When Energetic Bodywork becomes too much
When I attended my bodywork school in Northern Thailand I would be completely wrung out at the end of each day. Each time I went I knew in advance that the curriculum would yet again be grueling. Days would start with a 5:30AM wake-up, quick swim the guest house’s pool, some breakfast, and off to be on the mat at exactly 8:00AM. By then you would already know that the day would become another scorcher.
Lunch was 45 minutes. End of the day would be anywhere between 4:30 and 6:00PM, depending on how well I went that day. By the time I would step outside I had been bent, prodded, and stretched for hours. My brain would feel over-cooked, my arms and legs non-existing, and my entire upper body like a sack of pulp. To get to the school would take a 25 minute walk in the morning. It would take me 45 or 50 minutes to walk the same route back.
During my first visit I learned quickly that it wasn’t the heat, the jetlag, or the physical pain that would keep me awake at night. In as much as I would be physically exhausted and mentally drained, my energetic body would be running like a well-tuned Formula One vehicle on approach to the finish line. I would lie on my bed, on my back, staring at the ceiling for hours in a 36 Celsius room, completely unable to sleep. When I wrote ‘wake-up’ two paragraphs earlier I exaggerated. It wasn’t so much that as just getting out of bed.
What struck me after a few days was that at home I would under the same circumstances be a wreck and unable to function. Normally, one 2:00AM party night makes me suffer the late-night consequences for two or three days. In Thailand, the sleeplessness I experienced was different, and so where the consequences. I was able to function as normal but everything just went half speed. Except at night, when everything seemed to speed up again. No matter what I did, nothing worked. Even though I all this felt rather horrible at night I became intrigued by the reoccurring experience.
Becoming familiar with Bodywork (Bio-energetic) Modulation
I still think it was only sheer luck that I finally received a proper explanation for what was happening to me. Oddly, it wasn’t anyone at the school who enlightened me. Nor could I find any passable answer online. It was an elderly man called Bo who had been a healer for probably fifty-odd years, and to whom I was introduced by a mutual friend. Alongside the few other tradecraft secrets I learned from this extraordinary man was the concept of bio-energetic modulation.
The term is mine – he referred to the concept by its Thai name, which I found too hard to remember. I translated it as modulation that night when I again couldn’t sleep and remained obsessively stuck on the idea to give the phenomenon a proper name in English.
I should explain what I believe he was saying, and therefore what modulation means in the context of bodywork. If you are bodyworker, or a regular recipient of bodywork, this might be an eye opener.
Our Bio-energetic Presence
Modulation happens when our typical bio-energetic pattern(s) change, which can happen when it changes in strength; when its wavelength changes (vibration) or, of course, both. That might sound complex and therefore confusing but it is simpler than you might think.
The concept’s basic premise is that an organism – such as us humans – can only be alive when its physiology is mobilised by energetic currents. It is understand that these currents flow through an intricate and dense network of channels that transverse our entire body. When we speak of bio-energy itself, which are the currents that flow through these channels, we are actually referring to Qi (Chi), Prana, or Ki. Among the schools of Traditional Chinese Medicine these channels are commonly refer to as Meridians or Vessels. The Thai call them Sen.
Whereas the presence of such energies determines whether a species is either alive or dead, their qualities determine and organism’s relative health. Ill health occurs when these energies become too weak or imbalanced across the organism’s energetic network. Depending on the qualities and overall health of an organism’s physical qualities, energetic weaknesses or imbalances can normally be corrected. We typically feel healthy and happy when our energetic networks operate as they should. Conversely, we feel unwell when this isn’t the case.
The basis for this part is that energy travels in waves. When you look close enough at a strummed snare on a guitar you’ll see that the snare’s position vibrates between two opposite points, which makes it look fuzzy. The snare’s vibration causes a soundwave, which we can hear as a tone. The snare’s tone is primarily determined by its thickness, length, and tension. When we strum the snare we effectively transfer energy into it. We energize it, if you like. In turn, the snare energizes the air, which creates sound waves. These waves reach our ears, which enables us to hear the sound. This entire process is about the transfer of energy.
If we lower the snare’s tension its tone will lower accordingly – until there is insufficient tension to make it vibrate. Conversely, the snare will snap eventually if we continue to increase its tension beyond its stretchable capability. To make a snare sound as it should – which means making it produce the correct tone, volume, and rhythm – both its tension and the strumming needs to be right. If these conditions are not met, the snare will not produce the right tone, or none at all.
Let’s now move to ‘normal’ household electricity as we use it daily and we will see that similar concepts apply. If we want to use this power to run an appliance we’ll see that the appliance stops working when it no longer receives the amount of power it needs. The device will also stop working when it receives more power than it can handle. In that case, when its circuit becomes overloaded, it may start to overheat to eventually melt and burn.
What these examples ought to demonstrate is a rather rudimentary way is that things that use energy will have a lower and upper threshold. They need to receive a minimal amount of energy before they become animated and functional. They become dysfunctional when they receive too much of that energy, and may even be destructed by an excess. This doesn’t apply to inert objects only. It also applies to living organisms including, of course, human beings.
Acupuncturists, as well as many other therapists, have successfully worked with these principles for centuries. That certain channels can be overactive relative to others should be considered basic knowledge by any energetic bodyworker. That concept is certainly not new. However, the idea that each organism has its unique general bio-energetic tolerances came as news to me. That those tolerances also vary between individuals is something I had not thought of either. Until I met with Bo in 2020.
Bio-energetic modulation: Accepting its reality
If we venture briefly back to where this journal started – to my sleepless nights in Thailand – you will read in that text a prime example of bio-energetic over-modulation. For 26 straight days, and for almost 8 hours each, I found myself literally in the hands of my bodywork instructors. While I was fortunate enough to receive one-on-one instruction during that entire period, I didn’t get any downtime to speak of. By the end of each day my entire me would be malleable, open, and energetically completely unprotected. By the time I got onto my bed my energetic body would be over-saturated or, as we learned above, over-modulated.
Before my arrival my energetic network may have been nothing but a collection of small, gentle and murmuring streams. Three or four days later it had turned into a something more akin to the waters that feed the Niagara waterfall. My brain raced. I felt constantly compelled to go for a run. I needed to move. I saw lights where there weren’t any and movements where nothing moved. I had become completely unable to regulate my own energies and there was very little I could do about it. The biggest trouble I face was of course that my body just didn’t want to move.
It is hard to describe what its like to be over-modulated. It sort of combines something like sear sickness and a mild hangover. Overlay that with a sprinkling of jetlag and a rapid intake of eight espresso’s and you’re getting pretty close. You drink because you think you need to drink. Not because you’re thirsty. Same for eating. Although your physiology seems all over the place, your neurology operates like it’s on steroids. I would race through my text books at neck breaking speed at night and still remember the material almost word for word the next day. My thoughts came and went at the speed of light, and my memory had somehow convinced itself that it was on par with a super computer. I was physically broken but mentally alert, sharp, and very much present.
How modulation informs my bodywork treatments
In as much as I am not in a hurry to re-experience this again I do look back on these two months with a certain fondness. This period taught me things I did not expect to learn. One of the biggest lesson was of course that of modulation and, with that, the existence of over-modulation.
Back home, with that experience and learning fresh in mind, I begun to observe and monitor the behaviors of my clients differently. Until then I believed that my clients should leave their treatments fully rejuvenated and re-energized. I loved seeing clients bounce off my practice’s walls after a treatment, absolutely believing that this was a metric by which the session’s success could be assessed. I changed my mind once I learned of a client who needed a five-mile run after each treatment to get her energy levels back under control again. To me, this might now be a sign that the bodywork treatment wasn’t as successful as it could have been. It reminded me of my experiences in Thailand and concluded quickly that this wasn’t a desirable treatment result.
Behaviors like this may suggest that the treatment over-flooded the client’s bio-energetic network. That turns out particularly relevant with clients who might have become used to operating on depleted energy reserves or with an inefficient energetic network. For bodyworkers to ignore this is akin to sending a client on a sugar rush or to administer her with a shot of adrenaline. To transform a client into something like Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger may be satisfying to a bodyworker’s ego but it will usually manifest as nothing but a short-lived and therefore useless euphoria for the client. To me, that has very little to do with helping a client heal.
I now have learned that true bodywork masters are aware of their client’s modulation tolerances. It takes time to learn that skill, mostly because there is no one tried-and-proven method that fits all clients. Aside from becoming better at clinical interviewing I am now learning to detect the physical and physiological markers that indicate a client’s modulation tolerances. There are many, including pulse, changes in skin colour, body temperature, blood pressure, and both voluntary and involuntary movements. The client’s eyes, her need for hydration, and changes in skin ‘feel’ should all be observed. Each marker might be nuanced and subtle but none should be ignored to properly asses a client’s energetic post-treatment state.
The existence of bio-energetic modulation emphasizes yet again that bodywork isn’t just about routine application of textbook techniques and methods. To perform bodywork well, and to help clients truly heal through touch, a therapist must possess a wealth of expertise and experience to reaches well beyond proper knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Many of the skills that set the true bodywork masters aside from novices can only be learned over time.
The advantage I have is that I know first-hand what it is like to be over-modulated or – in other words – over-energized. I now have different conversations with clients who see me for the first time and expect to feel ‘peaky’ after their treatments, just as they would feel after receiving their previous treatments. Feeling ‘peaky’ is just as bad as feeling ‘sluggish’.
My work is about making them feel ‘balanced’. Not only are results longer-lasting, they are actually more conducive and constructive to my client’s healing process. There is a huge difference between helping a client feel better and helping her become better.