An Effective Method for Movement Reeducation

by Joe Lee Griffin, Ph.D.

Milton Trager, M.D., spent sixty years developing and improving The Trager Approach, an elegant, effective, enjoyable system for movement reeducation. "Miraculous" effects scientifically compatible with functional neurophysiology include relief of tension-related pain, improved athletic performance or other body use, release of stress, and pleasurable self awareness.

Trager hands-on work uses gentle, rhythmic, nonintrusive movement to give to the client the feeling experience of movement without effort and release of unneeded tension. The table work consists of rhythmic rocking and gentle stretching and shaking movements created by the Practitioner in the individual rhythm of the client. This movement gives information about your body in time and space to your functional mind, which uses the sensory data to relieve unneeded tension and decrease pain related to tension cycles. At the same time, because body and mind are connected, your conscious mind releases to reach a more relaxed and peaceful state.

Mentastics®, a coined word from mental gymnastics, are light, simple ways of moving your body to create awareness, improve function, and recall the lightness and freedom you feel on the table. They are described in the book, "Movement as a Way to Agelessness. A Guide to Trager Mentastics" (2).

These self-care movements, which each practitioner is trained to teach, help you build the habit of enjoying relaxed movement. With practice, the feeling of release, of ease, can be recalled when you feel stressed in your daily life.

Neil Sedaka, performer and composer, says, "I am most enthusiastic about Mentastics. There is such a naturalness about the whole experience, a rhythm that reminds me of dancing. I am always left with a feeling of lightness and freedom of movement"(2).

Milton Trager discovered the work as a young man. While training as a boxer, he happened to work on his trainer, got a strong response, and went home and worked on his father, who had sciatic pain for about 2 years. The pain was greatly decreased after one session and after two, it never returned. Milton continued to practice on people with pain and physical limitation, later earned a doctorate in Physical Medicine and, after he was in his 40s, became an M.D.

Deane Juhan, in "The Bodywork Book," tells this story. At medical school, Milton was asked to demonstrate his work with polio patients. In an ampitheatre, he gently moved the legs of a girl who had not moved for two years after polio. Within 30 minutes, he had her move her feet in two directions and looked up and several nuns were kneeling and crossing themselves. Within three weeks, with more sessions, the girl was walking.

This miracle is scientifically reasonable. After polio, surviving motor nerves connect to the muscle fibers denervated by the disease, a healing process that takes about a year. I believe that the girl had reinnervated, but had functionally forgotten what movement felt like until Milton reminded her, after which she could move, build strength, and again walk.

This story illustrates a basic principle, that the client heals herself, while the Practitioner listens and feels. We ask with our hands, "What could be easier? What could be lighter?" With each client, the Trager Practitioner communicates through movement to the functional mind, "This is what easy movement feels like. This is what release of tension feels like."

We often do not realize how much the mostly nonconscious functional mind does. It walks, talks, eats, runs, writes, etc., without needing conscious input into HOW to do it. The conscious properly decides WHAT, not HOW. For example, to contract, relax, and balance the tension of each muscle at just the right time during walking is just too complicated for the conscious. When you learned to drive a car, even after many years of other functioning, you were probably quite awkward till the skills had become habitual and mostly nonconscious. Good athletes, when "on," operate from the functional mind.

One client said, "I just feel great! It is like a legal high."

Another client said, "I thought I would notice what you were doing, but I just noticed myself." Others report that body parts feel more alive, longer, bigger, tingly, etc., which reflects increased sensory input, the information needed by the functional mind.

One person compared a form of bodywork I once studied with Trager, "You used to connect me through the bones. Now it is a wave motion."

A success story I like concerns a former athlete, approaching 50, who came to me with back pain such that he could not even sit up. After the session he said he felt better. Four days later I asked how his back was. He replied, "Back?" Only after I reminded him did he remember that it had been hurting. I believe the work communicated directly with his functional nonconscious and it was taking care of his movement and his back, so the conscious let it go. Local pain seems often to relate to muscle spasms that limit circulation, a cyclic pain-fear-tension pattern. Trager work can break this vicious cycle.

John Pearcy, President and Founder of the Greater Austin Track Club and a professional coach, says, "The advantage of Trager is that the athlete can stay more limber and loose, and thus freer of muscle damage (2)." A further advantage, "In working with competing athletes, one of the primary things we are looking at is how to control stress and improve their sleeping patterns and put them in competition in the most rested state possible (3)."

In addition, Trager work connects athletes with the body and the functional mind for a relaxed, reflexive, almost automatic way of performing. All athletes have experienced being on, having everything just flow, the shots go in, whatever, and further that trying to force this, trying to figure it out, screws it up. Even professional athletes can try too hard and get in their own way.

Trager work helps recovery from maximal exertion. Tight muscles compress capillaries and limit the blood flow needed to bring nutrients and take away waste products. Full circulation and relaxed movement help the recovery and building of muscle tissue after weight work.

Specific muscle tensions, like tight hamstrings or backs, can also yield to the gentle rhythms of The Trager Approach, which directly benefits athletic performance.

Individuals with physical limitations or weakness may not move enough to keep sensory input up and may struggle to compensate and build up tensions that become parasitic. For efficiency, balancing antagonist muscles need to relax just as the active muscles contract. To educate the functional mind in what easy movement feels like is of particular benefit in conditions with rigidity and limitation of movement, like stroke, cerebral palsy, Parkinsonism, and multiple sclerosis. Those hospitalized, recovering from trauma, or otherwise limited in movement for any period also benefit.

I was a daily volunteer in the Walter Reed Wellness Center for over five years and found that patients can forget that they are erect, mobile organisms. A patient diagnosed as having Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a sensory loss, said after I worked on her, "I have feet again." Note that I am not talking here about cures or treatments, but about educating people to feel better, move more easily, and be less stressed.

Dr. T. L. Edwards, Jr., founder and Medical Director of The Hills Medical Sports Complex in Austin, Texas, says "I use Trager in a number of my patients, particularly those with tension. I find that it's most helpful in patients with shoulder tension, neck tension, upper back tension, and lower back tension, relieving the pain and discomfort in those areas. in addition I use it in athletes who want to excel in their performance (3)."

Doctors who know of Trager work may recommend it to help patients feel better when no specific therapeutic remedy is available or advisable. This can be a partial antidote to the frustration physicians feel when there is nothing specific to be recommended.

Some Osteopaths and Chiropractors recommend Trager to those with muscular armoring to lower tension levels and make adjustments easier.

Individuals with some patience and willingness to learn can avoid or significantly decrease occupational stress patterns like dentist's back, computer operator's shoulders, and microscopist's neck.

Major pains can result from being out of balance, as in back trouble in mothers who carry a child on one hip or those who try to protect a painful leg or foot.

Bodily tensions can be additive, with stress from two sources combining to reach the threshold for a tension headache, for example. The opposite effect is also true, as general decrease of tension can benefit the tooth grinding of bruxism even if jaw muscles are not worked on. Trager work can thus indirectly benefit a body part too sensitive to be directly worked with.

Each of us operates in a body. To function, we need information. If we play cards (or the stock market) without knowing rules or values, success is unlikely. If we operate a body without good sensory feedback, it will not function optimally. Trager work encourages our bodies to take in SENSATIONS, by providing support, comfort, movement, rhythm, listening, and absence of forcing.

The Trager Approach is general rather than specific, since both athletes and polio patients benefit from improving the amount of sensory information available to the functional mind. Practitioners relax into a meditative state, focus on increasing sensory information, and let go of controlling the outcome.

Each session involves gently moving and connecting all parts of your body. A table session commonly takes from an hour to an hour and a quarter and some time is usually given to practicing Mentastics. Clients never undress completely, but may wear brief clothing if that is fully comfortable. Alternative procedures are available for those sitting or unable to lie on front or back.(4)

Joe Lee Griffin is a retired Trager Practitioner, Tutor, and Workshop Leader and a former research biologist . He has a Ph.D. in Biology from Princeton, taught premedical and cellular physiology as an Assistant Professor at Brown, was an NIH Special Fellow in Anatomy at Harvard Medical School, and did muscle and brain research at Walter Reed for many years.

References and Notes (updated May, 2002)
2. Milton Trager, M.D. with Cathy Hammond, Ph.D. "Movement as a Way to Agelessness. A Guide to Trager Mentastics" Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY 12507, 1987, Revised, 1995.
3. "The Trager Approach" Video Tape. 1986. Contact following for info on practitioners, books, videos, workshops and trainings.
Trager® International or United States Trager® Association
24800 Chagrin Blvd
Suite 205
Beachwood, Ohio 44122, USA
Tel. (216) 896-9383

4. Trager, Mentastics, and the logo, Dancing Cloud, calligraphy by Al Chung-liang Huang, are service marks of Trager International.

Copyright, 1987, J. L. Griffin.

Note: This article first appeared in Pathways magazine for winter, 1987-88.

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