By Mary Kathleen Rose
Originally published in Body Sense, Spring/Summer 2009.
If you look at the natural world around you, you’ll be surprised by what it can teach you about your own self-care. We can attune to the cycle of the seasons, letting that awareness bring a healthy balance of self-care measures into our lives. Spring, for example, is the season of new growth and is associated with movement, physical exercise, and activity. Summer is the time of abundance and warmth, naturally associated with nourishing food. It is also a time for connection with others through social interaction, community activities, and travel. Autumn is the time to reap the harvest of the previous seasons and release and let go of whatever is no longer useful. A focus on the breath—inhalation and exhalation—naturally fits with this season. Winter is a natural time to rest. It is associated with sleep and stillness.
Just as we learn by observing the natural cycles of the yearly seasons, so we can learn by respecting the cycle of day and night. From a place of rest, we move into activity, reaching out for connection and nourishment from outside of ourselves. We sleep, move, eat, breathe, let go, and surrender to the cycle again. Like all living creatures, we live and thrive in natural cycles of activity and inactivity, of nourishment and elimination, and of inspiration and exhalation. We honor the changes within the cycles of a day, a week, a year, and a lifetime.
Bodywork and the Seasons
So how can massage and bodywork best support us throughout the changing seasons? Whether literal or metaphorical, the seasons represent times of differing needs and preferences. Let’s see how each season can relate to a different style of bodywork.
Spring is a time of growth and change, and naturally gives rise to the urge to become more physically active. The growing light and warmer days are conducive to greater movement, including therapeutic and recreational exercise. Bodywork that supports you in your exercise regimen can be useful in this phase and helps keep you motivated.
This is the natural season for sports massage, or techniques that address muscle soreness after exercise. Deep-tissue massage or orthopedic modalities can address specific muscle pain or tension. Getting work on trigger points or motor points of muscles helps them relax after exercise. Massage before exercise, using techniques of broad or specific compression, can help prevent soreness by warming and activating the muscles.
Many people find that massage in the early part of the day, while relaxing, can also be rejuvenating, helping them feel motivated to exercise. It also helps you feel energized and in tune with your body. Conversation during the session should focus on your specific needs. It can be useful to tell your therapist what kind of exercise you are doing and what your goals are as they relate to your physical activity.
Summer is the season of abundance and warmth, and a time to enjoy the nourishing gifts of the natural world. It is the time for social connection, travel, and new experience. Massage and bodywork for this season encourage you to feel a sense of wholeness and integration in your body. It is deeply nurturing for your body and mind, providing an opportunity for physical and emotional healing.
Techniques of integrative massage can be the perfect modality to nurture you in the summertime. This technique utilizes a slow rhythm, full hand contact, and firm, gliding strokes that emphasize the interconnectiveness of the parts of the body. Like the warmth of the summer sun, massage for this season allows you to relax your body, effortlessly letting go of long held patterns of tension and opening your heart and mind to new experience.
Because summer is a natural time for travel, it can also be a time to indulge your own spirit of adventure and try something new in your self-care program. Visit a mineral hot springs and indulge in hydrotherapy, or visit a day spa and get a seaweed wrap along with your massage.
As the fullness of summer yields to the glory of changing colors and falling leaves, autumn is the time to look at our priorities, exude gratefulness for what we have, and be willing to let go of whatever is no longer useful. The focus of bodywork can include attention to the natural rhythms of the breath—inhalation and exhalation. Massage is a time to let go of physical tension and emotional stress, as you open yourself to new inspiration.
Bodywork for this season can vary depending on your needs and preferences. Pay attention to the body positioning that allows you to breathe most easily, whether you are on a massage table or a chair for seated massage. For example, most people find it easier to breathe in the supine (face up) or side-lying positions than the prone (face down) position. Request more time in the position that is most comfortable for you, and your therapist can adapt to your needs.
Shoulder massage while seated in a regular chair is another option that is very helpful in facilitating effortless breathing. Stimulation of the acupressure points of the lung and large intestine meridians, which are on the hands, arms, and feet, also support ease of breathing and the processes of elimination.
With longer hours of darkness, winter is naturally the time of rest and stillness. The bodywork that characterizes the energy of this season is deeply relaxing. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to engage its own healing, restorative processes where heart rate and blood pressure are lowered. Best of all, relaxation massage allows you to experience the blissful, altered state of mind that comes as you surrender to comforting touch.
Any massage modality that is relaxing to you can be appropriate. For example, the slow, gliding strokes of effleurage—for many one of the most pleasurable of Swedish massage techniques—can transport you to a place of peacefulness and serenity, giving you a mini-vacation from the stresses of your busy life. Other modalities that can be restful include manual lymph drainage, nurturing acupressure, and various energy-related therapies.
With nurturing touch, a soothing massage lotion or oil is often applied that can help hydrate dry winter skin. Relaxing music can contribute to the ambience of the session, helping you experience the quiet of the season.
Communicating Your Needs
With these suggestions for massage and bodywork throughout the seasons, you are always free to recognize your own needs and preferences at any given time and communicate that to your therapist. For example, state your intention before the session by saying, “Today I’m feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. I really just need to relax.” Or, “I’ve been riding my bicycle every day this week. My leg muscles could use some serious attention.” Maybe you’ve had a stressful time at work or feel overcommitted in your personal or social life. Use the bodywork session as a time to focus on nurturing yourself, reclaiming your sense of wholeness, and allowing integration of body and mind. Maybe, you have experienced a significant loss or personal challenge in your life and need a safe place to feel and process your emotions. Sometimes it is helpful to talk during a session, and other times it is best to sink deep into the experience without the distraction of conversation.
Whatever your needs and preferences, communicate them to your therapist and know that you can enjoy the benefits of massage and bodywork any time of the year.