I need to tell you about an amazing body work experience I had recently. It is called the Trager Approach, after Dr. Milton Trager who pioneered this incredibly gentle and effective technique of muscle relaxation (among other things).
The setup is essentially the same as with a massage, so I lay on a table and the practitioner worked on each part of my body in turn, but instead of massaging me, she rocked, bounced, jiggled, and shimmered—as they like to say—each muscle group. It was light and gentle and is not supposed to be in any way unpleasant…
…and was far more relaxing and long-lasting than any massage I have ever had.
I have had a lot of massages and most have felt good and been relaxing, but I have never experienced the kind of deep release of long-held tension as I did after my first Trager session.
I’m not exactly sure how it works, but my understanding at this point is that the movements help to break up the tension patterns in the fascia below the muscles, so that the muscles can then release, too.
After my first session, my body felt lighter and more fluid, and it was radically easier to move and to rest and to be in the world. I know that’s not a helpful description, but I am not finding words to describe how I felt.
Over the next several days, I would notice that my chronically tight thigh muscles, for example, would tighten and release and tighten and release, as if reacting out of habit, and then realizing that there were another possibility now. As they did this over and over, they started releasing more and the tightening became less intense, with longer intervals in between.
Each day I experienced more and more release, as my muscles learned what it felt like to be relaxed for the first time since I can remember.
As an example, a few days after that first session, I was cleaning something that had a lot of parts, and had set myself up at a table to sit down and spend an hour or two at it. Part way through, I got up to get another towel, and when I came back I felt like standing for a moment instead of just sitting down immediately, and it felt good to stand so I kept standing, and started swaying a little and moving my hips around and shifted my weight and gently rocked each of my legs, not out of fidgeting, but just because the movements felt good in my body. And the standing just felt more comfortable—for me, that’s practically a miracle.
Over the next several days, I noticed myself standing more and more, and walking more and longer, not because I should or because it is good for me or I ought to exercise, but simply because it felt good in my body.
The second week alone, I estimate that I stood or walked for about 22 hours more than usual, and was not at all tired or uncomfortable during or afterwards…and I realized that that was actually less work than my muscles had been doing by staying tense all the time!
After the third session, I felt delightfully sleepy and curled up in my bed, still parked in front of the practitioner’s house, and took a really great nap.
After the fourth session, I felt like I had a little propeller inside my chest that were ushering me on to move forward, move forward, and that it would take more work to sit down and hold still then to move, so I started walking around the neighborhood until my body was ready to sit and drive again.
I have had four sessions now, over about six weeks, and each time the benefits have compounded and more things have released, and even after the sessions, things are continuing to release and relax.
Not everyone’s experience is the same, of course. Some people report huge emotional release where tension patterns were created by old traumas. Some people experience relief from years of back pain, cerebral palsy, polio-induced paralysis, range of motion increases, and more.
In my case, my leg and torso muscles had been casted into stiff positions for so long that they didn’t know how to release the tension. Some of that stiffness was probably a coping mechanism at one point, meant to be helpful when there was an injury, either physical or emotional, but it became so ingrained that my muscles forgot how to be otherwise.
I think the bigger issue for me is that my nervous system needs additional proprioceptive input, and since I wasn’t getting it otherwise, my muscles tensed up to try to provide it for me.
I’ve been noticing this more and more over the past several months, as I have begun treating my sensory sensitivities. I got a weighted blanket in January and laying under it (with several additional blankets to make it even heavier), my leg muscles started to tentatively experiment with relaxing, which was, honestly, my first clue to the fact that they were at all tense! I didn’t have any idea because I never felt anything else.
But it didn’t last, and wasn’t much of a relaxation in the first place. Now, after several Trager sessions, my leg muscles are are almost always relaxed and it lasts!
That release of tension has had a host of other effects. For example, I have been following Katy Bowman’s movement philosophy for about four years, and her restorative exercises have helped me work out a lot of physical issues and increase movement in my body, but the results have been small and it takes a lot of willpower to get myself to do the exercises.
After just a couple Trager sessions, the exercises she recommends are coming easily and effortlessly, and I want to do them because they feel good.
My range of motion has also improved considerably. Without my leg muscles clinging desperately to old patterns of tension, the squat that I have been working on (under Katy’s virtual guidance) went overnight from a partial, half-way down squat balanced on the balls of my feet, to a full, both-feet-flat-on-the-floor-and-butt-all-the-way-down, can-hold-it-for-minutes, can-walk-in-this-position squat.
I’m not trying to suggest that of all my body’s movement issues are solved, but it has opened up space in my body so that I feel like I have the capacity now to work on them, and it feels good to work on them, to move, to walk, and it takes far less effort to just be in my body.
I am so loving this, and want to learn more about how this gentle intensity works! And to have more sessions eventually!
Milton Trager also developed a series of easy movement that he called Mentastics—a coined term combining mental and gymnastics. These deceptively simple movements are meant to extend the lightness and release of the session into daily life. As you move an arm or a leg, you engage the mind by asking something like “how would it feel if this were lighter?” or freer? or softer? and letting the body respond on its own to find a subtly lighter/freer/softer form of that movement.
Practicing these each morning and variously throughout the day, is both simple, effortless, and wonderful. It has helped me shake out tensions or stress when I feel those building up, or when I want to take a walk but am having a hard time getting into it, a little Mentastics lets me release the effort I am trying to put into the intention to walk, and just walk, with less or no effort.
I’ve been shocked how such a small thing can have such large effects, how so little effort can work better than the intense effort with which I have approached every part of my life, how inhabiting the process and letting go of a results-focused mentality can reach those results better, or even better results than previously imagined.
I think there are life lessons for me here beyond the body work.
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