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Technique - Gentle
Touch Produces Miracles
by Jane Alexander
The Bowen Technique is quite simply the most down-to-earth therapy in the book. There is no need to wind your head around any complex philosophy; no call for mystic mumblings or deep emotional encounters; and no one expects you to devote an inordinate time to a long, drawn-out course of treatment.
Quick, cheap and effective, it manipulates the muscle and connective tissue, leaving you walking tall and feeling relaxed, free and remarkably supple. A Bowen treatments takes just 20 minutes, usually costs less than $50 and you don't even have to take off your clothes.
With these characteristics, it's no surprise to find that Bowen hails, not from the loony fringes of California, but from the clean-living, no-nonsense reaches of Australia. Antipodean doctors have appreciated the effects of the technique for many years, and use it widely for sports injuries, low back injuries, chronic tension headaches and even for more complex problems such as asthma and bedwetting.
Its popularity is growing fast in Canada and the U.S., and now Bowen is nudging its way in the U.K. It's really going to take off in this country, predicts Julian Baker, one of (as yet) three qualified practitioners in the country.
Smartly dressed in a neat suit and tie, Baker doesn't look like a typical therapist. But then, he promises, Bowen isn't a typical therapy. There isn't any great chanting or any tradition going back 5,000 years. He says it is "very straightforward, very simple and most importantly, it's painless.
It honestly doesn't hurt. There is no counseling, no "emoting", no small talk, and no chit chat," as Baker puts it. "You just do the moves and then leave the patient's body to deal with them." Even better, promises Baker, 80-90% of the people need only one or two sessions to sort out their woes.
As luck would have it, a weekend's hard gardening and an uncompromising tree stump had contrived to leave me feeling decidedly woeful - with a considerable pain in my lower back. Julian Baker tried to look sympathetic but there was no disguising the glee on his face.
"Perfect! That's something Bowen can really help", he promised confidently. I edged gingerly onto the massage table and lay face down. Baker explained that he was going to work on the fascia (the connective tissue that covers the muscle), taking the slack across the muscle and moving over it.
The touch is firm but not painful - no more than the pressure you could take on your eyeballs. As he moved across my neck and back, I could feel first a subtle resistance and then a giving way as he "rolled over" each muscle.
Bowen practitioners describe the movement as similar to "rolling a ball up a hill and then popping it over the top." When he reached my tortured lower back, there was a wonderful sense of "hitting the spot." But it's nothing like the continued pressure of massage, nothing like the deep probing of Rolfing and Hellerwork, and nowhere near the short, sharp shocks of acupressure or shiatsu.
More to the point, there is none of the impending sense of terror you get with an osteopath, wondering just when you're going to have you back or neck "cracker." In fact, Bowen seems so gentle, so negligible in its outward manifestation, that you wonder whether it is really doing any good.
"Everybody says that," agrees Baker. A lot of people get up and say "Is that it? How can that work?" When it comes to explaining precisely how it does work, things become a little less straightforward. To be truthful, we just don't know, says Baker with a bemused shrug. Tom Bowen was so insular, so non-communicative about what he did, we can only ever guess.
In 1974 he came under investigation by the Australian federal government, which discovered to its amazement that he was treating far and away the greatest number of patients on the continent - some 13,000 a year, with patients responding to one or two treatments in 80-90% of cases.
Bowen never advertised and never talked about his work. He certainly had no pretensions about calling what he did the Bowen Technique. But he did allow one person, Oswald Rentsch, who after Bowen's death in 1982 began to train therapists in the procedure.
Bowen did not explain how this approach works, although Rentsch says he did suggest it worked by temporarily tapping energy in one area. This energy appears to reduce muscle spasm while increasing blood supply and lymphatic drainage, resulting in the clearing of debris and the release of tension. Then Bowen found the body could get on with healing itself.
Julian Baker put it like this: Bowen is a language and we're talking to the body asking the body to start communicating with the brain to get the channels working properly.
Numerous clinical trials are being carried out to try to pin down the secret of Bowen; the results and answers are some years away. In the meantime, suffice to say it seems to work. Baker has seen impressive results with frozen shoulder, tennis elbow and other sports injuries. Not only does movement return, but keen golfers have even told him the technique has improved their swing.
It seems to give greater flexibility, he says, adding that his dearest wish would be to teach the technique to football physiotherapists who could use it to lessen the likelihood of injuries. But Bowen isn't just confined to sorting out sore knees and aching backs. Aside from the precise moves of the technique, Bowen therapists arrive with armloads of advice that, while smacking of old wives' tales, are in some instances now being proven by science.
There are cures for bunions, and suggestions for curing children of bedwetting; there is advice and treatment for hay fever sufferers. But along with most people, I found it hard to see how the tiny moves of Bowen could affect anything - especially something as clear-cut and obvious as my badly-pulled back. And I must say that if you are into the more sensually satisfying side of therapy, stick to massage.
Yet, although Baker explained that it's not uncommon to feel initially worse after the first treatment, I have to say I felt better the moment I stepped off the couch. My back was simply easier, more fluid. I could bend down without wincing. The next day only the faintest memory of the stiffness remained, and my whole body felt lighter and more flexible. In short, it worked.
Baker promises that by the summer, there will be many more qualified practitioners in this curiously homespun technique. With the sporting and gardening season well under way, the sooner the better.
Jane Alexander is a writer specializing in natural health and holistic living. She has written 16 books on the subject including Mind Body Spirit (Carlton), Live Well (Element), The Five Minute Healer (Gaia) and The Energy Secret (Element). Jane is well-known for her features in national British newspapers which cover all aspects of alternative and complementary healthcare, self-help and psychology. The Daily Mail called her "Britain's top writer on alternative therapies." She often appears on television and radio to discuss complementary health and related issues. You can see more of her work on her website at www.smudging.com