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Massage and energy body
« on: March 17, 2019, 09:43:28 AM »

Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 41 No. 1 2019 pp. 180-195

Understanding therapeutic massage as a form of bodywork: knowing and working on the (energy) body

Jennifer Lea
Geography, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK


Bodywork – as work which takes the body as its immediate site of labour – includes forms of service work, healthcare and caring. While work on bodywork has undeniably foregrounded the body, at the same time it has worked with a relatively limited understanding of bodily knowledges and practices. This article uses a theoretical framework taken from writing on Non-Representational Theory, by Human Geographers, in order to take seriously ‘alternative’ body knowledge such as energy. The article draws on data from in-depth interviews conducted with therapeutic massage practitioners in order to take seriously the ways in which energy directs and shapes the work that these bodyworkers do, adding new empirical understandings of what working with energy entails. It makes a broader conceptual contribution to bodywork literatures, advocating the importance of extending analysis beyond social constructionist approaches and questioning the taken-for-granted understandings of materiality that are most often drawn upon in order to attend to the kinds of knowledge that are less easy to formalise, anomalous, or that push at the fringes of the definite or the limits of the believable, but which are nonetheless central to many different kinds of bodywork contemporarily.

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"Massage is categorised as a form of ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (CAM), and can be understood as part of the development of contemporary cultures of wellbeing (Sointu 2006). The growth in CAM is seen by Stacey (2002: 270) to be one of the most ‘striking’ recent shifts in the field of health care in the UK. While energy is a key to the categorisation of massage as ‘complementary or alternative’, studies of bodywork have not tended to fully attend to the ways that energy is seen to shape massage as bodywork. The paper focuses on energy as a form of bodily knowledge, and the next section offers some definitions of energy and discusses how existing studies of bodywork have treated energetic knowledges."

"There are multiple understandings of energy that circulate in contemporary society. It is variously characterised through notions of bodily or mental tiredness and energy budgeting, a kind of atmospherics that is related to the feel of particular places, and the kind of bodily energy under discussion here (Philo et al. 2015). While different bodywork practices can differ considerably in their understanding of energy, and not all forms of massage have energy at their heart, it is useful to outline a basic sense of how energy is imagined and conceptualised in the kinds of massage that are discussed here. Also known by other name such as ‘ki’, ‘chi’ or ‘prana’, depending on the tradition drawn upon, the idea of energy is based on imaginations of an energetic flow around, through and beyond the body (see for instance Asokananda 1994). Maps have been produced of the energy lines that run through the body and extend out into the environment. These maps and the names of the lines differ depending on the traditions that the CAMs are drawing on (e.g. in Shiatsu they are called Meridians, in Thai Yoga massage they are called Sen lines – see Figure 1). When energy lines become blocked, or the flow becomes stagnated, illness and suffering are understood to occur. Practices such as massage are seen to work on the energy lines to remove blockages, to re-establish free flow of energy, and to restore health.

"At the same time as the mapped certainty of the energy body can be seen through representations such as these bodymaps, in practice there is an ambiguity about energy. Energy is easy to name, but also hard to describe and account for verbally or in written training manuals. There is lack of agreement about what energy feels like, with descriptions including the feeling of heat (without an external source), the fullness of a body, a pulsing or subtle vibration of the body or a sensation likened to the flow of water, for example (see Lea 2009: 472, Philo et al. 2015). In bodywork, energy can be described differently as it manifests in the practitioner's own body, or in the client's body. This inexact, inangible and unmeasurable quality of energy, and the ‘different attitude to the body and its boundaries’ (Twigg 2000: 397) that is enacted through the energetic, is one of the reasons why energy is positioned as an alternative to the dominant understandings of anatomy, physiology and pathology that form the basis of Western biomedical models of health and illness. Energy is one of the reasons why massage and associated practices are categorised as ‘complementary’ and/or ‘alternative’. The 2000 UK White paper on CAM notes clearly that the ‘abstract philosophy’ (of which energy is a key part) that lies at the heart of them, and for which is ‘no reasonable scientific basis’ is ascertainable, is problematic in the context of the kinds of ‘scientific reasoning and experiment’ (Science and Technology report 2000: section 2.17; House of Lords Select Committee 2000) which form the basis for dominant biomedical regimes of truth. Energy, and other alternative philosophies of life, have also proved a challenge for academic writing. For example, Doel and Segrott (2003: 743) argue that these ideas place much of the CAM milieu as somehow ‘beyond belief’, meaning that it is difficult to apprehend using the kinds of schemas and frameworks that are used in existing studies of the medical and health.

"Energy has, however, received some attention in the context of bodywork, however. For example, work by Oerton (2004) and Oerton and Phoenix (2001) conceptualises energy as a discourse which allows intimate bodily contact in therapeutic massage to be defined as non-sexual...Here, energy becomes a narrative that creates a distancing from the corporeal body, such that in-depth interview narratives were marked by ‘discursive landscapes that constitute the practitioner/client encounter as utterly disembodied’ (2001: 399)...While Purcell argues that seeing the body as ‘physically and energetically leaky’ is the main ‘sticking point’ for the ‘mainstreaming of Holistic Massage’ (2012: 212), she does not pay detailed or sustained attention to energy in relation to the work of bodywork. In a study of Homoeopathy, Gale (2011) argues that energy (alongside talk and observation) is part of the way that practitioners diagnose problems. Gale suggests that energy is part of a physical proximity between client and practitioner without necessarily making physical contact...Gale points to the relational aspects of energy and the way it is set up between the bodies of patient and practitioner, but doesn't extend this discussion further. She describes energy as a form of touch without physical contact; a ‘non-material’ form of touch (2011: 243)."

"Energy is taken to be a kind of symbolic device that performs a broader function to designate the work being as a particular kind, or to designate the identity, or the body, of the client and/or practitioner as a particular kind. At the same time, energy is designated as non-corporeal and non-material. This paper suggests that it is useful to develop an additional set of questions about the relationship between energy and bodywork by drawing on writing on the body and materiality."

"Non-representational theory was initially developed by human geographer Nigel Thrift (1996, 2007), and one of the things that this has prompted has been a renewed interest in, and problematisation of, the body among human geographers. With theoretical antecedents including phenomenology, neo-vitalist thought and post-structuralism (see Cadman 2009), non-representational ideas foreground the relational body. Mobilising a geographical imagination that pays particular attention to the role of context, the body is seen as made and re-made through its encounters. Rather than starting with a pre-formed idea of what the body is, it is argued that we should instead ask how the body is ‘actualised as a part in an assemblage, or as a linkage of flows, as energies, agitations and intensities’ (Dewsbury 2000: 482)."

"Taking the body as subject of knowledge reframes the kinds of questions we might ask about the bodies involved in bodywork. For example, if we are less certain of the boundaries or form of a body, we might usefully ask what a body is, where it begins and where it ends (in this particular conjugation), stretching our understandings of the forms that bodies might take beyond anatomically ‘correct’ versions of the body."

"The work on energy in studies of bodywork mentioned above brings questions of materiality to the fore, making a clear distinction between the (material) corporeal body and the (immaterial or non-material) energy body. Here, there is a distinction implied between the real and unreal; the self-evident and obvious solidity of the body, and the problematic and ambiguous invisibility of energy."

"What happens if, instead of casting energy aside as something somehow not real, or irrelevant, we reconfigure it as ‘internal to, rather than in supplement or opposition to, the taking place of matter and materiality’ (Anderson and Wylie 2009: 319)? If we choose not to see the energetic as somehow ‘obscuring’ the materiality of bodywork (Wolkowitz 2002: 500), then we might instead understand the energetic realm to be of the body."

"This article is based on qualitative research that aimed to develop an understanding of what was involved in heightened body practices such as massage, and how people were engaging with them contemporarily in the UK...Some of this interview data was collected as part of PhD research, which consisted of participant observation during a massage training course, a yoga retreat and in a healing space at a music festival, alongside semi-structured in-depth interviews with 10 Thai yoga massage practitioners. I conducted a second wave of 10 interviews with massage practitioners who worked across a wider range of types of massage (including Holistic massage, Swedish massage, Pregnancy massage, Aromatherapy massage, Indian head massage and Shiatsu) and other treatments (such as Zero balancing, Hopi ear candling, Reflexology and Reiki)."

"While energy did feature in the research diary documentation of my own learning of Thai massage, my experience as a beginner was tied very closely to where the lines were mapped out on the body (in some ways just reproducing the textbook knowledges that I was learning) and I could not say that I felt the energy lines in any tangible or certain way. In contrast, the energetic realm was narrated clearly and with certainty during the interviews conducted with experienced massage practitioners."

"The interviews reflect the fact that the bodyworkers saw energy as a legitimate way to narrate and explain their work, being something that they felt as ‘real’, which they had begun to develop a language to talk about, and which formed the basis of the relation set up between their bodies and their client's bodies. This was true to such a degree for some practitioners that they explained their work to me solely in terms of energy. For instance, Bob explained that, while he had done the required anatomy and physiology (A&P) course as a separate qualification, his practical massage training ‘didn't include anatomy or physiology … and erm it's all purely based on energy lines, Sen lines and the sense of touch and movement – there was just no Western scientific input’. Similarly, Kerry told me that the massage training that she had done was structured totally around energy rather than anatomy and physiology: ‘Thai massage strictly speaking doesn't follow A&P and it isn't taught alongside [energy] because you're not working on the muscles, you are working on an energy system’. Reuben told me that the theoretical part of his course dealt solely with the idea of energy, noting that every morning ‘there was theory so you were looking at … the energetic lines’. These three interviewees had all trained in the same lineage of Thai yoga massage where energy was the key knowledge taught about the body (see Lea 2009: 468), and for them, energy had become the most significant body knowledge through which they approached and understood their bodywork."

"Steven described how he put together his energy and A&P knowledges of the body to understand his practice. He described the energy body to me in concrete and definite terms:

 "it's an energy that you can feel, and you've got to remember that whether it's a Sen line or a meridian it, you know, lies deep in the body. They're not superficial or surface lines so they lie underneath the muscle, soft tissue and in some cases, you know, ribs, organs. And, you know, some cases can't literally be palpated so it's an extension that's needed to sense them underneath."

"Isabella was less emphatic about the importance of A&P knowledges. She described how she, and many of the people who had been on the same training courses as her, had developed a really tangible sense of what energy feels like and how it moves around the body..."

"What emerges here is an account that suggests that energy operates as a way of directing the attention of the practitioner towards the body of the client, enabling a finding out of how that body is. During training, the practitioners are encouraged to feel the energy through their touch, and to ‘develop a “feeling” for the energy flow through the body’ (Lea 2009: 471). While Gale (2011) notes that energy might be a way of understanding proximity without touch, here touch is integral to the kinds of diagnostic and healing touch that Isabella uses.

"Energy is, therefore, not just a way of knowing the body, but also offers a way of knowing through the body. It can be seen as a form of intelligence that comes from the body (in relation) and which affords a felt sensitivity and attention to what the body of the client presents. Energy offers a language for the practitioners to articulate the work of tuning in, or ‘becoming sensitive’, to what the body of the client presents...Energy also provides a register through which the practitioner might make an impact on the body of the client and offer treatment. In these interview narratives, energy is understood to be of the body, rather than in opposition to it. Rather than obscuring the body, energy is part of the body; important in understanding and treating the problems it might hold. To sum up this section, the interview narratives suggest that, to different degrees and in different ways, energy is a significant knowledge in the practice of massage as bodywork...While some practitioners saw it as an alternative to anatomical and physiological bodymaps, most of the practitioners described their understanding of the body as a kind of hybrid knowledge formed from energetic and more conventional anatomical knowledges."

"This kind of bodily proximity is integral to the therapeutic work of massage...The practitioners interviewed did see the clients’ bodies as potentially polluting and understood this pollution in energetic terms. For example, Anna, Reuben, and Cara told me that they had experienced being quite strongly affected by the transfers ongoing between bodies..."

"The practitioners understand their bodies to become radically mixed and mingled with the bodies of their clients, via the flow of energy between bodies. Here, the proximities involved in touch might go beyond touch on the outside of the body, and extend into the interior via the flow of energy (see also Lea 2012). This had tangible effects for the practitioners, for whom the lingering, and potentially negative, effects of the clients’ energy were seen as a threat."

"The practitioners here described their cleaning practices during and following a massage. These were based both on a conventional model of hygiene (they described their use of wipes and sanitiser on their hands and the client's feet in order to cleanse them before touch), and also in energetic terms (e.g. using techniques such as flicking their hands and wrists throughout the massage to let go of the energy of the client and using their hands to sweep the energy traces from their bodies after the massage). Energy, then, both on its own and as part of a hybrid form of knowledge about the body, plays a large part in the doing of bodywork, impacting on the ‘material experiences of interacting with the bodies that form the site of work’ (Wolkowitz 2002: 504). These discussions of workplace practices of distancing and cleansing show that the practitioners don't see energy as somehow separate from these ‘material experiences’, as ‘beyond belief’, or as separate from the corporeal body. Instead, the energy flows are implicated in the materiality of doing bodywork, providing the basis for organising the space of the workplace and the ways that the practitioners look after themselves, mediating the negative effects of the work they do."
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