Finding My Footing: Yoga, Massage Therapy, and The Evidence
Have you ever practiced foot-in-mouth pose?
I have. I am right now. (If I’m being 100% truthful, I can only get my left big toe in my mouth. The right foot doesn’t even come close.)
I’ve recently come to understand that a good many things I was taught (and have taught to others) in my massage therapy and yoga trainings were unfounded. Perhaps they were in a line with what science was presenting at the time but there was a fair amount of hocus pocus thrown in there too. Now let me just say - I’m not knocking the hocus pocus; I love me some woo. Things get complicated, though, when the woo is presented as the thing that will cure what ails you and as the Indisputable Truth.
For the past month or so, I have been reading voraciously everything on the interwebz I could get my hands on regarding the intersections of pain science, yoga, massage therapy, and evidence-based practices. I think my brain started to dribble out of my ear a little by the end.
I’m finally coming up for air.
You may not know this about me but I went to a Christian college. Not just one of those private liberal arts schools that was founded by a Methodist three-hundred years ago - I’m talking a legit BIBLE college. My diploma says B.S. in Bible (oh the irony). If you know me now, you know that I am not a Christian. I gradually stepped back from religion nearly a decade ago and it was a huge shift. Deconstructing was like taking off a million pairs of glasses, each one representing a Christian principle, value, or perspective. Just when I thought I had taken off the last pair of glasses, I would find myself in a situation thinking in a way that didn’t align with my current values. Slowly, I would realize that I was still wearing a pair of old glasses, still filtering the experience through my outmoded worldview.
Well, this post is not about leaving religion. That process was a conscious, evolving choice. The paradigm shift I’m experiencing now blind-sided me but it still tastes like deconversion — only it’s with my yoga and massage therapy practice.
I didn’t go looking for this information (at least not consciously). I just happened to see something on Instagram that led me down a rabbit hole. For some time now, I’ve wanted to know what’s going on in the body during a yoga class or while getting a massage. I always just assumed I needed to go back to school to figure it out (and I almost did to become a PT but then I was like, Girl you crazy, you’re 6 months pregnant with your second child and you never even took a science class in college).
The information I learned about pain science was really cool and it seemed to have a trickle down effect, shedding light on various other topics as well. This post is not necessarily about what I have learned (News flash: most everyone’s fascia is probably fine) but it is about the process of uncovering, shifting, and finding a new ground on which to stand. (Or maybe it’s the same ground and a new way of standing on it.)
Is evidence-based everything? Is there room for mystery?
When I get really into something, I get really into it. Like I totally chug all the Kool-Aid. Then after the buzz wears off, my critical thinking kicks in. Sometimes the hangover comes quickly and other times it can be a slow recovery.
I got really into Reiki. In case you don’t know, Reiki is energy work. In a straight-up Reiki session, the client lies on the table and the practitioner uses light touch or no touch (hands hovering about six inches off the body) to transmit this ‘universal love energy’ via his or her hands. (I just saw your woo flag go up).
‘There is no scientific evidence that there is an energy system in the body that can be manipulated with the hands,’ says the science-based massage therapy community. True statement.
Just like with many other things, I shotgunned the Reiki Kool-Aid and then after a while, I was like, Hmmm…what’s really going on here? I still have no clue. I am a Skeptical Reiki Master. I know there is no scientific evidence for this practice. Although it won’t hold up in the court of science, I do have anecdotal evidence for this practice:
When I practice Reiki, I experience certain sensations that some would call the ‘flow of energy.’ Sometimes I experience vivid imagery or see colors. Following the Reiki protocols feels very meditative to me so I often get incredibly relaxed. When I practice Reiki, the palms of my notoriously cold hands get hot.
My clients have reported experiencing sensations to which they referred as ‘the flow of energy.’ They have also reported feeling my hands go from cold to hot when I started using Reiki in a session. They have reported feeling like their thoughts melted away and becoming deeply relaxed. Often, there is snoring.
Is that all due to the flow of energy? I don’t know. Is it even energy? I don’t know. I don’t make claims that Reiki will do anything other than help clients relax and hopefully increase feelings of well-being. (Be well, feel swell.) The nervous system is a powerful thing. Who knows all the ins and outs and whys of what happens when two nervous systems collide via touch (or near touch as is sometimes the case with Reiki). We do know from pain science research that the therapeutic relationship between the client/patient and the healer (whether that’s an MD, PT, LCSW, LMT, or the village witch doctor) can influence the client’s experience of pain.*
If Reiki provides a way for me to connect with my client and meet them where they are while doing no harm and helping them relax, then why NOT do it? After all, I’m not making claims that it will cure cancer or treat a medical condition.
The yoga and massage therapy communities are full of modern-day gurus. When we blindly and without question fall in line with these ideologies, we tend to chuck reasoning and critical thinking out the window.
This skeptical approach I take to Reiki illustrates the stance I’m taking in my massage therapy practice and yoga teaching practice: I will continue to seek out the evidence and to practice and teach with integrity based upon those findings. I also recognize there are gaps, dark places, and mysteries that still elude scientific explanation. As I continue to dwell in the mystery, I will honor the complexity of the human body and the human experience. I will continue to practice foot-in-mouth pose and I will continue to tell you all the things I don’t know. Thank you in advance for your graciousness. May we all continue evolving toward enlightenment.