Massage and the Nervous System: Part One

This is the first part of a three-part series on Massage and the Nervous System.

When we first learn massage therapy, we naturally visualize that we are working on muscles. Memorizing muscles and seeing their kinesiological relations to each other is a task!

Then we can add to that the wonderful insights drawn from Rolfing and other structurally-oriented manual therapies. Muscles and fascia, when chronically shortened, misalign or compromise the body’s posture and balanced movement. The “tensegrity” model of human structure observes that in natural structural systems, the “hard members,” namely the bones in the body, are aligned and moved by the “soft members”, the muscles and fascia.

I have taught this for years. Yet, some years ago, another light bulb lit up for me. What “tells” the soft tissues to relax or to contract? The nervous system – the body is not only aligned by muscles, but also by the nervous system.

As massage therapists we know how to get our hands on muscles and connective tissues.  But now we see somehow we have to get our hands on the nervous system because otherwise it’s a bit like flipping light switches with no electricity – some action but no deeper change.

So how do we get our hands on the nervous system?

Muscles are Sense Organs

Interwoven in our muscles and tendons are nerves called proprioceptors (golgi tendon organs, muscle spindles, etc.). Proprioceptors tell our brain how tense or stretched each muscle is. Through that information the brain constructs the image of our whole body. Then, with a clear picture of the body, we can initiate coherent, coordinated movements. Without proprioception the body “goes to sleep”. Most people – through lack of varied activity, sedentary work, and lack of somatic education – suffer from what Thomas Hanna called “sensori-motor amnesia”. Massage brings enhanced circulation and awareness to our bodies and literally wakes us up.

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