Honouring all that you are

Image credit: Sasha Freemind

Image credit: Sasha Freemind

Checking in

I try to make time for receiving massage as often as I can. Self-care is, after all, an important part of my job.

Most of my recent treatments have been geared towards alleviating some kind of physical discomfort. But prolonged spells of physical discomfort are exhausting so, the other week, I booked myself in for a massage with a different intention in mind: relaxation.

Relaxation can feel like a cop out. We’re so used to ‘doing’ all the time, to putting our physical needs above our emotional and spiritual needs, that it’s all to easy to feel guilty about or write-off the possibility of simply allowing ourselves to relax, be and see what comes.

Even I, a professional massage therapist, sometimes struggle to let myself ‘off the hook’ and give my mind and spirit the same attention that I never question giving to my body.

But the other day I decided I would do just this, and I’m so glad I did. The results were incredibly powerful.

I became overwhelmed with emotion as I realised that it had been a very long time since I tuned in to how all of me, not just my aches and pains, was feeling.

I saw that although my emotions might not present themselves in the same way as physical discomforts, they are just as much a part of me as anything else. And every single part of me, every single part of anyone, is valid.

Different hats

We are all so many different things at once but accepting all the pieces and considering ourselves as a whole can be fraught with anxiety.

We hold up this one idea of a person that we really ‘should’ be and get cross with ourselves when a slightly different version shows up to play. We berate ourselves. We try and push that other version away, banish it from the image of ourselves we consider to be more virtuous, professional, likeable, appropriate, desirable, or whatever the right word may be.

As a massage therapist and practitioner of tai chi and meditation, I offer support and a safe space in which to be to anyone who needs it, but I also need support myself. I am a professional adult, but I am also a playful child. I am passionate about wellbeing but, every so often, I like to dance until dawn and lose myself in the music.

All these parts can seem like polar opposites. But really they make up one diverse, holistic picture.

All that you are

What if we allowed ourselves to be one whole person rather than lots of different bits in conflict with each other? What if, instead of saying to ourselves, “I really ought to stop doing that over there and be more like this over here,” we said, “I both am this and this. All these different parts make up one whole me and I am richer, happier and healthier when I accept, rather than fight against, all the different pieces of the puzzle.” Wouldn’t that be a relief?

Your existence on this earth is as emotional and energetic as it is physical. It’s time to celebrate all that you are, to give yourself time and space in which to relax and be, aside from your aches, pains or whatever may be going on for you at a conscious level.

You’ll be amazed by what you can discover and learn by allowing yourself to do this.

Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

Save 10% for Save the Children

1458494_552891824794538_1424078891_nAs we wave goodbye to 2015 and prepare to welcome the New Year, I’m offering a 10% discount on Sophie Fagan Holistic Massage gift vouchers. The offer is available throughout December and I’ll donate each 10% saving to Save the Children’s Child Refugee Crisis Appeal.

This time of year presents a fantastic opportunity to let go of old ways of being and allow space for new thoughts and feelings to flourish. Just the other night, with a full moon shining brightly above and a warm, well-fed fire burning steadily in front of us, a group of female friends got together to do just this.

We talked, we listened and, when we felt the time was right, we each placed something in the fire that we felt no longer served us. It was a powerful ritual made even more special by a moon at the end of its cycle, shedding light on the things we allowed to pass.

Some brought personal artefacts they’d carried for a long time, things that symbolised a person they no longer were or wanted to be. Some turned potent words into ash.

We all asked the same questions of ourselves. Does this story I’ve been telling myself still fit? What if I let it go? What might come in its place? Watching old thoughts, feelings and associations go up in flames is incredibly powerful. We were empowered by the process.

December can be a minefield for old ways of thinking. Well-rehearsed family traditions, loved ones no longer with us, painful memories. These things can seem set in stone and the opportunity to let go and welcome newness can feel impossible. But however it may seem, the chance to check in with yourself is always yours for the taking.

Sometimes it’s as simple as allowing yourself to stop and take stock of where you’re at. A treatment with me can do just that. There are no expectations, my clients just come as they are and leave their lists of ‘shoulds’ and ‘to dos’ at the door.

If you know someone who’d appreciate a bit of time and space in which to relax and let go then please get in touch. I’m offering 10% off gift vouchers throughout December.

Printer friendly vouchers addressed to your loved one can be emailed directly to you. I accept payment by bank transfer.

I’ll send your voucher within 2 days of receiving funds and donate your 10% discount to Save the Children’s Child Refugee Crisis Appeal.

Building the new by embracing change

Image credit: Ales Krivec

Image credit: Ales Krivec

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
– Socrates

The beauty of change

I love everything about autumn. Those crisp, bright blue mornings that lie in wait behind closed curtains, ready to fill you with awe and the promise of a new day. Nature’s final explosion of colour for the year as the trees once more prepare to surrender their leaves to the soil. Long walks. Roast dinners. Muddy dogs and cosy fireside corners. I could go on. But it’s not just the things that the change of season brings. I also welcome change itself.

Change is inevitable. If there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s the fact that the stuff in our lives will move and shift with time. Nonetheless, allowing change instead of going against it can be difficult to do. We are, after all, creatures of habit and the well-trodden path is far easier to walk down than the one unknown, hidden beneath an overgrowth of grasses and weeds.

But even though change can be difficult, if we take a moment to look around we’ll see that it’s fundamental to everything. The yearly change of seasons, the daily movement of the sun through the sky, the monthly stages of the moon. All these things show us that change is natural, it happens all the time.

If a way of being no longer serves us then we can allow it to fall away and create something new in its place. We can traverse that overgrown path, and the universe will support us in the journey.

The stories we tell ourselves

We all get stuck in patterns of thought or behaviour. We all tell ourselves a story about who we are. Whether a narrative about our lives or our bodies, it’s all too easy to believe that story and leave it playing in the background, unquestioned and on repeat.

“Falling in love is something that happens to other people.” “I hate my job but I can’t quit, I’m not good enough to do anything else.” “My hip has always caused me pain, that’s just the way it is.”

But what if we pressed pause? What if, instead of the same old story, we said to ourselves and to our bodies, “Perhaps I can allow myself to change?” What might that bring?

Working together at the massage table

I recently had a client who said the tension in his shoulder made him feel like it was up to his ear. He was reluctant to allow deep pressure because he couldn’t bear the thought of more pain or stress. This presented a fantastic opportunity to work as a team and explore with openness the best way of treating him in the moment.

I suggested that we invite his shoulder to explore a new way of being, without force but through nurturing compassion and, together, we came up with a plan that suited him.

Using some joint mobilisations and gentle yet dynamic stretches we were able to bring more awareness into his body and his brain. Holistic massage is all about that conversation. It’s not just me doing something to your body, it’s something we create together.

After the treatment he said he’d completely forgotten that letting go was even possible. The habit of holding on to tension had gone unquestioned for so long that it had become unconscious. But allowing space for questioning had enabled change.

Making room for mindfulness

Change doesn’t have to mean a huge, life-altering decision like quitting your job and travelling the world. Simple changes can be just as powerful. As a student of mindfulness one of the first things I learned to do was question my habits by doing a simple exercise. You can do this too.

Over the next week or so, why not try sitting in a different chair to the one you usually do? It could be on the bus, at home or in a café. Making this one small change can give you a different perspective. You may notice things you’ve never noticed before, like the colour of the tree in next door’s garden or the way a new chair feels against your back.

Special offer this November

Small steps like these can help you to release the unconscious and allow for bigger, longer lasting change, if that’s something you’re looking to welcome into your life.

This November I am running a special offer which invites you and your body to do just that. If you recommend a friend you both get £5 off a full price treatment. Please get in touch for more information.

Tai chi for strength and balance in body, mind and life

Shanghai sunrise

In China you often see people of all ages and abilities coming together to practise tai chi. Image credit: Justin Guariglia

Tai chi and me

I first became a student of tai chi, an ancient form of Chinese exercise which I now teach, following a trip to Southeast Asia in 2004. At that time I always had a busy mind, a never-ending mental ‘to do’ list that was impossible to escape from.

A close friend who knew about this tendency suggested that I join him in a tai chi session. So I did, and found immediately that I could switch off my mind and simply focus on learning the movements. It was a revelation. I was hooked from the start.

Tai chi is all about breathing and moving in a relaxed way. There is a lot to learn when you first become a student but the principles teach you to take it all in calmly with an open heart and mind.

In 2004 learning something calmly was not easy for me to do. I have always been a high achiever and prone to giving myself a hard time for not doing or being enough of this or that. No doubt many people reading this often feel the same.

In those early days of learning I would leave class and instantly forget everything I’d just been taught. And even though tai chi gave me a space in which I could quieten my mind, I nonetheless found myself getting frustrated for not progressing quickly enough, for not making things happen when my mind told me they should. But tai chi can not be learned through the mind alone.

It’s a kinaesthetic learning, a learning through your body’s memory. You practice the movements and, over time, your body remembers what to do. Ultimately, tai chi is about connection of your body, mind and spirit. But you can’t force your body to learn by telling it what to do with your mind. You have to relax and allow it to come. Eventually, it will.

On Friday 19 February 2016 I am running a workshop for massage therapists on ‘Tai chi principles for effective body use’. I am passionate about the benefits of tai chi and would like to share them with my fellow practitioners. But more on that, including details of how to book a place, later.

The health benefits of tai chi

Tai chi is based on observations of nature and designed to improve the flow of chi, the life-force energy that lives within us all, around the body. It travels through our meridians – a set of internal pathways that carry this vital energy – like a river and comes from the tantien, the body’s energy centre, which sits just below the belly button.

When our chi flows better we think more clearly and feel more connected, we experience inner peace. And – somewhat incongruously in a society that values pushing yourself as hard as you can for that promotion or the impossible to reach ‘110 per cent’ you often hear talk of on talent shows – achieving that flow is all about action without force.

Tai chi develops muscle tone, balance and stability without straining the body. It lowers blood pressure, improves breathing, circulation and the immune system. It is even prescribed on the NHS for things like arthritis, because it gives you both inner and outer strength.

Tai chi principles and everyday life

From time to time most of us probably feel that we could be doing more, that we really ought to push ourselves to meet one expectation or another. No matter what your role at work or at home, the pressure to excel in our society is ever-present.

Not only is pressure of that kind hard to escape from but it can quickly lead to stress and disconnection. Whether this manifests as working too hard, a disproportionate reaction to a late bus or anything seemingly not going ‘your way’, this feeling of forcing yourself to do or be something that you aren’t or can’t be in the moment is the very opposite of tai chi, which teaches you to be grounded and relaxed wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

Tai chi asks us to yield to whatever the universe is showing us, rather than fight against it with force. The movements are gentle yet strong, like breeze in a sail. Too much breeze, or fighting against what there is, could overpower the boat and capsize its cargo. But working with it, adjusting the sail and yielding to its invisible force will gently push you along and get you to wherever you need to be.

Mindfulness, another practice I employ both personally and professionally, works on exactly the same principles. There is such peace and power in letting go of the perceived need for force.

Tai chi and massage

Sometimes as a massage therapist, as with any vocation, there can be a temptation to meet force with force, to push and knead harder at that knot or whatever it may be and make it do our bidding. But as much as it matters to meet the needs of your client, meeting the needs of your own body is just as important.

Because tai chi helps you to achieve a heightened physical and mental awareness, if something within you is out of kilter then you are much more likely to notice it.

Both holistic massage therapy and tai chi training fuel your ability to be in your body in a healthy and grounded way. When you are better connected with your body it will give you cues when something is not quite right. This will stop you from overreaching or straining to release, for example, any tension that your client may be holding.

Tai chi also helps to keep you grounded and topped up energetically. There is huge potential for holistic massage therapists to become depleted of energy because they, as is the case with lots of people in caring professions, have a tendency to ‘over-give’. It’s great to want to do the best by your clients but if all you ever do is give then you will quickly burn out.

I often practice chi kung, the moving meditation part of tai chi, in the time I have between clients. Chi kung is all about calming your mind and getting your chi flowing through breathing and simple movements.

It’s a great way to top up your energy, your tantien, and bring you back to yourself. That way, when your next client comes through the door you feel refreshed, renewed and ready to go.

Tai chi principles for effective body use

If you are a massage therapist and would like to find out more about employing the principles of tai chi in your practice then call BCMB on 0117 946 6371 to book your place on my ‘Tai chi principles for effective body use’ workshop on Friday, 19 February, 2016.

I am a passionate advocate of the benefits of tai chi, not just as a massage therapist but as a human being. I train with people in their 70s and 80s – a time of life we often associate with fragility and failing health – and it never ceases to amaze me how much grace and power tai chi has given and will continue to give them.

The Bristol School of Tai Chi opens its doors to new students four times a year and this Monday, 28 September, is new starter week.

New starter week gives you a chance to come along, meet the teachers, have a go and potentially sign up. More details are available at: http://www.bristoltaichi.com

Connecting through community

grooming-macaques Matt Webster

Japanese snow monkeys have got the right idea. Image: Matt Webster

The success of a recent event has got me thinking about the importance of community. Redfest, a free, one-day festival takes place in St George’s Park, Bristol, each August. This year I had the pleasure of leading a team of holistic therapy practitioners who came together to create the wellbeing area, an environment in which festival-goers could experience a range of different (traditionally expensive) treatments in exchange for a small donation. This made wellbeing more affordable and therefore accessible and accessible wellbeing, in whatever form it comes, is something I’m incredibly passionate about.

The human ape

As a Holistic Massage Therapist I am an advocate of improving wellbeing through nurturing touch. We are social animals, primates wired up to give and receive touch just like snow monkeys and chimpanzees. Grooming – stroking, scratching and massaging – is an integral part of primate life. It strengthens friendships and familial bonds and releases, in both the giver and receiver, endorphins and oxytocin, the ‘feel good’ hormones associated with pain relief and love.

But the human ape now lives in a different world. Life is lived through tablet and smart phone touch screens while all the time we become more and more removed from the animals we once were, the animals that held and reached out for each other rather than the nearest Apple device. I am all for progress but the potential for disconnection, for the absence of supportive communities that facilitate nurturing touch gives me cause for concern.

I think I might be the luckiest person alive because facilitating nurturing touch is how I make a living. I provide a safe space in which people can relax and connect with their bodies in the moment in a way that is ultimately healing. And the space in which that healing takes place is, I think, as important as the healing itself.

The power of togetherness

My vision for the Redfest wellbeing area was clear. I wanted anyone from any walk of life to feel empowered to take some time for themselves for the first time in a long time or perhaps even ever. In order to do this I had to create a calm, supportive environment in which people could easily feel safe and held. By working with practitioners from across the holistic community and providing opportunities for massage, yoga, mindfulness, ear acupuncture, reflexology, tai chi, reiki and even plant spirit medicine I’m pleased to say that this goal was achieved. And it was such an enriching experience!

Our little holistic community was holistic in every sense of the word. Not only was each practitioner concerned with the wholeness of a person but we worked together as one, striving towards a common goal. Together, we held a space in which healing could take place. This was a wonderful feeling. At one point I was moved to tears by our collective strength and the powerful energy we created.

Upcoming supervision

For me, a supportive community of peers is priceless and so, as of Tuesday 29 September, I will be running monthly supervision sessions for massage therapists of all experience levels. The sessions cost £25 and will take place between 5.30pm and 8pm on the last Tuesday of every month.

Supervision provides a space in which therapists can share concerns, ideas and lessons learned as well as the opportunity to practice hands-on techniques. I will facilitate the space so that everyone who attends has the chance to voice their needs and get what they want from the session. I have room for a maximum of eight people. If you (or perhaps someone you know) would like to take part, please get in touch and register your interest by 15 September.

Imagining a different way

We live in a world full of communities that say workloads, deadlines and the latest iPhone are the most important things. But imagine if, as communities, we said that our wellbeing and the wellbeing of everything and everyone around us were the most important things. What a different world it would be! It’s an ambitious wish but I’m going to try my best to make it happen, one wellbeing area and supervision session at a time!