I was 8 (and bilingual) when I began acting as translator for his Greek patients to whom he insisted on patiently explaining things, instead of simply sending them off with a quick-fix solution.

It was around the same time that he decided to show me how acupuncture worked (in an attempt to banish my fear of needles), and throughout our time together, he would share any number of aspects of his world with me. When I was a doctoral student, he offered me the opportunity to contribute to one of his books, Palpation and Assessment Skills (now in its 4th edition with Handspring). Although nervous at first, since I had chosen a different educational pathway, he pointed out how he wanted me to bring my knowledge of the history of science and recent research in cognition to the discussion, so as to contextualize much older techniques that were being rediscovered and honed anew. And so I did—with Leon standing over me and editing my very florid and overly tedious academic jargon (the hallmark of many early-career researchers) into plain English. His critiques of my early lectures were similar: strict, but always fair, and it is to him that I owe my ability to lecture without notes and edit language for clear communication first and foremost.

When explaining to my younger self the procedure involved in updating textbooks and the necessity for his ongoing involvement in their new editions, Leon at one point chuckled and said to me, “And when I’m dead, that’ll be your problem!” I never realized he meant it, nor that that time would truly come.

Yet it has, and it comes at a time when the mantle of the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies’ editorship has fallen partially to me, gratefully shared with Dr. Jerrilyn Cambron, whom Leon earmarked as his successor as editor-in-chief several years ago. It is no easy task being forced by circumstance into the shoes of a man regarded as a giant in his field, particularly when understanding that what is at stake is the future direction of so many professions that he lent his support to through the consistent provision of useful, but most importantly, evidence-based material. Yet, our minds worked in similar ways, and the years spent at Leon’s side have given me authorial and editorial insight that I might not have had if I had indeed specialized more closely on a practical level.

Over the years, the one thing that never changed, even when he was at his weakest, was that passion in his eyes. So, in taking up the mantle that he passed to me in his final months with desperation, but also decisiveness in his tone, this is what fuels my own determination to ensure that his legacy of writing, teaching, and bridging differences should not simply be consigned to history. I am grateful to the hundreds of former students and colleagues of Leon’s who have reached out to me to highlight their determination to carry that torch, not simply as tribute, but as necessity.

For my part, I will ensure that his books continue to be updated by those contributors and colleagues who saw and shared in his vision for more bridges to be built, ultimately with the aim of bringing better health and well-being to those who need it, while also challenging those practices that do more harm than good. These do not only include therapeutic practices with shaky evidence, but also attitudes and behaviors within the bodywork communities that would place ideologies, egos, and personal recognition over the pursuit of excellence and the sharing of knowledge in research and clinical practice.

Ultimately, this book is a crystallization of the principles that Leon lived his whole life by. If he could speak for himself right now, he would ask for that, and not mawkish memorials, to be our focus, and it is in this spirit that all those truly wishing to honor him should continue.

Sasha Chaitow, MA, PhD, is a professional artist, gallerist, and scholar who exhibits and lectures internationally. With over a decade in journalism and academic publishing, she was appointed managing editor of The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies some months before her father Leon Chaitow’s passing.