Heads up bodywork nerds — this Friday we’re doing another (free) seminar, this one called “Feeling into the Body: Learning palpatory vision from the feet and ribcage.” We’ll be exploring how skilled bodyworkers are able to pull off a seemingly “voodoo” move: contact some distal or exterior part of the body, and then get detailed spatial information about a structure that’s far away or deeply buried under opaque tissues.
As a teacher who hangs out with researchers, teachers, students, and consumers of bodywork, I often encounter two erroneous attitudes on this subject: One, that such a skill does not actually exist, and two, that it cannot be taught.
To the second notion, I’ll simply say that “You either got it or you don’t” is a hallmark saying of burnt-out teachers and ego-stricken artisans, and has no place in a classroom. People vary in their learning ability, but rarely is there no point in trying. More often, “it” has not been sufficiently explicated, and so we treat “it” as needlessly mysterious.
To the first point, I readily admit that I can’t yet use words to convince an ardent skeptic. I’ve not seen an RCT or a meta-analysis on the subject of “feeling in”. Most scientific attempts to investigate palpatory skill use a research methodology called “intrarater/interrater reliability”, and the variables measured (such as in trigger point evaluation or vertebral mobility assessment) are too sparse to give us much insight into the richer (but squishier) world of palpatory vision.
However, I think I can make a decent appeal to reason. Palpatory vision does not require some extra sense, nor is it limited to a small segment of the population. All it requires is a mental map of how things connect to each other, and some time spent interacting with the anatomy.
Imagine driving a car — one familiar to you — and suddenly blowing a flat tire. Vibrations of rubble and asphalt shake the frame, fill the air inside the car, jar the steering wheel, the window pane, the driver’s seat. Do you need to go out and look at which tire is flat? Or can you simply feel into the car and notice which wheel is bumping?
Imagine swinging a baseball bat with your eyes on an incoming ball. POW, the ball is struck, and you are off running. But feel your hands in that moment: could you tell whether the ball was hit nearer the handle or the tip? Could you sense whether it was a glancing blow or dead-on?
This sensation-by-proxy is a fascinating skill, seemingly universal to all humans, and we’re only beginning to articulate the mechanisms behind it. But the same ability we have to feel into familiar objects, discern information about their inner workings, and sense through them their contact with surroundings… that can be taught in bodywork. By holding the feet, for example, we can learn to sense tensional asymmetry along the spine, or feel peritoneal adhesions resist the movement of breath. By placing a receptive hand on the sternum, the entire thorax comes alive with spatial detail.
Is this skill dependable enough that it should be used in the absence of conversation or direct palpation? Not in my experience. Should it be used to contradict imaging or physician’s advice? Obviously not. But it’s a powerful tool in the art of anyone who uses their hands to treat human bodies, and it’s high time we had a straightforward vocabulary for teaching it.