The Breath Within the Stone

Understanding the Healing Power of Rock

By Karyn Chabot, LMT

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2003.

Some of the most progressive healers in the world have begun using stones in their massage work — not to replace healing hands, but as an adjunct to traditional massage, facials and healing treatments of all kinds. Stone massage is an ancient, enduring form of therapeutic bodywork using heated and cooled stones as extensions of the hand. It is a harmonious collaboration of healing energies between the client, the therapist and the stones. Be mindful that the beauty of this therapy, and all therapies, is manifested by the transference of deep compassion and trust between the therapist and the client. This compassion becomes imprinted within the matrix of each stone.

Pointed, textured stones are used as tools for deep sports massage. Round, flat, warm stones are laid as balancing agents upon specific energetic points along the body, otherwise known as chakras. Smooth, velvety stones are heated in water, then glided with firm pressure along oiled, sore muscles. Cooled white quartzite stones refresh the face (especially after waxing), refine the pores and soothe inflamed skin. For some people, stone therapy can bring deep tissue release and alignment between body, mind and spirit. For others, it means gently allowing the heat of the stones to soften tension and melt worries away. The experience of an eloquent, deep, structurally restorative and spiritually uplifting stone massage is unsurpassed in its transformational potential. The key is in finding a skilled stone therapist who incorporates highly textured and charged stones at a comfortable room temperature with traditional hand and elbow massage. Add in just enough patience and healing intention and the stage is set for bodywork bliss.

Most people who have experienced good stone massage work will typically use the adjective “grounded” somewhere in the description of how they felt as the stones were glided across or laid upon their body. Skilled stone therapists are taught to work with the Earth energy, which follows the downward flow in the body called apana vayu, a Sanskrit term. The purpose of stone massage is to anchor the root (muladhara) chakra and the second (svadhisthana) chakra of the body. These chakras help our bodies stay connected to the Earth. Many people in our technological society feel disconnected, rushed, high on coffee, over-stimulated and stressed out. The quietude we are in search of comes from within. The warmth, energy and texture of the stones help distract us from our busy, scattered minds, imparting a quiet focus. This is especially true when using sea stones, as they soothe the body on all levels, similar to the waves of an ocean. When a stone therapist works with the downward flow in the body and anchors the lower chakras, the client experiences an oasis which restores wholeness and balance in a world where people eat their lunch while they are driving and read their e-mail while listening to their voicemail.

According to the principles of Ayurveda, we are microcosms of the macrocosmic universe. Within the universe exist five basic elements: ether, air, fire, earth and water. Ayurveda classifies these five elements into three aspects referred to as doshas. In order to function, all three doshas must exist within the body. What makes us unique is the preponderance of the doshas within the body when we are conceived and then born into the world. Keeping these doshas in balance is the key to staying healthy. Stress, negative thoughts, feeling disconnected, wrong food choices and lack of exercise are just some of the things that throw us out of balance.

What are the three doshas? First, vata means “what blows.” It represents the ether and air elements (wind) within the body. These elements are high on cold, windy days during the fall and winter. When vata within the body is out of balance, people tend to experience anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, paranoia and loneliness. Second, pitta means “what cooks.” It represents the fire and water elements within the body. These elements are high on hot summer days. When pitta within the body is out of balance, people tend to experience self-condemnation, jealousy, anger, competitive thoughts and aggression. Finally, kapha means “what sticks.” It represents the earth and water (mud) elements within the body. These elements are high in the spring and on cold, snowy days in the winter. When kapha is out of balance, people experience greed, lethargy, apathy and heaviness.

After carefully observing clients and friends, the most common complaints I hear are stress and anxiety, which consequently derange the vata dosha within the body. When the vata dosha is out of balance, it can blow the other doshas around causing an overflow of these other energies. That’s why keeping vata in check is crucial. There are specific bodywork techniques and lifestyle choices that pacify and calm the vata dosha.

I have implemented these principles into the art of stone massage and esthetic bodywork called Sacred Stone Therapy.

Shakti Factor Within the Stones

In the Vedic tradition, Shakti can be described as the feminine vibration of prana in the cosmos. It is the counterpart to Shiva, the vibration of the male aspect. Prana, in Asian medicine, refers to ki or chi — life force. It is also a Sanskrit word meaning “before breath.” The Shakti factor in stones is literally the divine breath of the Mother within the stone. We know that atoms are made of swirling microcosms of energy, of life. Holding a stone is analogous to cradling a living stone galaxy within the palm of your hand. It is a microcosmic house of energy we can call divine. It tells us that life really matters since matter has life. In Latin, the word “matter” is cognate to mother (mater).

There are some things which greatly reduce the Shakti in the stone. Mechanically tumbled stones have less healing power than stones that have been naturally tumbled by ocean waves. Polishing a stone can be akin to sunburning human skin. It is a mechanical process that weakens the stone. When a stone is polished, the surface undergoes a sealing process, greatly reducing or even eliminating its frequency altogether. A stone’s chemistry, the frequency at which it vibrates and its geometrical form will determine its healing potential.

The Stone Radiance Variable

Stone massage is a form of thermal hydrotherapy. If you integrate cool stones, then it’s a form of cryotherapy as well. When you alternate the temperatures, it’s called contrast hydrotherapy. This will expand and constrict the blood vessels, stimulating vascular gymnastics and supporting lymphatic drainage. Consequently, the skin will appear rosy and firm, pain and swelling will be reduced, and vitality will be restored.

Stones radiate heat at various intensities. According to clinical research, the term stone radiance variable can be described as the measured length and rate of time in which a stone gives off heat. Professor Don Hermes at the geology department of the University of Rhode Island said, “New England sea stones can be classified as metamorphic, igneous or sedimentary. In Rhode Island, the stones are mostly igneous.” Stones are rated in terms of high, medium and low thermal radiance. New England sea stones tend to give off heat at a slow, steady rate for an enduring period of time. They would be considered to have a high stone radiance variable.

Stones found along the inland rivers, near dormant volcanoes, tend to get hot very quickly, increasing the burn factor. The rate at which they give off heat is intense, accelerated and sometimes unpredictable. Basalt stones would be considered to have a low to medium radiance variable and are typically the stones available by mail order, over the Internet or used in popular spas.

Sacred Geology 101

Practitioners who wish to use stones for massage can find them within close proximity to their homes, healing centers or spas, and along beaches or riverbeds. New England beaches are blessed with an abundance of smooth and textured stones of all colors which are ideal for heated and cooled stone massage. Stones found along the coastlines reflect the kind of bedrock at their source (usually not too far away). Since the local bedrock can be quite diverse, the stones at the coast can also vary from one locale to another. Along the west Rhode Island coast, for example, most of the stones are various granites and metamorphic gneisses derived from nearby stones to the north.

New England stones were made from bedrock several million years ago. Hermes said, “The volcanic igneous stones were erupted; the intrusive igneous stones were intruded into the crust. Both were derived from molten magma in the mantle or the more shallow crust.” Without getting too technical, we can simply call New England sea stones mineral composites. “These stones consist mostly of igneous and metamorphic minerals, the most common of which are quartz, feldspars, micas and some accessory magnetite amphibole,” he said. These stones consist mostly of granitic, metamorphic minerals. Some granites even contain small amounts of magnetite, which make them slightly more magnetic. Magnet therapy is a highly effective way to realign the electromagnetic field of the body, reduce pain and accelerate healing. Stones act like magnets on a subtle level, drawing out repressed emotion, deep sorrow and pain, and transforming them if the client is ready for transformation. They help reorganize the structure of the energetic human anatomy and assist in polarizing imbalances within the physical body. Nearly all minerals possess some magnetic character.

Darker stones tend to get hotter and stay hotter for longer periods of time. These have the most iron and the highest magnetic intensity. The grayish stones can get very hot too, but they don’t get as hot as the darker ones. The differences are subtle. Be aware that using the hottest stones can also increase the potential to burn. The gray stones are safe, predictable and easy to work with. Therefore, it is best to use a mixture of many different colors, shapes, textures and minerals.

Textural Distinction

Some stones have a slightly more velvet surface with some non-abrasive edges, while others are silky smooth and perfectly round. It’s like the distinction between velvet and silk. The textured, velvet surfaces are perfect for deep massage as they grip the connective tissue. Their high skin-gripping factor means they don’t slip off the body. The silky stones tend to slide along with greater ease, making them ideal for gliding on sensitive areas of the face. The textured stones slightly exfoliate the skin, gently increasing kinesthetic awareness, bringing the client back into their skin, so to say. The textured stones are more porous by nature, giving them a sponge-like action. This sponge action soaks up energetic debris, negativity and bacteria. As a result, textured stones need more recharging and physical cleaning than silky ones. Silky stones are less porous and wonderful for a light, refreshing massage. But when they begin to cool down, they can be confused with the smooth surface of the palm of a hand. Their radiance variable is low, which means the rate in which they give off heat is fast, intense and sometimes unpredictable — especially if they are basalt. Consequently, silky stones can be too hot and slippery to place directly on the skin. While some New England sea stones are silky smooth, the majority of them have a velvet textural distinction.

The Dosha-genic Color of Stones

Some stones have subtle color variations that help with the bodywork process, as each color corresponds with one of the three doshas. A greenish hue is indicative of oxidized parts of copper sulfide deposits. This muted green soothes the attribute of oiliness and edema in both the pitta and kapha doshas. Some stones may have foliation or stripes of muted reddish colors or burnt orange, colors which soothe the oily attributes of both pitta and kapha. These colors have a balancing effect on the copious amounts of oil that abyhanga (oil massage) indicates.

A clear pink color can soothe the attribute of heaviness in the kapha dosha, which is responsible for deep-seated grief and sadness. A clear rose quartz is very effective when it is placed on the heart marma point. If a client is experiencing heavy grief due to the loss of a loved one, then a raw, unpolished ruby would be appropriate at the heart marma point. A ruby may also be placed on the third eye as it amplifies the energy of the pituitary, promoting mental concentration and sharp intuition. This is why many yogis and gurus choose to wear a red bhindi or mark between their brows.

Stones that are muted blue gray can soothe the attribute of heat and lightness in the pitta dosha. This color instills peacefulness, removes anger and nourishes the auric field. Blackish brown stones soothe all the doshas, since black is a mixture of all colors.

Personality Shapes the Stone

Basalt stones are the hardened residue of volcanic eruption, so their personality and energy is eruptive, stimulating and activating. Anyone searching for a new direction in life or in need of a change would do well with an active-stroking basalt massage. This will also help alleviate stagnation on all levels. The shape of a stone is something to consider as well. Herbalists know the shape of an herb, bush or plant can often resemble the part of the human body that it would have an affinity to heal. We can incorporate this principle into stone healing, too. Hence, a stone placed under the sacrum would ideally resemble the shape of the sacrum bone. A stone placed on the heart would ideally have the shape of a heart. Stones placed along the erector spinae would ideally have the long shape of those muscles and so forth.

Many of the stones found in New England are round and flat. They simulate the feeling of an old-fashioned flatiron smoothing over the surface of the muscles, covering a lot of space with one stroke. We can call them nature’s flatiron and they are easy to grip and manipulate.

Ultimately, stones are not just conductors of heat or magnetism; they are radiators of the vibration, disposition and personality of the therapist. The geological constituents within a stone are valuable pieces of information, but more importantly, the therapist behind the stone is what will determine the overall benefits of the massage.

Precautionary Guidelines

Children, pregnant and menopausal women, and the elderly should be treated more gently and with less extreme temperatures in a stone massage. People with skin conditions such as eczema, rashes, acne and psoriasis should avoid the heat. People with numb skin due to skin graphing or neuropathy should be extra cautious. Anyone on medication that causes skin hypersensitivity (i.e., antibiotics, Accutane) should wait until they are off the medication. People who are extremely obese, perspire profusely, or have a fever or swollen glands should avoid thermotherapy. People with heart conditions should avoid the extreme contrast between heated and cooled stones so as not to shock their delicate systems. Therapists should avoid working on varicose veins, open wounds or areas with infected skin conditions. Ask clients to take off any bulky jewelry during stone massage, as it interferes with the work of the stones.

In the presence of a ruptured, herniated or deteriorated disk, bony protuberances or osteoporosis, heavy stones should not be used directly over the spine. Avoid micro-dermabrasion, waxing, glycolic acid peel or any other professional peel within one week of a heated stone facial. A therapist should never put cold stones and crystals in the client’s hands, as the hands are extensions of the heart. Cold temperatures constrict and repress emotions, shutting down the heart chakra. An exception to this guideline is people with high pitta conditions, since pitta represents the fire element in the Ayurvedic tradition. If a client is in an angry mood, therapists should turn down the temperature of the heating unit or do a traditional massage without heated stones.

For the angry client, practitioners should consider using cool white quartzite stones on the face. If a stone slips off an area more than once, it may be an indication the stone doesn’t need to be on that body part. Stones have consciousness and awareness. A particular stone that has fallen or slipped off should possibly be removed because it needs to be recharged or it should be placed on a different area of the body.

Stones can offer entirely new levels of therapy. Bringing cohesion to the body, mind and spirit, infusing pranic energy, offering magnetic health properties, increasing vitality and circulation, and decreasing inflammation are just a few of the avenues stone work can address. And that’s not even taking into account the benefits of stone work to the therapist. Many therapists turn to working with tools, especially stones, after injuring their own hands. Stones can attack knots efficiently and quickly without hurting the therapist. Bodyworkers also reap the rewards of the warmed stones as they work not only on the client, but by default, on the therapist’s own hands.

There is much to be understood about working with stones, including the spiritual element they bring to the table, but by the reaction of clients and therapists alike, there is great promise to be realized.

Parts of this article first appeared in Spirit of Change magazine, May/June 2002.