This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 62 – March 2001
Hands and eyes are the favourite organic implements of the bodyworker. ‘Bodyworking’ is a hands-on, eyes-on affair. But, according to their elective technique, therapists can give the hand preference over the eye or vice versa.
In the predominantly hands-on category you have, for instance, osteopaths, especially those who specialize in cranio-sacral therapy.
To perceive movements in the skull that nobody but they are able to feel, they often close their eyes to further a deep concentration. ‘Healers’, also, will usually close their eyes when laying hands near or on their patient. It’s the same for therapists who channel and funnel subtle energies, so subtle that feeling them requires working with eyes shut to facilitate an undivided attention.
There’s nothing like closed eyes to develop a sensitive and intelligent touch. This is why the blind are usually endowed with an extraordinarily well-developed sense of touch. With such a hyper-developed skill, it is understandable and logical that some of them choose to become manual therapists.
Then you have the therapists who make almost exclusive use of their eyes. They observe, scrutinize, scan, examine, inspect, measure and weigh up their patients. The sole use of their hand(s) is to write down a prescription, usually made of painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Thanks to technology, they don’t even need to look at their patients directly as they can do so via X-rays or computerized 3D images. When they need to touch their patients it’s rarely with their bare hands but with callipers, plumb lines, measuring tapes, protractors, goniometers, etc. In this technocratic age, they have at their disposal an impressive armamentarium, which, besides its mostly commercial function, allows them to work on their patients without much direct hand contact.
Mechanization has entered the world of the physical therapist. A push-button operator is slowly replacing the truly manual bodyworker: a technician in a white coat is now in control of the Brave New Body. Under this new regime the patient is ‘electrified’, ultrasounded, pulsed, magnetized, racked, vibrated…all to no avail. Although this paraphernalia of gadgets and appliances is devoid of any healing properties and cannot remove the causes of musculoskeletal disorders, the modern therapist is nevertheless seduced by the flashing lights, dials and switches of these orthopaedic toys. They feel compelled to buy the ‘latest thing’ and to play with it. Inevitably, therapists resort to frequent use of expensive new equipment if only to realize their investment.
Whatever the technocrat may say, the hand is and will remain the instrument of choice for the serious bodyworker. In association with the eye, the hand is indispensable. Françoise Mézières, a bodyworker of genius, urged her trainees to ‘touch with your hands and not with instruments’. But whether therapists know how to use their hands is another matter: ham-fistededness infuriated Mézières. Hands with the dexterity of a hoof and the sensitivity of a callus are a nuisance when one intends to become a bodyworker. On the other hand (excuse the pun), good hands without a right principle to guide them are next to worthless, especially in the context of the Alexander technique.
In Mézières’s method, the eye is not relegated to a position of secondary importance. Far from being the poor relation, it plays a crucial role. When her trainees didn’t keep their eyes sufficiently peeled, Mézières would pull them up short. In Mézières, une méthode, une femme (Mézières, a Method, a Woman), Sylvie Geismar tells the following story. During a workshop, Mézières presented a female patient to her trainees who was suffering from paralysis in the right arm. Not only was the woman’s arm unusable, but, owing to the paucity of flesh resulting from wasted and atrophied muscles, her shoulder bones were clearly visible under the skin – an upsetting sight. Of all the specialists she had seen, not one was able to offer help or hope.
Mézières, who was busy explaining her patient’s condition, suddenly realized that all her trainees were staring at the skeletal shoulder.
She exploded: “Without a doubt, you’ve understood nothing; it’s not the paralysed shoulder that matters, it’s the other shoulder.
The right one is only the victim and is of no interest to us”. After two hours of painstaking work on the left shoulder, the patient could move her right arm a little: Mézières had been proved right. The first thing Mézières required from her trainees before they could use their hands, was to draw observations from the shape of a patient and not be just a looker-on.
In the Mézières’ method the eyes and the hands work together. And when a group of blind physiotherapists came to one of her training course, Mézières realized with regret that they could not practise her method properly. Sight has a too important role to play. When a Mézièrist moves a segment of a patient’s body in order to stretch tight muscles, the body escapes the corrective stretch through compensatory movements that can be extremely subtle and that are distant from the manipulation. It is as if the excess of tone escapes the therapist’s manoeuvre by leaving its elective place to hide in another ‘corner’ of the body. It is extremely important to observe these compensations as they will determine the correct procedure to adopt for a successful session. This is why, when she was working on a patient, Mézières used to tell her trainees not to look at what her hands were doing but rather to observe the ‘contortions’ made by the body that was under her therapeutic grip.
Like the poet in Goethe’s Roman Elegies, bodyworkers must be able to ‘…see with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see’.
Geismar, Sylvie. Mézières, une méthode, une femme. Le dos réinventé. Editions Josette Lyon, Paris. 1993