Embodied Expertise

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

Embodied expertise in a physical body’s current presentation and how to achieve a desired outcome, is not achieved via completion of any academic institution’s degree.


There. I said it.

I’ll put it another way:

Embodied physical expertise in kinesiology and manipulation come from physically moving and physically manipulating bodies. And the physical manipulations themselves can not be formulaically applied to a body but are instead a dynamic, multi-system, responsive dialogue between two bodies. The persons primarily poised to achieve and / or facilitate physical change in a physical body are folks that move in and understand their own bodies, that is, their own physical mind/heart-body system, and NOT a person who has spent thousands of hours and anywhere from three to seven years staring at computer screens, textbooks and writing papers. Those three to seven years are typically comprised of 80% didactic classroom units versus 20% lab units. Lab units are the hands-on practice. That "health" insurance companies cover the work of professions with little hands-on experience in touching should infuriate- and worry you. Insurance companies cover "health" care that better handles ICD10 codes and confusing malpractice legalese, not living, responsive be-ings. By no means am I saying that your average 750-hour massage certificate is enough. And don't even get me started on my views as to how massage schools market a career in therapeutic bodywork or how they design and implement curriculum.


During my study at Master S.H. Yu Martial Arts in Oak Park, I remember moments where students would struggle with technique in their practice. The student would repeatedly try until another one of the higher-rank instructors would come over and begin to teach the student. If the conditions were right (i.e., the student is strong/flexible enough, mentally ready and the chances are pretty high that they'll be able to do it safely), Master Yu would walk over to the student, and then, in a dynamic, multi-systemic manner (this is another thing I explain in my massage classes), he would make just a few physical adjustments, and then -BOOM- the student “got” the movement, or broke the board or whatever. I watched him do this repeatedly, with three-year olds on to adults. As he saw that students were ready to be challenged further, he would bring it on, always working within their zone of proximal development, consistently facilitating their understanding of what he saw they were ready to "get". Even then, I knew precisely what he meant when he would tell us, that “…doctors and lawyers usually had the hardest time being learners”: he was referring to that already-full cup, full of what you think you have or know, and its impediment to being truly receptive to what is. It was this practice that taught me more about bodywork, than any massage course I have ever taken.


Similarly, during my time in Aloft’s Full-Time Training Program, we sometimes had Nourbol Mirmanov as our hand-balancing coach. One of my classmates in the program used to marvel at how, “…Nourbol sprinkles pixie dust on you and then you just magically do handstands.” What she was referring to was that same ability I’d witnessed in Master Yu, to be able to make just the necessary physical adjustments and expertly guide the receiving body in order to facilitate the desired objective(s). I vividly recall the full-body discoveries I experienced when he would adjust or use just the perfect cues to challenge my proprioception to figure out exactly what it needed to make my physical body actually do. That skillful application of facilitating a desired outcome using multiple skillsets simultaneously, making microadjustments as you work with bodies- is only developed... by working with bodies.


One does not learn this in typical health care field curriculum. Nourbol grew up in the Mongolian circus world. Master Yu has been studying and practicing martial arts in Korea since he was four or five. These living gems are older, for sure, but Master Yu can walk around the perimeter of the school on both hands and jump scissors kick about 6 feet in the air still to this day. Nourbol can still flip down a tumble track like nobody’s business- you should see him. These are fully-embodied kinesthetic experts and as anyone who works at caring for bodies, you can call yourself lucky if you have studied with people like these.


When I work with clients, I make extra effort to remind them that while I have studied anatomy and soft tissue manipulation techniques, they are the experts in their own body. My practice is comprised mostly of circus athletes, along with some very active, robust seniors and a smattering of folks managing serious, chronic conditions, in that order. I only have eleven years of working with soft-tissue structures (along with 22+ years of holding space and working with bodies) and am constantly studying. I am not at all afraid to say “I don’t know. Let me do a little homework and I will get back to you with some resources for you”.


While our fast-paced culture does little to encourage or support this natural receptivity and awareness that leads to expertise in our own body, it is to our benefit to honor it nonetheless by developing it, listening to it, working with it to give our bodies what they need. We forget that we communicate with our body via what we consume (the nutrition we give it, the things we watch, read and listen to, habitual thoughts, feelings, practices and even the company we keep!). Many times, if we pay attention to where, when and how we feel something, that tells us precisely what our body is asking us to do for it. This is why I was mad as hell as I watched Chicago pass legislation lumping massage therapists in the same service category as nail estheticians and waxing services last fall. This is why three-term massage certificate programs infuriate me. This is precisely why LMTs need to be well-versed in writing case studies since WE are the ones doing the hands-on work. I have avoided two surgeries with the therapeutic massage work received from a highly-skilled massage therapist who was a former professional competitive gymnast and current qi gong instructor (again- there’s that movement component). I have corrected a visually-disturbing (and painful) closed sternoclavicular dislocation (after 8 “unremarkable” chest x-rays and other useless time-wasters yielded no results- but hey- so GLAD I'm paying that insurance premium each month) by spending some quality time with my Trail Guide, a stability ball, my own hands, some weights and quietly paying attention to what I felt and where I felt it. I have more examples like these, which are unfortunately considered “soft evidence”. But if my AROM and PROM have increased due to appropriate application of therapeutic soft-tissue manipulation, then isn’t that the epitome of evidence-based practice?!? But I understand: if someone without the degree “gets” what another person who jumped through seemingly endless man-made hoops to “know”, then what does that say about the means by which they obtained their standardized “expertise”?


This past winter, my back “went out”. This has only happened four times in my lifetime and each time was vividly memorable. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty scared and even defeated when my back is out so badly that it hurts to fully inhale, my legs shake when I stand or walk, and my gait assumes a little old person’s C-curve. This past time, the debilitating pain lasted several days, and I had a private contortion lesson with my teacher, Oyunchimeg "Oyuna" Yadamjav*, that I had failed to cancel when my back pain initially began as I was pretty overwhelmed with life and a ridiculous work schedule at the time. I showed up and let her know, “Ummm, I can barely move. And I am in so much pain.” I did not exaggerate: I had to cancel several massages. I could not inhale fully, getting into and out of bed or a chair was excruciating, lying down sucked just as bad and forget about push-ups or any kind of aerial work. In her heavy Mongolian accent, she began questioning: “is it sharp, joint pain or muscle?” I said I didn’t know, because at that point, I had built up so much angst around the pain sensation, that my head was an emotional mess. After stretching my legs as we usually do in our contortion lessons, she told me to lie down on the mat, and began rubbing briskly up and down along my spine. The friction created warmth that penetrated through my leotard. Then she began palmar compressions up and down along my paraspinals, while asking me “How many massages you do this past week? Hm. Ok. Who make massage YOU? You know what you need… You give massage but you also have to give yourself massage!” No kidding Oyuna… No kidding. After several rounds of big, spread-out palmar compressions, she told me to lay my arms out in front of me, super-man style and to let my head hang. She stabilized the lower part of my back while expertly tractioning my spine and gently, progressively, arching it up and back. After a few increasingly deeper arches, she would lay me back down, walk on my back and repeat, all over again, beginning anew with the round-rubbing friction. When I felt her body weight expertly, smoothly pour into the “locked-up” fear-full area in my back, all I remember was my initial panic, then reminding myself to breathe and surrender (which is very different from taking it, which is unfortunately all too often what we train our bodies to do). At times, when I work with Oyuna, panic or fear sets in and all I can eek out is a squeaky “NoOo?”, and she’ll ask, “Is pain? And I’ll say “no” (because there isn’t), and she’ll continue, “Does joint feel bad?” And I’ll answer, “No. My joint feels fine. I’m just afraid to let go.” My little-girl squeaky response is met with melodic, bell-like peals of laughter. She says, “Why scared? If no joint pain or no sharp pain, then breathe and rrrelax, let go. I am like Mama, you will not get hurt with me.” And this is true: her hands know precisely where to stop. She finished with some shoulder- and upper-back openers which I will not describe here because 1) I don’t believe physical manipulations are best-explained via written step-by-step or photos and 2) while I have an idea of what she was doing and certainly experienced it, I wasn’t watching her. Instead, I had my hands full (or ah, my back) with being fully-present with passively receiving and feeling, which is a very difficult skill to remember once conditioned to be as in our heads as we are. Speaking of which, by lesson’s end, she had both of my feet on my head. I will never forget my astonishment as I felt my humid warmth rising off my head up into my arches as she gently pressed both of my feet onto my scalp down through my coarse hair. And to think: merely an hour and half ago, I could not even stand up straight or take a full inhale. After some cooling down movements, she asked me if I had any kind of medicine to put on (a liniment, and oh yes Ma’am, indeedy I did!) and where was my back warmer (um, whoops? Have to get one of those, Jo…). She waited as I got and applied the warming liniment I had made for my back. As she tied my wool scarf several times around my waist, she gently admonished me to keep my low back covered and warm because were I to “let it get cold right now, pain will come back worser than before.”

Hey- Thai massage and Chinese medicine peeps! Sound familiar?


The all-encompassing joy I felt as I skipped, no- pranced back to my post teaching the Full-Time program circus kids, was palpable by everyone that worked with me that night. I was giddy and beyond grateful to be out of pain. And humbled: Oyuna's contortion lesson reminded me to heed my own answer to students that asked how to be an excellent bodyworker: maintain a practice that keeps you strong; maintain a practice that keeps you flexible and maintain a practice that keeps you aware of where your awareness is.


No institutional, usually, for-profit program or whoever-approved CE course will ever be able to impart the embodied wisdom and understanding contained in hands that have spent the bulk of their moments on this plane touching and moving and teaching others how to do the same.


* I know, this article is about Javen Ulambayar, her son- but pay attention to all it says about Oyuna. I am still looking for a solid article on just her. She's just such a treasure as a teacher.



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