A Light Touch

By Michael Schwartz
New Age Journal, November 1997

Can People change? Marion Rosen's answer lies on the bodywork table.

"Why don't we skip the introduction. I want to hear your questions, please," urged German-born bodywork pioneer Marion Rosen at the start of a recent interview. Homing in on the essence of things is a lifelong habit for Rosen, 82. Her integrative mind/body therapy, Rosen Method Bodywork, uses words and touch to help clients recognize and release chronic muscle tension, relieve pain, and gain self-awareness.

Startled by Rosen's directness, I found myself blurting out: "Do you think people can ever really change?"

"I think there can be transformation, yes," she replied, her bright blue eyes and sudden smile disarming me. "There is also the possibility to improve relationships and make them more meaningful. But the important thing, I think, is that people become more themselves. This is what we mean by transformation: when a person goes from who they think they are - who they try to be in response to their surroundings and fears - to become the person they really are."

If this sounds like classical psychotherapy, it may be because Rosen began her training in the 1930s with Munich therapist Lucy Heyer, who used breathwork and massage to help psychoanalysis patients access their emotions more easily. Fleeing the Nazis as World War II approached, Rosen studied physical therapy in Sweden and then at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. In the 1950s, she moved to California, where, after more than 25 years of private practice, she saw her students found what is now Rosen
Method: the Berkeley Center.

I want to offer full disclosure here. I am the husband of Rosen Method practitioner Joyce Loughran, cofounder of the Northampton, Massachusetts Rosen Center. Until recently, when Joyce completed her four years of formal training and her internship, I remained a friendly outsider to Rosen work. We had always believed it would blur the distinction between marriage partnership and therapy if she worked on me. Also, Rosen work had been a means of profound personal discovery for her, and out of respect for that, I had been more comfortable staying on my own path rather than crowding hers. Still, I was intrigued by Rosen work. I sensed that, like Joyce, it was gentle, subtle, and possessed of a truthful power not easily conveyed in words.

Rosen Method Bodywork is based on the idea that experiences and emotions can lead to chronic physical habit patterns - "holding" patterns - triggered by muscle tension and contraction. Those experiences and feelings are physically stored in our bodies, although we may no longer be consciously aware of them. Through gentle touch and verbal support, a Rosen therapist can help a client relax, become more aware of those hidden sources of holding, and release both the suppressed emotions and any corresponding pain.

Rosen Method sessions typically last an hour and take place in a quiet room with a padded massage table. The client lies under a blanket or sheet, wearing underwear (and additional clothing, if desired). The practitioner uses a sensing hand to locate areas of holding, feeling for subtle changes in breath and muscle tension from moment to moment. At the same time, the therapist acknowledges the client's experience verbally and invites the client to state realizations aloud.

Often, a memory or emotion linked to a place of holding will surface during a session. With the therapist's support, the client learns to recognize that this holding may once have been appropriate, but is no longer necessary. Such discoveries tend to be deeply felt, revelatory, and freeing.

Rosen therapist Lee Cheek, who practices near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, remembers one such moment of discovery: "I put my hand on a client's shoulder. Her breathing freed and deepened, and I could feel something ready to emerge. She said, 'I haven't thought of him in years.' 'Who?' I asked. 'A man I knew,' she replied. 'He had a scar on his shoulder where you're touching me now. He died just before we were going to be married 20 years ago.'"

The session allowed Cheek's client to feel grief she had long denied. The woman had been unable to mourn at the time of her fiancé's death because of family responsibilities, but until that moment of realization, the emotion had lingered, hidden within her.

Many clients feel that the sympathetic presence of a Rosen therapist helps them explore feelings locked in their bodies that are too threatening to face by themselves. "Alone, I tend to shrug things off and minimize my experience," says one client. "But in this work, the presence of another person supports a more expansive feeling. It's like a tent frame holding up a tent, supporting the space inside so I can move freely in it."

The compassionate quality of Rosen work makes it especially well suited to sufferers of chronic pain or victims of accident or abuse who have developed strong self-protective responses. The method is also useful to for people who have survived a crisis or volatile family situation and are ready to reevaluate the habitual ways in which they have coped with trauma.

Rosen work has its limits, however. "We do not diagnose or evaluate conditions," notes Sue Brenner, the director of Rosen Center East in Westport, Connecticut. "This work is not intended to replace psychotherapy. If clients have a recent history of drug or alcohol abuse, or if they have been suicidal, hospitalized, or on medication, we require them to have psychotherapeutic support in addition to this work."

Among bodywork methods, Rosen work is distinguished by its emphasis on the client's process of self-discovery. Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method practitioners, for example, focus on conscious reeducation, using manual guidance and verbal directions to show the client new movement configurations. Rubenfeld Synergy practitioners employ Gestalt therapy to address the client's emotional issues directly. In contract, a Rosen Method practitioner is more like a midwife, providing gentle support to help the client direct his or her own self-transformation.

This spring, after my wife had finished her training and certification, I decided to try a bodywork session with Fred Carlisle, a Rosen Method trainee who practices in Northampton.

At the start of the session, Fred gave me a few minutes to settle in. I was experiencing my usual stiffness between my shoulder blades, along with a persistent achiness in my lower back - a sensation of "middle age," I thought.

As Fred's hands made contact with those places of holding, I realized that my soreness was the result of muscles fatigued from trying to hold myself together, keeping a stiff back against outer challenges. I understood that my lower back pain was caused by my basic assumption that this was a "mean old world" and the best way to cope was through unceasing effort, fueled by fear.

During the session, I began to feel that this state of perpetual struggle might not be necessary. Fred asked me a question every now and then, such as "What just changed? Your back feels different now." I didn't always try to answer completely, as I sensed that casting thoughts into sentences made me lose connection with my bodily experience.

Still, I knew what he meant. I had let something go and had dropped into a deeper state of relaxation. I had the sense of being outside ordinary life, with thoughts and memories occurring to me as if I were drifting off to sleep. For a moment, I experienced what it was like to release my defenses, to stand apart from my constant struggle for survival, and to see how my way of holding my muscles was a habit formed as a much younger, less mature person.

When the session ended, Fred encouraged me to remain on the table and take whatever time I needed by myself. Resting there, I felt peaceful, sad, and relieved, as if finally free to put down suitcases from a long trip. Even afterward, time appeared temporarily slowed. It seemed less necessary to believe that my world would fall apart if I didn't constantly try to hold it together. The experience helped me consider the possibility of taking things a little easier. Fred did not transmit these realizations to me, but he helped me see more deeply into my own experience.

Joyce explains: "I think people are drawn to Rosen work because it gives them the opportunity to hear what's true for themselves. There's no one else telling them; the awareness is coming from within. It's a special opportunity to be supported in hearing yourself"

Marion Rosen believes that by hearing ourselves and softening our habits of holding, we can change. "When we stop holding back," she says, "it is possible to discover what we can do, who we can be, what we can experience, how we can love."

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