The Bodywork Tree

Exploring The Bounty Of Bodywork

By Karrie Osborn

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2008.

As a consumer of massage, you already know there are wonderful benefits to receiving therapeutic touch. And you’ve likely tried one or two variations of massage or bodywork as you’ve meandered along this path of complementary healthcare. But did you know there are at least 250 kinds of therapies that are part of this growing massage and bodywork tradition? From acupressure to Zero Balancing, there are a multitude of lush, leaf-filled branches on this bodywork tree, making it a perfect spot under which to throw a blanket and sit a while.

Swedish Massage

It’s hard to put an exact date on when touch was first used for healing purposes. Certainly, the history of touch has to be as old as the history of man. We swaddle our young, hold our injuries, and rub our aches today just as we did at the dawn of civilization. We know Ancient Greece had a well-known massage history, as did the Romans; Greek physician Hippocrates noted in 500 BCE that the way to health was a bath and massage every day. With the modern-day framework set by Sweden’s Henrik Ling (1776–1839), who first combined massage and gymnastics into a regimen called the Swedish Movement Cure, and John Harvey Kellogg’s (1852–1943) early fitness protocol at Battle Creek Sanitarium in the early 1900s (and his book, The Art of Massage), massage therapy now reaches the masses in overwhelming numbers—200 million massage sessions annually. Touted as the most popular treatment at spas, massage is now the ambassador for healthy, therapeutic touch the world over. When we look at the deep-rooted, traditional massage side of the bodywork tree, we should also include deep-tissue massage, infant massage, maternity massage, medical massage, and sports massage, to name but a few of the many variations available today.

Asian Therapies

As one of the oldest branches of the bodywork tree, Asian therapies find their roots in the earliest Eastern traditions. Some of the first documentation of massage came around 2700 BCE in the Chinese medical treatise Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, which recommended “massage of skin and flesh.” Traditional Chinese medicine, acupressure, shiatsu, amma, lomi lomi, and jin shin jyutsu are just a few of the offerings on this vibrant, yet ancient branch.

Acupressure. As one of the most recognizable of the Asian bodywork therapies, acupressure is similar to its sister therapy acupuncture, but works by applying pressure—not needles—to various key points on the body as a means to stimulate healing. According to the Acupressure Institute in Berkeley, California, acupressure is the umbrella for several styles of work that all use the same ancient trigger points and meridians (channels through which energy, also known as chi, travels through the body). Differences, they say, come in the rhythm, pressure, and technique used during the therapy. Where shiatsu therapists apply deep finger pressure to each point for only a few seconds, jin shin therapists gently apply pressure to key points on the client’s body for several minutes at a time.

Indian Therapies

Long and storied are the health traditions from India. While ayurveda helps us find balance and restores order to our bodies, the ancient practice of yoga works to unify body and mind with spirit, thereby encouraging physical and mental well-being.

Ayurveda. Passed down from generation to generation, and still taught in conjunction with Western medical training, ayurveda is India’s traditional medical system. In practice for more than 5,000 years, ayurveda is a multidisciplinary approach to health, encompassing diet, medicinal herbs, lifestyle changes, and various combinations of oil and massage. An ayurvedic massage is a large part of the detoxification and rejuvenation process known as pancha karma. The goals of this kind of massage include creating a calming, balancing, heightened sense of awareness and deep inner peace. The basis for an effective massage treatment in the ayurvedic tradition relies on a thorough understanding of the five elements—ether, air, fire, water, and earth—and the basic constitutional types—vata, pitta, and kapha. Through this knowledge, the therapist can determine not only which ayurvedic massage treatments to use, but also how to customize treatments to maximize the benefits for each particular client. Part of this tradition is the utilization of chakras—the seven major energy centers found throughout the body that act as focal points for the body’s life force. Chakras and the five-element theory can also be found in some Asian traditions as well.

Energy Medicine

Sometimes explanation falls far short of realization, and that’s likely true with many aspects of energy medicine. When a New York surgeon reveals that energy medicine is a part of his pre- and postsurgery protocol or when a daughter uses reiki to relieve the pain of her dying mother in Iowa, it’s hard to offer a succinct explanation that’s worthy of the effect. There is a vast and growing array of energy therapies that fall along this bodywork branch, but some of the most popular include polarity therapy, reiki, Therapeutic Touch, and Zero Balancing.

Polarity Therapy. When Randolph Stone, DO, DC, ND, (1890–1981) developed the energy work known as polarity therapy, he brought together principles of ayurveda, chiropractic, and osteopathy, as well as naturopathic approaches to diet and exercise. According to the American Polarity Therapy Organization (APTA), this work “asserts that the flow and balance of energy in the human body is the foundation of good health.” When there is imbalance or blockage of that energy flow, pain and disease occur. By bringing together body, mind, and spirit, polarity therapy intends to “support the client’s inherent self-healing intelligence.” In his book, Polarity Therapy and Its Triune Function (1954), Stone wrote, “For 40 years I searched for a principle in the healing arts that would include all forms of therapy and act as a common denominator, an intelligent answer, to all the numerous contradictory theories and claims existing today. Results that are obtained in all the various fields of medical, drugless, and psychological applications indicate that a hidden agent—a principle in man and the forces of Nature’s energies—is the active factor overlooked by schools of science and theories taught today.” When used in conjunction with massage, polarity deepens both the client and therapist perspective of stress patterns in the body.

Reiki. Japanese Buddhist and Christian scholar Mikao Usui (1865–1926) discovered reiki in 1922 after 21 days of fasting, prayer, and meditation on Mount Kurama. Based on the idea that life force energy flows through each of us, reiki works to keep that energy clear and free-flowing. According to the International Center for Reiki Training, reiki treats the whole person—mind, body, emotions, and spirit. The reiki process is simple and while spiritual in nature, is not a religion and has no dogma. Through the laying of hands—whether directly on the client’s clothed body, or just above the body—reiki aligns chakras (energy centers in the body) and brings healing energy to organs and glands. In addition to a sense of relaxation and well-being, some clients experience the work as a warm or tingling sensation. Experts say clients’ don’t necessarily need to “believe” in reiki for it to work, but clients do need to have an honest, active commitment to improve their well-being for reiki to function as a complete system. Reiki can also be used in conjunction with other therapies, including traditional massage.

Fascial Release

Within our body is a matrix of weblike material called fascia or connective tissue. Very simply, it’s what binds the body together. When stress and injury take their toll, they create restriction and tightening of these important inner tissues, making them less pliable and more a source of tension. Fascial release, one of the newest branches on the bodywork tree, works in this paradigm to bring structural organization back to the body. In addition to structural integration, Rolfing, and myofascial release, other participants on this still-growing-branch include Bindegewebs massage, CORE Structural Integrative Therapy, Hellerwork, and SOMA.

Myofascial Release. This hands-on fascial approach works to eliminate pain and restore function through gentle, sustained pressure at various places of myofascial restriction. Myofascial release often begins with a massage designed to warm and loosen muscles, during which the therapist identifies areas of restriction needing further fascial work. By accessing and releasing these areas of restriction, the muscle is then free to move with greater ease and function. Like other families of structural work, myofascial release focuses on the client’s breath during stretches to find the deepest, most facilitatory movement possible.

Structural Integration and Rolfing. While there are differences between these two popular fascial release therapies, they both represent the work of Ida P. Rolf (1896–1979). With a doctorate in biochemistry from Columbia University, Rolf also explored osteopathy and yoga as a means to see the effect of structure on function. What came from her studies was what she called structural integration, a process of soft-tissue manipulation and movement education that reorganizes the body into its natural, aligned state for optimum function. When the body is out of alignment, it creates undo pressure on the structure, leading to unhealthy compensations. Over the course of a 10-session protocol, therapists focus on a specific sequence of soft-tissue manipulations to help clients rediscover their optimal state. While some of the work might be very intense, its “depth” is dependent on the level of trauma the body’s tissues have experienced. Focusing on the fascia, sessions might include constant, applied pressure or slow, deep stretching. Clients are involved in the process, facilitating a stretch or a movement as directed. Clients typically wear underwear or swimsuits during the work, and as part of the assessment, therapists will evaluate clients’ balance, movement patterns, posture, and stance.

Movement Reeducation

A relatively new branch on the bodywork tree, movement education is made up of therapies that reeducate or repattern the body to find its original state of health. By establishing new connections between the body and mind through simple movement patterns, movement reeducation therapies can eliminate old pain patterns, thereby improving the physical, mental, and emotional functioning of the body. Within this family of therapies are Feldenkrais Method, Trager, Alexander Technique, and Aston-Patterning.

Alexander Technique. When Shakespearean actor Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869–1955) began to lose his voice onstage, doctors were unable to help. It was during his own moment of self-observation that he realized the problem—every time he went to speak, he lifted his chin and tightened his neck muscles, thereby putting pressure on his spine and restricting his breathing. After years of building this detrimental pattern, the result was a lost voice. Throughout the course of his process of self-observation, Alexander found that deliberately trying not to tense his neck muscles or lift his chin was harder than just envisioning the process—something he called directing. Thinking too hard about how to do it right was getting in the way of just doing it right. Ultimately, the key to the whole process, Alexander found, was the relationship between the head and the spine. If they are not in sync, there are consequences throughout the entire body. During today’s Alexander Technique sessions, clothed clients learn to relinquish harmful movement habits and increase their self-awareness skills for relearning healthy movement patterns.

Feldenkrais Method. With a background in physics, engineering, and nuclear research, and as one of the first European recipients of a black belt in judo in 1936, Russian-born Moshe Feldenkrais (1904–1984) had an interesting tapestry from which to pull when he developed his own physical problems early in life. According to the Feldenkrais Guild of North America, the therapy he ended up creating “is a form of somatic education that uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning.” Described as a “synthesis of science and esthetics,” the Feldenkrais Method utilizes self-observation to create a more even distribution of effort within the body, thereby enhancing movement and action. It’s all about coming out of our somatic fog, seeing our bad habits, and then relearning some fundamental things about our bodies and our movements. Clients remain clothed during Feldenkrais sessions and can participate in either Awareness Through Movement lessons (group sessions utilizing a series of structured movement sequences) or Functional Integration sessions (hands-on, one-on-one work from therapists) depending on their specific needs.

Subtle Bodywork Therapies

Sharing similarities with many of the different branches of the bodywork tree, subtle touch therapies prove beneficial for a number of clients, including those in a frail condition. From lymph drainage therapy, which gently works with lymph fluid and is especially helpful for postsurgery clients, to the delicate touch of craniosacral therapies, subtle bodywork therapies can prove just as powerful as deep-tissue massage when it comes to creating change in the body.

Craniosacral. This is one therapy where less is definitely more. Putting the lightest pressure (no more than the weight of a nickel) on various points on the client’s body, craniosacral therapists evaluate and enhance the craniosacral system, which is comprised of membranes and cerebrospinal fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. This school of thought says when there are restrictions in the craniosacral system, the entire nervous system can be affected. Building on the work of William Sutherland, who believed that cranial bones were structured for movement, osteopathic physician John Upledger found there was indeed rhythm and movement in what would soon be coined the craniosacral system. This therapy has been used for a variety of health conditions, including temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), learning disabilities, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia.

Mind/Body Therapies

With roots intertwined in the work of Sigmund Freud, the mind-body therapy branch of the bodywork tree is alive and well. One of the more well-known “fathers” in this field was Freud’s student Wilhelm Reich, who, through exploration and observation of the physical state of his patients, found that the body’s muscle tension can block one’s true expression of self. Today, several therapies help clients break through the psychological barriers that have been restricting them physically, including Hakomi, Lowen, SHEN, and Trauma Touch.

Trauma Touch. For the growing number of people who’ve been deeply affected by trauma and abuse, Trauma Touch is a simple, unassuming approach that helps survivors come back to the here and now and “feel” again. Numb from dissociative survival skills learned during the traumatic event(s), numb from drugs or alcohol, or numb from other distractions created to hide behind, survivors of trauma often can’t feel their bodies or have parsed apart their various pieces of being. This numbing process is not selective, and eventually everything gets numbed out—their joy, their capacity to feel alive, and their ability to feel safe in the world. Developed at the Colorado School of Healing Arts in the early 1990s, Trauma Touch works to integrate the pieces again. It provides a slow application of touch that helps bring clients back to themselves—to take residence, if you will, back in their bodies. Trauma Touch Therapy is a process of integration weaving itself through the course of 10 sessions with the client typically clothed. The one requirement for entering a Trauma Touch program is that clients are required to be in active psychotherapy, so that there is simultaneous but separate counseling and bodywork sessions going on. While the Trauma Touch therapist might help emotions and wounds come to the surface, it is the psychotherapist who helps the client find meaning. Bodyworkers remain just that, “body workers,” not venturing outside their scope of practice.
Filled with therapies and traditions from around the world, today’s bodywork tree offers a healthy, vibrant foundation from which to grow. This tree continues to expand and is today nurtured by history, acceptance, and our desire to live well.

Karrie Osborn is contributing editor for Body Sense. Contact her at


Acupressure Institute—

American Polarity Therapy Association—

American Society for the Alexander Technique—

Ayurvedic Institute—

Feldenkrais Guild of North America—

Guild for Structural Integration—

Hakomi Institute—

International Alliance of Healthcare Educators—

International Association of Structural Integrators

International Center for Reiki Training—

Myofascial Release—

Reiki Alliance—

Rolf Institute for Structural Integration—

World Reiki Association—

Zero Balancing Health Association—