Using Bodywork As A Tool For Self Discovery And Personal Growth
By Rachel Nichols
“Use your breath to sit with the pain rather than to avoid it.” This sentence spoken by bodyworker Alex Rosan is still echoing through my mind a month after our appointment. I had no clue what “bodywork” really entailed but out of curiosity, and also as part of my commitment to making self-discovery work and personal growth a priority in my life this year, I wanted to give it a shot. I love learning about all the different modalities of healing and find “shadow work” fascinating. So I went to go see Alex with an open mind and ready to learn and release.
What is Bodywork?
Alex has been practicing bodywork and massage for nearly 10 years and has more than 1,200 hours of training. He has also been teaching yoga since 2005. “The kind of bodywork that I do addresses more than just the physical body,” he said. “It affects our emotions, how we see ourself, how we are able to walk through the world and our ability to be the most authentic self we can be.
“I guide people into experiencing their depth, because it's from there that we are able to self-actualize our most authentic self. One of the ways this is done is by actually diving into the pain body (the shadow aspect of our being), which we are typically taught to avoid, and exploring it and accepting it. Physical healing affects the emotional and psychological self. Emotional healing effects the physical and mental self. Mental healing effects the physical and emotional self. The bodywork I provide addresses all of this.”
According to Alex, bodywork can look, and feel a lot like massage therapy, and even includes many of the same modalities; but bodywork offers another realm of somatic therapy that massage often lacks (somatic therapy, in case you’re unfamiliar, is basically body-oriented therapy). “Massage usually feels good,” Alex said. “It’s a thing people do out of luxury, and while massage offers many of its own health benefits, bodywork magnifies these results.” Sometimes the work that is done can initially magnify the stress and tension that people are experiencing—this is because the source of the tension, which can be quite uncomfortable, needs to be brought to the surface and looked at in order for it to release.
“Bodywork uses multiple modalities, some even more obscure than something like Reiki or energy work, although these, too, can certainly be intertwined,” Alex said. “A lot of people come out feeling that something completely magical or unreal happened to them after their session, and that’s because they reached a new depth within themselves. It’s like swimming through a murky ocean to a coral reef.”
It Takes Two
Another important differentiator between massage and bodywork is that bodywork is a two-way journey that requires an effort between both the worker and the client. If the client opens up to the work, the session can produce truly healing results, including released physical and emotional tension that may be stuck in the body as well as a greater knowledge of the self.
“The most important part is that you commit to doing the work,” Alex said. “I can only go as far as you let yourself. I’ve been known to ask clients to stop coming if they are not ready/willing to actually do the work.”
As soon as I got on the massage table, I could feel that Alex has some of the most intuitive hands I have ever had work on me. His hands seemed to know exactly where I was hiding every bit of tension or trapped emotion I’ve ever had. It kind of blew my mind.
Here is what happened: I cried. A lot. This isn’t uncommon for me, as I have always been good with “feeling my feelings” and allowing myself to release my emotions as they come up. The unusual part was that I didn’t know exactly what I was having an emotional release over. Not yet at least, though the weeks following my appointment brought me plenty of answers.
The body parts ridden with tension that triggered me were my right leg, mostly the thigh and hamstring, my right armpit,my right shoulder, my left shoulder and my hips. These were the places my emotions were hiding. My armpit?! That is a sneaky place to hide! As he worked out the tension in these areas we had an open dialogue about what these places of tension are typically correlated with. Alex made suggestions but then it was up to me to dig into where the root of these emotions may be coming from. There was a fair amount of “homework” to do after my appointment.
Symbology in the Body
Alex believes that everything in the body is readable, noting that “there is so much symbology in the body.” Gesture, posture, gait, expression, individual perspective and even the way a person receives on the table is readable. “Through observation, you can see the bubbling up of subtle (or not so subtle) physical, mental and emotional traumas that lie underneath the surface,” Alex said.
For example, if you are someone who is tripping all the time, one must take note of their feet. Our feet keep us moving forward, so if you are tripping all the time, maybe ask yourself: Is there something that is keeping you from moving forward?
Another example: At a recent conference that Alex spoke at (that I also attended), a man volunteered to share an issue. While he talked about his specific issue, Alex observed the way he moved his head, which showed lack of clarity, and (in his eyes) confusion. “He also kept buckling his knees, which was showing that the situation was making him feel like he had no ground, or the rug was being swept out from underneath him,” Alex said. “These are more obvious and can be seen to some degree by a non-discerning eye. There are (and with the gentleman, were) other things, much more subtle and nuanced that can be discerned through deeper observation during inquiry and bodywork.”
Alex gave one last example to illustrate symbology in the body: “The lung meridian runs from the medial clavicle, down the radial aspect of the arm to the tip of the thumb. The lungs are yin, and every yin meridian has a yang. In this case, the pair to the lung meridian is the large intestine meridian. The lung meridian deals with strong emotional turmoil, like grief. If we work with grief for an extended period of time we get attached, and start to grasp for something that no longer exists. When stagnated the Large Intestine meridian deals with things (literally, and figuratively) that we can’t release, or let go of. So, if you are in deep emotional grief for a long time, you may have a hard time with physical digestion (the letting go of physical waste material) because it has become hard for you to ‘let go’ of your emotional waste material. This is only one system, and so many systems exist, and can look different on anyone, so although these guides act as an accurate and helpful tool, I see it being most important to work with individuals knowing that these are maps, and not the terrain itself.”
Energetic Sides of the Body: Feminine versus Masculine
The side of the body where tension is showing up also says something. At my appointment, most of my congestion was on the right side of the body. What does this mean?
“This goes into the universal dichotomy of yin/yang, feminine/masculine, up/down, right/wrong, forceful/passive, etc.,” Alex said. “Most people carry the masculine on the right half of their body, and the feminine on the left (at least in the way I read and understand the body). I encourage people to think about what these archetypes represent for themselves, and how they relate to them especially when it comes to literal mother and father, or their own relationship to masculinity or femininity.”
Not only was most of my tension on the right side, but Alex told me that when he released the left (feminine) side, I was able to keep it that way. With my right side, however, no matter how many times he released the tension, it always came back shortly thereafter. I was holding it there myself, subconsciously, of course. When I asked Alex about this, he said there are many potential reasons for holding tension in the body. “I think for many, we are not actually ready, or we are too scared, or too attached, or feel like we need to hold onto whatever somatic tension we experience,” Alex said. This is where more of my “work” comes in on this two-way bodywork street. What am I holding and why won’t I let go? What is my relationship to masculinity?
“We are often hiding from ourselves,” Alex said, but with bodywork we can release emotional and traumatic holds that may be holding us back in life.
How to Prepare for Bodywork
Come in well-hydrated and ideally do not drink or smoke the night before. And most importantly, come in prepared to work. “I also really appreciate it when people come with inquiries, ideas about what they’d like to work on or intentions for the work they are about to embark on. This is really a collaboration, and the more invested people are, the more work can be done,” Alex said.
The results uncovered by bodywork are obviously vastly different since we all have our own “stuff” in life. All you need to do is show up with an open mind and try and not attach to any outcomes. Alex said that sessions can be as smooth as polished marble (which is rare), or as tumultuous as an erupting volcano (which is somewhat frequent).
“From me,” Alex said, “my clients can expect total presence, awareness, respect and honor no matter where the person is in their own personal journey. You do not have to be spiritual, you do not have to be into ‘energy,’ you do not have to be the perfect yogi. Chaos and messiness are welcome so long as you want to do the work! Those who want to work can expect a potentially emotional canvas. They can expect deep pain or pleasure (emotional, physical, mental), and deeper understanding, and inquiry of self. People can expect that they’ll probably do try, and experience things they’ve never experienced before. And again, if you’re coming in to do the work, you truly have my honor and my gratitude, and you'll feel that, and it will help you open up.”
The Follow Up
If you have done the work, both on and off the table (addressing what came up during the appointment thereafter), Alex recommends waiting three to four weeks before coming back to let the initial work process through. After the appointment you now need to take the insight you’ve gained into the world, and try it on for size.
An example: Imagine that you’ve been covering up fear with laughter for 20 years and you finally realize you’ve been doing this. Then the next time you experience fear you don’t laugh. What DO you do? “Once that nervous laughter has been released you get to experience the more authentic reaction, which in its less mature state could be anger, or frustration, or anxiety, but still more authentic,” Alex said. “Most people come out feeling more aligned with their true nature and values, and can actually see and name why they reacted differently before a session with a tangible distance from it.”
Don’t be alarmed if emotional upheavals, sudden bursts of joy, sadness, fear, anxiety or other emotions arise. This is completely normal and part of the work. “What’s too scary to face alone? What came back that we were able to rid ourselves of during our session? Why? These are questions that should be readdressed at the next appointment,” Alex said.
“Furthermore, people should be as committed as they can be to staying hydrated after our session, and taking as many options that create well-being as possible, including journaling, dream journaling, long walks, baths, deep discussions with confidants, and self-inquiry are all really valuable ways to process a session.”
I can definitely say that the following weeks after my appointment were very interesting. I gained a lot of clarity as the weeks following my appointment went by and even had one very big epiphany while hiking one day. I also started becoming super aware of my breath and how often I was actually holding it. I’d never noticed that before and I am hyper-aware. And every time that happens, Alex’s words from our appointment float back into my mind: “Use your breath to sit with the pain rather than to avoid it.”
Every time I noticed myself holding my breath, I realized I was avoiding or resisting some kind of emotion at some capacity every single time. Then once I realized I was resisting or avoiding, I was able to sit with that emotion and use my breath to release it rather than avoid it. It would always eventually release, even if it took a couple days.
This new awareness alone has changed so much for me in the past month. I have found that the more I dive into the shadows of my subconscious, the more I expand my awareness. More awareness means we have more choice; while less awareness gives us less choice when it comes to our reactions. This bodywork has helped me understand where my reactions and patterns might be rooted, so I can make the conscious choice to let them go once and for all. I am looking forward to going back soon to continue the journey. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves self-discovery work as well as anyone who feels ready to explore their shadows but doesn’t know where to start.
For more information, visit Alex's website: alexanderrosan.com.