Where are You Going? – Massage and the Nervous System, Part 3

by David Lauterstein

I once got a greeting card, “On the Family Trip to Nirvana,” with parents sitting in the car’s front seat and two kids in the back, asking their parents, “Are we there yet?”

With this next deeper level of the nervous system, we are not at Nirvana but, in a way, we are getting there!

How do we know where we are?

The “proprioceptors” in our body give the brain read-outs for the relative lengths of muscles and fascia.  They measure the tensing and stretching of muscles and joints.  As a result of their information reaching the brain, we know where a foot is when we walk even when we’re not looking at it.

We quickly realize how critical this information is when our foot has “gone to sleep.”  When that happens, for instance sitting cross-legged, pressure on a leg can temporarily diminish circulation and thus the amount of oxygen reaching the proprioceptors. Nerves can’t provide their critical information without sufficient oxygen for fuel.  So when the foot’s asleep, we have to look at the foot to take a step with any confidence and even then it’s tricky – we wouldn’t dare walk fast with a foot asleep.  Conversely then, appropriate circulation keeps the body awake and self-aware.

The sense of relative position of parts and the strength of effort used to move – is the result of specifically these proprioceptors –  “muscle spindles,” “golgi tendon organs” and joint receptors.  These sense respectively, muscles’ stretch, their tensing, and changes in joint position.

Proprioceptor literally means to “receive one’s self.”  The proprioceptors are received by the brain in two places – the cerebrum that gives rise to conscious proprioception and the cerebellum which houses unconscious proprioception.  Most of our proprioception, like most of our sensation, is unconscious.

When we are touched though, especially when a massage therapist/bodyworker engages tissue (and therefore mind) in a very clear manner, we make the unconscious conscious.  First we make gentle contact and engage the receptors of light touch, and then we can thoughtfully press into the body, engaging the pressure-receptors.  When we pause, even for the briefest of moments, between these steps, the client senses the deliberation, consciousness in the touch.

Then, having pressed in to the body, we begin to move, stretching the tissues.  Now we have engaged the proprioceptors and even more deeply we carry on a conversation through touch with the cerebrum and the cerebellum.

By systematic thoughtful movement, we awaken the person’s awareness of where all their parts are and how they are related to one another.  Through that awareness the brain assembles a picture of the whole body.  So as we change the lengths of fascia even temporarily, we introduce the bodymind to new possibilities, new opportunities for shape, movement, and awareness.

Ida Rolf, when asked why she worked on fascia, supposedly exclaimed, “Because that’s what I can get my hands on!”  More deeply we see we get our hands on the nervous system as well – through the agency of nerves interwoven throughout muscle, fascia, tendon, and joint.

Through the systematic engagement of touch, pressure and proprioception, we now are getting our hands on mind as well as body.

The client is receiving their self, awakening to the present moment and perhaps opening up to new possibilities, to a world in which big positive changes may take place. Maybe the trip to Nirvana is not too far away!

Once we are getting our hands on the nervous system, on the brain, once we are clearly connected to mind, what shall our touch communicate?

All this reminds me of Derek Walcott’s beautiful poem –

 Love After Love

 The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread.  Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.