In Good Hands
by Laurel Kallenbach

Five hands-on therapies offer a combination of energy, reduced tension and a healing touch.

MassageHands are a profound human miracle. We extend them in greeting, wave them in farewell. We speak, create, work, play and love with them. The power of their touch knows no bounds. Hands are the most basic and effective instruments of healing we have: A gentle stroke can dispel a bad temper, while persistent kneading can work the kinks from knotted muscles. When someone feels sad or sick, human touch can help on the most basic level, which is why many people are seeking out touch therapies such as massage, shiatsu, reiki, Rolfing and reflexology for their health and well-being.

"Touch communicates what comes from the heart," says Minneapolis-based shiatsu instructor Cari Johnson Pelava. "It is as necessary for human existence as food, clothing and shelter; yet ours is a touch-deprived society." Cincinnati-based reflexologist Marcia Aschendorf agrees. "Humans crave touch. The connection between two people shows a caring attitude," she says. "There's a lot of energy in the hands, and the person doing the work can be a sort of conduit for energy to stimulate a sick or energy-depleted person."

The latest trend is to incorporate alternative touch therapies into mainstream medicine. "Many physicians in clinics and hospitals are beginning to use bodywork in their practices," says Pelava. "Though integration of modalities is happening, there's still a long way to go." Here's a brief guide to five different types of touch therapy in which you'll be treated by the most caring of hands.

Shiatsu
Originating in Japan, this therapeutic bodywork balances the body's energetic systems according to the principles of traditional Asian medicine. A shiatsu practitioner uses manual techniques such as pressure, stroking, kneading, tapping and stretching on the client, who wears loose, comfortable clothing during the treatment. The quality of touch may range from deep to light pressure, depending on the client's needs.

The basic philosophy of shiatsu is to regulate and balance ki (called qi in Chinese). Ki or qi (pronounced "chee") is the flow of energetic or life force that continually moves throughout the body. If it becomes obstructed, congested or excessive, the person may develop a disorder. "In shiatsu, if someone comes in with headaches, the practitioner assesses the pattern of imbalance that leads to the headaches, then works to correct the imbalance so no more start," says Pelava, an instructor at the Minnesota Center for Shiatsu Study.

Shiatsu helps a wide range of disorders, but musculoskeletal pain, headaches, PMS, digestive disorders, low energy and chronic fatigue syndrome respond wonderfully, Pelava notes. The therapy can also prevent future illness. A client should expect a full traditional Asian medical evaluation, including tongue and pulse assessment, so the therapist can determine what underlying patterns of imbalance are occurring.

Cost: $45-$95 for an hour-long treatment.

Frequency of visits: Usually 3-10 times. "Shiatsu can relieve pain immediately, but it will recur if we don't address the underlying imbalance," Pelava says. Monthly "tune-ups" can prevent future problems or recurrences.

Practitioner credentials: Check with the American Oriental Bodywork Therapy Association (856-782-1616) or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (703-548-9004, www.nccaom.org) for listings of practitioners.


Rolfing
A trademarked technique of structural integration, Rolfing was developed by Ida Rolf in the 1940s. "Rolfing is based on the idea that body structure — the orientation of body segments either while moving or standing — is determined by the balance in the network of connective tissues," says Bret Nye, M.D., a certified advanced Rolfer who practices at the Healing Arts Clinic in Loveland, Colo. The focus of Rolfing is to adjust and balance the tension of the fascia, the sheathlike connective tissue that surrounds muscle fibers and holds the skeleton upright. The Rolfer applies deep pressure to muscles on the head, neck, pelvis, back, arms and legs to lengthen the connective tissues, thereby aligning the body in a more balanced way.

Rolfing is effective for musculoskeletal pain, including neck tension, headaches, back pain, achy knees and hips, and limited range of motion. During a session, the practitioner will evaluate your motion as you walk and bend while wearing your underwear. Then he or she will adjust the length of the soft tissue by applying deep to very deep pressure with the hands, always keeping in mind the client's comfort zone.

Cost: $75-$120 per session.

Frequency of visits: A 10-session series is normal, although you may achieve your goals sooner. You may require tune-ups once or twice a year to maintain structural integrity.

Practitioner credentials: There are many different types of structural integration, so to be a Rolfer, the practitioner must be trained, certified by, and be an active member of the International Rolf Institute. Contact 303-449-5903 or www.rolf.org for information.


Reflexology
Most people associate reflexology with the feet, yet reflexologists apply firm pressure to spots on the feet, hands or ears that correlate with the body's organs. The resulting "reflex" triggers optimal organ function and restores overall energy flow. For instance, if you have a headache, the reflexologist would use the thumbs to deeply massage and press several areas of your feet and ears. "Most people who walk in with a headache will walk out without one," says reflexologist Marcia Aschendorf, D.R., N.M.D., M.S.N.H, who practices at the JAM Naturopathic Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, she emphasizes that one treatment is not a fix. Relief, especially for chronic pain, requires follow-up sessions to effect change and to clear the body's energy pathways.

Reflexology, which originated thousands of years ago in China and was modified in the West during the 20th century, works as both an adjunct and a primary therapy. The Chinese use reflex therapy for health concerns ranging from anorexia to colitis to multiple sclerosis. "A number of people come to see me to prevent getting sick," says Aschendorf, who is currently studying reflexology for alleviating pain.

Cost: $40-$150 per treatment.

Frequency of visits: The first three treatments may be scheduled close together to jump-start the healing process. Treatment duration is often 10-12 sessions. "Clients need to follow up long enough to allow the body to heal itself of whatever was causing pain," says Aschendorf.

Practitioner credentials: 200 hours is usually required for certification. There are also more extensive courses of study: associate's, bachelor's and doctoral degrees. Contact the American Reflexology Certification Board: 303-933-6921. Or check the Web at www.reflexology.net.


Reiki
This gentle energy healing therapy has a deeply spiritual element. In Japanese, reiki means "universal life energy," and it's based on the principle of moving ki — an interacting field of energy in continuous flux — through the body. "The practice of reiki promotes a return to wholeness, and healing is a result of that," explains Kandy Brandt, a reiki master at the Reiki Healing Arts Center in Seattle. "Physical healing is what people can see, but healing really occurs energetically on all different levels."

During a reiki treatment, the practitioner's hands are gently placed on the clothed and relaxed body of a person in a variety of established places on the head, chest, abdomen and back to allow energy to flow through the body. For some, a reiki treatment will produce deep relaxation, for others it may be invigorating. The method is helpful for any physical or emotional imbalance, and it makes an excellent adjunct therapy that supports other healing methods.

Clients who have received reiki treatments are encouraged to take a class to learn how to treat themselves. "Using the energetic forces of the body daily promotes deeper relaxation and promotes healing," says Brandt. "The role of the practitioner is to support the individual in healing and wholeness in an energetic way."

Cost: $25-$80 per treatment.

Frequency of visits: 1-4 sessions initially, usually followed by taking a class to learn reiki for yourself. Brandt starts by giving four treatments in four days as a "jump-start" to get energy flowing quickly. Periodic treatments may follow.

Practitioner credentials: There is no licensing. Since reiki does not involve manipulating the body, a practitioner can cause no harm. However, you should feel connected with the person treating you and know about their training. Contact the Reiki Alliance about their code of ethics and standards of training: 208-783-3535. Or, check www.reiki.org on the Web.


Massage Therapy
A host of mind-body benefits can be attributed to the age-old and multi-national practice of therapeutic massage. Depending on the style and focus, massage can increase circulation; reduce muscular tension and emotional stress; enhance flexibility and athletic performance; correct posture; stimulate lymph drainage; control musculoskeletal pain; increase alertness and energy levels; and boost feelings of well-being. A trained therapist uses oil, lotion or aromatherapy as she or he strokes, kneads, rolls, pummels, taps and stretches the muscles and soft tissues while you lie — warm and covered with a sheet or blanket — on a padded table.

There are as many types of massage as there are nationalities. Swedish massage, a popular form of massage in the United States, employs gliding, stroking and friction techniques as well as passive movements that include foot rotation and leg bends. Swedish massage approaches the body from an anatomical, physiological point of view. Massage techniques from the East, however, focus more on balancing the body's energy flow to produce good health. For instance, one type of Japanese massage, called anma, is based on the 5,000-year-old principles of Chinese medicine and features choreographed movements that emphasize rhythm, pacing, precision and form. Thai massage is influenced by yoga and incorporates stretching and Buddhist teaching. Ayurvedic massage detoxifies and rejuvenates the body through vigorous massage using warm herbal oils.

Cost: $40-$110 for an hour-long massage.

Frequency of visits: When used for overall relaxation, massage can be done on an as-needed basis. To deal with chronic pain, however, weekly massage may be indicated.

Practitioner credentials: Contact the American Massage Therapy Association to locate a therapist near you: 847-864-0123, www.amtamassage.org.

Contributing editor Laurel Kallenbach highly recommends a new type of massage that uses warm river stones placed on the back to relax muscles.