Zen Bodytherapy

A Transformation

By John Casebere

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2000.

A monk asked Master Haryo, “What is the way?” Haryo said, “An open-eyed man falling into the well.” The Zen koan was as much of a riddle as my pain and failing health. I was young, healthy and had been an athlete much of my life. I never thought my childhood was all that “alternative,” but my father was a chiropractor and treated us as we needed it. We also did not receive immunizations.

Now after several years in the military, I was facing a medical discharge resulting from my failing health (a mystery of the Gulf War). I had taken an allopathic approach to my problems with poor results. I decided it was time to go back to my roots and take a more holistic approach to my health. I was strongly drawn to massage and bodywork. The real plus was that massage felt good and helped ease my pain. While still in the service, I began going to massage school at night. I had decided I wanted to be a massage therapist and share massage with other people. Little did I know I would discover not just how to ease my pain, but erase it. With eyes open I found myself falling into the well. I had found my path.

While attending school I learned several of my instructors had attended some deep tissue training called Zen Bodytherapy(R). I ascertained that this might be the right type of “massage” for me, as I received limited results with other forms of massage. It was explained to me that this was bodywork and was different from massage. It was deeper, structural work similar to Rolfing(R). I had deep tissue massage, triggerpoint work and Rolfing before and I thought, “piece of cake. I’ll just get some of this stuff done and see what happens.” Much to my surprise, this was like no other massage I’d had before or since.

The second session of Zen Bodytherapy stands out the most for me — that’s when my therapist worked on my legs and feet. These areas had been painful for me for several years now; all other forms of bodywork brought no relief. Going into this second session, I was seriously contemplating not continuing with the work. The practitioner had worked some of the most painful spots in my body during the first session. She didn’t use oil, so my skin felt as though it was going to rip open when she stretched fascia. I wanted nothing more than to get away from the pain I was experiencing. The practitioner, however, kept asking, “What level is your pain, on a scale of 1—10?” Her questions wouldn’t let me escape the pain. The second session was no different. We went through the legs and feet, and again the pain was excruciating. I made my next appointment, but began thinking of excuses why I wouldn’t be able to continue with the sessions.

On the drive home, as I ran through excuses I could use to cancel my next appointment, I stopped for gasoline. I gingerly stepped out of the car expecting the bolts of pain in my shins, feet and back to be there as they had been for so long. I put weight on my left leg and nothing happened. I stood and nothing happened. I pumped my gas and experienced no foot or leg pain. I paid for my gas and got back into my car with no pain in the legs or feet and only a slight ache in my lower back. I thought, “When did this happen?” I was hooked. I couldn’t wait for my next appointment. I couldn’t wait to be a Zen Bodytherapy practitioner.


Zen Bodytherapy is a comprehensive form of bodywork that combines energy, structure and function. Founded by William “Dub” S. Leigh, Zen Bodytherapy is based on Wilhelm Reich’s theory of “armoring.” Reich, a student of Sigmund Freud, found that the unconscious mind was in the tissue of the body. He believed that over time your personal history built up in your body causing the connective tissue to become aberrant. He believed with manipulation of soft tissue and a willing client you could remove the body armoring. This is the basis for other forms of healing such as SomatoEmotional Release(R) by John Upledger, D.O.; Bio Electrical Synchronization Technique (B.E.S.T.) Chiropractic by M.T. Morter, Jr., D.C.; and Zen Bodytherapy to name a few.

Zen Bodytherapy is a synthesis of Eastern and Western beliefs and treatment modalities. It is a result of Leigh’s 35 years of experience. Leigh was a successful businessman and community leader; yet he felt he lacked inner purpose. “I hated my work, my life, myself. My despair hurt so much that I was forced to get into something new,” Leigh writes in his book Bodytherapy: From Rolf to Feldenkrais to Tanouye Roshi. After much searching, Leigh felt he needed a new life with a goal of serving. He began teaching and taking some of the programs at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. As part of residency training, Leigh had to go through 10 sessions of Rolfing. Afterward, Leigh knew how he would serve his fellow man.

Leigh is the only person in the world to be trained and certified to teach by both Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais. After an initially rocky start with both Rolf and Feldenkrais, Leigh trained with them for 12 and 10 years respectively. He helped establish the Rolf Institute and the Feldenkrais Guild in America. He has also studied with Dr. Raymond Nimmo, Lauren Berry and Milton Trager. Out of this experience, “Dubbing” was created. This was a system of soft tissue work, joint manipulation and nervous system reprogramming. For basic alignment, structural integration was used. Joint manipulation was performed when needed. If the problem didn’t resolve or if a joint wasn’t out of alignment and the tissue was healthy, Feldenkrais was used as indicated.

After 20 years of learning and developing his own system of bodywork, Leigh was tired and in failing health. A friend suggested teaching in Hawaii where Leigh was introduced to Tanouye Tenshin Rotaishi. Leigh was impressed by Rotaishi’s relaxed concentration and asked whether he could come to Chozen-ji to rest as he liked the ki (energy) of the temple. At the end of the visit, Rotaishi invited Leigh to return as a student. Leigh had no idea that this Zen master and master bodyworker was to be his next teacher.

First Leigh resisted Zen training. Earlier he had considered this energy work to be “airy fairy” and he felt a Caucasian body wasn’t designed to sit cross-legged. After watching Rotaishi work, Leigh was amazed at the results. Leigh remembered watching his teachers Rolf, Feldenkrais and Berry do some techniques, but when he and other students tried to duplicate them, they wouldn’t get the same results. Now, Leigh realized that the power of vital energy was what had been missing when he tried to reproduce his teachers’ work. Remember — Rolf studied and practiced yoga for 40 years, Feldenkrais was a Judo champion who wrote three books on the subject, and Berry studied Oriental healing in China for four years. They all knew and experienced vital energy. The final barrier for Leigh was broken down when he learned it was a blue-eyed, red-bearded Caucasian who developed zazen (sitting meditation in the Zen method). From then on he sat zazen every day.

Leigh has 15 years of Zen training, mostly with Rotaishi. During his time at the dojo, Leigh and Rotaishi began developing Zen Triggerpoint Anatomy(R) and Zen Bodytherapy. This work incorporates Rolf’s 10-session sequence, Feldenkrais’ Functional Integration(R) and Awareness Through Movement(R), the basic ki work of Rotaishi, and a number of special bodywork techniques.


Training to be a Zen Bodytherapy practitioner demands commitment and dedication — it’s what’s required to leave the training with a new respect for the body and its innate healing properties. The realization that the training has just begun will be readily apparent to the committed practitioner.

Each training begins with an introductory session where students meet Leigh, his partner Audrey Nakamura and other classmates. The Zen Bodytherapy practitioner learns five, 30-minute movement lessons which complement the hands-on bodywork session. The movement lessons are also available on audiotape which practitioners can make available to the client for their use at home between sessions.

Students also receive instruction in zazen and hara development exercises. Beginners, or people who have never sat before, need not worry. The sitting is taken in short increments of time and gradually increased throughout the training. More experienced practitioners are quick to help the beginner learn how to make the sit more beneficial. Zazen and hara development are the cornerstone of Zen Bodytherapy; it is how ki is developed. Not only is the development of ki important, but so is breathing, posture and concentration. The mind-set achieved in zazen is moved into the bodywork session. For optimal results, the Zen Bodytherapy practitioner must be able to give his/her client undivided attention throughout a session. This is crucial since intent has a great effect on the results a client experiences.

Bodywork training begins immediately after zazen. Each practitioner gives a session and receives a session each day. This can be at a grueling pace; the normal interval between sessions is 7—10 days. However, the zazen training before bodywork, coupled with a salt or vinegar bath and a good meal that evening will make the next day’s session easier than expected. During the training, the sequence used in Rolf’s original 10 sessions is used. The techniques used to process, or work on the client’s body are an integration of everything Leigh has learned from his teachers. He teaches that you can’t properly process a body until you know how to work a muscle or area at least three different ways.

A true practitioner of Zen Bodytherapy lives by the principles they teach. This means they do zazen, movement lessons and they receive the bodywork regularly. Each aspect combines with the intent of developing a more mentally and physically focused practitioner who can provide quality bodywork to the client. It is also crucial to follow the routine to prevent burnout. The bodywork taxes the practitioner mentally, physically and spiritually.

The Client

The name, Zen Bodytherapy, evokes curiosity from most potential clients, sometimes even apprehension. I explain that there is no need for the client to buy into religious dogma and I will not try to convert them to Buddhism. Zen is a path of personal growth and development. I explain that the name is to honor the roots of the system and symbolizes the training of the practitioners. The Zen Bodytherapy practitioner works with the client to provide the best results possible. For example, for the body to change, sometimes the client must experience the pain stored and buried in their body. The practitioner works with his/her ki and the client to keep pain at a manageable level. Together, the practitioner and client move at a pace that is acceptable to both, sometimes dividing a difficult session into two parts. In Zen Bodytherapy training, a practitioner is taught to honor a client’s boundaries, but also to recognize openings in the boundary to help a client overcome a difficult aspect of a session. The work is a partnership between the practitioner and client.

My Experience

I took my first Zen Bodytherapy training while I was still in massage school. I had experienced some of the work from two of my instructors — Bill Thompson, L.M.P. and Shawn O’Brien L.M.P. I noticed their work, albeit similar in structure, was very different and highly beneficial to me as a client. I always left their sessions feeling definitive changes in my body. I knew this feeling was what I wanted for my clients so I took the very next training. Over the past five years I have gone from being a physical wreck who was discharged from the military because of my physical condition, to a person who can function in a fairly normal manner. While I receive chiropractic care and acupuncture, I credit Zen Bodytherapy for being a major part of my physical and spiritual transformation.

If you are interested in receiving Zen Bodytherapy sessions or training to become a Zen Bodytherapy practitioner, contact the author at casebere@nwlink.com, contact lziiorg@aol.com, or visit www.zentherapy.org.