Articles on Massage Therapy

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From Spirit of Change Magazine, 1998

Safe, loving touch has power to heal and transform the hurt places inside of us that words alone can't reach. As a Rosen Method practitioner I am constantly reminded of this. Touch is one of the most direct and intimate options available to make contact with another person. We experience touch before we are even born and we continue to need it in order to thrive throughout our entire lives.

Among the senses, touch is special in that it is inherently a two-way street. You can, for example, see, hear or smell someone without their being aware of your existence, but touch doesn't work that way. When two beings touch both are in some great or small way changed forever. 

I was twelve years old the first time I consciously had a life altering experience of this kind. I had had a hard year. After having been brought up in a strict, religious home in the Swedish county side, I was not prepared for my parents divorce; it was a shock to my system and I was thrown into a world that no longer made any sense to me. To add to my troubles, my mother started seeing an old family friend on a regular basis and it became clear to me that love was in the air.

Borje was very different from my father. A free spirit, he had traveled extensively, and a visit to his living quarters was like taking a journey into a wild world full of magic and wonder. Instead of the traditional, tasteful yet conservative decor I was used to, he had collections of wooden masks, elephant statues, and drums covered with zebra hides. His one bedroom apartment smelled of leather goods and exotic spices.

I had known him since I was four and had always cherished his visits to our farm. He would play with me and my younger brother and was so full of life and laughter. I had seen him as my playmate. Now he was turning into my mother's boy-friend and I didn't like it one bit. I hated to hear them giggle together after I had gone to bed. Seeing them play footsie under the kitchen table made me sick to my stomach.

My mother, who now had fallen of the pedestal I had kept her on, noticed my distress and tried to talk with me. I know she did her best, but long talks about the importance of living your truth and her human need and longing for intimacy with another adult didn't help. Some of it went way over my head and wouldn't become meaningful to me till later on in life and some of it I didn't want to understand. I felt angry, betrayed, confused and very lonely.

Then one evening, a simple gesture turned things around. Borje was coming out of the kitchen after helping my mother with the dinner dishes. My brother was sprawled on the floor in front of the TV and I had scrunched up in the corner of the living room couch. I was anxious and restless, picking at a few loose threads on the armrest. My eyes were glued to the TV-screen, but my mind was a thousand miles away. "Boy, what a wonderful meal that was. I think I ate way too much," Borje announced. "Kerstin, would you mind if I stretched out for a bit on that sofa?"

"All right," I muttered, and started to get out of my seat.

"Oh, no! You can stay there if you want," Borje said. "I was hoping to use your lap for a pillow if that's OK with you."

I couldn't for my life figure out why he or anybody else would choose to have my bony body for a pillow, but I stayed while Borje made himself comfortable, putting his shoeless feet up on the armrest, his head in my lap, and his hands clasped over his stomach.

The warmth and the weight of his head pressed into my legs and it wasn't long before the shift in his breathing signaled that he was drifting off into sleep. Amazed, I looked down at his face. He had chiseled features, a prominent nose with a slight bend at the tip, a strong jaw. I thought he looked rather handsome. My hand, as if it had a life of its own, moved up and began stroking his short, dark blond hair. Borje opened his blue eyes, looked at me, smiled and went back to sleep.

I don't know how long I sat there stroking his hair. Time seemed to stand still for a moment. The cold, hard lump in the pit of my stomach gradually melted, giving room for breath and a new sense of hopefulness. Maybe my life wouldn't be all about loss from here on.

Perhaps there was life after divorce after all. Right there in that very moment I had an undeniable experience of connection to myself, to another human being, and to something greater that encompassed us both. Fear and loneliness was transformed into an encounter with grace.

Now at 40, I realize the impact that moment had on my life. I was fortunate that Borje, the man who became my stepfather, was comfortable enough in his own skin to introduce to me the value of human warmth and touch, while maintaining healthy boundaries.

Touch is intimate. For many of us intimacy is a touchy subject. For some, personal boundaries were severely violated through sexual or physical abuse. Others didn't get enough closeness and physical touch of the nurturing kind. Whatever our experience was, truly intimate touch tends to remind us of our history. I see this often in my work with Rosen Method Bodywork. I also get to witness how touch can help a person to heal and to develop a sense of self-worth.

In Sweden there is a project started by Hans Axelson, director of Axelson's Gymnastiska Institut, called "Massage against Violence." The goal with this project is to strengthen the self-confidence of children of all ages, from kindergarten through high school by introducing peaceful touch, in the form of a basic massage course. Kindergarten staff learn how to massage the children during nap time. Older children learn during classroom hours how to give and receive a simple massage.

So far studies show that this creates a more relaxed atmosphere in the schools. It results in a stronger bonding between people and an increased motivation for learning. Many parents report an improvement in the interaction with their teenage children "From my experience as a parent and teacher I realized that people who are aggressive often are seeking respect and really want to know that someone cares about them. That is how I got the idea for this project," says Hans Axelson. "Massage can help us deal with the lack of peacefulness in our society-- even improve the contact between humans. In that way it prevents violence."

Professor Kerstin Uvnas Moberg of the Karolinska Institut in Stockholm has clinically studied physiological effects of massage. She claims that massage increases the flow of the peace and calm hormone oxytocin. High levels of oxytocin in an individual promotes muscle relaxation, a sense of peace, and, remarkably, a stronger interest in caring for others. It lowers our blood pressure and opens our minds to the world around us.

We need to learn how to care for ourselves and each other in wise ways so that we can heal the fragmentation, the isolation and the fear that permeates our society. From first hand experience-- and both sides of the fence-- I say that loving touch can be a saving grace. It is our birthright and when we touch with loving consciousness it spreads like rings on the water.

Kerstin Zettmar is an artist and bodyworker living and working in Newport, RI. She maintains a private practice in Rosen Method and Therapeutic massage. For more information she can be reached at (401)848-0288) or by email.

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