By Lara Evans Bracciante
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2003.
Shari Sunshine is quick to note she was born to this surname, like her father before her, Dr. Sunshine, a dentist in Denver, Colo. Despite sounding New Age or trendy, her name, as well as her touch therapy — Syntropy Insight Bodywork — is rooted in ancient tradition.
A mosaic of age-old philosophies and bodywork practices, syntropy brings the essence of healing chi kung (qigong), meditation and neuromuscular re-education into hands-on application. The fundamental principle underlying syntropy is what Sunshine calls “listening for the softness,” meaning the practitioner discerns from the client what is working and functional in the body and then expands upon it. An adjunct to massage therapy or a stand-alone modality, syntropy is producing significant results for both practitioners and clients. Understanding the pathway to this creation gives insight into its form.
Manifestation of a Modality
After studying polarity therapy in the mountains of Telluride, Colo., Sunshine enrolled in the McKinnon School of Massage in Oakland, Calif., where she trained under many experts, including polarity guru Pierre Pannetier and Ortho-Bionomy master Arthur Pauls. Sunshine was inspired enough to make a promise to herself that she has managed to keep over the last 30 years: Learn something new every year, either a modality or technique, or receive instruction from a new teacher. This resolution has prompted her to travel extensively, including to Israel, where she organized a healing arts school. “I was probably one of the first people to teach bodywork there,” she says, “and they loved it.” Apparently so did she; Sunshine took up residence and continued teaching.
“One day (in Israel) an older gentleman came to the door,” she remembers. “He was very unusual — clear blue eyes and white, unkempt hair, walking carefully with a cane. He’d heard about me and wanted to see what I could do.” After 10 minutes on the table, the man stopped Sunshine to reveal his identity. “His name was Shlomo Efrat, one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ primary apprentices,” Sunshine says. Efrat was now looking for his own apprentice, someone to pass on all that he had learned. Sunshine accepted and studied with Efrat for two years. “He’d just drop over,” she says, “show up for 15 minutes one day, two hours the next.” Thus, in addition to the polarity, Ortho-Bionomy and massage training Sunshine had under her belt, she added Feldenkrais movement education to her repertoire, which eventually became a basic part of syntropy.
In keeping with her quest, Sunshine spent time in India attending the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan meditators, a journey she undertakes each year. Recognizing the value of approaching bodywork with the clarity of mind and compassion manifested in meditation, this too became an essential component of the daily routine of a syntropy practitioner. While always maintaining a nonsecular approach to syntropy training, Sunshine incorporates the practices of Tibetan Buddhism into all courses.
“I also spent time in China studying chi kung, a martial art that helps revitalize the body and circulate energy with breath,” Sunshine says. “In China, it’s used specifically for those doing healing types of work.” She notes that in some parts of the world, an acupuncturist cannot practice until he has learned and can perform a certain level of chi kung.
Taoist teachings round out the modality, which Sunshine learned from Mantak Chia in Thailand. Sunshine, now 57, says, “From every culture in the world come practices we can use to heal the fragmentation of body, mind and spirit, resulting in a greater sense of well-being and wholeness.”
To better understand syntropy, it may be helpful to see what it isn’t. Entropy, it’s opposite, refers to a physics law asserting that systems lose energy and become disorganized over time. Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi challenged the entropy theory, noting that living organisms evolve in complexity and function over time; these systems have a built-in capacity to restore balance, or homeostasis, in response to stress. In the ’70s, Szent-Gyorgyi wrote “putting things together in a meaningful way … is one of the basic features of nature.” He called this process “syntropy,” a term he borrowed from Italian mathematician Luigi Santappie, who originally coined it in 1944. Recognizing this was exactly what bodywork could invoke — the inherent ability of the body to restore itself in a meaningful way — Sunshine so named her modality.
The mechanics of syntropy can be learned in relatively little time; in fact, the initial training course is an eight-day intensive. The course is then followed, however, with weekly meetings and four retreats throughout the year, each lasting two weeks. Although training time for each person varies depending on the individual, it can take three to five years before becoming a certified syntropy practitioner. This status implies the therapist would have an experiential understanding of both the forms and subtle aspects of healing chi kung, the extensive variations of the floor exercises, a deep personal commitment to maintaining a daily meditation practice and a working knowledge of the vast collection of movement sequences and communication skills of sacred touch, the hands-on work.
Regardless of title, practitioners are encouraged to practice immediately because syntropy is very gentle and quickly applicable. As one therapist put it, “It’s a long process to become a practitioner, but a short process to practice it.”
Maui-based reiki master and massage therapist Susan Currie, 52, received a session of syntropy and discovered the key to healing an old injury. “I had dislocated my shoulder about three-and-a-half years before, and the syntropy work dissolved the pattern of pain I held there,” Currie says. “I was amazed at how quickly I felt a deep sense of trust, as well as rest and relaxation.” The experience motivated Currie to undertake syntropy training so she could offer this type of experience to her own clientele.
“For me as a therapist, there are two things that make this work so powerful,” Currie says “First, it is much gentler and kinder to my own body than any other modality. I come through a session feeling as relaxed and pain-free as I was going into it. This is hugely wonderful and not always the case with a massage session. Second, it has the ability to affect long-term pain patterns in every individual I’ve worked with and who will allow that to happen. It’s very noninvasive, and clients feel very safe very quickly and have results I wouldn’t normally expect in one session.”
Currie also comments on the short training syntropy requires: “The learning curve is minimal — just eight days. I attribute that to the nature of the work itself.” While this may sound too good to be true, Sunshine and Currie both note that while the mechanics of syntropy are quick to learn, the art of syntropy can take a lifetime.
Understanding the Technique
As Sunshine developed syntropy, she had someone very near learning alongside her. Aaron “River” Steinberg, Sunshine’s son, 27, is also a massage therapist and syntropy practitioner. He articulates the different approaches between massage and syntropy: “During training, syntropy concentrates on the uniqueness of perspective. Often, massage therapists have a more difficult time figuring this out because they’ve spent their careers searching for the problems. It’s rewiring their thinking. In syntropy, the basic principle is to find the place of greatest ease then move, touch and encourage that space to expand.”
How does this play out during a massage? “You listen to the muscle and treat it in a way that it feels encouraged to soften, rather than working against it, over it or too hard on it when it’s not ready.” And, Steinberg notes, this makes him a more active participant in the massage session. “You need to make contact with the muscle and find out what it needs,” he says. “It keeps me from doing a routine massage or spacing out while I’m giving a massage. Every treatment I give is totally different.”
As a stand-alone modality not integrated into massage, the techniques of syntropy are varied. There is a primary assessment, which begins as soon as the client walks through the door, and includes carefully listening to how the client presents herself and her reasons for being there. Once the client, fully clothed, is on the table, the work usually happens in three phases. The introduction of very gentle, easy movement comes first, getting the body accustomed to the sensations of ease and simplicity. This often starts a cascade of muscle release, leading to the next phase called “dis-integration,” a main feature of neuromuscular education where body parts that may be stuck together are reminded of the possibility of moving separately. Once they begin independent motion, the final phase, called “re-integration,” begins, which often incorporates more rapid movement, gentle shaking, and finally, standing and walking.
“Abuse and trauma touch us so deeply that it requires a sense of total safety and respect for a person to open up to the process of somato-emotional resolution,” Steinberg says, explaining why it’s important to not challenge the client’s body where it may be tight, but rather find what’s fluid and working and support this — an experience that puts the client in control. Steinberg says typically after 15 minutes or so, the client’s expectation of being challenged has dissipated, she feels very safe and trusting, and begins to explore her range of motion and movement as an active participant.
“Because syntropy is so gentle and the changes that happen are all instigated by the client and not the practitioner, there is no atmosphere of violation or loss of personal power,” he adds. “Resolution of the deepest and most painful trauma is possible.” As the session goes on, the client takes back conscious control of her muscles and muscle release, something she had perhaps relinquished until now.
“The work notably benefits people with chronic pain due to injury and stress, as well as both women and men who have suffered from physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” Steinberg says, noting these two categories of chronic pain and/or abuse include practically everyone. He adds, “Because the chronic pain cycle is mainly neuromuscular in origin, the re-education process consistently resolves the situation.”
Shari Sunshine recognized that many healing modalities and spiritual philosophies apply to the concept of syntropy. In the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, she found the deeply rooted tenet of the body’s inherent function; in Taoism and healing chi kung, the simple way of nature and the elements; in Tibetan Buddhist meditation, Buddha Nature; and in Ortho-Bionomy, the body’s natural intelligence to inspire release. So syntropy, in this sense, is nothing new. It is simply the recognition of a basic principle that pervades many traditional healing systems, a flowing choreography of movement and breath between bodyworker and body.
From the “new practitioner on the block” perspective, Susan Currie, who has only been practicing syntropy for a few months, says, “Having been in the healing field for a very long time and coming from the energy perspective into the physical perspective, syntropy is my understanding of energy work being experienced in the physical body. The response has just amazed me, and to see this experienced everyday on the table is absolutely beautiful. I would love to see it be a part of more therapists’ tool kits.”