The Language of Healing

Enhance Your Bodywork Sessions Through Words

By Terry Anne Wohl

We bodyworkers are “hypnotists,” whether we realize it or not. What we say while we are with clients impacts their perceptions about their bodies, and our words have the potential to accelerate or impede a client’s healing process. The more skillful we are with our words, the more we will be able to help our clients fully participate in their physical healing process and learn greater self-acceptance regarding their bodies.

It is important to understand that our clients may be in a vulnerable state during a bodywork session, and this vulnerability includes more than just touch. Therapeutic touch leads the client from a beta brainwave state to an altered state of alpha, theta, or delta, and this, in turn, makes the client’s subconscious mind more open to the healing possibilities. Being aware of this and the language you use will enhance the healing results of your sessions.

Brainwave states
The beta state is our brain’s natural state when alert, awake, and focused on accomplishing cognitive tasks and attending to the outside world. Most clients will be in the beta state when they walk into your treatment room.
It is important to note that anxiety is also associated primarily with the beta state. Moving to any other brainwave state puts people into a “feel good” condition where everyday problems lose their immediacy. When people begin to let go and relax, there is a greater chance for physical restoration.

The second highest level of brainwave activity is the alpha state. This is the state people enter as they relax or daydream. When you guide your clients to close their eyes and focus inward, you are leading them into the alpha state, and perhaps even deeper, into the theta or delta states.

The theta state is the twilight, deeper daydreaming state that occurs just before one drifts off into sleep. Finally, the delta state represents deep sleep, with the slowest brainwave frequency and no memory of dreams.

Alpha and theta are the brainwave states in which people have the greatest access to their subconscious mind and visualization state, a rich resource for healing and change.

Scientists recently discovered a fifth brainwave state called gamma. It’s considered to be the highest brainwave frequency state and the state of sudden insights and “aha” moments. It is important to choose your background music carefully, as certain background sounds will naturally evoke specific brainwave states.

Talking to the subconscious
The subconscious mind, though inaccessible to rational thought, deeply influences people’s behavior. Long-term memories are stored there, and emotions are strongly connected with it.

To facilitate healing and transformation in your clients, it is necessary to help them bring their subconscious into alignment with their conscious intentions and commitments. If the subconscious and conscious minds are not aligned, the beliefs and expectations stored in the subconscious—the basement of the mind—will dominate.

Words affect the subconscious most directly when the listener is in an altered state: an intensely emotional situation, daydreaming, meditation, or sleep. Repetition of phrases is another way to effectively reach the subconscious.
It’s important to understand that the client’s subconscious responds to your language with more sensitivity than you might imagine. The subconscious takes everything literally. If you say to your client, “Gee, that’s an ugly knot,” or, “This muscle is very tight,” she will subconsciously begin to react to that part of her body in a negative way.

The power of words
Most people tend to reject some part of their body. Perhaps as children they were teased about their ears, hands, feet, or some other body part. As adults, many of those past negative labels remain present in their subconscious minds.

Bodywork provides an opportunity to help clients shift out of their pejorative perspectives and instead enhance their self-image. If your client mentions a body part in a negative way, such as having “chicken legs” or “a bad back,” emphasize the resilience of this particular body part. Perhaps you want to guide your client to thank this part for being so adaptable. You might say to your client, “As you appreciate it, just as it is, you can now help this part of your body become stronger and healthier.”

You can also guide your clients to explore the emotional messages connected with their current physical challenges. Instead of speaking about a bad knot, you can say, “You have a resilient and responsive body. Let’s focus on releasing the tension and congestion in this part of your body.”  Or, “Let’s bring some spaciousness into this area.” You might ask your client, “Is it possible that your body created such adaptations to help you survive?” or, “Have you noticed how flexible your body is from your workouts and that you can now walk down stairs and not have joint pain?” These positive suggestions will assist clients in feeling more accepting of their bodies and their lives.

The labels clients have been carrying with them limit their perceptions. A “bad back” simply means that the back is currently not functioning well, but the continual use of this label perpetuates the dysfunction, rather than helping in resolution. Labels keep a person thinking in terms of repetitive, limiting generalizations.

Ideas for resolving a situation where someone is trapped in a generalization can be found in Carol Sommer’s book Conversational Hypnosis: A Manual of Indirect Suggestion. A sample script Sommer created for people labeled as chronic fatigue patients reads: “Diagnostic labels are generalizations that have little to do with you as an individual. People have been able to significantly alter the course of their disease. Many spontaneously recover fully.”1

Another powerful tool in this context is the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) process of “instant reframing,” described by Jamie Smart in his book The Hidden Power of Meaning.2 Reframing is a way to change how someone perceives the meaning and/or context of something. Help your clients think differently about their current challenges by asking reframing questions such as, “In what context could this be useful?” and “What else could this mean?”   
Creating rapport
Listening to and acknowledging the emotional, mental, and intellectual state of another person helps you create rapport. John C. Maxwell, author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, writes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” When clients feel your authentic compassion and understanding, they will be more responsive to both your physical work and your verbal guidance.

An effective way of creating rapport with your clients is through the application of the Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic (VAK) learning system.3 Each person has a preferred method of learning and interacting; by identifying your client as a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, you will better understand how to establish rapport by responding in the same terms. For instance, a kinesthetic learner will often use touch-oriented phrases like, “I feel that’s true,” while a visual learner says, “I see what you mean,” and an auditory learner says, “That sounds about right.” People are not confined to just one mode, but they will usually have one that is predominant.

If you want your clients to see, hear, and feel your rapport, it is important to match your language with their language. Here are some words matching the three VAK orientations:
• Visual learners: examine, focus, illustrate, imagine, look, notice, observe, see, view, watch.
• Auditory learners: articulate, discuss, hear, listen, remark, speak, state, talk, tell, tone.
• Kinesthetic learners: activate, affect, emotional, feel, foundation, intuition, sensitive, solid, sore, warm.

Case in point
Here are some examples of healing language in my work.

Transforming a Client’s Limiting Beliefs
The client was a middle-aged woman who came to me for a series of shiatsu and Vibrancy Coaching sessions. She had not exercised in the past 30 years, and her job involved standing for many hours. When she started the sessions with me, she complained of swelling in her ankles and stiffness in her joints.

Each time I rotated her ankle joints, I commented favorably on the increased flexibility (which was miniscule, but visible). By focusing on the positive, my words and bodywork techniques encouraged her to join a gym and sign up for a series of yoga classes. She also began incorporating healthy lifestyle choices into her daily routine. Her friends and coworkers began to comment on the improvement in her appearance, attitude, strength, and health.
Negative comments about the client’s obvious lack of flexibility could have been counterproductive to helping her improve her health and her sense of well-being.

Finding the Body-Mind Relationship
A client said to me, “I just want to relax, but my mind gets in the way.” By this remark, I understood him to be critical of himself, limiting himself both mindfully and physically. I suggested he begin to take notice of when his breathing was shallow and when it was deep. When his mind took such notice, it could direct his body toward deeper, more relaxing breaths.

Although this appears on its face to be a simple process, in reality it was quite revolutionary for the client. It helped him begin to let go of a crippling self-criticism. One day he said to me, “Oh, I see—I can see how my mind and body can always work together.” My recommendations in our sessions, though given with bodywork in mind, also guided him toward a release of his nervousness and self-consciousness by reframing his thoughts regarding the relationship of his mind and body.

The power of anecdotes
One more way to assist your clients to feel greater ease during and after a session is by using anecdotes to illustrate a concept, rather than direct requests.

Simply asking your client to relax may not work, and may even make him feel self-conscious, which will make relaxation even more difficult. An anecdote about your own experience or someone else’s, with a suggestion woven into it, can more effectively communicate with the client’s subconscious. An example of this technique might be: “My first massage therapist gave me wonderful advice when he said, ‘To relax, all you need to do is close your eyes and focus on your breathing and your belly.’” Unlike a direct request, these words are more likely to bypass your client’s conscious mind, engage him in the story, and subtly guide him toward relaxation.

Honoring speech and silence
Let’s be clear here—I’m not advocating that you talk through all of your sessions. It is possible, and often preferable, to work in silence. By working in silence, you will be able to provide your clients with a way to enter a meditative space. This may even be the optimal way to facilitate most of your sessions.

Be discerning in choosing the most appropriate times for speech. When speech is appropriate, the ideas presented in this article can be a skillful way to integrate healing words into your sessions when your compassionate touch triggers unexpected emotions in your clients.

When you are skillful with your words, you will be able to help your clients experience beneficial and lasting impacts on their physiology, emotions, and overall health. By helping them make positive adjustments to their perspectives and perceptions, you are supporting them in building a greater sense of acceptance, strength, and self-regard for their bodies and lives.

1. Carol Sommer, Conversational Hypnosis: A Manual of Indirect Suggestion (Downers Grove, Illinois: Sommer Solutions, Incorporated, 1992).
2. Jamie Smart, “The Hidden Power of Meaning: The Top 10 Tips for Reframing & Belief Change with NLP,” accessed January 2014,

Terry Anne Wohl has been studying and practicing alternative medicine for 30 years. She is a licensed massage therapist, certified continuing education provider with NCBTMB, a certified shiatsu and Thai yoga practitioner, Mind-Body Vibrancy Coach, and hypnotherapist. She holds a doctorate in divinity from the American Institute of Holistic Theology. She has taught at various healing centers in California, Colorado, Illinois, and New York. She currently teaches classes related to her new book, The Language of Healing: for Bodyworkers (& Everyone Else) (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), available from If you are interested in learning about her books and courses, go to and

To read this article in our digital issue, click here.