Bodywork and Massage:  What's in a name?

When I say “I practice prenatal bodywork” occasionally someone will ask if I do some kind of work on cars. More often they’ll simply ask if bodywork is like massage. I think it’s worth a little explanation because the language we use is important.

When I say “I practice prenatal bodywork” occasionally someone will ask if I do some kind of work on cars.  More often they’ll simply ask if bodywork is like massage.  I think it’s worth a little explanation because the language we use is important.

Bodywork is a more inclusive term. It acknowledges the people who have deep wisdom and bodywork skills, but who never learned the privileged skill of how to take a multiple choice exam. (Most licensing and certification tracks for massage therapy include many multiple choice exams.)  The term bodywork also honors the people called to birth work who know and feel in their bones that touch is a crucial part of the work, but who didn’t or couldn’t certify as massage therapists. It is inclusive of those who could certify but choose not to, perhaps because of the cost or time needed to do so.  It honors those who learned from their grandparents or elders in their community, in an apprenticeship model of answering a call to do the work.  It is also inclusive of the reality that one sometimes cannot parse out touch techniques from other professional hats we wear.

Just because someone isn’t certified doesn’t mean their practice isn’t meaningful, competent and legitimate.  Some say certification and membership in professional organizations are the only way to keep practitioners accountable and to uphold standards of the practice.  I disagree.  I think a more powerful body of accountability is the very community (both human and non-human) that we live and work in.  Our clients keep us accountable by sharing their experiences with us and with others.  Our fellow practitioners keep us accountable as we share knowledge and how we are integrating new knowing into our work: sharing with each other what is genuinely working and what is not working in practice.   We care about the quality and competency of our fellow bodyworkers because we refer our clients to them, we refer our families, and see these practitioners ourselves as clients.

And also, just because someone does certify, it doesn’t mean they are aligned with the ideals of an exclusionary system or that we have “sold out,” or that we are beholden only to our organizations and structure of regulation.  Being certified gives me access to learning and trainings that I can then share with my clients and community.  Being certified allows me to be an educator within an institution of learning and be a part of the restructuring of these institutions that have historically upheld non-equitable standards of access, recruitment, and grading.  I have the credentials to be able to teach this work through certain organizations that require it and reach more people.

I acknowledge the thousands of touch practitioners who for whatever reason are not attending accredited institutions of learning and getting certified or obtaining a “license to touch.”  Which is ridiculous in some ways: do we really need a license to touch someone? Just like “a license to talk.” For many years, the idea of needing a “license to talk” (because I was terrified of practicing talk therapy without a license) limited my practice and traumatized me into barely speaking to my clients during a session.  It wasn’t until a wise elder reminded me that I don’t need a talk therapy license to be able to ask another human being intelligent and thoughtful questions, that I finally opened up to the potential of my work.  Just like I believe you do not need a “license to touch” to provide nourishing bodywork and connect with your clients with your hands. While it can be helpful to specialize and have a niche where our unique skills shine, and not feel like we have to work with everyone/anyone, it is also important to not compartmentalize these skills too much, lest we lose the ability to connect in basic simple human ways.

I also acknowledge the thousands of touch practitioners who find the massage therapy law in their state/province/country limiting and not in the best interest of their clients, and choose in integrity to either not have a license or practice outside of their scope, naming honestly to their clients when they are not wearing their “massage therapist” hat. Especially those that do the much-needed pelvic/genital hands-on hands-in work: I think these practitioners should be protected and included in our definition of “bodywork” and not shamed into the shadows.

In the story of the Selkie, the seal-woman comes onto land for a time but then finds her skin and returns to the sea.  So we too can be in two worlds, can navigate between them.  Can take off our skin and jump through the hoops and play the credentials game, but also put our own delicious skin back on and swim in the depths of the ocean of our potential and intuition.

I believe that the title “bodyworker” acknowledges this medial aspect of the touch practitioner - this ability to be both/and.  The power of including and acknowledging all types of touch and healing and not just “massage therapy.”

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