The Table and the Mat

The Union of Bodywork with Yoga

By Stephanie Mines

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, May/June 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

Yogis need massage and massage therapists and bodyworkers need yoga. The two arts are sisters. Therapists’ knowledge of yoga informs their creativity as bodyworkers, while their knowledge of body mechanics enhances their own yoga practice and teaching. For their yoga-practicing clients, an MT can sweep away the tension remaining after a yoga session, thereby facilitating the transformative nature of yoga. This makes “tuned-in” bodywork not only complementary, but also the perfect partner to focused, transformative yoga.

Heather Heintz, owner of Balancing Monkey Yoga Center in Hilo, Hawaii, says there can absolutely be a complementary relationship between yoga and bodywork. “Massage rakes out the residual tension from yoga,” she says. The deep layers that get stirred and rise to the surface in authentic yoga practice may need additional encouragement from a hands-on therapy for release.

Two teachers from Heintz’s yoga center are licensed massage therapists who, as a result of their grounding in both massage and yoga, see the value of the two arts working in tandem. Heintz says these instructors have daily, if not hourly, evidence of the dynamic interaction between the two arms of their careers.

Elisha Starr Sevareid has been a massage therapist for 12 years. As she went through the yoga teacher training mentorship at Balancing Monkey in 2009, she carefully observed students in their yoga practice. After years spent studying the body in passive and receptive states, she now witnessed it seeking its own authentic orientation in the choreography of an ancient movement practice. The passive and dynamic immediately merged. Sevareid began to develop massage strokes that matched yoga poses, or asanas. It was a stunning “ah-ha” moment that has transformed her bodywork practice and allowed her to be of even greater service to her clients, particularly those who practice yoga.

Sierra Sugrue graduated with Sevareid from the Balancing Monkey 200-hour teacher training in November 2009. She, too, has found that the two practices are inseparable. Both, she says, “teach a lifestyle of letting go.” Yoga has given Sugrue a way to fully release the accumulated stresses in her shoulders, neck, elbows, thumbs, and wrists that come from giving multiple massages each day. She no longer carries the toll of her work in her body. Yoga has also inspired Sugrue to explore a wider range of human capability. “There is a euphoric quality in the realization of the body’s capacity to extend and express,” she says. “If you know the full range of motion in your own body, then you can believe in it for others.”

Recovery Gateways

When someone comes to the treatment table with a previous injury or a complaint about limitation in a yoga pose, Sevareid and Sugrue use the restrictions as gateways to recovery. Even more than that, they say these restrictions are openings to maximizing potential. When you feel you just can’t elongate or release any more, they say the message is really the opposite. This is where you have to pay attention much more than if things were easy. Restriction is a call to expand. Difficulty, including previous or current injuries, beckons us to be more resilient, more creative, and more inspired. This is true for the therapist and client.

Sevareid and Sugrue learned how to relate to expressions of limitation during their Balancing Monkey teacher training. Their teacher’s emphasis on individuality and limitless possibility infused their bodywork. Yoga forces people to feel their underlying fascial layers as they move; this can also include their emotional connotations. Sevareid and Sugrue say bodywork does the same.

“Let the layers rise to the surface,” Heintz declares, making a clarion call to “bring on the awareness!” Sevareid and Sugrue agree, knowing this is what is needed for evolution, whether in a yoga class or a bodywork session. Rather than giving in to limitation, which is a form of collapse, they inquire into it with touch, movement, and the mind.

Both Sevareid and Sugrue have simultaneously come upon the approach of putting clients gently and supportively into the positions of their injury or a challenging (even “impossible”) asana and tending to the tissue from that point of entry. Sevareid explains this as she describes her work with a yoga student who had a serious back injury as the result of a motor vehicle accident. A foundational pose in any yoga practice is Downward Dog, or adho mukha svanasana. This student could no longer comfortably hold that posture, derailing her entire practice, from her point of view. Utilizing the yoga wall ropes used in a private yoga session, Sevareid put the student in a supported version of the pose and simultaneously addressed the needs of the related muscle groups in that position, including the trapezius and subscapularis.

After a series of private sessions, this client was able to fully regain her comfort in downward dog. This allowed her to experience not only her individual resilience but also to fully rejoin the group dynamic. She now believes her alignment in Downward Dog is enhanced. Increased capacity is a frequent benefit when bodywork is included in the recovery process.

Bodywork As Alignment

Becoming yoga teachers engendered paradigm shifts for Sevareid and Sugrue. They literally recreated their massage and bodywork techniques as a result. Key to this entire transformation was their perspective on alignment.

Good yoga teachers are skilled at “adjusting” students in poses during their practice. Helping yoga students find proper alignment within their pose is a skill that requires astute observation of the student’s individual form, knowledge of the asana’s anatomical aspects, and clarity about the benefits of the pose. At Balancing Monkey, teacher candidates are required to demonstrate adjustments under the careful eye of Heintz. She instructs her students by modeling adjustments that are simultaneously strengthening, awakening, and loving, all while instilling clear new neuromuscular information into the body. This could also be seen as a model for exemplary bodywork.

Both Sevareid and Sugrue have translated this education into massage strokes that awaken alignment and go beyond stress relief. They combine these strokes with their new insight into the relationship between discomfort and resistance, seeing them as precise instructions to uncover alignment. They have developed pathways through fascia with their hands to enable structural and muscular authenticity, free of distortion or compensation.

The yogic stance of non-attachment adds enormous courage and objectivity to the teachers’ perceptions of alignment. Witnessing restrictions with compassionate insight, the women are infused, as a result of their Balancing Monkey Yoga Teacher Training, with a vision of the body based on spacious and optimum health. Purging excess, Sevareid and Sugrue use bodywork to reprogram fascial memory.

This entire process has had a direct impact on Sevareid and Sugrue’s approach to the relationship between alignment and range of motion. Yoga is the philosophy of unity. Enhanced physical expression is also enhanced spiritual and emotional expression. The bodyworker who brings that intention into his or her touch fulfills, with each session, what the masterful yogi B.K.S. Iyengar meant when he said, “Yoga is about the evolution of humanity.”

An example comes in Sugrue’s exploration into full range of motion with the triceps, deltoid group, pectoralis, hands, and fingers. From the standpoint of Five Element Theory and energy medicine/energy psychology, the shoulders, hands, and fingers are avenues of the Heart Meridian or Fire Energy that brings the communication of our love forward into the world toward others. The upper back, in one of these energy systems (Jin Shin TARA), is called the “back door to the heart.” This is where any unresolved resistance, hesitation, or fear about sharing love is stored. As these channels are “raked clean,” to use Heintz’s phrase, the inner layers are peeled off so that light can shine through the body.

It is worth noting that elongation, elasticity, spaciousness, range of motion, and alignment are, in effect, one experience. Compression, contraction, density, and immobility (rigidity) oppose or contradict alignment. Iyengar, the teacher responsible for bringing the alignment benefits of yoga to the West, describes rigidity as “insensitivity,” meaning insensitivity to oneself, and insensitivity to the subtle layers of who we are and how they manifest in physical form.

Alignment is not just sitting upright with a straight spine. It involves all the layers of the body according to yogic principles. These layers, or kosas, include the energetic body (pranamaya kosa), the mental body (manomaya kosa), the intellectual body (vijnanamaya kosa), and the blissful or soul body (anandamaya kosa). Alignment is not possible if these layers are not aligned. Their conflict creates conflict in the body.

The Potential In Partnership

When Heintz told her teacher-training students to “always see the potential and teach to the potential,” Sevareid and Sugrue realized that potential evolves out of partnership.

Yoga includes the active support and encouragement of the teacher, the shared consciousness of the other students, and even the partnership of yoga props that serve to invite new neuromuscular experience, like the yoga ropes, bolsters, blocks, straps, and blankets.

How does this segue into bodywork? The first part of Heintz’s invocation is “see the potential.” This is where it all begins, but potential is not ego (another differentiation enhanced by yogic perspective). Excuses for being unable to do a pose, or do self-care, or change habituated patterns are also not potential. Essence is potential. Can you see the essence in everyone who walks into your life? Can you live as an inspiration and focused supporter of that essence, not tolerating the “I can’t” while simultaneously honoring each individual’s true rhythm? This is the call to potential. It requires discipline and training. It is not just nice “New Age” language to speak of potential. One’s capacity to see potential will be evident in the quality of touch, the quality of language, the quality of instruction, and the quality of expression that we provide. We must live in our potential to support it in others. Potential is inspired in relationship.

The potential to change and the potential to open are invited in yoga through twists and through the posture in which the feet are in prayer, called supta baddha konasana. The bodyworker can function as the support to evoke this potential. Supta baddha konasana is a restorative pose, but many do not experience it that way due to contracted and tense musculature. It is also a posture of complete receptivity. Yoga, massage, bodywork, and energy medicine are all experiences of utter receptivity. Most of us resist this receptivity because of our conditioning to use and act, rather than to be.

In the supine twist, Sevareid can elongate the quadratus lumborum, the iliostalis lumborum, and the gluteal group. The client is on the table in a manner that resembles the yoga asana, but the application is in a bodywork context. The end result is the same, but on the table, the client has a supportive ally. The therapist is the prop, inviting a new neuromuscular experience.

When supporting clients on the table while they are in a pose, the bodyworker is speaking with her touch and her compassionate belief in potential to the adductors, the psoas, the quadratus, and the vastus medialis, infusing these muscle groups with their potential to be rather than to do.

Partnering for potential is the subtitle to all yogic and healing events. Being in the body is a precious gift we share with all other human beings. When we are truly embodied, we know this, unconditionally. In a material culture, there is pressure to be checked out of your body. In a learning, evolving, and growth-oriented culture, there is a yearning to be checked in, to experience your own body of self-knowledge—to know transformation as sustained change and to thrive on the inherent motion of life as the fuel source for potential, even in rest.

In bodywork and energy medicine practices, the process is always a partnership, but the partnership may or may not be clearly identified. In yoga classes, Heintz articulates the partnership between student and teacher. Without ownership of the role in accessing potential, a student cannot grow. Once again, Sevareid and Sugrue have taken this principle and introduced it into their healing arts, providing their clients with self-care, whether it is yoga, stretches, or energy medicine practices.

Partnering for potential in bodywork also includes incorporating multiple modalities for the benefit of the client and according to the individual needs of each client. Knowing yoga, Sevareid and Sugrue cannot help but suggest asanas to their clients, along with other stretches and movement options to maximize recovery, alignment, and, of course, the potential for full range of motion and expression.

Heintz enforces the partnership for potential concept at Balancing Monkey by offering workshops that support the principles of yoga and evolution. She brings workshops in energy medicine/energy psychology to the Balancing Monkey and forges the bond between yoga and other disciplines based on the full realization of embodiment. Building learning environments for the purpose of embodied evolution is a contribution we can all make in our practices, whether in private bodywork, clinics, yoga classes, or even in our own homes.

The creative, symbiotic, and dynamic interplay of yoga and bodywork is a paradigm of outside-the-box generative experience that benefits individuals and collectives simultaneously. It is part of a wave of organizational and personal exploration that takes us beyond survival to peak states of life.