The Art of Teaching Bodywork

The transition between giving bodywork sessions and teaching other people how to do the same thing is a progression that some body workers move through. It’s a rite of passage, a sign that you’ve mastered your art sufficiently well to be able to convey your skills to those eager to learn them. The way it happened to me is indicative of the kind of journey a body worker may take, so I’ll briefly mention the main stages en route, before talking about the qualities a good teacher needs.

I gave sessions for three years, from 1971 to ‘74 and then, because I am a person who just loves to learn, I found myself in Oregon, taking a six-day introductory training course in Shiatsu, which is a Japanese form of massage – the name is derived from the words ‘shi,’ meaning finger, and ‘atsu,’ meaning pressure. These days, Shiatsu is a well known form of bodywork, but back then it was pretty exotic and relatively unknown.

For me, the biggest gift of the Shiatsu course was not the technique itself but the teacher, a charismatic, vitally-alive man in his early forties called Bob. He was simply inspiring. He had a way of connecting with us, a passion, a vibe, a certain energy that conveyed his love for the subject, motivating his students and communicating the skills needed to practice this massage technique.

One of the first things he said to us was, “Teaching this work is my life and it’s so rewarding because it gives so much back to me.” Immediately, I knew this was going to be true for me, too. I heard a kind of “Wow! This is it!” inside my head that told me it was time to follow this man’s example and start teaching bodywork.

Another thing that inspired me was the way Bob talked about his Shiatsu work as a full-time professional job, explaining that through giving sessions and trainings he was able to earn enough to create the free lifestyle he wanted. That was a real eye-opener for me – the idea that one need not work nine-to-five in an office to make a living – and I remember thinking, “This is exactly how I want to live my life.”

A few months later, after completing a full training course with this teacher, I went to a New Age fair outside of Eugene, Oregon and offered a small class in Shiatsu at a bodywork booth. It went well enough for me to feel encouraged, and my next step was to advertise around Eugene, inviting people to a weekend seminar. A dozen showed up, and my nervousness about leading my first group quickly changed into excitement as I discovered that I had a natural talent to connect with people, to hold their attention and share my love for bodywork.

At the same time, I was learning the foundations of Oriental medicine. Shiatsu works on the principle of enhancing the flow of ‘chi,’ or energy, through a network of meridians in the human body, similar to acupuncture, so when a traveling Doctor, acupuncturist called Estaban came to Eugene offering an extensive course in acupuncture and anatomy I immediately signed up with him.

After the training, I began to travel with Estaban, helping to set up his groups. He was used to drawing forty or fifty people to his classes and workshops, so when a group in San Francisco attracted only 12 people, he asked me to lead it, and suddenly I found myself facing an audience of doctors, nurses and other serious-looking medical professionals who wanted to know about acupuncture – this was in the early days, before it got big enough to require state certification. The group went well and I felt that I  had taken another step in the direction of teaching.

Soon I moved to San Diego, California and set up my practice, I was offering individual sessions in Postural Integration, Shiatsu and Acupuncture. But teaching was calling me strongly and pretty soon I had a group of 26 people training with me in Shiatsu massage. I was planning to set up a small school of my own in Oriental medicine, because of Shiatsu’s close relationship with acupuncture and anatomy.

With all kinds of possibilities opening up for me, I was developing into a kind of bodywork ‘renaissance man.’ Estaban appreciated my enthusiasm for his work and offered to make me his full-time apprentice, training me in everything he knew, while traveling up and down the West Coast. At the same time, I got an offer to teach postural integration at a naturopathic school in Taos, New Mexico, where simultaneously I would be given free tuition in naturopathy and eventual certification. This was attractive to me, since certification in naturopathy was already being officially recognized in states like Oregon, which were slowly coming to grips with the flood of new healing methods being embraced in the ‘Seventies.

Meanwhile, I was getting involved with Osho’s sannyasins in San Diego, through their enthusiasm for bodywork, and felt strongly pulled to go to India to meet a man who claimed to be spiritually awakened. So many possibilities to choose from… in the end, Osho won. When I walked through the gates of his ashram in Pune, I was hooked and didn’t go back, except for short visits to sort out practical matters. As I’ve already described, I soon started leading body-oriented groups in the ashram, then we developed the Rebalancing trainings in 1978, and since then I’ve been teaching full time.

Conceptual Understanding

For me, teaching Bodywork, has been the way that I’ve learned most about my subject and my trade. In other words, my biggest teacher has been being a teacher. Doing sessions taught me a lot, but when I had to teach a group of students, then I needed to have a lot more understanding of the work, because I had to convey a conceptual understanding as well as hands-on experience of the subject.

So, in this way, it has been a blessing. Through teaching I was constantly studying, gaining more and more understanding of anatomy, the basic concepts of structural bodywork, the Shiatsu system, the Chinese meridian system, the five element system of Oriental medicine, the physiology and psychology of the body, and so on. I’m still teaching bodywork and it continues to be my main teacher; it inspires me to learn so I can effectively share.

What I want to share is the importance of developing a conceptual understanding of the work. There are a lot of body workers who have been well trained, who give really good sessions, have great hands, plus an intuitive sense of what’s needed for the individual with whom they’re working, but they don’t really know what’s happening in the body, because they don’t understand anatomy; they don’t understand the concepts behind structural and functional physiology.

I would gladly have sessions with one of these people, because basically it’s the touch that you’re receiving. But if you want to be a good teacher, then you need to bring scientific and conceptual understanding into your trainings and courses, because when your own understanding is deeper, your ability to educate your students also deepens. Then you can share with them about what’s going on underneath the surface of a bodywork session: where the holding patterns come from and what can be done – both short-term and long-term – to release tension, restore balance and maintain a general state of well-being.

Ability to Inspire and Encourage

One thing I’ve discovered is that, in order to inspire my students, I have to be passionate about my work. Even if I’d done it for many years, there has to be a place in me that still loves bodywork because you can’t fake that; people can feel whether you’re passionately behind your work or not. I inspire people to learn the work because I’m so involved in it, I have so much feeling for it, and my students can see that it’s a very important part of my life – doing and teaching bodywork. This enthusiasm is contagious.

A few years ago, when my mother died, I had to go through all her stuff and I found an old school report of mine from seventh grade, when I was eleven years old. I wrote that, when I grew up, I wanted to teach a new type of physical education, and I was amazed, reading it, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. It touched me that I had the inspiration at such a young age and then went on to live the dream and make it happen.

Another quality I find important as a teacher is encouragement: being able to encourage the people I’m teaching and to keep things simple so that learning isn’t an ordeal. In my experience, everybody is insecure when they’re learning bodywork, because almost everyone feels this is something they should be able to do immediately. It’s not like learning the piano, where you know you’re going to need lots of time and practice before you can play a decent tune.

Bodywork looks simple, because you’re just touching a body with your hands, and so people assume, “I should be able to do this – no problem.” But then pretty soon comes the realization that, “Hey, I can’t seem to get this so easily; there’s more to it than appears when I watch other people do it, or when I receive a session.”

My way of being with students is to help them over the early difficulties by giving them lots of support and positive mirroring, so they start to feel more confident and relaxed, knowing it’s going to take a while to learn this delicate art. Basically, all that most people need is time, practice and lots of support to get the feel of it.

A Friendly Teaching Style

I’ve already mentioned the quality of friendliness as important for session givers, but in teaching it is equally essential. Many people come to trainings with a fear of the teacher, because of old authority issues dating back to childhood and negative experiences with harsh, demanding school teachers, and this can get in the way of learning, because then people automatically become tense when I come around the classroom to watch them practice.

The basic, underlying fear is, “I’m not doing it right and I’m going to get made wrong ; he’ll see that I’m just not good enough and that I’m never going to make it.” This is something we can all relate to, because we’ve all been through the learning process as children and know what it’s like to feel the weight of authority and discipline bearing down on us.

My way of dealing with this issue is to approach teaching with an attitude of friendliness. I try to lighten things up, sharing stories of what I went through in learning situations and mistakes I’ve made, letting the participants know that I’m not going to sit on a pedestal and act like I know everything; they’re learning from me, but I also have my own doubts and fears… still maintaining the teacher-student dynamic but without so much seriousness.

This quality is helpful for a good teacher, because then students can start to relax, and relaxation is essential when you’re learning. If you’re tense, fearful and self-critical, it’s much harder to receive, absorb and understand.

I try to create a space of real acceptance, welcoming people as they are, and over the years it’s paid off. I’ve encountered many students who thought they would never be able to become a professional body worker. Today, some of them have thriving practices and they told me, years later, that the way I encouraged and supported them was something new – they’d never experienced it in a teacher before and this gave them enough confidence to complete the training.

Ego on Hold

An important quality as a teacher – any kind of teacher — is the knack of getting out of the way, not using the relationship of teacher and student to enthrone your ego. It’s tempting, of course, to puff up one’s own importance, because you know and they don’t, you teach and they listen, you give and they receive, so it’s easy to manipulate the dynamics of the relationship to create a sense of superiority.

But it gets in the way.  It creates distance and separation, so it’s more difficult for the teacher to ‘be there’ for people in an authentic and helpful way; when the teacher is open and humble it is easier to tune into where the students have reached in the process and respond to their needs. When as a teacher my ego is in charge I am fulfilling my own need for attention and appreciation, but I’m not giving my students what they require for the training.

On some level, too, the students will know it. They may admire an arrogant teacher or be impressed by him, but these ‘looking up’ and ‘looking down’ attitudes will strangle the flow of energy that passes between a teacher and his students. When hearts and minds are open, and when an atmosphere of trust has been created. This is where the real nourishment comes from; it’s what makes a training such a rewarding experience for everyone involved.

In addition, if your students give you negative feedback, listen to it. A lot of teachers will not accept it and will try to throw it right back on the students – “That’s your story, that’s your trip, you’re having some kind of transference on me…” They won’t receive the feedback. But teaching is a give and take dynamic. You’re not the only one giving; the students are also giving from their side, letting you know how they rate your ability to teach. To be able to sense this, to invite feedback and receive it, is both a challenge and a gift.

Quality of Touch

One of the first things I teach in a training is how to touch. As an opening exercise, after asking the participants to choose partners and decide who will give and who will receive, I invite the active partner to lay one hand on the skin of the passive partner, and then I ask them, “How much of you is in your hand? How much of you is dissociated or separate from the hand? Are you totally present in the touch, or are you thinking and caught up in your head? Where is your focus, where is your attention?”

I guide them into touching consciously, with more awareness than we usually do, and throughout the training I work with different structures that I’ve developed over the years to help people enhance the ability to touch in this way.

Slowly, I have them touch deeper and deeper, trying to keep the same understanding, retaining the quality of being present, which is the alchemy of good bodywork. “You’re not actually trying to fix this person,” I explain. “You’re trying to be very, very present in your touch, and then whatever change, or transformation, or healing needs to happen, will happen through the quality of your touch.”

Through out the training I work a lot with the quality of touch, helping people overcome their fears, because for the length of the training they are going to be touching for 90-180 minutes every day. It’s basic, it’s fundamental, and it’s an art as well as a method, so it’s important to take time to get it right.

During this time, I also teach participants how to give feedback to each other, by emphasizing the positive and avoiding strong criticism, because it’s important that people don’t get shamed, embarrassed or discouraged, especially in the early stages of a training. We’ve all had enough of that already and it really doesn’t help the learning process.

Mastering Skills

A teacher needs to have mastered the technique of what he is teaching; in fact, not only master the technique but also the art, and science that every good bodywork requires.

Holding Group Energy

One of the key qualities needed when moving from individual sessions to teaching is learning how to ‘hold’ the energy of a group. When people are receiving knowledge, trying to learn a skill over several months, all kinds of psychological and emotional defense patterns come up. It’s an intimate affair to touch each other all day and learn a skill with people you’ve never met before, and after a while feelings tend to surface, together with habitual patterns around relating, creating conflicts between the participants.

A good teacher has to be able to stay centered, grounded in himself, and deal with these conflicts. I call it ‘holding the space,’ which means allowing the release and expression of feelings without letting it unbalance the group or disturb the teaching process.

For instance, in a recent training I was working with one participant, Rick, a man of about 35, who easily gets into fights with other participants — over nothing, really, any little thing. He’s just got a quick temper and so he tends to create misunderstandings, then start arguments and get into conflicts.

The way I’ve learned to teach trainings through Osho is that people need to be educated in more than bodywork; they also need to work on themselves through self-inquiry and therapy, so I make sure there are regular clearings, with everyone sitting in a circle, where people like Rick can air their emotional difficulties.

The main issue with Rick, when we got to the bottom line, was insecurity. When he felt too insecure, he had a habit of finding fault with the other person, then reacting in anger, thereby diverting attention away from his own frailty. But, after listening to feedback from myself and several group participants, he expressed a willingness to look at this pattern, to understand and own it. Then something in him was able to relax, his focus shifted from blaming others to noticing his own habits, and from that moment on he was more harmonious with the rest of the group.

Many different patterns come up for people in trainings, not only conflicts with other participants but insecurities, primal fears, tears, frustrations, self-doubt, and if the trainer doesn’t know how to work with these uncomfortable feelings, he can lose the trust of the group. It is possible to hold trainings without addressing such issues, by somehow ignoring or suppressing them, but the participants themselves will benefit more from facing and experiencing them; they will be better equipped to recognize and deal with the same problems in their clients, after completing the training, when they start giving sessions on their own.

Cohesive Structure

Everybody who teaches any kind of course knows that you need to have a cohesive structure. Some people may be highly skilled in giving bodywork but if they cannot organize and present their knowledge in a practical way, then it’s rather like a school teacher who is a brilliant mathematician, but the children sit bewildered in his class and nothing’s coming across; he just doesn’t know how to communicate in a way that is meaningful and helpful.

If it’s a 2-month training, I create a structure from the beginning to the end, like a road map of where I’m going and, when I begin to teach, it’s always been important for me to have the complete syllabus, or curriculum, already written.

Within this structure, I’ve learned to be flexible and this is a quality that has come slowly to me, over the years. Looking back on my teaching career, I see that I used to stay rigidly within the structure I’d created at the beginning, because it gave me a sense of security. I knew that if I followed the plan I’d be able to take the students from A to Z and they’d be sure to get the complete training, covering all aspects of the work.

I still have that tendency, but now I’m more responsive to the day-to-day situation. I know where I want to take the students, but then times will come in the training when I see, “Okay, this is another direction I can go with them, right now, because it’s obvious that they’re really interested in this aspect and I want to support their enthusiasm.”

I’ll also know when it’s time to switch back to the curriculum and continue on the main track again. The more experience I have, the easier it gets to be  fluid within the structure, and I’ve learned that trainings are more effective with this flexible approach, because I’m more in tune with the group, giving people what they need.

No two trainings progress at the exactly the same speed, nor do students develop their skills in exactly the same way, so people often go faster or slower than the anticipated program. If I’m too attached to my schedule, it’s going to be an awkwardly-imposed system, whereas if I’m confident of my own spontaneous ability to steer the group, I can stay with the trainees as they develop.

The Teacher as Student

As I’ve said before, I’m the kind of guy who loves to learn, and I continue to participate in a wide variety of trainings, at least one a year, so I can remain on the receiving end of the teaching process. As I see it, to be a good teacher, you have to keep learning and be a participant yourself, so you continually bear in mind what it’s like to be a student.

It’s also an opportunity to meet good teachers, watching how they teach, seeing how effective their techniques are. Some teachers really impress me, they’re so talented, and they become a reflection of how I can get better, what I can learn, what I can get from a new approach.

I don’t confine myself to bodywork courses. For example, I recently completed a three-year training in Trauma Healing, which is conducted through the body but not through touch. Now I’d like to train in Continuum, a movement therapy, which offers a totally different approach to deep tissue or structural work.

To be a teacher is an evolving process, like any other art or skill, and it’s important not to get stuck in a rut. As with individual sessions, one can become mechanical in teaching, make a good living, cover the syllabus, but if I’m bored inside myself then it’s just not worth it. I have to stay fresh and connected with my passion.

Developing Your Own Teaching Style

No two body workers are going to give you exactly the same session, and no two teachers will train you in exactly the same way. This is true even of fixed-formula work like Rolfing, which follows a strict progression of strokes and steps, but it is especially true of Rebalancing, because of the broad nature of our approach to bodywork. My personal style of teaching starts by creating a solid base of structural bodywork and then introduces joint-release, assisted stretches, Craniosacral, Trauma Healing and psychological skills for body workers… it has a big umbrella that embraces many different methods.

This makes it harder to teach, and a little more difficult to learn, but the end product is worth it, because it allows each participant to discover and develop his own natural style, and this is reflected in the attitudes of those who go on to become teachers themselves.

When I go to the schools of my students, they all have different ways and methods of teaching. Some stick to structural integration, some go deeper into joint release, some emphasize a working with conscious touch. It’s up to each individual teacher to sense his own orientation, to discover in which direction he wants to move and develop his talents. Everybody needs to find his, or her, own way to communicate and convey the art of doing bodywork.


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About the author

Satyarthi Peloquin
Satyarthi Peloquin

Satyarthi Dylan Peloquin has been a professional bodyworker for over 42 years. Over the past 33 years, he has trained and taught over 3,000 people worldwide, many of whom are now full-time bodyworkers and / or teachers of various methods of bodywork.

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