The Trager® Approach for Easy, Fluid, Joyful MovementSusannah Kent June 1, 2008
Be strong then, and enter into your own body. – Kabir
When I was little, I imagined how magical it would be to run, jump and dance on big, white, puffy clouds. In my mind it felt soft, light, easy, and most of all fun. As a grown-up in mid-life, I often wonder how I might capture and keep that “dancing on a cloud” sensation of undemanding, pleasurable, and pain-free movement. The answer just may be with Psychophysical Integration, more commonly referred to as Trager®.
The Trager Backstory
Psychophysical Integration, the brain child of a young boxer in the 1920s named Milton Trager, was evidently discovered quite by accident. Trager was eighteen and learning to become a boxer. One day he noticed how tired his trainer looked and offered to give him a rub down instead of the other way round. The trainer was duly impressed and commented on Milton’s amazing hands. After this, it is reported that Milton went home and worked on his father’s sciatic pain which was cured after a couple of sessions. Over the years Trager would expand, refine, and teach others his discovery of the remarkable effect that mindful, gentle manipulation could have on tight, pain-ridden muscles.
Gentle and mindful are central components of the Trager Approach. Dr. Trager (he became a medical doctor at the age of 42) once said that his work was “directed towards reaching the unconscious mind of the patient. Every move, every thought communicates how the tissue should feel when everything is right.”
In order to reach that unconscious mind, a Trager practitioner gently and rhythmically moves the body of a client – rocking, smoothing, and rotating muscles in the neck, chest, back, shoulders, legs and abdomen. This work is done on a massage table with the client dressed in loose comfortable clothing. The object is to evoke a pleasurable response, never pain. Senior Trager practitioner, James Reid, explained it this way during my own Trager session with him: “When working with someone on the table I am looking for the edge of resistance. Upon reaching this point, I back off and try to find the place of resilience and elasticity. I try to help the client find a place where they can hear their body, the place where their body responds “yes” to the movement, to the place that works better for them, one that is open and stress free.”
Certified Trager practitioner, Dr. Joe Lee Griffin, PhD, calls the work “sensational”, suggesting that “living tissue responds to stimuli. Responses differ for different stimuli. Trauma, pain, fear, and struggle result in muscular tension, holding, and avoidance, an automatic reflex resistance. This response blocks intake of needed sensory information. Trager work generates functional information in ways that avoid reflex resistance and promote body learning or relearning.”
Trager can be viewed as a method of aiding mobilization and relaxation. But Trager saw his work as more of a way to re-educate people to movement that was lighter and freer. He preferred that people come to him as students, not just patients; to come to him for treatment, but also to learn and acquire some valuable self-help tools.
The table work, then, is only the first half of being tragered. Once the clients are off the table, the next goal is for them to learn to generate those positive sensations and feelings experienced on the table. Trager practitioner, Anne Shaddick, describes it as getting the client to play with movement until they capture the feeling of “lightness and letting go.”
Trager called this tool Mentastics®, or mental gymnastics, the “conscious bringing of mindfulness to every gesture.” Mentastics consists of gentle free-flowing, dance-like, playful movements whose objective is to increase self-awareness. According to Trager practitioner, Yvonne Booth, “Mentastics movement is a way to agelessness in body, mind and spirit. In the way of Trager, one asks open questions silently to explore how comfortable we can be, how open and free, as we move swinging, throwing, kicking, and circling in an effortless, relaxing manner.”
It should be pointed out that Trager has a very unique element. The work requires the practitioner to be able to clear his or her mind of everything except the client. During a session the goal of the practitioner is to find “through the motions of his hands the answer to the question: what can be lighter and freer than that?” Trager instructor and author, Deane Juhan, elaborates, “These questionings and these feelings have to be established in the practitioner’s character, have to be part of their minds and bodies before they can successfully project them into another person’s sensibilities.” In other words, to give it you have to have it. And what the Trager practitioner must achieve during the work is a relaxed meditative alertness, or what Dr. Trager called “hook-up.”
To date, I have had two Trager sessions. It is, indeed, “sensational” work. I came away with a reduction in my recurring shoulder and sciatic pain. I felt relaxed and loose. And I learned some strategies that have already helped me deal with stressful holding patterns.
From my session with Anne Shaddick, I was able to recall the light springy feeling around my knees in order to keep them soft and not locked up when out on my hill walks. I also recalled her suggestion of allowing the movement of walking to come from just below the belly button, as if you were being gently pulled forward from there, and just letting the rest of the body follow effortlessly along for the ride. It worked like a charm. From James Reid’s session, I was re-educated to the relaxing movements of letting my jaw drop down, and my hands rest palms up. Both have proven to greatly aid stress reduction.
The actual sessions were a delight in and of themselves. Anne’s approach was soft and meditative, with beautiful relaxing music playing in the background. Anne’s hands really spoke to me as she rocked and smoothed away various tense muscles in my legs, hips and shoulders. The session with James Reid was a little more playful and vocal. He performed similar movement of my muscles as Anne, but at my request paid closer attention to my left side where I had recently been experiencing some pain in my hip and leg. Since the session, that pain has all but disappeared.
I believe that with both James’s and Anne’s intuition and sensitivity, I really did “hook-up.” As my legs were rocked, rotated and gently jiggled, for instance, I had feelings of rightness, of the place where it felt most relaxed. Audrey Mairi, in her book Trager for Self-Healing, calls this sensation of everything feels the best as our “sweet spot.”
For me, the overall effect of my first Trager sessions was pleasurable, informative and helpful. But as Milton Trager so wisely pointed out, “not until we experience it is it more than just words…”
A Mentastics® Sampler
I ended both of my Trager sessions with some Mentastics, or what James Reid calls integrative movement exercises. As mentioned earlier, Mentastics are intended to recreate the feelings experienced during Trager table work, and to increase self awareness in our bodies. One example of a Mentastics exercise is playing with weight. During this exercise we direct our notice to how heavy our arm is, for example, and then as Yvonne Booth suggests “in an instant we can have a new experience as we ask how light it can be. Expanding any previous limits, we discover the joy of what is possible in this moment.”
In Trager for Self-Healing, Audrey Mairi includes a number of examples of Mentastics. Here is how she directs clients in Mentastics 6 to “feel the weight of their bodies.”
1. Allow your body and mind to pause… Breathe into your umbrella… Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly and gently shift your weight from one side to the other. Notice the shift of weight as it passes through the little bones in your feet. You are not here to judge, just to notice the sensations in your nervous system.
2. Now bring your attention to your ankles and notice the shift in weight. Pause, breathe, and notice… your calves… your knees.
3. Allow yourself to pause… and breathe… Bring your awareness to your hips as they slowly shift from side to side. Feel the weight in the floor of your pelvis as it slides from side to side. Just notice.
4. Now bring your attention to your rib cage; feel the weight. Notice the feeling. Allow another pause… Breathe… Shift your weight from side to side, and bring your awareness to your shoulders. Notice how they feel.
5. Now down your arms and into your hands and fingers – feel the weight and notice.
6. Release your jaw, and feel its weight as you shift your body from side to side.
7. Feel the weight of your ears – first one and then the other. Allow yourself to pause… breathe… and notice.
8. Now expand your attention to encompass your whole body. How does your entire body shift as a unit? Take your time shifting side to side, and notice. Pause and breathe, and notice how you feel once more.
9. Now shift your weight backward and forward – just until your heels grab and just until your toes grab. Don’t knock yourself off balance. Notice how the weight shifts differently from the way it did when you were going side to side.
10. Feel the weight in the front of your jaw and the back of your neck… in your chest and midback… in your belly and low back… in the front of your thighs, in your quadriceps, and in the back of your thighs, your hamstrings… Pause and breathe… How do you feel? Light, I bet.
(Excerpt from Trager for Self-Healing: A Practical Guide for Living in the Present Moment © 2006 by Audrey Mairi printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.)
Milton’s Legacy – The Benefits of Trager
Most of us have restrictions in our movement patterns. Whatever the cause, these restrictions become habits which are held into the body, usually causing problems that interfere with joyful, ease of movement. In order to change these holding patterns a person needs to experience comfort, support, ease and simplicity in movement. “Once this pleasurable experience is absorbed into the conscious mind the functional mind will receive the right feeling sensory information. Trager work can unload, lighten and generate inputs that avoid reflex resistance, as well as help create an improved relationship to your own body (Joe Lee Griffin).” Work done with a Trager practitioner makes the body feel good, and when the body feels good it works well.
As mentioned earlier, my own experience with Trager had very positive results. And there are thousands of other anecdotal stories of people having great successes with a number of debilitating conditions, both physical and emotional. Anne Shaddick shared a story of how Trager helped one of her clients:
“A woman trying to complete her doctorate came to see me saying she was stressed all the time, her mind racing, feeling anxious and not sleeping well. There was a great deal of tension in her body and she talked quite a bit throughout the session. At the end of the third session as she lay quietly on the table there were tears slowly running down her cheek; she shared with me that this was the only place she felt at peace. I asked her what that felt like and encouraged her to stop and pause during the day to recall that feeling. We continued to work together and she was able to feel that peace for longer periods after each session. One day she came in with a big smile; she had decided not to do her degree here in English, but to return home to South America, where she had family and friends to support her. It was through her experiencing a softening and letting go in her body that she could apply that feeling to how she was thinking. There was more than one way to follow her path.”
And the benefits of Trager are not only anecdotal. For example, a research project conducted by a number of university professors and a neurologist from Quebec, looked at the effects of Trager on muscle rigidity commonly experienced by those with Parkinson’s disease. In May of 1999, the group reported to the American College of Sports Medicine that “after just 20 minutes of receiving oscillations, vibrations and rocking motions rigidity was significantly reduced (pre-test score was 1.70, while the post- test score dropped to 1.10).”
For Milton Trager the work was all about the mind. He wanted to remind the brain through touch and gentle manipulation what it would be like to move without restrictions or pain. If we want, as the song says, to get “hooked on a feeling,” what could be better than getting “hooked-up” to feelings of ease, lightness, and freedom?
- Yvonne Booth has practised The Trager Approach in Toronto since 1991. She can be contacted at (416) 406-5087 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org / website: www.alohalomi.com
- James Reid, has been a Certified and Licensed Senior Trager practitioner since 1996. He can be contacted at (416) 207-8188 (Toronto office), (613) 395-3257, (Stirling, ON), or at email@example.com
- Anne Shaddick has been a certified Trager practitioner since 1990. In 2007, she created Be Calm, incorporating her knowledge of Life Management and Trager. She can be contacted at Be Calm Creative Achievable Life Management (416) 532-5079. www.becalm.to