What’s the Deal With Bodywork?

Massage meets conversation in the ancient form of healing known as bodywork.


  1. The metal outer shell of a vehicle.

  2. Therapies and techniques in complementary medicine that involve touching or manipulating the body.

If you experience chronic aches and pains it may be time to get some work done. No, not that type of work, but an all-natural, instinctive, holistic approach that has been in practice for thousands of years and doesn’t require Botox. No, not yoga, but a compliment to your yoga practice—one that has become known throughout the wide world of wellness as bodywork.

There was a time not too long ago when massage therapy was viewed as a luxury or a once yearly pampering. But now, getting a massage is now readily accepted as an effective form of medicine, helping millions of Americans combat unhealthy stress and anxiety, while also improving sleep, boosting immunity, increasing mental clarity, easing the effects of some cancer treatments, alleviating headaches, reducing depression, and of course, to simply relax.

The Difference Between Bodywork and Massage

Bodywork and massage therapy are technically one in the same, though more specifically, bodywork is part of a larger holistic umbrella that encompasses massage therapy, much as it does other forms of herbal and even energy therapy. From Reiki to cupping, acupuncture to polarity, Thai massage, Shiatsu and even meditation, the landscape of bodywork is indeed vast, and always evolving. Traditional massage therapy, like Swedish massage, will utilize certain strokes and muscular manipulation to target specific problem areas or to facilitate an overall relaxation.

But bodywork dives deeper than that, and is more about developing a relationship to the client, getting to know their biomechanics and uncovering the root causes behind physical ailments that could date as far back as birth—and even have an emotional connection.

“Bodywork is a practice—it’s much more than just getting a massage,” explains Jordan Fleet, a licensed massage therapist and bodyworker in Brooklyn. “For the client, it’s about getting bodywork done on a regular basis, and for the therapist, it’s being mindful and specific with what you’re working on in that particular session.” In essence, bodywork is like body-talk; it’s a conversation about your body and a willingness to work with your practitioner.

Sure, it’s relaxing, but when you allow yourself to actually communicate with your practitioner, you not only deepen your experience, but also facilitate sustainable, long-term healing. In Jordan’s practice, she’s experienced both sides of the spectrum: the person who just wants to lay supine, detach, and relax, and the person who will vocalize what’s going on with her body, working with Jordan as she works on them.

Striking Balance Between the Physical and Emotional

Jordan describes bodywork as a physical and emotional check-in, if not a form of self-study, much like a yoga and meditation practice. It’s a way to get to know your outer shell, your body, on a deeper level, and discover old sheaths of tension or trauma that had previously been hidden from view. There are innumerable benefits to getting your body worked on, like increased circulation and rest-and-digest activation, which speeds up the body’s natural healing process.

“Sometimes it takes having someone else’s hands on your body to even notice that maybe something feels off,” Jordan said. “And if there’s more circulation flowing to those areas, then there’s going to be more observable sensation.” Just like yoga, with bodywork you become more aware of your body, and more aware of yourself in space.

There is the issue of “touch history,” however, that a bodywork practitioner has to be cognizant of; that there is always a chance that their client could have been touched inappropriately by someone else in the past and is easily triggered. Since bodywork is more intimate than traditional massage and a conversation is often involved, it also means that maybe bodywork isn’t for everybody. But the art of bodywork lies in non-verbal communication, too, which means that you can invite your experienced practitioner’s hands to be led intuitively to the areas of your body that need it most.

During a recent session with Jordan I could hardly contain my own body-talk. I wondered if she could actually detect the difference between someone whose body was “communicating” with her, versus someone who was just lying there on her table, zoned out. In-between my own interruptions of oohing and ahhing, and expressing sensation and release through various expletives, she explained that there is, on her end, a very tangible difference between someone whose body is present and attention is inward, versus someone who is not.

“The detached person kind of feels like you’re working on a dummy,” she said. In her experience, her clients benefit most when there’s feedback involved. “It doesn’t always have to be verbal, but I can tell if you’re breathing with me, and whether you’re relaxing or not.”

She explained that a little bit of communication goes a long way, just as I let out a loud grunt, followed by a deep, teeth-gritting breath, and then a howl of release. Damn that felt good.

Back to the vast body of work that is bodywork: As more Western holistic practitioners adapted Eastern healing practices rooted in herbs and energy, massage therapy became part of a much larger whole. Take polarity, a form of energy healing that is similar to Reiki, but without the attunement designations. Polarity involves more physical manipulation, touching and rocking. Like all energy work, its aim is to balance the energy in the body. An experienced practitioner will be able to sense where energy is out of whack and facilitate energy flow as needed. Or there’s Shiatsu, which focuses on the flow of energy through different meridians in the body.

Bodywork’s Nitty-Gritties

In each session, a practitioner assesses the levels of Qi (energy), and whether that energy needs to be dispersed or amplified in the body. There’s also moxa, an herb similar to a cigarette butt that you’ve put out on your skin—albeit painless when applied correctly—that you burn on certain meridian points on the body. The moxa draws awareness to that point, and either inviting more energy in or releasing that energy outwardly, depending on what is needed.

Moxa works similar to cupping, the popular alt-healing sensation among pro athletes and Olympic swimmers, which releases stored muscle memory that caused tension and blockages of energy, or Qi, to flow freely. In certain spots where we experience tightness, our muscles have actually trained themselves to latch on to stress and anxiety. All of these forms of energetic bodywork are designed to invite a different energy or sensation to a spot that needs to be addressed, using a different language—a different form of body-talk.

“Getting any kind of massage should also be complemented by working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and establishing a meditation practice,” Jordan says. Fortunately, there are many ways these days to get bodywork done that won’t break the bank. Many prominent massage schools offer student treatment under the supervision of a teacher. You can also ask a friend or a loved one to rub your shoulders once and a while, or try your hands at an Abhyanga massage, an Ayurvedic self-massage technique with warm oil. And though we’re not sure you should try this at home, turns out you can also purchase a suctioning DIY cupping device that doesn’t involve fire or glass. (If you live in NYC, head on down to Chinatown and just ask.)

Much like your yoga practice, you won’t transform overnight after just one bodywork session. Sure, you’re body may experience a few enlightening a-ha moments during your treatment, but for real, lasting change, you’ll need to make bodywork part of your regular wellness regimen.

Think of it this way: You’re retraining your muscles, which have likely developed lifelong, tension-forming habits, and will require conversation and commitment. Yes, it takes time and energy, but the benefits are numerous and lasting. If you’re dedicated to alleviating longstanding pain and tightness, discomfort from old injuries, and even correcting bad postural habits, then the bodywork path is definitely for you.

Curious for more? Try a bodywork class at a Wanderlust 108.

Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, NY Yoga + Life, SONIMA, mindbodygreen and other online publications. Connect with Andrea on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and her website.