By Rebecca Janes
Originally published in Body Sense, Autumn/Winter 2009.
One best-selling author isn’t shy about touting the benefits of massage. Mary Pipher, psychotherapist and author, makes it a point in her latest book to spell out just how massage and yoga helped her get through a difficult bout with depression.
“I couldn’t believe I had waited almost 60 years for my first massage,” she writes in Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World (Riverhead Books, 2009), an account of her own struggle with spiritual and emotional crisis. “How I wished I had known its benefits earlier so that I could have prescribed it for my clients.”
Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and stayed there for six months. At that point, Pipher, a Nebraska psychotherapist, began to understand stress in a whole new way.
Appearances on Oprah … prolonged speaking tours … endless media interviews—it was enough to send someone wired to be a people-pleaser (who rarely gave a thought to her own needs) into an emotional tailspin, fueled by too many demands and not enough time for rest.
That’s exactly what happened to Pipher. She developed insomnia and struggled with anxiety and loneliness. Her blood pressure grew high and she experienced heart arrhythmias. Yet, she kept all this to herself, figuring she could manage it. “Mine was a polite breakdown,” she writes. “I mention this because I think we all walk among people in crisis and are unaware of their suffering.”
Pipher’s meltdown came in the winter of 2002–2003. Realizing she simply could no longer keep up the pace of her frenetic life, she took a winter-long sabbatical. She stayed home. She read. She cooked. She took walks in the prairie. She swam and listened to music.
She discovered meditation, which helped her begin to quiet her mind and to focus on the needs of her body.
And at a friend’s urging, she agreed (reluctantly) to go for a massage. It changed
“Even though I’m a flower child from Berkeley, I’m quite shy about my body,” Pipher said in a phone interview from her Lincoln, Nebraska, home. “I had never had a massage until the winter of 2002, when I was clinically depressed. I was just in a really dark place. And several of my friends were getting massage from Heidi Piccini, in Lincoln.”
Piccini, a licensed massage therapist for 15 years, has a studio in her home. She recalls her first meeting with Pipher, and the importance of making good eye contact and listening closely to what her new client was telling her.
“The key is to make meaningful contact,” said Piccini, who recently became certified in Zero Balancing, a bodywork system that involves gentle pulling and lifting, as well as pressure point work. “In that first conversation, when you first touch a client’s body, you need to find ways for word and touch to interact.”
Piccini says she frequently uses craniosacral therapy on Pipher, as well as deep-tissue massage. “Mary and a lot of people say they’re ‘in the head’ a lot,” Piccini says. “Craniosacral takes a person right out of the head and into the body.”
Pipher says there are two critical issues when it comes to massage. “One is a person’s own body image—my feelings about my body and being shy and modest. The other is trust—trust in a stranger who will be touching your body in a room alone with you. Heidi was perfect. She’s a woman about my age, soft-spoken and gentle, who just seemed warm, serene, and relaxed about the whole situation. She was great.”
Pipher realized that as Piccini rubbed her tense muscles, her mind settled down. She relaxed. She stopped staying in her head so much, and began to notice more about what her body was feeling. “By the time I left an hour later, I felt wonderful, both physically and mentally,” she says.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that I can trick myself,” she says. “I can put on rose-colored glasses and delude my mind into thinking everything is OK, that I can tough things out. But the body knows. It’s sort of your most basic GPS [global positioning system]. You may be able to trick your mind to tell your heart you’re not experiencing what you’re feeling, but your body knows.”
That was the winter Pipher also went to her first yoga class—another eye-opener for her.
“I was very self-conscious about going to yoga,” she recalled. “I’m very clumsy. I was born clumsy. I was slow to crawl, slow to walk. I’m a slow runner. I can’t skip. I can’t snap my fingers. I can’t wink. So I just imagined that when I got to yoga, all these people would be moving gracefully and I would look like an awkward cow. I needed a lot of reassurance.”
What she found was a class filled with older women, who immediately put her at ease. “It offered me such an education, that if I move this way, this is the muscle I feel.”
Now she’s a regular yoga participant. “The great thing about yoga,” she says, “is that I can do it anywhere. I make my living traveling and giving speeches. I can do yoga on airplanes, in hotel rooms. If I feel like stretching in an airport, I’ll stretch.”
Today, massage and yoga make up a crucial part of Pipher’s self-care routine. She goes to the occasional yoga class with her daughter, but mostly practices on her own. And she gets a massage once a month, though she wishes she could afford to have one once a week. Even in tight financial times, massage stays at the top of her list of priorities.
“I’m simply not willing to cut out massage, because it’s so good for mental health reasons,” she says. “I’m no longer practicing psychotherapy, but if I were, I would now schedule my clients one week with me and the next week with a massage therapist.”
She thinks massage can also help women begin to think about their bodies in new ways.
“Women are educated to think, ‘Am I attractive?’ ‘Am I thin?’ and maybe ‘Am I healthy?’ But we’re not, as a culture, prone to educate people to think: ‘What is my body telling me right now?’ It’s a different way of moving through the day. I’m not asking myself if I’m attractive or slim. I move through the day asking what my body is telling me: ‘Am I in the present moment? Am I stressed? Am I restless? What is my body signaling me right now?’ It’s a very different kind of information, and it’s much more helpful.”
Piccini is hopeful that Pipher will have another best seller on her hands, and that her experiences will help bring massage to a whole new audience.
“I’m glad Mary wrote about massage,” she says. “I hope it helps people to see that massage, yoga, and bodywork are as effective as other therapies. It can be the Eat, Pray, Love for people who can’t afford to travel the world.”