Beyond Science

A couple newsletters ago, I promised to go deeper into my massage school experience. Though I wanted to write about it sooner, I felt like I needed more time to gather my thoughts. Since I took my final last week an the semester came to a close, I decided that I was finally ready. 

The course I just finished was on the topic of East/West physiology. I had told an advisor at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine that I wanted to learn about the theories and practice of massage. And so, she suggested this course, which was mostly about the concept of health and disease in traditional Chinese medicine. Next semester, I'm taking two hands-on classes, one in Swedish massage and the other in Tuina, a Chinese medical massage technique.

A few sessions in, I thought I'd made a serious mistake in class selection. My teacher Mary was telling us about the five elements our bodies are made up of - wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Apparently, we're built with one or two dominant elements, which show up in our personalities. "You know those people who go to the pre-party, then the party, then the after-party and then to the diner?" asked Mary. "That's totally me. I've got a lot of fire." Mary, warm, charismatic and rosy-cheeked, exudes fire. Excess fire is said to lead to certain health risks typically associated with the heart, such as palpitations and hypertension. Yeah right, I thought.

Western massage is more scientifically-focused than Eastern. The purpose of a Swedish massage is to increase the flow of blood and lymph in the body to reduce achiness and also give the client an overall sense of calm. Chinese medical massage focuses more treating imbalances, which can lead to illness, through the body's 12 energy channels. Though it sounded crazy at first, as the semester progressed, I realized that my skepticism was getting in the way of my learning, and I had to let it go.

Once I did, I started to relate to the thought process of the ancient Chinese doctors. Mary taught us about zhi (pronounced zhurr) energy, or willpower, which is considered part of a channel through the body associated with the energy of the kidneys. When we've begun to exhaust our zhi, we might experience lower back pain, leg pain, tinnitus and poor memory. I know many times when I've been stressed out, my back starts to hurt. Though my experience is hardly a measure of the idea's scientific soundness, it made sense that we hold certain emotions in the soft tissue of our bodies. I started to appreciate the metaphorical system that the Chinese developed to convey how certain types of touch on specific points on the body can influence our overall health.

One of the benefits of being in massage school is that I get some very modestly-priced massages, $5 in fact. And because I love a good deal, I've been going every week. I've had amazing massages and ones that were just okay, and what separates them is intuition. A good massage therapist just seems to spot the sources of pain more easily and the assess what type of touch will make me feel better. I think that's where I came to value the lessons of traditional Chinese medicine. That its techniques wouldn't stand up to peer review scrutiny started to matter to me less and less. I started to value the intuitive sense about wellness and our bodies that it was based on. Touch is a language we're born with, and sometimes we just need to remind ourselves how to use it.

Some of my reading as of late.

Some of my reading as of late.

* Correction: In my October newsletter, I mentioned that the star-nosed mole is the most sensitive animal. While it may have the most sensitive skin among mammals, recent research shows that the roundworm C. elegans may be even more touch-sensitive.

Happy holidays!

Sushma Subramanian