Whose Hand Is This?

Attunement and Bodywork

By Stephanie Mines

Bodywork’s effectiveness is exponentially increased when you attune to your client. This means that sensing and reading who the recipient is, beyond the physical complaints, creates a superior experience. Through alignment with an individual you stimulate the potent neurochemistry that brings profound relaxation. You even lasso endorphins that heighten immune function, speeding recovery from injury and inflammation.

You can be a masterful therapist if you establish an attuned, focused, and optimistic state of being even before you engage your hands. This is not just a good idea. It is science. Intention and touch alter psychic activity with or without the recipient’s awareness. Modulating stimuli in response to who your client is evokes a cascade of physiological change, including:

• Balancing hyper- and hypotonicity.

• Hydrating tissues.

• Increasing circulation.

• Interrupting patterns of habitual clenching and holding.

• Lubricating joints.

• Releasing muscle tension.

• Softening the psoas.

Connective tissue is not just a sheath of body fabric. It is actually a multi-layered memory scroll with an extensive database. Connective tissue is an intimate and precise record of the life, including the prenatal life and birth, of the person who has entrusted this body to you. The more you let yourself read this book of connective tissue and listen with confidence to the stories being articulated into your hands, the more accurately you attune. People will then come to you not only to heal from injuries and to relax, but also to reconnect with the power of life in the body.

Your attitude always shapes the quality of treatment you provide. If you dislike your work environment, if you had a fight with a coworker that morning, or with your partner or your child and you are still mulling it over, your client will know you are not fully present. It is impossible to mask your true feelings in the intimacy of somatic therapy. Distraction prohibits attunement.

What would happen if before you begin your day of treatment, you prayed or meditated for all the people you were about to see and touch? What if you were to also pray or meditate to allow your hands and every cell of your body to attune to each of your clients, no matter what the issues in your life, so you could serve their highest purpose? Such a practice, or anything similar to it, enhances compassion, uplifting both therapist and recipient. The magnitude of your compassion creates the level of safety in the healthcare (or any) environment.

The Neurobiology of Touch

“The experiences we are having each moment actually change the structure of our brains.” Dawson Church, PhD

Miraculous things happen when experience-dependent neurological patterns shift to allow new neural pathways to be stimulated in the brain. Through the psychosomatic network, so named by Candace Pert, PhD, (author of Molecules of Emotion, Simon & Schuster, 1999), the loop between experience and physiology is quickly translated into neurological growth. The recipient of massage or bodywork acknowledges this with the felt sense of deep relaxation humans crave.

It is common for massage therapists to see their clients spontaneously remember trauma in response to touch. It is equally possible for numinous or otherworldly experiences to occur. This is because the hypothalamus transforms the activity of the frontal lobes (awareness) into hormonal messenger molecules. These then communicate with the endocrine glands, including the immune system, digestive system, and muscular-skeletal system. More messenger molecules are then released. When clients experience attunement coupled with compassion and educated touch they are poised for a numinous experience that could substantially enhance their immune function, as well as change structure and movement. If this happens sequentially, lives change.

Eric Kandel, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his research on memory and brain function, reported that new synaptic growth and subsequent brain change is only long-term when the new experience is repeated. If we reinforce our novel experiences, we strengthen the neural net that supports them. If we do not, the new neural circuitry decays within a month.

Memory is not static. It changes if recollections of historical traumas are repeatedly attached to new outcomes. Positive experiences that provide novel options for conditions related to previous nervous system overload plant the seeds for neurogenesis. This is the mechanism of opening new synaptic pathways to counteract habituated tendencies and dissolve obsessive neuronal consolidation. I call this “restorying” and use it as a structure for resolving shock and trauma.

Bodyworkers are positioned perfectly to make these kinds of revolutionary differences in their clients’ lives. To do so, they must cultivate awareness, heighten their skill set, and attune to their clients by asking, “Whose hand is this?” Just as osteopath John Upledger created a system whereby craniosacral therapists could support neurogenesis (SomatoEmotional Release or SER), so can massage therapists and bodyworkers use the signals from connective tissue and human structure to enhance consciousness. Perhaps we must design our own therapeutic structure, inspired by SER, specifically for our profession.

The quality of one’s attention when providing somatic treatment is transmitted directly through the therapist’s hands to the client. This is, of course, a two-way street. The therapist is continually receiving bioelectrical messages from the client’s body even if, and perhaps particularly if, the client is asleep. Just below the level of discursive thought bioelectrical channels chatter away, disclosing confidences and divulging secrets. This is what makes bodywork and somatic therapy so evocative.

The release of tension can never be solely a muscular event. In order for muscles to come out of contraction the mind must also let go; with this letting go, memories are unleashed, along with the fear, anger, or horror that initiated the contraction.

Our bodies are storehouses, veritable libraries containing volumes of life experiences. Optimally, the body’s inhabitant will read these books and fully understand their language. The therapist reports on the state of the body’s depository. By feeling what is tense or stressed in the body, what is not balanced, what can and cannot be tolerated, where touch is welcome and where it is forbidden, the therapist provides the client with an accounting of the activities in this personal library.

Throughout treatment there is a constant, invisible bioelectrical call and response between therapist and client. The dialogue includes information about the therapist’s skill and the client’s receptivity and the particular somatic relationship between these two people.

Body Talk

It is possible to attune to your client without uttering a word or by saying very little. Your conversation can be replete when you dialogue directly with the body and understand its mother tongue: sensation. The attuned therapist listens intently and responds appropriately.

Here is a report from one therapist who conducts this kind of body talk as a regular practice. After you read this you will see why her schedule is always fully booked, months in advance:

“My client complained of pain along the left anterior tibialis (shin splints). He had difficulty walking and could no longer keep up with his wife on hikes. Other than a severe ankle sprain 13 years ago, there were no other injuries relevant to this restriction. His movement limitation was causing him significant distress. It signaled aging and incapacity that was inappropriate and unnecessary. He was an active and vigorous man, and loved the outdoors. He wanted to regain his capacity to walk at a good stride with endurance.

“I found unilateral tightness along the left lumbar vertebral border and the end feel of this palpation was mushy. I asked the tissue if this was a problem with bone. There was no response which meant the answer was ‘no.’ I then asked the tissue at this location if the problem was in the fascia and the response was active sensation pouring into my hands. This meant the answer was ‘yes.’

“I proceeded to treat the fascia surrounding the lumbar region until it became resilient and vibrant. When my client stood up after his session was over, I asked him to walk around the room so I could observe his gait. There was no restriction. Since this session he has walked vigorously and hiked extensively, with no problem. The session happened one month ago.”

In another session of mine with a woman who complained of chronic hip tension, profound personal evolution occurred, as well as the thorough and final release of the hip restriction. Her history included the Caesarean delivery of her first child and a radical episiotomy in the delivery of her second.

My palpation of her tissue revealed constriction on the left side of her respiratory diaphragm along with some tightness over her left adrenal gland. As I felt this constriction I asked wordlessly if the issue was rooted emotionally or structurally. The tissue articulated its response into my awareness with the repetition of the word emotional. This encouraged me to address the areas of her tension with subtle energy medicine so that the intervention could be primarily at the etheric level where emotions reside. Later, this woman told me that numerous manual interventions had failed to release her hip pain.

Using my intention, I invited my client to take the space she needed to free herself of any grief she felt regarding her femininity. As the session proceeded she shed tears, but said nothing. I noticed that her breathing deepened and her color changed. A rosy glow began to spread over her face. In addition, the tonicity of her tissue shifted from flaccidity to alert presence, as if her skin was coming alive. I then asked her how she felt.

She answered by saying that somehow during the last 15 minutes of the session she was able to resolve a feeling of being blamed by her mother for not being “good enough.” This was a feeling that had haunted her after both the Caesarean and the episiotomy. She had harbored a secret disappointment in herself that insisted she should have been able to avoid both. Now she knew this was not true and she had done her best. She expressed gratitude for the space and the opportunity to reflect so deeply. She left without hip pain and called me two weeks later to say that it had not returned. She felt she had learned a great deal about the relationship between her body and her history and about how feelings shape structure. She felt quite liberated. Indeed she commented that she had never felt freer to move forward into the world.

I felt awed by the power of both somatic therapy and intention. Without saying very much, but by being both conscious and confident about what I perceived, expansion and healing had occurred that would benefit this woman and her entire family. I was grateful to have been an instrument in this. It was truly a blessing.

Defining Awareness

What does it mean to know who your clients are? It means that through your awareness you can assess their patterns of absorbing physical impacts in their bodies, how they compensate for physiological stress, how they respond to touch, and what their potential is for movement and recovery. You can also know how they respond to you, the therapist. Does your energy welcome them, make them retreat, or both? What makes the difference?

As the somatic therapist prepares herself to benefit her client she always, consciously or unconsciously, makes a choice about how much she listens to her client’s body. She can either listen deeply or eavesdrop. The choice to listen deeply and believe what you hear is the path to mastery. I suggest that this choice becomes conscious, and that the commitment be clear.

The touch of hand to skin is the touch of memory to memory. This dance is quite refined, like a Straus waltz in which deep intimacy is masked within a structure for movement with precise contact. Prepared movements hide a surprising and confiding partnership. The structure for treatment creates a container. Intention and awareness evoke the profound content that fills that container.

What turns a somatic therapy experience into a turning point is the realization of potential in the form of regaining movement or awakening awareness. When this happens the therapist has helped to answer the question, “Whose hand is this?” for herself and her client.


The Level of Mastery

The ankle recovery and hip release reports are not random, isolated incidents of miraculous healing. They are illustrations of how a combination of skilled treatment and attentive presence honors the intelligence of the body and its innate capacity to find its own tensegrity (homeostasis). Perhaps at some point a research design will track the consistency of these responses. For this moment, it is my hope that readers will courageously experiment with this dynamic themselves. You are  encouraged to venture into the realm of body talk. I encourage you to record your experiences and share them with me. A collection of phenomenological reports could suggest a protocol.

One of my purposes in writing for massage publications and working for and with massage therapists and bodyworkers is to enhance the status of the profession, to bring to it the level of skill and respect it deserves. I want to encourage therapists to heighten their use of capacities that fully embrace the inseparability of body and mind and the bioelectrical resonance between clients and therapists.

This resonance, we now know, has always pervaded the healthcare environment, but it is only now being acknowledged more broadly. Who the therapist is and what she intends, play a key role in the recovery process. This is as true for physicians as it is for psychotherapists, massage therapists, or any caregiver.

Healthcare, in all its forms, has always required the integration of awareness, intuition (a form of awareness), and technical expertise. The somatic therapist must embody what she knows through her confidence in reading the body and responding to it.

The truth is that all changes in consciousness are healthcare interventions. The human body has its own internal pharmacy and it is fully capable of producing what it needs for optimum health when it is encouraged to do so. The role of the therapist/healer/healthcare professional is to allow this to happen. When this is the primary goal of the therapist, changes in consciousness inevitably occur. Physiology and consciousness are inseparable.


Author’s note: this article grew out of a presentation I gave for the students and staff at Lotus Blooms Massage Institute in Kapa’au, on the Big Island of Hawaii in April 2008.

  Stephanie Mines, PhD, is the founder and director of the TARA Approach for the Resolution of Shock and Trauma. Her design represents the new paradigm in somatic therapy that combines Eastern meridian-based therapies and Western neuropsychology to bring balance to the nervous system and enhance human potential. The TARA Approach is taught worldwide. For more information, please visit www.tara-approach.org.