(revision of a 2011 Massage and Bodywork magazine article)
1590s, "force of expression," from M.Fr. énergie (16c.), from L.L. energia, from Gk. energeia "activity, operation,"from energos "active, working," from en "at" + ergon "work, that which is wrought; business; action". Used by Aristotle with a sense of "force of expression;" broader meaning of "power" is first recorded in English 1660s. Scientific use is from 1807.
When I began as a therapist in 1977, Swedish massage, Shiatsu, Rolfing, Aston Patterning, Reiki, Feldenkrais, Alexander work, Polarity, and Cranio-sacral therapy were what one mostly encountered. There was a broad umbrella under which they all easily co-existed.
As the massage and bodywork field grew, its proliferation gave rise to new modalities, new educational standards, more schools, organizations, and various interest groups. It has been sometimes difficult to see the forest through the trees; but it’s still there!
Lately the tree of science or evidence-based massage has been somewhat overshadowing other approaches. We have seen an emphasis on science and evidence-based massage and a relative de-emphasis on the artistic and the energetic side of bodywork. This is partly due to the excitement the field has had to attain clinical competence and get respect from the medical industry. In addition, through more than just national interactions, massage in the U.S., which has traditionally been accepting of an eclectic mix of therapies, has been confronted with, for instance, the Canadian model, which is more of a European physiotherapy, allopathic model of massage.
Another influence is that of testing, national certifications, and licensing. It is vastly easier to test for scientific knowledge, than for art and hands-on skills. National exams do not contain, understandably(!), an examination of hands-on skill, energetic sensitivity, palpatory literacy, or actual therapeutic benefit – because it is recognized as nearly impossible to objectively judge hands-on work. But the deeper insight here is that what constitutes the highest skill level in our field is indeed something that has as much to do with art as with science. We just don’t test for the art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t of equal or greater importance.
Progress in both the art and science, both energy and structure, is a precious legacy of modern massage therapy. Of late the scientific perspective has been wonderfully emphasized. It is the purpose of this article to contribute to balancing this emphasis with an understanding of the essential role energy, art, and integration play in our knowledge and therapy.
Energy is too important a subject to be, on the one hand, defined only by its devotees – some of whose ideas or practices have been shown to be false or dangerous or with claims made for scientific validity where there is insufficient scientific evidence or even disproof.
I think much of use of the term energy is subject to what the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” I personally don’t think chakras exist in the sense of wheels or spheres of energy spinning in a certain direction. However, I find them very useful as a language for talking about the role different parts of our body play in our lives. I have had experiences of energy flow or kundalini that I have no doubt were real experiences. I treasure some of these experiences and learn from them to this day. I have found no way more clear than speaking of them as experiences of energy flow in the body.
On the other hand, energy and energy work has been negatively defined by its detractors, who act as if anything that is not scientifically proven or evidence-based is false and/or offensive.
It seems energy and energy work, to some extent, must be defended from both its devotees and its detractors!
In this article, though we primarily explore the energetic standpoint, we will be often reminded that “both-and” thinking, integrating both structure and energy, is more accurate than describing something as structure or energy alone.
There is so much polarization these days in politics and in healthcare. But health means whole. If we honor the whole, all sides benefit. Let us see how we can cultivate a more inclusive vision, not take sides.
From the start, let us note that energy work and structural work are two sides of the same coin. Most likely, the most effective therapy will arise from an approach that respects and unites the structural and energetic aspects of both therapist and client. The various arguments for and against energy work, for and against excessive insistence on evidence-based therapy are certainly passionate.
But the best answer to most passionate debates is often a more overriding vision. The assumption that the scientific/structural view of massage is the correct one is as one-sided as the assumption that the artistic/energetic approach to massage is correct.
It is like arguing which one of your two eyes you ought to see out of.
Each person is both physical and more than physical (e.g. having also mind and emotions). Therefore, an approach which is most likely to foster the deepest experience of health will be one which takes the whole person, physically and more than physically into account.
So, as we explore the realm of energy below, please note: the goal, at least my goal, is to clarify the energetic realm and to make it more likely that massage therapists and bodyworkers be even more empowered to conjoin art and science in their work. The separation or antagonism between energy work and structural work often seems a waste of time and at worst a real tragedy. It would be like separating health from care. We practice healthcare. We are responsible both for caring which is energetic and for being skilled in promoting health through soft tissue manipulation.
The union of art and science, of energy and structure, of health and care is a triumph of historical proportions. Our field and the whole world need this triumph in the realm of the union of clinical excellence with palpable care for life on earth.
The concept of energy in bodywork has historically, and I think wisely, had a wide definition.
In physics it is understood that phenomena can be looked at in terms of being particles or matter vs. waves or energy. Energy, to some extent, can be measured. It is commonly defined as “work done.”
In general this view leads us to say that energy is more connected to action, waves and movement, than to particles, and matter. Commonsensically, since mass and energy are in fact a unity – and no-thing would exist without both - we can see that they are simply two ways of looking at or describing the same thing. You may look in the ocean and say, “Look at that wave!” or you can also say, “Looking at the water waving.” So is the wave a thing or a process, a noun or a verb? Well…it is both-and, not either-or. When we think we see a thing, we are looking at the phenomenon from the particle standpoint. When we think we are looking at a process or motion, we are looking at it from an energy standpoint.
The broadest use of the term energy in bodywork has been applied to work that consciously aims at more than just soft tissues.
The scientific method is empirical. It looks at and works with what is there. In the case of a human, what is there is a body, and certainly mind and emotions as well. Many people include soul and spirit as well – though some find their existence somewhat less obvious.
Generally a consummate physician or therapist who consistently earns the trust of his or her patients will be someone who relates not just to the anatomy and physiology of the patient/client, but also their personhood. They care about their patients/clients – how they feel, what stresses they are under, what knowledge they have or need about what’s going on with them – in addition to having great skill in effectively addressing disease and injury.
Another way to say this is that they consider both structure and energy in their practice.
When we think about structure, it includes:
Structure may also be thought of as objective, tangible, palpable, and visible.
Energy, most broadly defined, is the entire realm of experience beyond just the physical. It may be thought of as subjective, intangible, not necessarily palpable, and not necessarily visible.
Energy includes then:
It also includes the realm of sensation, emotion and mind:
And the realm of spirit:
Some of these of course can be described in the language of neurological and endocrine processes. The autonomic nervous system is in many ways an energetic system, responding to feelings, thoughts, sensations, etc. by changing the overall energetic and physical state of the organism. Other energetic phenomena, particularly associations we may have with given sensations, may be described in terms of activities within the brain’s limbic system, the diencephalon, and through them, then affecting the whole person through neuro-endocrine response.
Certainly languages other than physiological have been used, often fruitfully, to describe energy:
Each of these are like lenses we may choose to use or not, in order to see our clients more clearly. In that sense each way of describing energy uses – like language itself– metaphors to try to capture the facts and feel of reality.
Some of the many bodywork modalities that explicitly use energetic lenses as part of their theory include (in no specific order):
Some of these are more “pure” energy works. Others – such as the Deep Massage that I teach and Zero Balancing – are more explicitly integrative bodyworks that fundamentally link structure and energy in their practice. This is NOT an exhaustive list of all the bodywork forms claiming an energetic component; that would be very long indeed!
Many primarily structural modalities also acquire an energetic dimension when a practitioner aims at helping the client in ways more than just physical.
Many of these bodymind works have been questioned as to how much of their success is due to the placebo effect, how much actual therapeutic efficacy. Certainly the offhand dismissal of the placebo effect, the power of belief, and the power of suggestion is too extreme. Many studies have shown that belief plays a powerful role in health and healing.
Some subscribers to evidence-based therapy claim that many energetic practices have been disproven because their good results may not be objectively demonstrable, consistent or reproducible. When we are looking at the art of massage (not just its science), we are looking at a more subjective realm. Just as a piece of music or painting may have a life-changing impact on one person and not on the next – so a given massage session may have similarly unpredictable and irreproducible results. This doesn’t disprove its premise – it just goes to show that actual therapeutic results are not always predictable.
Saying that a therapeutic result should be reproducible or the method is false, wrongly applies objective standards to a situation that is both objective and subjective – the way the client integrates the therapist’s input.
To paraphrase the philosopher, Martin Buber, it is not the therapeutic intention that is fruitful, but it is the meeting that is therapeutically fruitful. Every session is an improvisation in the moment – naturally guided by forethought, prior study, intuition, taking a good history, session design. However, the proof is in the putting and the art is in the fascinating moment-to-moment improvisation that constitutes the therapy session.
Research and logic is valuable for guidance - so is imagination! If we weren’t meant to combine the logical and the imaginative sides of ourselves, nature wouldn’t have given us the two cerebral hemispheres!
In most U.S. states’ laws, it is explicitly stated that massage is not the practice of medicine and does not involve diagnosis or treatment. Rather than being a limitation, we can see this as an enormous opportunity. In the U.S. and in many countries around the world, massage therapists practice as health-care professionals; not disease-care professionals (of course unless you have dual licensure as a medical professional and massage therapist). We are required to look at health and what promotes it especially through the physical and energetic effects of touch. There are very few therapies whose mission explicitly is health promotion.
Years ago, Jeff Maitland, former Faculty Chairman of the Rolf Institute, proposed a model of the levels of healthcare in our field. I think it very helpful to be reminded of these. I’ve reworded them somewhat:
There is no debate about the usefulness of making progress in research and in clarifying the science that underlies massage and bodywork. It is important and intoxicating. The Massage Therapy Research Foundation, Tiffany Fields with the Touch Research Institute, and many others in our field are helping take our work to a whole new level of credibility and therapeutic efficacy.
An equally important question is - what next steps can our field take to match the momentum in the science of massage with a balanced progress in the art of massage?
Here are some suggestions:
It is time for the field to recognize, rejoice in and welcome our next steps. It is high time is to proceed in a balanced way, honoring the legacy of massage therapy as the explicit union of care and knowledge, art and science in touch.
Lauterstein, David. The Deep Massage Book – How to Combine Structure and Energy in Bodywork. Taos: Redwing Book Company, 2012.
. “The Art of Massage.” Massage Magazine, February, 2013.
. “Energy and the Integrative Vision.” Massage and Bodywork Magazine, September/October 2011.
. Putting the Soul Back in the Body. Self-published, 1985.
Maitland, Jeff. (co-authored with Patricia Benjamin, Raymond Castellino, Carl Dubitsky, and Steven Shenkman). "Three Paradigms - Five Approaches." Massage Therapy Journal, Summer, 1991.
Smith, Fritz Frederick. Inner Bridges. Atlanta: Humanics Ltd, 1987.