By Shirley Vanderbilt
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2004.
As one who has used and abused my body for more than half a
century, I barely give it a passing glance in the mirror, figuring what’s done is done. But on this particular morning, as I donned a two-piece swimsuit in preparation for my first Hellerwork session, I paused to take stock. Reflected in the mirror was a disturbing sight. My right shoulder sagged at an angle. Body weight obviously shifted right to protect an arthritic hip. From top to bottom, the entire side looked like it was pulled taut by a rope.
When I contacted Hellerwork practitioner Joseph Hunton for an interview, he graciously invited me to his Seattle-area office to experience the therapy first-hand. Hunton also happens to be president of the American Hellerwork Association (AHA) and a board member of Hellerwork International (HI). Taking advantage of his offer, I placed my sadly misaligned structure in his capable, gentle hands. The results were astounding.
By the end of our session, I felt like I was walking on air — my body as light as a feather. Hunton will vouch that I was even skipping across the room in delight at my new-found freedom. As I stood in front of the mirror in the treatment room, Hunton pointed out the changes. Not only had my right side lengthened to match the left, but my body no longer slouched forward and my head was erect rather than bowing toward the ground. In a mere 90 minutes, Hunton had corrected the ravages of years. And while there were still other areas of my body to be addressed, this one session was indicative of how quickly and effectively change could be instituted.
“Every body is a reflection of the person’s history,” Hunton says, “and the way our bodies may be held, twisted, or contorted, or conversely open, free, or balanced, is a reflection of our history — what was it like growing up in our families, what kind of emotional/physical trauma we had in our lives; how much warmth, love, and affection have we been able to receive and hold on to.” While we all share the basic human form, each body has its own variation and requires an individualized approach. Hellerwork combines structural bodywork along with dialogue and movement education to realign the body and reduce chronic tension and stress. As such, it is an interactive approach with the client and therapist working in partnership.
One of the primary goals of Hellerwork, Hunton says, is to enhance awareness of the body and the mind/body connection: “How our emotional patterns are reflected in our body and our posture, and how shifts in the ease or release of tension in the body can have a profound effect on your sense of emotional well-being.”
A Tri-Fold Approach
After immigrating to America from Poland as a teenager, Joseph Heller acquired the first piece of his approach, that of structure and stress, as an aerospace engineer in a California jet propulsion lab. The next piece unfolded as he became interested in the humanistic psychology movement. Heller, who participated in trainings with a cluster of forward-thinking psychologists, left engineering behind and became a Rolfing practitioner. His work with Ida Rolf led to his position, in 1976, as the first president of the Rolf Institute. During the ’70s, Heller also trained as a structural patterner under the tutelage of Judith Aston and pursued studies with Brugh Joy, a physician whose focus was preventive medicine and the role of energy in healing. The pieces began to fall into place, and Heller left the Rolf Institute in 1978 to establish his own brand of therapy.
According to Hunton, it became evident to Heller that all three pieces — deep tissue bodywork, movement education, and dialogue — were needed to obtain lasting results. Rolfing and the various approaches derived from this Structural Integration work are very similar. “Ida Rolf put together a 10-session series that was designed to work from the more extrinsic muscles down to the layers of the more intrinsic ones, allowing the body to unwind for maximum movement,” Hunton says. Although Heller’s bodywork is primarily based on Rolfing, he adds, “I would say he put a bit of a spin on it.”
The hands-on portion of Hellerwork is focused on releasing tension and stress in the fascia, that plastic-like sheath of connective tissue that wraps the muscles and weaves in layers throughout the body. Sometimes referred to as a multilayered body stocking, the fascia in any area of the body is affected by stress on fascia in other parts.
Hunton describes what he calls the “good news-bad news” of fascia: “The bad news is that under stress or lack of movement, this connective tissue becomes shortened, rigid, and dehydrated. Injuries, poor movement and postural habits, emotional trauma, and daily stress are all reflected in the body as chronic tension and pain. Layers of fascia become glued together, and patterns of strain pull our bones and joints out of alignment. Our structure is forced to compensate, causing increased strain and imbalances through the muscular skeletal system.
“The good news is that fascia is one of the only tissues in the body where we can influence the condition in terms of length, flexibility, and fluidity. Through the introduction of heat and energy in the form of applied pressure and intention, the Hellerwork practitioner lengthens, releases adhesions, and unwinds patterns of strain and tension in the myofascial system. This systematic release allows our bodies to return to a state of balanced alignment, comfortable support, and ease of movement.”
However, this release may not have a lasting effect without equal attention to the emotional issues behind the stress and the maladaptive movements that keep the dysfunction in place. “I really consider this work a collaboration,” Hunton says. “It’s a joint project between the Hellerworker and the client. The Hellerwork practitioner brings his insight, knowledge, and experience working with the myofascial system, movement patterns, and the emotional parts. What we ask the client to bring is their participation, their attention to the process, their growing awareness, and their willingness and courage to examine themselves.”
This recognition of courage is important to Hunton, and I remember his reference to my own bravery as we finished our session: “I find that it’s a courageous act to come in and lay yourself and your stuff out on my table, and open yourself to the possibilities of change and the process of feeling your pain, and allowing that to move. The payoff is to be able to move through life without having to carry all that extra stuff that we lay on ourselves and that we collect over the years.”
Hunton says it surprises him how often parts of the body correlate to, or are metaphors for, our emotional reality. For example, we use the arms to reach out, to bring things into our lives. “We can conversely use them to push things away, hold them at bay,” he says. “So if I find that a client is having issues with spending too much time pushing things or people away from them and not enough time drawing into their lives or reaching out for support, that may draw me to do more work on the arms and the shoulders, the anatomical parts that allow the arms to move more freely.”
The mind, body, and spirit are so completely interwoven, Hunton says, that the shift in one of these areas brings about a corresponding shift in another. “Often what I’m doing is looking for the doorway into this pattern in my client.” It could be bodywork that creates the shift. Or the doorway may be a combination of dialogue and movement awareness, such as seeing how the arms are used to reach out and learning to do so without tension. The shift may come from talking about patterns the client uses when feeling unsupported or isolated, or they may even be given homework to call a friend and reach out for support. “I play with those pieces and see what combination seems to reach the person. This is exactly why I was attracted to Hellerwork.”
The Hellerwork Series
Hellerwork is structured into a series of 11 sections, combining deep tissue work, movement education, and dialogue. Each session has an emotional theme focusing on developmental issues, along with an anatomical focus and specific movement lessons. It is a methodical process of peeling through the layers of connective tissue, from the superficial to those deeper in the core, and then integrating the work.
Although Hellerwork sessions are scripted, they are also open-ended, Hunton says. “With each session we’re given a body map of the terrain of the session, and within that terrain we look at and feel what’s going on in the individual.” The goal may be to get the rib cage to move easier, but because the hips are locked up and interfering with this movement, work on the hips is required as well. The practitioner begins with the basic plan and then customizes it to the individual client.
“The first seven sessions we spend a lot of time taking things apart, breaking up adhesions and old patterns,” Hunton says. “Then the last four sessions are more about putting things back together — how we can get these pieces to now move and balance as a unit.”
The superficial layer — what is called the sleeve muscle — is the focus of the first three sessions. Themes in this section are related to childhood development issues: breathing, standing up, and reaching out.
In the first session, the goal is to open breathing and align the rib cage over the pelvis. Accomplishing this requires working on all those parts that contribute to expansion of the chest. As Hunton pointed out to me in our first session, the holding and tension in my hips and shoulders were restricting the rib cage and required attention in order to free up the diaphragm. Following the bodywork, he also prompted me to straighten my spine and align my shoulders by physically lifting up on the diaphragm with my fingers. In order for me to breathe fully and expend as little energy as possible, he talked to me about proper posture and gave me a lesson in breathing.
The dialogue component reflected the session’s theme of Inspiration. During the bodywork portion, Hunton asked, “What inspires you?” and the seed of my answer has grown over time, planting itself firmly in my thoughts and coloring them with ... well, inspiration. Not only did I have a shift in body posture, but also a shift in my thinking and an awareness of the way in which I was using my energy in my daily life. In other words, the verbal exchange that accompanied the fascial release brought the point home in my mind.
“The meaning of inspiration is to draw in spirit,” Hunton says. “How does the client do that? Is it an easy or comfortable thing or do they feel challenged, restricted, or held? What I like to do is go back to the theme at the end of the session and see if how they feel about that particular issue has changed, and invariably it has. Something has shifted for them. There’s an ease around the physical act of breathing and also the emotional reality of drawing in spirit.”
Standing on Your Own Two Feet and Reaching Out are the themes in the next two sections. These sessions work on alignment in the lower body with proper weight distribution and the release of tension in the upper body to enhance a balanced vertical alignment along the sides of the torso. The emotional issues addressed have to do with self-sufficiency, as well as reaching out to others for support. Balance in walking forward and allowing the arms to hang free are the target in movement education.
The core sections involve the intrinsic muscles — those related to fine motor movement. Here, issues of adolescence emerge with the themes of Control and Surrender, The Guts, Holding Back, and Losing Your Head. Bodywork is focused on releasing tension in the areas of the inner leg muscles, pelvis, and head and neck; lengthening through the back and up to the top of the core, the head; and facilitating alignment of the head over the torso. As with other sessions, the movement lessons relate both to the bodywork and emotional issues being addressed through dialogue.
Integrating the core and sleeve work is the goal of the last four sessions. Having made her way through the stages of infancy and adolescence, the client is now invited to reflect on issues of maturity — feminine and masculine energy, wholeness, and self-expression. At this point, the Hellerworker is, as Hunton says, putting it all back together, facilitating a balance and alignment that fits this individual’s unique body. The last session generally does not include bodywork. Through dialogue, the therapist and client review the progress and address any lingering issues. The therapist is there to support and reinforce, as well as answer questions. In a sense, this session is the doorway through which the client steps out into the world to practice and apply what has been learned and changed.
As if following the script, the client’s emotions tend to mirror the focus of sessions. “It oftentimes surprises me,” Hunton says, “as I move from one session to another with a client, that they will come into the session talking about some issue in their life that very much relates to the theme of that session.” As with the bodywork, the way in which the theme is explored in dialogue is personal to each individual and her needs. Once the mind/body connection is made, that connection reflects in more physical openness, as well as more openness in her life. “One of the things we’re trying to do is look for the patterns, both physical and emotional, that we see in our clients,” Hunton says, “and try to determine how we can unwind those patterns and give our clients the opportunity to move and live in a more balanced, fluid state.”
Most people either see or feel a fairly strong shift after a Hellerwork session, resulting in a visual change in the body or a proprioceptive sense of feeling lighter and energetic, such as I experienced when inspired to skip across the room. There’s a sense of well-being and flow. “Usually the energy level will rise and sometimes a person will just feel stirred up,” Hunton says, “like something that has been buried has been uncovered and shaken, or moved, or flushed to the surface.”
Hunton says if the client does not exhibit or notice a significant shift, the Hellerworker can then use this information to change the focus or find some different way to work with her. For example, the client may need to focus more on her body awareness and may be given homework to notice sensations in her body. Between session work is another important part of the client’s participation — to examine more deeply within herself the issues explored during treatment.
Joseph (Heller) says he’s not training practitioners, he’s growing people,” Hunton muses. “We have to learn about ourselves and what our patterns are, and be willing to look at that in order to be able to work with people at a deeper level. When you are able to do that, it allows you to be present, to actively listen both with your clients’ words and the information you receive as you touch their body.”
Hunton says an important piece of training is focused around the practitioner’s contact with the client. “The goal is to create this bubble of safety and connection, and it is when we’re able to create that bubble that we create a safe space for the client to do their work.” Hunton seems well-suited for creating that safe space. His calm, gentle manner is complemented by an empathic approach and good listening skills. But that’s not surprising, considering his background in psychology. Like many practitioners in alternative therapies, Hunton has gone through several career incarnations. Leaving psychology to become a building contractor, he still felt something missing in his life. Hellerwork was that missing piece and as he says, “I went from remodeling houses to remodeling bodies.”
Training in Hellerwork is offered through intensives (two- to four-week residential programs), weekend sessions, or a combination of the two. In addition, practitioners are required to complete 36 hours of continuing education credit every two years. Hunton says many Hellerworkers pursue even more training, taking advantage of association workshop offerings throughout the year. As with other modalities, the focus of a Hellerwork practice can vary, and there are some exciting directions to explore. According to Hunton, some of the more recent developments in Hellerwork include addressing birth trauma in infants, food allergies, and adult onset of chronic pain. While Hellerwork is not intended to treat illness, in many cases it can provide an effective complement to medical or psychological care. Working with post-surgical patients, Hunton has noticed a tendency in these clients to close up or shut down, a defen-sive reaction to the invasion of the medical procedure. With Hellerwork, they begin to open up, circulation improves, and recovery time is shorter, he says. “Our bodies know what they need. All I really need to do is to remind them, give them a shove in the right direction, and they will move toward health.” Practicing what he preaches, even Hunton continues to get Hellerwork at least every two weeks.
The Art of the Work
For many of us, accumulated stress in the body is the result of life’s ups and downs, whether job- or family-related, or the injuries our bodies have suffered along the way. But for some, it can be the result of a serious trauma, such as abuse or violence. In these more extreme cases, trauma surfacing from bodywork calls for a professional psychological referral. That said, each client will also have her own tolerance for release of emotional issues. Hunton emphasizes the need to honor sensitive areas, perhaps with more gentleness and a change in the pace.
“Many times when people begin to release trauma, the thing for me to be aware of is that the more they’re able to just stay with the sensations that are arising rather than the story, the more easily the trauma will move. It’s often a matter of slowing things down to allow their body, mind, and spirit to process what is coming up, so as to not re-traumatize.
“This is the art of the work,” he says. “There’s no real set formula.”
For Hunton, it’s important to keep his client in the present moment — the experiential part of feeling sensation. Doing so enhances the ability of the client to release or change what had been held. “Even just to fully be present and witness what their experience is, is a tremendous healing,” he says. “I know so many times when people come to you with some upsetness, they are often not looking for solutions, they are looking to be heard. For you to do nothing but to listen and energetically hold them while they tell their story is a tremendous opportunity for healing.”