Healing with Sole
by Elizabeth Schwyzer Most of us rely on our hands for the majority of our work. So did John Harris, until the years of manual massage therapy began to take their toll. Co-founder of the nation’s first full-time sports massage school in the ’80s, Harris learned barefoot shiatsu massage — a technique where the therapist uses his feet rather than his hands to work the client’s muscles — from one of his Japanese students. “We realized the work was more effective than anything we did with our hands,” he said.
Along with his colleague Fred Kenyon, who began soft tissue work with thoroughbred racehorses before moving to humans, Harris has created a protocol for deep tissue massage delivered primarily through the practitioner’s feet. The work consists of slow, deep compressions of the muscles and uses gravity to deliver maximum pressure.
According to Harris, the clientele for deep tissue massage in particular tends to be athletes and dancers — people with a more sophisticated understanding of the body and an expectation for work that not only feels good in the moment, but also relieves ongoing tension. The amount of pressure such work demands can be extremely taxing on a therapist’s hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. In a booming industry with a 70 percent attrition rate for therapists within the first three years of practice, advice for safe working methods is sorely needed. Harris and Kenyon’s answer is Deeperwork, a technique based on an understanding of myofascial trigger points, which are hypersensitive knots in the muscle that create referred pain when pressed. Brought to the public’s attention by JFK’s physician Janet Travell in the ’50s, trigger points are now recognized as the most common cause of chronic pain syndromes — exactly the symptoms most deep-tissue massage therapists hope to cure. “The majority of pain suffered by man is soft-tissue related,” Kenyon claimed. “Pain causes you to tighten up, and after a while you forget how to let go. Our work releases that.”
Some may doubt the suitability of a foot for the purposes of massage, but Harris finds feet to be not only more efficient but also less invasive than hands. He also calls the work “populist.” “Our hope is that this becomes a family practice rather than a specialist technique,” he said. “It can be done at a picnic or in the living room while you’re watching TV. You can keep your clothes on.” Some practitioners of barefoot massage use a walking stick to stabilize their stance or a cloth seat to provide leverage in seated positions, but no special equipment is required. Today, Harris and Kenyon teach barefoot massage technique at Santa Barbara’s Body Therapy Institute as well as in private workshops. Kenyon has traveled to the Nepalese province of Mustang to practice Deeperwork, while Harris is currently in Nicaragua teaching in alternative medicine clinics. Both men think of themselves primarily as trainers, taking satisfaction from educating others. “I don’t feel particularly altruistic,” Harris admitted. “I do it because it’s fun.”
4•1•1: To learn more about barefoot massage, visit www.deeperwork.com.