After his massage last week, one of my clients proclaimed, “I was gone.” At first I bristled a bit, thinking that he meant that he slept through the whole massage, but he continued: “I wasn’t asleep, but I was somewhere else.” I softened a bit with his last words and thought to myself, yes, that liminal space.
Where is this “somewhere else” we go to when receiving bodywork? Certainly not all of us go to the same place. But when a client is clearly deeply relaxed, yet not asleep, where are they — and what does this place mean in the scope of healing?
Time to bring in some brain science to help in this investigation. Scientists have identified four brain wave states: beta waves (conscious and alert; 13-60 cycles per second), alpha waves (relaxed, yet aware; 7-13 cycles per second), theta waves (reduced consciousness; 4-7 cycles per second), and delta waves (deep sleep or unconsciousness; 0.1-4 cycles per second).
So the client clearly awake and talking enthusiastically during a massage is most certainly in the Beta stage. This does not mean that the person is not relaxed, but rather they are alert and their cerebral gerbil wheel is turning. This can be therapeutic for some, for talking can be stress-reducing. It can also be a way to avoid feeling and sensation.
Clearly Theta and Delta stages indicate that the client is deeply relaxed, almost to the point of sleep or truly asleep. When some of my clients arrive at one of these brain states they do the “body jerk” motion and will sometimes snort or snore before waking up intermittently to get their bearings. The bodywork session combined with their circadian rhythm has created a massage nap time. Now this isn’t bad; for clients who aren’t nap takers, falling asleep (or at least tasting the realm of sleep) in the middle of the day can feel like a true therapeutic triumph.
But what of that liminal space — of being somewhere else? That, as you may have guessed already, would be the Alpha brain state. The body and mind are thoroughly relaxed and yet there is full-body awareness, including awareness on an emotional level.
Check this out:
“When we diminish the brain rhythm to alpha, we put ourselves in the ideal condition to learn new information, keep fact, data, perform elaborate tasks, learn languages, analyse complex situations. Meditation, relaxation exercises, and activities that enable the sense of calm, also enable this alpha state. According to neuro-scientists, analyzing electroencephalograms of people submitted to tests in order to research the effect of decreasing the brain rhythm, the attentive relaxation or the deep relaxation, produce significant increases in the levels of beta-endorphin, noroepinephrine and dopamine, linked to feelings of enlarged mental clarity and formation of remembrances, and that this effect lasts for hours and even days. It is an ideal state for synthetic thought and creativity, the proper functions of the right hemisphere. As it is easy for the hemisphere to create images, to visualize, to make associations, to deal with drawings, diagrams and emotions, as well as the use of good-humour and pleasure, learning is better absorbed if these elements are added to the study methods.” (source: http://www.doctorhugo.org/brainwaves/brainwaves.html)
In massage school, I learned a technique of self-relaxation/self-hypnosis called Autogenics by Heida Brenneke. This is when I was first introduced to the idea of the Alpha state. During our guided meditations, visualizations, and breathwork, I felt the lightness and clarity of the Alpha state. I felt mental clarity, experienced epiphanies, and noticed sensations in my body that I had previously ignored. In all, I went to that “somewhere else” place and came back with a true sense of healing.
The next time you receive bodywork, notice how you interact with the session (and your therapist). Do you allow yourself to sleep? Do you talk a lot? Do you focus on your breathing? Do you ignore certain areas of your body? Do you problem solve in your mind? Do you release emotion?
When in the Alpha state intentional talking is quite appropriate — and often immensely therapeutic. I often ask my clients what they are noticing in their bodies or what emotion is surfacing. Talking during a session need not be surface talking (which brings us back to the Beta state); soft, intentional table-talking can be transformative. I’ll write more about “table-talking” in another post, but it’s interesting to notice why you talk, how you talk, or why you don’t talk during a massage session.
Wherever you go in your bodywork sessions, I hope you find peace there; I hope you have full-body awareness and feel safe and relaxed. May you find not only release of muscle tension in your sessions, but also find mental clarity and personal insights.