Why I Am A Bodyworker

Talk about stumbling upon a gift.

At the age of four, during a performance of The Nutcracker, it was revealed to me that I was destined to be a Famous Ballerina. I pursued this vocation with focused determination until the age of seventeen, when I acknowledged that no girl with flat feet and limited hip flexion would ever make Principal Dancer with the NYCB, and quit cold turkey. At least I could finally wear bangs.

Ballet being dead to me, my next career was Famous Painter. With equal seriousness of purpose I obtained a couple of art degrees, and mastered the art of living on almost nothing. To pay my rent I found myself working as the Information Lady at the San Francisco Public Library.

Several years into my tenure, a few things hijacked my attention. First, several of my friends started having crippling health problems that only got worse when treated by mainstream health care practitioners. An ex-boyfriend ended up on disability for repetitive stress injury in both hands. A college friend developed intermittent pelvic pain and paralysis that landed her in a wheelchair, while doctors accused her of ‘trying to get attention’ and administered needless catheters without anesthesia in order to ‘teach her a lesson.’

At the same time, I found that I loved answering people’s health questions. I would get so wrapped up in researching a problem that I’d go through a department of reference manuals. Here again, I encountered people who were as traumatized from their interaction with western medicine as they were from the illness itself.

I once spoke with a caller who had been to her doctor for a disfiguring skin condition, and wanted me to 1) look up the condition to find out if she was going to die, and 2) look up her prescription to find out whether it had any hideous side effects. She sounded terrified.

After a few minutes of research (Google hadn’t been invented yet), I informed her that she wasn’t going to die, and that the problem might take awhile to go away but was neither degenerative nor permanent. Her relief was tearful and extravagant. I then asked her whether she’d been under stress. “My father died,” she replied.

Overstepping the bounds of a proper Information Lady, I expressed my condolences, diagnosed her rash as somaticized grief, and prescribed brown rice, broccoli, long walks and the company of friends. (I had just been reading Andrew Weil.) She pardoned my youthful condescension and hung up the phone a happier woman.

So, I wondered, why didn’t her doctor do that? Surely common sense and compassion are a prerequisite for obtaining an M.D.?

(Idealistic? Me?)

Over time, I found that alternative healthcare really floated my boat. The Bay Area offered a smorgasboard of available disciplines to sample: Ayurveda! Chi healing! Hypnotherapy! Acupuncture! Shiatsu! Raw food veganism! Thai massage! Registered nursing!

After breathlessly exploring these options, common sense prevailed (sort of), and I decided that massage therapy was my most practical starting point–popular, portable, and somewhat clinical. I enrolled in a program at the National Holistic Institute in Emeryville, CA, almost on a whim.

I didn’t expect to be good at it. I’m not sure what I expected. Mainly I was terrified that my WASP-ish upbringing would make it impossible for me to touch people. I thought of it as making a heroic attempt to balance my own shortcomings, before moving into a career more suited to my temperament.

Almost from the first day, however, I’d put my hands on a client or colleague and they’d remark, “Wow, what are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I’d reply. Literally, nothing. After a few years of dating a Buddhist monk, I’d gotten into the practice of Zen meditation, and when I put my hands on people I reflexively emptied my mind.

“There’s heat, coming from your hands,” people informed me. Wow. Cool.

What I came to realize was that I already had a background of kinesthetic understanding that was ripe to be used. Years of dance, yoga and meditation had given me a vast repository of wisdom that I didn’t know I possessed. I didn’t think of it as valuable, perhaps because our culture doesn’t often recognize it as wisdom. We might admire the grace of a dancer, or the speed and precision of a star athlete, but we don’t necessarily think of such skills as having ‘practical’ applications beyond their entertainment value.

But as any musician knows, there is a world of difference between pressing a button and singing a note. It’s not enough to know your anatomy, and push on the right muscle with the right clinical objective. To perform effective bodywork, you have to have calculus in your hands and rhythm in your brain. You must be able to inhabit your client’s body as if it were your own, while maintaining a conscious boundary and therapeutic objective. This may be termed ‘empathy’ or ‘intuition,’  but the mystical implications of these words mask the fact that massage is just physics. Physics may be understood with the mind, but it is manifested by the body.

The word ‘healer’ is so obnoxiously overused in New Age circles that I tend to avoid it. It’s not possible to march in and ‘heal’ anyone; that was made clear to me in every book I read, no matter how whacky, before I discovered it in practice. ‘Healing’ is a natural, organic process that thrums along by itself, with or without interference from us. So to call myself a ‘healer’ seems presumptuous and flaky.

But the root of the word ‘heal’ also means ‘to make whole,’ and seeing problems in relationship to a whole is something that Western medicine doesn’t always do so well. The scientific method has given us miraculous drugs and virtuoso surgical procedures, but these are often applied without balance, discrimination or boundaries. They are almost always used to banish symptoms, rather than to solve core problems.

And creative problem-solving is my favorite exercise. Pain is the manifestation of a problem, and healing the pain could lead anywhere. That’s what makes my work interesting–not the rigid application of a set of techniques to an unresisting body.

So perhaps what I am is a ‘balancer.’ I listen. I ask questions. I do research. I offer creative solutions to overarching problems. I give you a nudge here, a pull there, and often you feel better. Balance enables joy.

Stephanie Lee Jackson is a licensed massage therapist, founder and owner of Practical Bodywork in Philadelphia. She received her massage therapy certification at the National Holistic Institute in Emeryville, CA, and her second-level Reiki attunement from Uma Schaef.

Stephanie is also a fine artist, with a career spanning twenty years. She is best known as the art blogger and provocateur, Pretty Lady; her portfolio and writings may be found at stephart.com.