” The skin, like a cloak, covers us all over, the oldest and most sensitive of our organs, our first medium of communication, and our most efficient of protectors.
Perhaps next to the brain, the skin is the most important of all our organ systems.”
Touching: The Human significance of the skin.
by Ashley Montagu, 1971
The Role of Touch in Health
It was the 1970’s and somehow I found myself lecturing at the Royal Free Hospital in London on The Role of Touch in Health. Truly the ‘mother of the senses’, touch and its importance for the early life and development of all of us mammals, at times gets lost as we go through our life, especially if we lose our intimate partners or never develop really close relationships.
If we are wise, we try to keep in touch with touch.
Touch seems to tap into a profound place in us all and shift our hormonal and autonomic nervous systems to useful and healing places. It activates the brains orbito-frontal cortex which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. We know that both in breast-feeding and in lovemaking the stimulation of the nipple helps release oxytocin the ‘bonding’ hormone which we can see is one important way nature both helps mother and baby bond and encourages pair bonding through sexual relations.
Good touch seems to signal safety and trust, it soothes us and calms the cardiovascular system and even stimulates the vagus nerve, that runs from our brain to most of our organs, and is thought to be associated with our compassionate responses. In fMRI experiments it has been shown to turn off anxiety and threat sensations. But then, what parent needed such research to discover that?
Mostly, if it is respectful and true, we like to be touched. Exactly how and why I got to do that gig at the Royal Free Hospital is lost in the mists of time. But, no doubt, it was in part because, at the time I was paying my way through my tough years of osteopathic studies by teaching massage courses in London and around Europe.
In the 1970’s there was a renewed interest within what was then called the Human Potential Movement of new and sometimes radical, approaches to human psychology. The psychoanalytic movement of the early twentieth century and the rather arid science of behaviorism of the post war years, had left a space through which the humanistic, and later transpersonal Psychology movements, based on the works of Jung, Reich, Maslow, Rogers, Assagioli and Groff had grown. This had led to centres like Esselen in Big Sur, California and others, where we were working in London, sponsoring all sorts of new models of how we could apply psychological approaches, not only to our neurosis, but also as tools to expand and enrich our growth and maturity. And this is where the massage and body awareness courses came in at that time.
Like all such movements rich with experimentation and larger than life idealists; on reflection, some of it was over the top and fell away eventually, but a huge amount of it was healthy and useful and many of those ideas, have, with modification, been incorporated into accepted, cutting-edge, psychological models and norms, today. Not least the important role of the body and body language in our understanding of how, and why, we are, as we are.
Nonhuman primates spend about 10 to 20 percent of their waking day grooming each other. If you go to various other countries, people spend a lot of time in direct physical contact with one another—much more than we English or Americans do. Every culture has its norms about touch and learning these is one of the key understandings we need to master to successfully mix and feel at home, in different cultures. But even in our relatively non-touch, northern, Anglo-Saxon, culture, those who learn to touch in safe, respectful and discreet ways, have access to a deep and ancient channel of communication.
However, it does take skill and sensitivity to use well and in the right place. While most of us respond well to the right and appropriate touch, we really do not like the other kind, that seems to be uncalled for and invasive. That said, down deep in our unconscious, is a touch sensitive ‘button,’ that when pressed, will often influence us in ways we are sometimes quite unaware of.
According to Professor Keltner Touch can even have economic effects, promoting trust and generosity.
When psychologist Robert Kurzban had participants play the “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which they could choose either to cooperate or compete with a partner for a limited amount of money, an experimenter gently touched some of the participants as they were starting to play the game—just a quick pat on the back. But it made a big difference: Those who were touched were much more likely to cooperate and share with their partner.
So next time you meet an old acquaintance, don’t forget the power of touch. While our brains are busy with all that visual and auditory processing up front of our minds, something more profound and primary, is still operating, that links us to our deep mammalian past and is registering with us, somewhere.
The other day I had the pleasure in experiencing Alex Smolonska’s great hands as she gave me a taster of her wide-ranging skills in massage. Many of you know that Alex has moved some of her excellent massage practice to Helix House this year.
We osteopaths are lucky to work with touch as part of our everyday work in diagnosing and un-scrambling the pain and dysfunction of our patients. However, unlike the more clinical and diagnostic work of osteopathy which may, or may not, be pleasurable, but has the task of specific medical diagnosis and treatment, massage invariably is just that; a delight.
Massage, done, well provides us with a wonderful time out of time. We step away, through the power of touch, from our thought-filled, busy lives, where no sooner are we finished with one task on our endless To-Do list, than the next seems to cry out to be attended to.
Through the power of the mother of the senses we can often find ourselves letting go and stepping out of the psychic armour we have constructed for ourselves, and under the caring, knowing hands of an expert, we can almost slough off that hard shell we have, unknowingly, constructed for ourselves and then imprisoned ourselves in, and like a chrysalis we are, at least for that time, reborn, as that butterfly we truly are.
This month I wanted to highlight the expert Touch based therapies that we are luck enough to have available at Helix House with both Alex Smolonska and the popular return to Helix House, of long time body worker, Zoe Bicât.
If you have not already had the great pleasure of having Alex or Zoë work on/with you, now is your chance to get unwound and ready for Christmas.
As a special offer they may well be willing to give you a 10% discount for your first visit if you hurry and get in before Christmas.
Check them out, below, and get your slot in the book by calling Helix House on 01865 243351 now while there are still some slots left. Or perhaps this could be the Christmas gift for someone you know who would really appreciate such a healing experience?
They are busy, popular and skilled women, don’t miss out on what could be come a great life giving habit.
Please note: due to important major repairs Helix House will be closed from December 24th until January 5th.
Alex Smolonska graduated from Oxford School of Sports Massage with Level 5 BTEC Professional Diploma in Clinical, Sport & Remedial Massage. For the past two years, she has been studying Visceral Manipulation (VM) at the Barral Institute, learning how to aid the body’s ability to release restrictions and unhealthy compensations that cause pain and dysfunction. VM does not focus solely on the site of pain or dysfunction, but evaluates the entire body to find the source of the problem. It was developed by Jean-Pierre Barral – a French Osteopath, named as one of the TIME Magazine’s Top Six Innovators for Alternative Medicine to watch in the new millennium. Alex’s experience includes working for the Oxford University Woman’s Lightweight Rowing Club, and the Eau-de-Vie-The Centre for Natural Health Treatments in Oxford. She treats a diverse group of clients ranging from busy mums, office and manual workers, musicians, football players, cyclists, runners, power lifters and racing car drivers.
Zoë Bicât – Whole-Body Balancing Acupressure Massage
Zoe has a BA (Hons) degree and qualified in 2012 with a Diploma in Traditional Chinese Injury Rehabilitation Therapy. She studied with the internationally commissioned injury rehabilitation specialist Michael Newman (D.Ac LCSP (Phy)), with whom she also learnt Qigong. Zoe holds a BSY Professional Diploma in Anatomy & Physiology, with Distinction. She is a graduate of the Qigong Teacher Training at the Shiatsu College, for which she also studied Anatomy, and does ongoing CPD in Qigong with Master Wing Cheung as well as with her former tutors.
Having lived with chronic back pain after a severe prolapsed lumbar disc, and recovered well, Zoe has tried many therapies and forms of exercise, and brings her understanding and sensitivity to her work with clients. She has found Qigong to be especially beneficial. In her work she uses it with clients as rehabilitative exercise, where it can target areas of the body to help with healing, joint mobility, and overall health.
Zoe offers Whole-body Balancing Acupressure Massage, a gentle, powerful therapy which combines massage with a specific combination of acupressure points. The treatment involves cupping, and where appropriate the use of moxa, a form of heat therapy. Zoe’s background in Traditional Chinese Injury Rehabilitation Therapy gives her an understanding of the deeper causes of pain in posture, alignment and impacts from chronic or acute injury.
Zoe teaches one-to-one Qigong sessions, group classes and workshops in East and West Oxford.
About the therapy: Whole-body balancing acupressure massage is a deeply restorative, holistic treatment designed to create the optimum conditions for your body to heal and rebalance. It can help with muscle tension, aches and pains, stress, emotional upheaval, insomnia or anxiety, by restoring the body’s natural flow of energy and self-healing ability. The massage uses a selected range of points indicated for their action of opening and freeing the flow of blood and energy (qi) through specific meridians in the body. This helps to replenish the body’s reserves of vital energy as well as relaxing the muscles. The treatment is soothing and includes work on head, hands and feet. Cupping and moxa are used to further release deep muscle tension and bring blood flow into areas of stagnation, pain or immobility, according to an individual’s needs.
Cupping is where a vacuum is created inside a glass or plastic cup placed on the skin, which draws the skin and muscle slightly inside the cup. The cup can then be moved over the skin in a gliding motion while the suction is active. Cupping can release deep muscle tension and improve muscular function, as its effects penetrate deeply into the tissues.
Moxibustion (the burning of moxa) is a form of heat therapy where finely crushed and compacted herb (Artemisia vulgaris) slowly smoulders to produce a comfortable yet penetrating heat, which can be directed to joints, local tissue, and acupoints. It is held at a distance from the skin to produce varying degrees of therapeutic heat.
Qigong (pronounced chee-gung) is a system of meditative exercise dating back at least 2,000 years. It uses breath, mind intention and movement to balance the body, mind, emotions and spirit. It is designed to gently work muscles, tendons and ligaments, for maintenance of joint mobility and healthy flow of qi throughout the body.
What clients say about their sessions with Zoe:
“At a time of extreme stress, I experienced my treatment with Zoe as deeply nourishing and restorative. My nervous system was able to relax and let go in a way I would never have believed possible in the circumstances. Zoe’s presence and skill were very apparent. I would recommend her as a bodywork practitioner to anyone”. Vanessa
“An old shoulder injury was interfering with my playing the violin; Zoe was quick to ask pertinent questions and to check specific aspects of my shoulder mobility to gain a thorough understanding of my condition. The treatment seemed carefully and precisely targeted on the troubled areas, and I felt a great deal of deep muscular relief. Zoe also tailored a set of movement exercises for me to perform regularly at home, empowering me to continue the therapeutic process myself. The combined effect has been to free up shoulder movement considerably and, furthermore, to increase my overall sense of what is a healthy and relaxed posture.” Keith