Mind, Body and Spirit

The Spiritual Consciousness of Massage and Bodywork

By Darren Buford

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2002.

In massage and bodywork, there is an elephant on your tables and chairs, in your spa rooms, and, in fact, everywhere you take the profession. Not the trunk and peanuts kind. No, this animal is metaphorical in nature, yet an animal, nonetheless. Strangely paradoxical, this elephant is the backbone of many modalities and to many of our lives, yet is often avoided in the name of privacy, sacredness, and because we just don’t know how to talk about it. The subject of which I speak is none other than spirituality.

Since antiquity, spirituality has been a part of massage. For instance, we know after the fall of Rome, written accounts document medically-trained monks practicing massage and anointing with oils.1 We also know that around 1st century B.C., the Therapeutae, a pre-Christian order, included spiritual healing as part of physical healing. In fact, the Greek philosopher Philo of Alexandria writes that these philosophers “profess an art of healing better than that current in the cities, which cures only the bodies, while theirs treats also souls.”2

It’s somewhat disheartening that after more than 2,000 years there has been little progress in “treating the soul.” Instead, addressing physical manifestations has remained par for the course in the massage profession since Cornelius E. De Puy (the father of massage therapy in the United States) published his first journal on the subject in 1817. In turn, a large schism has developed between spirituality and massage practice. Also unfortunate, because discussing religion is often taboo, even amongst the closest of friends and co-workers, and because so many different belief systems exist, it’s sometimes difficult to establish a common line of communication.

Ultimately, bodyworkers have more in common than not. Regardless of religion, or the lack thereof, most feel there is an underlying spiritual motivation to their work, further compounded by the belief in the connection between practitioner and client. Some attribute this to God, Earth, Higher Power or nature. Call the source whatever you like, most practitioners feel something special occurs when bodywork is performed.

As many massage schools move closer toward medical-based programs, addressing spirituality and bodywork is more important than ever. With each analytical and technical stride the field makes in gaining medical acceptance, pushing this essential element of the profession to the wayside could lead to services that are the equivalent to placing Band-Aids on gaping wounds. For many, real healing occurs when not only the pathology is alleviated, but when the soul, the core, is healed as well.

Whether you are a Christian, atheist, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic, etc., you are defined by your beliefs, and in turn, define yourselves by them, and thus, bring this to the table...literally. Because there is value in opening up discussion and speaking about the common spiritual bond in your work, let’s discuss this elephant in the room. Let’s speak from the heart, openly and candidly, about spirituality and what it does and does not mean to the bodywork practitioner, fundamentally and ethically, to determine where the future of their fusion lies.

The Healing Power of Prayer

In the past, we’ve reported how those who exercise are healthier, have better self-esteem and seem to have a better disposition.3 According to David S. Sobel, author of The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook, the same characteristics are true of the spiritually devout.4 A study of male hospital patients found that more than half of the men reported religion as helpful in coping with their illness. These same individuals also reported less depression than those who were not religious. A separate study found those who attend church have lower blood pressure, are 50 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack and were three times as likely to survive an operation than non-attendees. In still another study, which had a seven-year duration, the elderly who were religious reported having less physical disabilities than those who were not.

From the various research, Sobel hypothesizes that with spirituality comes relaxation, moral behavior and greater satisfaction with life, all contributions to the above results. He then suggests speaking with our primary physicians about our religious beliefs as a means to complement medical care. But is this ethical on the part of the doctor? And what doctor would feel comfortable discussing such an issue?

In the United States Constitution, it is written there is to be a separation of church and state. The First Amendment was established as a reaction against the marriage of religious practice and government from which our ancestors left England. Some say a similar “silent” amendment be applied to the massage practitioner when it comes to bridging spirituality and health care. Some say it already exists. There is no question, ethically the massage practitioner walks a fine line when conversing about spirituality or religion with his clients.

According to professional guidelines specialist and author Nina McIntosh, the line between spirituality and health care should be thickly drawn. “I think we have to stick to the implied contract,” said McIntosh. “People are coming to us for our expertise in massage (or whatever kind of bodywork) and that is what we will do — not foist our spiritual ideas or our psychological opinions on them. Even if a massage therapist happened to have a degree in theology, clients are coming for a massage.

“Yes, touch is spiritual and also psychological. And so, as bodyworkers and massage therapists, we want to be as evolved as we can spiritually and psychologically and use that in the compassionate way we deal with our clients, not by preaching to them.”

McIntosh warns of what she calls the Weekend Warrior Syndrome. The practitioner who is prey to this condition is also known as the “instant expert.” After gaining valuable knowledge in a new technique, a personal discovery or spiritual growth during a seminar or continuing education course, this massage therapist is revitalized, but may practice, or worse, preach something they do not truly comprehend. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” writes McIntosh in her new book The Educated Heart. She admonishes it’s not appropriate to be a spiritual adviser as it could be construed as offensive to clients. “If we think we have had a spiritual awakening,” writes McIntosh, “rather than preaching or giving our clients ‘The Answer,’ we can use our spirituality to be kinder to them.”5

Sister Act

To some, however, massage and spirituality are so intricately fused, the idea of separating the two is impossible. From this vantage point, leaving out a piece conflicts with one’s innate being. Consider Sister Rosalind Gefre who operates two clinics of massage and is the founder of three schools in Minnesota, and another in North Dakota. What makes her schools unique is their foundation in Christian principles. In fact, courses in spirituality are a required part of the curriculum. Students are even asked to define and evaluate their own spiritual beliefs and decide how they relate to the massage therapist/client relationship.

According to Bill Dunn, director of academics at Sister Rosalind’s School of Massage, “Many of our students tell us they come to Sister Rosalind’s versus another school because there is a spiritual component to it. This makes them feel safe and comfortable.” The rise in attendance at the school surely is a testament to students wanting the incorporation of spirituality in their massage education. “Even though there are eight new schools in the Minneapolis area, our enrollment is at its highest in four years.”

When growing up, Dunn said there were two things his parents informed him not to talk about — politics and religion — because they are so close to people’s hearts. Dunn said that at Sister Gefre’s they work around any potential problems by encouraging the respect of others’ beliefs and encouraging students to discover and explore their own belief systems. “If they can become open to recognizing their own spirituality, they’ll be in a better position to help facilitate others’ healing processes. To manipulate the soft tissue with your hands is a wonderful gift, but you can really make that gift come alive if you have a strong connection with a Higher Power, with God.”

Dunn does not negate there are some students turned off by the school. Though he admits it’s not for everyone, he insists the school doesn’t pressure students to be who they are not. “We encourage prayer because that’s who we are, but it’s not forced. We don’t promote that you have to be Catholic by any means. We don’t promote you have to be Christian. We don’t even ask what your religion is.”

School founder Sister Gefre said during her career as a bodyworker she has noticed people are not only skin hungry but prayer hungry. She is often asked during sessions to pray with her clients. “I don’t believe in pushing my religious convictions, but I do know the world is hungry for God and the need for solid spirituality,” she said. Gefre sees no conflict between her work and her faith. “When I pray with people, I realize something more happens than just doing massage.”

Research shows Gefre’s intuition may very well be true. According to Larry Dossey, M.D., one of the nation’s most vocal proponents of spirituality in wellness, prayer has proven favorable in helping those with AIDS, fertility difficulties and heart problems. In fact, a majority of the nation’s medical institutions have even taken to addressing the benefits of spirituality and health.6

Formerly with the Dallas Diagnostic Association, and former Chief of Staff of Medical City Dallas Hospital, today, Dossey devotes his efforts to propagating the influence of the mind in health and the role of spirituality in health care. “I used to believe that we must choose between science and reason on one hand, and spirituality on the other, in how we lead our lives,” he said. “Now I consider this a false choice. We can recover the sense of sacredness, not just in science, but in perhaps every area of life.”

Dossey, a former agnostic, gravitated toward this subject because he became impressed with the scientific evidence favoring prayer,7 a fact he felt could no longer be ignored by the medical community. “The good news is that a variety of methods work, so long as they are accompanied by love and compassion,” he said.

Dossey defines prayer as communication with the Absolute. “It may take many forms: verbal, nonverbal, elaborate ritual, sitting quietly, etc. People may pray when laying on hands. They may pray at a distance or close up. Prayer may be solitary and private or public. There simply is no formula for prayer. We must look in our hearts and find the most genuine and authentic form of expression.”

For Dossey, love, compassion and empathy underlie the effectiveness of prayer, which indicate a compassionate side to the universe, even an indication of a benevolent being. “Prayer is universal,” he said. And it may or may not even take place in the context of religion. “The idea of God is not mandatory for prayer to work. Buddhist prayer is also effective, yet Buddhism is not a theistic religion.”

A Church Without Walls

Perhaps the future of bodywork and spiritual integration lies somewhere within the prolific work of Albert Schatz, former Professor Emeritus of Education at Temple University. In 1984, Schatz and Karen Carlson integrated spiritual healing and massage, calling the integrated modality Holistic Massage. In 1989, Schatz introduced quantum physics and the concept of energy fields in massage in a course for massage students. Bodywork educated in Swedish massage, Feldenkrais, Trager and craniosacral therapy, today Schatz is retired from hands-on bodywork, and instead opts to fulfill his time by heading the Church for Spiritual Healing and Health, as well as directing the Journal of Spiritual Bodywork.

The mission of the two enterprises is the correlation between the scientifically proven effectiveness of spirituality and wellness and its inclusion into bodywork. The Church for Spiritual Healing and Health purports an ecumenical approach with respect to religion and its scope of interests, and focuses on the beginnings, philosophy and practice of spiritual massage healing and other spiritual modalities that help regain and maintain good health. The Church promotes research methods and efforts of spiritual healing with a view to increasing its efficacy.

Schatz initially became interested in understanding the spiritual nature of massage as an associate instructor at the International Academy of Massage Science. On an application form designed for incoming students, Schatz asked, “Why do you want to study massage?” “I was amazed because two-thirds of the students indicated their interest in massage was spiritual,” he said. Schatz began discussing the spirituality of massage with his students and found regardless of religious background, they maintained an earnestness about feeling “guided” toward the profession.

Through his various contacts, Schatz also became impressed with the number of massage therapists he met who were ordained ministers. Like his students, these practitioners felt what they were doing in their profession was spiritually motivated. Interestingly enough, most were ordained after becoming massage therapists, not before.

Though a self-described objective scientist, Schatz was continually intrigued by the connection he continued to find between massage practitioners and their spiritual motivation. He had been interested most of his life by religion and its system of values, recognizing their need in research and in science. “I think we are responsible for the kind of research we do and the kind in which we are engaged. I think the values have to be social values. And I think spirituality and religion, in general, give us those values.”

According to Schatz, the term “massage” has different meanings for secular massage therapists and spiritual massage healers. Most secular massage therapists consider manipulations most important. Most spiritual massage healers consider their consciousness and their subtle energy interactions with their clients most important. Schatz defines the latter as a “form of divinely inspired and divinely guided religious healing. It consists of prayer, love, anointing with oil and movements derived from the laying on of hands. It is the practice of one’s religious faith and conscience. It is a mode of worship. The spiritual massage practitioner is a religious healer. Prayer is an integral part of spiritual massage healing. It provides the healer with guidance. Without prayer, there is no spiritual massage healing.”

Schatz believes spirituality also involves subtle energy because it consists of our values, how we feel about them, and our feelings associated with what we do about them. This includes a massage therapist’s consciousness and intent. Schatz likens subtle energy to a magnetic field. “We do and we don’t end at our skin,” he said. “Our material bodies end at our skins. Our energy fields, which are within and without our material bodies, have no skins and no ends. Each person’s energy field occupies the entire universe. This includes his material body. Even though one does Therapeutic Touch8 only on a person’s energy field, that person’s entire material body is influenced because his energy field fills his entire body. These considerations apply to massage. Even though massage moves only the soft tissues, it influences a person’s energy field. Therefore, the massage practitioner works on the entire physical body. This includes the whole musculoskeletal system, every other system and the energy body.

“There is a scientifically justifiable position that one has to think of massage as a subtle energy interaction. This doesn’t mean you don’t include manipulations. But it does relegate the types of manipulations one does and the sequence of the manipulations to a secondary position with respect to subtle energy, which really involves consciousness, awareness of what we are doing, who we are, who the client is, our interaction, relationship and what we want to accomplish. All of these things are subtle energy considerations.”9,10

Within the Church for Spiritual Healing and Health, there are no distinctions between religion or the locus of a bodywork style. Schatz et al are proponents of inclusion because all practitioners, even agnostics and atheists, feel people have or should have a spiritual relationship with one another, independently of how they feel about God. “If anyone feels massage and bodywork has a spiritual component for whatever reason, join us, work with us. Our church has no membership role, no fees, doesn’t have a physical existence, but we put people in touch with one another.

“I’ve met people who say there is no question Jesus is guiding their hands. Others have said they enter a state of consciousness when they do massage. As far as I’m concerned, there is no one right way. And it is not restricted to the so-called ‘revealed religions’ [Islam, Christianity, etc.]. There are those who believe in the earth or nature. But they still have a spiritual attitude toward massage. I feel as long as they are helping people and not harming them, I support it.”

Facing the Elephant

Most massage therapists profess the importance of the connection of their work to their spirituality leanings. This does not, and according to some, should not, involve proselytizing to the client. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean the issue should continue to be an undiscussed elephant among the profession itself. In fact, many propose spirituality be addressed at some level in massage school, whether as an introduction to a specific modality or simply to note the eclecticism that is the massage and bodywork profession. Regardless of where, or how, or if spirituality is incorporated into massage and bodywork, it is interesting to note the significance of its growing acceptance in the medical field, as well as the waning of connecting spirituality and health care as charlatanism.

By no means is this a complete discussion of the topic or meant to be an end-all; rather it is a vehicle by which to shed some light on up-to-date research and some of the various approaches to bodywork that we might better understand one another, not chastise or belittle. For who is really right? Aren’t we all more similar than different, for massage therapists and bodyworkers alike have their own trinity: mind, body and spirit.