Bodywork as Meditation

Using Structural Integration as a Pathway

By Raymond J. Bishop, Jr.

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2005.

Bodywork as a meditative discipline may at first seem rather peculiar. Certainly, many seasoned bodyworkers meditate, rightly believing that regular practice of any of a wealth of meditative modalities will promote an increased sense of mental clarity and calmness and may potentially enhance the experience of everyday life, as well as the quality and depth of their work. However, accepting the idea that the act of doing integrative bodywork can be both the source of meditative insight and an ideal milieu through which we move toward higher levels of consciousness will, for most, require a shift in paradigm of a fairly high order. This perceptual difficulty will be further magnified when applied to those therapists engaged in disciplines that are thought of as intense and whose work is generally described as deep-tissue manipulation — work such as the style of structural integration called Rolfing. That such a modality offers a gateway to “the meditative” will at first seem contradictory in the extreme, owing to a number of fundamental misapprehensions about the nature and intent of this and related integrative modalities. Furthermore, the idea that those who do bodywork may choose to do so in part as a selfish desire to attain an altered mental state may seem curiously at odds with the altruism that we associate with those drawn to healing touch modalities. Yet, we will argue for the virtues of this type of selfishness (Ayn Rand, notwithstanding).

Any effort to advance arguments such as those addressed here must suffer from the proliferating misperceptions of integrative bodywork, as well as from the ever-present fear that such an argument will lapse into New Age double-speak, a nebulous metaphysical languaging, which, once introduced, would inevitably weaken our argument’s credibility among those more technically minded. Despite all these potential pitfalls, this is precisely what we will attempt. Our approach is two-fold. The first prong of this sharply taloned yet gentle beast is to clarify the nature of the work through which we hope to attain this meditative state (the medium being much more than the massage) and the second is to suggest some reasons why such a relationship is not only possible but virtually inevitable once we approach the work with the proper mindset.

The Nature of the Work

Most would agree that the vast majority of bodywork systems are about treating symptoms and alleviating pain. The means employed to accomplish these goals are rich and diverse. To narrow the scope of our discussion, we will look at a few elements of the style with which the author has the most familiarity, that being Rolfing. Rolfing is a copywritten term for a specific approach to Ida Rolf’s method she called structural integration (SI). This approach has many detractors and proponents, yet has influenced a spate of related disciplines that, to varying degrees, succeed in their ability to create and describe order, often reproducing excellent recreations of what Rolf meant by a properly integrated body. Seeing and articulating order in the sense that Rolf saw it has proven quite difficult to recreate and even harder to describe, although some have recently done a commendable job of presenting her ideas and expressing with clarity and persuasiveness many of the criteria used by Rolfers and other SI practitioners in evaluating and quantifying the degree of order (hence, integration) in an individual’s system.1

Our goal here is not to engage in hairsplitting distinctions between the several methods of SI currently practiced. We leave that labyrinthine task to others while praising the recently created umbrella organization, the International Association of Structural Integrators (IASI), in its efforts to reconcile these diverse permutations of Rolf’s work.2 Rather, we will look at some of the elements of properly executed and well-informed SI and how this approach acts as a necessary prelude to working in a meditative manner.

Let’s first consider fascia, that vital network of interwoven connective tissue layers, and the notion that Rolfing is fascial work. One misconception is that the common view that Rolfing is fascial work pure and simple is misleading. The fallacy of this argument is obvious to anyone who has worked with connective tissue. There are multiple layers of such tissue, with clear names and distinct characteristics but no clear boundaries. These layers are not as discrete as the layers of sediment at an archeological site but more like the innards of an orange with juicy rich segments and interrelationships that are potentially altered by even the gentlest pressure.

Obviously, we work on all layers of connective tissue from the surface to the bone. We address epidermis and other dermal layers, the adipose, and then access numerous fascial layers down to the fascia profundus. We work on, around, and in between muscles, deep into their septa and follow them into their tendonous attachments, through those intrinsic ligamentous structures, feeling our way into the periostium, easing adhesions along the major osseous structures, also effecting change in the connective tissue surrounding organs and neurovascular structures. We might more properly say that fascia is the medium through which we work as we alter relationships between myofascial, osseous, and visceral structures.

If we focus too much on muscular structures, we miss the larger fascial planes that morph and alter the dynamic relationships between these structures. Conversely, swimming in the fascia without a constant eye to the mutating coastline, the rocky shoals, and obdurate projectiles where the fascia binds and adheres may feel wonderful, but, in so doing, we will widely miss the mark if our primary goal is improving fascial connections in relation to what Rolf and her students call “the line” (an organizational construct that runs through the central vertical axis of the body).3

This fascial sensing may seem rather abstract, but it proves to be the primary way through which we not only create and sense order, but also access the meditative. But before we address the meditative state, a bit more about the nature of Rolfing. Another general perception is that what we do is mechanistic and goal-oriented. Many bodyworkers read and learn that Rolfing is a protocol, a pattern of sessions, logically sequenced with a series of clearly defined goals and rigidly delineated fascial territories. They also learn there are specific techniques associated with each session and pay considerable amounts of money for one of the numerous programs and accompanying manuals out there that detail highly specific protocols for these basic sessions. They also learn there are movement cues, as well as awareness and muscular retraining exercises that accompany each hour and carefully graft these to their sessions.4 Furthermore, interested students of SI will find that some styles have a more psychological orientation and include emotional work and homework questions to be filled out by clients between sessions to deepen the emotional nature of their experience of the series.

Based on this reading of SI, they infer that the work is simply a series of techniques and the performance of said techniques is both necessary and sufficient to integrate a body. Unfortunately, rote reproductions of these techniques fail in both regards. The problem here is that it takes more than the 10 series to create order. It takes a profound understanding and felt sense of how this work evokes transformation, an internal intuitive and intellectual recognition of this sense of order, and an ability to articulate this embodied sense to others. It is only from an internalized understanding of order that we can cocreate this new relationship to gravity with another.

Rolfing is not a technique; it is an understanding of how it feels to live in an integrated body and the subsequent application of the methodology and principles of Rolfing through your own transformed system to another human being. Structural integration is, additionally, a method of thinking, a process of asking questions about order and using a variety of techniques to move a random body to a higher level of organization according to a set of criteria that inform and shape all SI sessions. The prevalent view is that Rolfing is an agglutination of techniques employed in sequenced sessions, a linear memorizable abstraction, technique qua technique, but we insist that this is truly the “core error.”

So, how does this lead us to the meditative? Two means suggested above will prove very useful pathways to this state. The first is through the process of embodiment.5 A useful definition of embodiment is having a coherent, internal sense and being able to clearly articulate that sense in words. The fundamental thing to remember here is that this process must first occur in the practitioner in order for her to have any hope of articulating this experience of the work to another. The implications of this profound somatic transformation first emerge when we experience the work. The critical part of each session in which this transformation occurs is not when actively receiving the work but in the spaces within and between the interventions. When we first begin to understand the importance of “listening to the silence,” we may then get our first glimpse of those meditative caesuras in a process we erroneously expect to be about pain and cathartic emotional release. Any practitioner who has not played with introspective pacing and exploration, or who has not been transformed by this experience during a single or number of structural (or movement) sessions cannot hope to communicate this experience to another. So, implicitly, any practitioner who focuses exclusively on recipe as technique and sees the 10-series as Ida’s Ten Commandments, who sees the work as nothing more than detailed outlines and therapeutic questionnaires, will predictably fail to experience this embodiment
and hence miss the meditative experience.

The connection between embodiment and meditative technique has recently been described in the writings and lectures of Eckhart Tolle, whose The Power of Now and subsequent books have rekindled an interest in somatically based meditative practices, some of which date back more than a thousand years.6 When questioned on the way to quiet the mind and bring it into a state of stillness, which he calls “presence,” Tolle responds that the key to this state lies in going through the body. He repudiates those practices that eschew the body and reject the flesh, advocating a focus on physical state, the quiet watching and identifying physical processes through regular meditation. He argues that even though the Buddha fasted and lived a life of mortification of the flesh for six years as a part of his quest for enlightenment, only after he abandoned this practice did he finally see there is no self (which he called “Anatman”)7 and subsequently attained enlightenment. Well, if this path is good enough for the Buddha, it should certainly be good enough us.

The ideas of Tolle have a strong resonance with a much earlier esoteric philosopher, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who integrated Eastern tenets with his uniquely confrontational approach to enlightenment. In his hagiographic study of Gurdjieff and his philosophy, author John Shirley frequently affirms this mystic’s belief that we must go through the body to attain enlightenment. “For Gurdjieff, to be sure, the human body is the crucible of transmutation. An active work with turning attention to the sensations of the body — combined with taking conscious ‘impressions’ of one’s inner and outer state — is the beginning of the transmutation that creates a lasting soul.”8

Jennifer Hecht, the author of an ambitious consideration of the history of doubt in religious thought, offers another perspective on this somatic path to enlightenment in her discussion of renunciation as taught in the Hindu faith. She says, in part: “The Hindu notion of meditation is essentially that when we can manage silence and stillness, we get a glimpse of our real self ... To be at peace, we must clear away everything that is not the true inner self. This ‘everything’ includes one’s own body in particular, because this is the source of so much useless, distracting, and redundant desire.”9

Whether the body acts as the source of distraction as the Hindus believed, the means through which we attain “non-self,” or, whether it is the wounded raging ego gnawing on the bones of problems projected into the future or recycling from its past, as Tolle argues, any discipline that takes us deeper into present moment awareness should be considered a valuable resource for all wishing to experience themselves more fully. From somatic awareness, spiritual awareness may soon emerge. So, any modality that evokes and teaches awareness has the potential of being in and of itself a means of approaching the meditative state. We can therefore reasonably assume that embodied SI work done in a fully engaged and cooperative manner can evoke this state not only in the client but also in the practitioner.

Meditation as Selfish Art

It was suggested that performing integrative bodywork with the goal of attaining the meditative is a selfish act and yet what we have described so far seems quite selfless and more about evoking something in the client rather than using touch therapy as a meditative technique primarily for the enrichment of the therapist. Yet, when we look at the other medium through which we may attain a meditative state, the myofascial network,10 the selfishness argument emerges more clearly.

The experience of the mutability of the fascial net (and all the structures to which it connects) and the ease with which it can reconfigure is truly one of the most awe-inspiring and magical experiences a Rolfer will encounter. Again, to those focused on muscle attachments or tendonous trigger points, this notion will seem not only alien, but simply incomprehensible. To those not fully engaged in the work, this entraining experience will have all the appeal of “watching paint dry,” and may be as obviously perceptible as a “charmed quark” flickering in some nano-reality.

Something this nebulous must be shrouded in recondite mystery, an esoteric language decodable only by those privy to the sanctum sanctorum. Stuff and nonsense. Feeling fascia transmute often occurs the first time a Rolfing student contacts it. The richness of this sensation will become clearer as our neophyte becomes increasingly quiet and learns to pay attention to movements along specific broad fascial sheets. Then she will begin to understand there is more to this fascial game than raking the hamstrings and cleaning off tissue from stodgy rami.

A nice way to begin this self-education was once suggested by a former student of Rolf, Jim Asher, and may even come from the grande dame herself. Asher called this exercise rather euphemistically, “Rolfing on a trampoline.” When we encounter a restriction in the connective tissue matrix, according to Asher, we have three ways to respond to it. We can apply more force and dig in, we can stay exactly where we are and wait, or, we can back off. If we choose the latter course and back off, the tissue will rebound into our hands. We will feel this rebounding not only locally but also distally, as it creates palpable rippling waves through the net. These reverberations are not abrupt, jerky waves but radiating undulations that gently roll in slow motion. Soon, with a little practice, we can learn to ride these fascial waves. This experience to some feels rather like they are “fascia-surfing” on Quaaludes. Later, we will learn to not only sense this shifting of liquid tectonic fascial sheets by backing out, but also through static pressure or even while gradually increasing pressure, noting those interspersed, irregular lacunae, working in a way that informs rather than overrides the nervous system.11 Yet, while this can be an ecstatic ride, the practitioner must remain ever vigilant so as to avoid getting lost in the tissue’s ebb and flow, rather, striving at all times to remain connected, responsive, and present. As suggested previously, we must also never forget the myofascial structures embedded in the fascial layers, ever mindful of relationships local and distal, constantly shifting our perspective in a precipitously mesmerizing and complex dance.

This is not to say the client may not profit from these slowly evolving peregrinations through the myofascial net. Certainly, proper application of this approach, reinforced with embodying cues will, for some clients, enhance the experiential and transformational dimensions of their sessions. However, since such subtle sensing is not necessary for the client to experience significant long-term improvement in alignment or generalized symptom relief, and since this sort of sensing is, in our view, essential for the practitioner to enter into the meditative state, we can with confidence assign its primary significance to the practitioner rather than the client.

Another dimension of this subtle and global sensing is a phenomenon called entrainment.12 Entrainment (as mentioned earlier) is the tendency of objects in close proximity to become interlocked and move in synchronicity. One reason this occurs is that “nature seeks the most efficient energy state, and it takes less energy to pulse in cooperation than in opposition.”13 A frequently cited example of entrainment as it occurs in nature is the tendency of adjacent pendula, if released or activated at different times, to adjust their speed and amplitude so they are soon moving in synchronicity.

An interesting connection here exists between this description and the writings of Rolf on the advantages of an ordered body. It also suggests one common view of why Rolfing works. The reasoning is that since bodies prefer the most economical and efficient manner of movement and since one of Rolfing’s primary goals is to create economy of movement, then, once the body learns this more efficient pattern (in other words, once these patterns are entrained), the body will “choose” this more efficient mode of movement and will tend to return to it automatically.

A useful analogy for entrainment among and between individuals comes from the world of jazz. When a group of skilled jazz musicians, particularly those who have played together for some time, are improvising on a familiar tune, there occur intervals when the interaction of the players intensifies and when a higher level of creative consciousness emerges, and said state effects their (collective) playing. This higher level of creative interaction has many terms in the jazz world. Think of the implications of the hopelessly anachronistic word “groovy” that originates in this milieu. Consider, for instance, this term’s obvious connection with entrainment; that one way that patterns are entrained in the body is through the creation of regular preferred patterns or grooves in the fascial and nervous system.

Therefore, our sense of this palpable intensification that may seem to come from some source outside the players, but that actually has its origins from within, is that of another type of entrainment. Here, as in the Rolfing model, the melodies and “grammatical” formulae are there, and anyone with the necessary facility and understanding of the rules can improvise competently. But, one of the things that distinguishes great improvisers is their ability to tap into this creative symbiotic energy and use it to explore new realms implicit in the common “grammar” of familiar melodic and harmonic patterns. Innovative players like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Miles Davis come to mind in this regard.

To return to this concept in bodywork, it may be said that the Rolfer entrains with the client in order to facilitate change. This is usually done in a series of adjustments on the part of the practitioner as she engages the rhythms of her client’s respiration, external cues, and internal movements (although it may emerge spontaneously at any moment, as well). Gradually the practitioner will adjust her pacing to the client’s and then begin to play with and synchronize the client’s rhythms with her own. This then allows the practitioner to more fully interact with the client and brings about a calming of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and activation of the ANS (autonomic nervous system) in both the client and the practitioner. This slowing of both participants’ systems will inevitably result in a corresponding slowing of psychological time and an evocation of an altered state of consciousness, one that can be felt simultaneously by both, although the client may have a hard time tracking and articulating this shift in state. What is most intriguing about this process is that it works best when there is no conscious volition on the part of the practitioner to elicit it. Rather, by simply focusing attention on the tissue and tracking the subtle shifts in the client’s state as they occur, we allow the meditative to be effortlessly evoked.

This is the route to the meditative state, at once simple and ineluctable. Anatomy recedes. Technique mutes as tissue movements crescendo from below and often into conscious awareness. Details and session goals move in and out of awareness just as thoughts float before the screen of consciousness during meditation. Openness to a different type of listening and following are essential for the meditative to emerge. Forcing and willing the tissue into some pattern is a laudable goal but must miss the meditative mark as widely as willing yourself to focus on a mantra in search of satori.

Redirecting Your Skills

All of this may sound either wonderfully liberating or exasperatingly vague and laden with uncertainties. You may well object that this esoteric exercise moves us too far afield from the clear goals and fascial territories of the basic series. You may further object that seeking to evoke the meditative in your client or yourself acts as a distraction, leading you to trance dancing and away from the structural objectives of your work. Yet, while raising your rational protestations, you miss that the goal here is to focus and sharpen your work in the moment by redirecting your listening and proprioceptive skills. With practice, you will become increasingly skilled in sensing new patterns as they manifest in the tissue and ripple through the fascial net, passively watching as they first create local modifications. You will also more fully sense global relationships and simultaneously profit from an enhanced ability to sense and create change, a more fully engaged type of change, a highly conscious entrained transmutation of another.

This meditative approach to structural integration should be seen as one very useful pathway to a deep understanding of integrative fascial work, an understanding that supercedes symptom work and rote series work. Some might argue that technique without this contextual richness may well fix local problems, perhaps even more successfully than a pan-technology such as Rolfing. Yet, what they lose in an overreliance on technique while ignoring broad fascial layers and significant structural relationships is hardly imperspicuous.

If you accept the argument presented herein, you will soon view this multifarious fascial terrain as one too fecund to ignore. The richness of the experience described above is in this writer’s view so inexhaustibly complex, particularly when grounded in solid technique, that fear of wading into its frequently caliginous waters (out of some predictable paradigm-shifting phobia) diminishes the transformational potential of the work and ensures the unremitting propagation of many variously skilled craftsmen and few artists.