By Barry Kapke
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2003.
Studying many Asian bodywork forms is like learning a martial art. The practitioner practices the sequence, or kata, over and over until it is so embodied that the form can eventually be forgotten and the appropriate response will arise when needed, without the intervention of thought or will. The zen archer no longer shoots the arrow; the arrow shoots itself. This is the way of mastery.
We could say that Insight Bodywork, on the other hand, is the way of mystery — or better, of investigation and intuition. The practitioner starts with no map, no agenda, no plan as to what is to be done or achieved. He or she enters the stillness and waits. At some point, the body chooses to move, stepping into the unknown. With that initial step, the road begins to form itself underfoot. Insight Bodywork is about picking up a thread — whatever thread presents itself in the moment — and following it, seeing where it leads. Practitioner and recipient are explorers together on a journey of discovery. The recipient’s sensate experience, and body, is the territory; the practitioner is the light shining focus along the trail. Insight — bright flashes of recognition or understanding — is the fruit of the inquiry.
Insight Bodywork is a floor-based form of somatic energy work that seamlessly integrates massage, movement and meditation. It utilizes acupressure and myofascial techniques, giving maximum support to the body while mobilizing joints, moving into slow deep stretches, integrating with soothing brushes and holds, and, when appropriate, energizing through shaking, rocking, swinging or dropping. Earthy, gentle and spontaneous, this is a work that is both playful and reverent in its approach.
Put another way, Insight Bodywork is simply what I do. It is how massage expresses itself through my body. Sometimes it surprises me — “Where did that come from?” — but in the moment that a new bodywork idea or sequence presents itself, it always feels like the right thing to do. And, for me, it is.
As a bodywork approach, Insight Bodywork is a learned skill set like any massage or bodywork form. Even though its practice is largely improvisational, it requires a solid foundation in concrete techniques, or what I prefer to think of as embodiment concepts and movement tools. As with jazz music, the freedom of improvisation arises from discipline and technique, from mastery and knowledge of one’s instrument. For the Insight Bodywork practitioner, understanding and skill must be developed in three areas — massage, movement and meditation — before intuition can be a reliable guide.
The principal topography Insight Bodywork addresses is energetic, created with the understanding that body and mind are a complex matrix of movement and relationship. The jing-luo channel system of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the chakra/nadi system of yogic and Ayurvedic medicines constitute a comprehensive energy map with which to work.
Insight Bodywork employs many of the “tools” common to Asian bodywork to facilitate the free flow of energy (qi or prana) throughout the body. This includes the use of directed manual pressure with thumbs, fingers, palms, forearms, elbows, knees, feet or any body surface. One way Insight Bodywork differs from acupressure systems like shiatsu or Thai massage is in its extended use of multiple points of contact. Rather than having one or even two focal points of pressure contact, it is typical of the Insight Bodywork practitioner to be connecting at three — and often more — places at any given time.
Directed pressure through leaning with relaxed weight is more or less a yin technique. Percussion is a more yang, more stimulating, way to apply pressure, with the added element of deeply penetrating vibration. Insight Bodywork expands the repertoire of tapotement. Sometimes there is the direct percussion to the client; sometimes it is indirect, received through the intermediary of the practitioner’s body. An even stronger application is dropping, which combines percussive impact and surprise to dislodge stuck energy, usually yielding an immediate surge of release. Connection and integration are fostered through the use of holds, wiggles, brushing or sweeping, and, of course, the practitioner’s intention.
Insight Bodywork is a way of working that is rhythmic, musical and dance-like. A typical Insight Bodywork session may consist of any combination of leaning, holding, shaking, rocking, stretching, mobilizing, unwinding, rubbing, brushing, percussing, dropping, visualizing and intending. While there is a set of common movement ideas that are often present in any Insight Bodywork session, for the most part each session will be different in the choices made and the threads that are followed.
A client recently told me the thing that fascinated him about Insight Bodywork was its unpredictability. He was used to spacing out during a massage, drifting off to some other place, but he said that the Insight experience intrigued him in a way that he wanted to stay present in his body, to see what would happen next. He was interested in the experience. This sense of unpredictability, and not knowing what will come next, does not mean the experience is a cacophonous jumble of random stimulation. There is clearly a pattern, but it’s a playful pattern with many textures and colors. What allows this to work is that there is a connection between the elements, a thread that is being followed. There is an understanding of the body and a confidence that allows the practitioner to tie it all together in a seamless whole and to have fun doing it.
While Insight Bodywork may bring about many of the same results as other bodywork — relaxation, increased circulation of qi and fluids, enhanced flexibility and ease of movement, improved structural (postural) awareness and comfort, facilitated elimination of toxins, better breathing and systemic functioning — these are by-products, not goals. The intent of this work is discovery — knowledge of how this body is in this moment. It is concerned with empowering through awareness rather than telling the body how it should be, encouraging flow and connection, and promoting harmony and integration. Insight Bodywork addresses, and engages, the whole person — body, mind and emotions — in a supportive nurturing container that is intimate and totally safe.
The body is meant to move and yet the majority of massage commonly practiced is performed on a nonmoving body. Insight Bodywork works with a body’s movement potentials. It explores and supports motion in almost every joint.
Early in my bodywork education, I was struck by the power of passive movement to open and release. Irene Newmark, one of my root teachers, was demonstrating Breema bodywork to my shiatsu class, and I was the lucky recipient. I lay there with my eyes closed, determined to resist the impulse to see what she was doing. I wanted to feel what was happening so I didn’t peek. It seemed that a multitude of hands were touching me, moving my limbs, stretching me, holding, sliding fluidly from place to place. I was amazed. Although there was considerable activity, it felt so simple and effortless. I felt completely enveloped and supported by her touch, but I was confounded as to how she could be so many places at once. I couldn’t figure it out so there was nothing left to be done but to let go, stop the thinking and surrender to feeling. There was such nurturing support in this playful contact that it was easy to surrender. In that moment of letting go an image arose in my mind that I’ve never forgotten. I was floating in a deep warm sea, dancing with an octopus. What a joyous, freeing sensation.
This insight revealed to me that movement had to be a central component in the bodywork I would embody. Through movement, we experience our wholeness. Through movement, we experience that we are alive.
Buddhist teachings contribute to Insight Bodywork an understanding of the primacy of mind as a conditioning factor of both perception and experience, and of the effect of emotions and subtle mental energies — thoughts, attitudes, beliefs — upon physical phenomena such as the body. Insight Bodywork attempts to promote positive states of mind, and corresponding positive states of body, through awareness. Where the mind goes, energy follows.
Insight Bodywork is a mindfulness practice. It is a way of using the body to remember to be in the body, to be in the present moment, to be here now. When we drop out of our minds and into our feeling bodies, this is where we find peace and clarity. Feeling is always immediate. Insight Bodywork provides a structure that assists us to feel and to pay attention. From this awareness, insights arise — reflective bubbles of understanding that can guide us to live more wisely and more harmoniously. Insight Bodywork is a process that facilitates mindfulness for both practitioner and client.
As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, Insight Bodywork works with intention as an active tool. Numerous studies have pointed to the very real consequences that thought, prayer and intention have on the healing process. Insight Bodywork is a process-based bodywork, energized by specific intentions — metta or unconditional love and well-wishing, and acceptance and forgiveness — which ground a way of working that is intuitive and spontaneous.
Insight Bodywork may be considered a recent development in a tradition of healing work I call “Dharma medicine.” “Dharma” in one sense means “truth” or “the way things are.” Insight Bodywork is concerned with discovering the body’s truth and with helping to remove the obstructions to being in harmony with “how things are.”
It is important to recognize that massage and bodywork touches people in many different ways. Through its tripartite emphasis on massage, movement and meditation, Insight Bodywork engages aspects of a person in different ways that result in a more integrated sense of oneself, one’s restrictions and one’s potentials. It is a journey of discovery and liberation, not a corrective intervention approach. Aided with appropriate information and awareness, the body possesses the resources and the wisdom to move towards balance and harmony — whatever that may be for an individual. Change always comes from the client — when and if it is appropriate — and is never imposed from the outside by the Insight Bodywork practitioner. The practitioner is there as support, to shine the light, and to get out of the client’s way.
Insight Bodywork is about relationships — the relationship of mutual support between practitioner and recipient, the relationship between awareness and experience, the relationship between energy and embodiment, and the myriad relationships between aspects of the body and mind. It seeks balance, harmony, flow. It trusts the process. It enjoys the journey. Insight is the fruit of the inquiry.