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Learning to Let Go with Myofascial Release

I’m sitting in Barnes and Noble in Wilmington, Delaware after completing my first John F. Barnes Myofascial Release course.  My mind and body are incredibly exhausted yet full of excitement. I’m about to go out on my own and open my first PT clinic.  I’ve been searching for ways to better use my hands to heal, to offer more effective “manual” work.  I definitely learned how to do this in an incredible new and exhilarating full mind-body way.

I’ve been intrigued by John Barnes early on in my physical therapy career.  I recall receiving a brochure for his courses which depicted a gentle looking man with a white beard and pony tail in a variety of beautiful settings.  He reminded me of a kind hippy who appreciated nature and didn’t seem to give a damn what the rest of the objective-evidence-based-PT world was thinking. I think that is what I loved the most about him. He appeared to be against the grain. His brochures continued to land in my mailbox for the 18 years since I graduated from school.  It was like a constant reminder to check this guy out.  He must be up to something good.  He has two amazing treatment centers in beautiful serene areas of our country and he certainly creates all kinds of reactions amongst my colleagues.

One of my colleagues and mentor, whom I met at a dry needling course, is a fan of John Barnes. He attended his courses and successfully uses his techniques. He encouraged me to go with my gut and attend one of John’s courses.  Having his support, I registered for the course, booked a flight and journeyed to the east coast.

The room was packed with an assortment of “therapists” eager to learn from the master, the visionary and the renegade of myofascial release.  The chairs we sat in were placed uncomfortably close to one another as if we were passengers on an airplane.  It felt uncomfortable.  Our class booklets were rather thin and John didn’t follow the exact order in them.  He did not start out with a detailed agenda and he kept turning the lights down so I couldn’t see the notes I was scrambling to right down. This too was uncomfortable.

He talked about science and research but then told us to forget about it.  He said our linear education limits us.  Our wisdom comes from our intuition. This irritated yet intrigued me.  He began to talk about “the old way” of myofascial work which he called soft tissue mobilization. I recognized these techniques and started to worry that I wasn’t going to learn anything new.  He then validated the need for these interventions but ensured us that the rest of the weekend we will be learning about real myofascial release techniques.  I was getting excited to learn the difference.

The first time I felt energy from my partners body, I was thrilled! I am going to be able to do this!  My partner was lying on her back and my hands were very gently cradling her head. I had to learn to not try, to not force, to not think and to simply feel.  I closed my eyes and focused on her breathing and mine.  I began to feel a sort of throbbing, a pulse and a sense of gentle motion.  It was warm and it was sort of weird. I felt myself thinking about what this motion could be.  Was it cranial bones moving?  Was it my own pulse?  Was I just sweating?  Then I heard John say, “stop thinking, just feel”.  A switch turned off again and I shifted back to feeling.  Her head felt like a protected bubble that I was caring for.  I began to feel the gentleness and a connection.

It was my turn to be the patient.  I focused on my breathing and tried very hard not to think.  I then realized I was spending a lot of time thinking about how not to think. I felt a bit frozen and didn’t know what to do with my hands.

The techniques began to be more specific requiring a bit more thinking, or rather, feeling.  My partner was already experienced and familiar with myofascial release.  While holding her head and focusing on what I was feeling, she started to move her head in all kinds of flowing directions and her leg started quivering.  It was quite strange and unlike anything I’ve ever seen with a patient before.  Although it was gentle and seemed natural to her, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly is happening here.  Across the room, a woman started to breath very heavy and soon began moaning.  Now, this was beyond weird for me.  This is all that hippie crap my colleagues talked about.

It was my turn again to be the patient.  I felt comfortable, relaxed and ready to spend some time in “channel 3”, what John refers to as your subconscious or your intuition. My breathing was deep, steady and slow.  My arms were relaxed and sinking into the table.  My head felt supported and gently cradled.  My mind told me to move my head.  I said don’t tell me what to do because then I’m thinking not feeling.  I resisted.  A few times, my head would turn or roll from one side to the other.  I couldn’t tell if I just did that because I thought I should? It felt good.

John used volunteers to do several demonstrations of various techniques on the stage in the front of the room.  I watched their breathing patterns change, their heads, arms and legs move. I saw them cry.  I wondered what kind of strange power does this man have and are these people just dramatic followers?  I wanted to believe.  John, and others trained in his method, have helped hundreds of thousands of people.  It all sounds so convincing.  I want to be able to do this.

I felt my confidence build as I learned how to properly touch, connect and let my patient guide me.  I watched them relax, unwind and feel better.  I just wished I could let go.

John talked about the need to let go of the pressure we put on ourselves. The need to be the best.  He gave us permission to not know the answer. To not talk.  To simply guide, never injure.  I felt my breathing change as I heard these words. I sat in my now comforting chair close to my new colleagues and felt the tears well in my eyes.   A small gasp/cry escaped my mouth. I quickly stopped it and hoped no one heard it.

I laid on the table as my partner cradled my head.  John played some music.  I felt my head let go.  It flowed to the side and then rolled back up and over to the other side. I felt fluttering in my chest, then a quiver.  It was building like an angry river under my ribs.  My heart felt like it was ripping, being pulled apart.  I thought about Alyssa.  I wanted her hands on me.  I felt someone come over and put their hands on my chest.  The pulsating got more rapid and I felt a burning sensation.  I had the urge to scream.  I didn’t let myself. Instead I let the tears fall down my cheeks.  She gave me permission to feel and let it out.  I think a few cries emerged.  I felt shaky and energy started flowing down into my legs. I pulled up into a ball. It felt protective.  My head felt hot and I could feel pressure building above my eyes.  John then said gently release your partners head and talk about your experience.  I forgot, we were in a training, not a treatment center.

My partner asked me what I felt. I said scared.  I quickly realized that I also felt proud.  Proud that I finally could do it!  I was able to let go!  It was liberating yet I felt exposed.

Much of the talk throughout the weekend was regarding past experiences of physical and emotional trauma.  I struggled to think about what past issues I suppress.  The primary trauma in my life has been the recent passing of my sister.  I knew this would come up.  I’m certain that when I let go, I was feeling my heart rip apart as literally that is how I felt the moment I heard of her death.  However, the underlying “issue” I continuously felt surface throughout this weekend, was my ability to just be myself.  To let go of the pressure and the fear of being less then perfect.  I’m really not sure who I am trying to impress, but I realized I hold a lot of stuff in.  No wonder I no longer know how to have fun. I’ve learned how to suppress silliness, laughter, anger and awkwardness.  All in a pursuit to be in control, avoid confrontation and feel “grounded”.

I started to unwind today.  I started to let go.  I did stop myself.  I know I have work to do.  I am just so damn glad that there is something I can do about it. I booked an appointment for tomorrow at the Malvern Myofascial Release Treatment Center.  I will be safe there with only me and the therapist.  I won’t have to worry about making a scene.  It’ll be a good start:)

Here are a few of my favorite John F. Barnes quotes from the weekend.  Enjoy!

Healing is feeling. As long as you are thinking and talking, there is no therapeutic value. Don’t think, talk or try. MFR returns compassion to healthcare. You don’t have to rust out. MFR starts in the present moment. Fascia is our body’s scaffolding. You need to experience periods of chaos.  That is the only way to change and heal. Nothing in nature is linear. No matter how far down the road you traveled in the wrong direction, you can always turn around. Fascial restrictions are solidified fear.


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