Book review, Noah Karrasch: Freeing Emotions and Energy Through Myofascial Release
Originally published in the Journal of the Association of Biodynamic Massage Therapists, Autumn 2013
This, Noah Karrasch’s second book, is aimed at the personal development of any therapist in the alternative health sectori.. In it, Karrasch, a trained Rolferii, offers a range of massages, physical manipulations and exercises, along with theoretical notes and anatomical underpinning, drawn from the experience of his 25-year career as a bodywork therapist. He intersperses spiritual wisdom with technical know-how and physical exercises, in a manner reminiscent of Alexander Lowen’s The Way to Vibrant Healthiii.
Karrasch aims for us to shine light upon our preconceptions and habitual behaviours, as well as relax the habitual holdings of our physical body with “resilience, not strength, [as] the goal.”iv
This is illustrated in chapter three which focuses on breath. Karrasch talks about a dysfunctional “achievement mode” (which he later refers to as the “survival mode”, an ongoing “on your guard” fight-or-flight response.v) We can fall into this mode of being with daily tasks – even if the “task” is a yoga class taken to relax. The “achievement mode” arises from a sense that it is necessary to hold our breath and “power through” tasks in order to succeed. Karrasch suggests practical and beneficial breathing exercises, and challenges us to “breathe and achieve” in daily life.
He connects blockages in breathing with blockages in the flow of our feelings of self-worth. And this, he connects with blocks in the energetic flow of our organism:
If we can face our pain, breathe, acknowledge its message, and stretch into and through it, we’re on our way to releasing that which takes the wind out of our sails. When we don’t face our pain we hold our breath, tighten our cores, stop our own flow of energy, and further our pain’s hold on our well-being.vi
Many of Karrasch’s exercises are clear and excellent, though the descriptive terminology that he uses – eg, “floordown”, “skyup”, “downlong”, “forwardlongaway” – is not always clearly comprehensible. I often found myself thinking “I think it makes sense, but I’m not quite there with it yet”, and wishing he’d issued a DVD. Karrasch states that he deliberately keeps the illustrations vague: “I want to suggest stretches and muscles for you to consider. […] my intention is to get you thinking of bodies and emotions more intuitively, as the illustrations do.”vii
Perseverance does pay off: those exercises that seemed unclear to me on the first reading made more sense when I physically attempted them. Karrasch’s approach does indeed leave a lot of room for the intuition. However, I think it is not enough. It is possible – even likely – that sometimes we can be out of touch with our intuition and need some specific help to break out of our habitual behaviours, physical and otherwise. I find the clarity and directness of videos of exercises and yoga techniques beneficial.
Over the course his career, since training as a Rolfer, Karrasch has evolved his own methodology which he undertakes to outline in this book. He calls this method “CORE Myofascial Release”.viii CORE stands for “Coax Order and Restore Energy”ix. It is inspired by John Pierrakos’s “CORE Energetics” system.x
On a conceptual level, this book was an intellectually stimulating read for me as a practising biodynamic massage therapist. It seems to me that Karrasch has evolved a system sympathetic with the holistic, emotional/physical “functional identity”-based system of biodynamic massage. Within Karrasch’s and the biodynamic systems the fact that we are “coping” (i.e. surviving, but full of tension and imbalance) rather than “living”, i.e. in soft and flexible bodies, suggests that we exist in a state of fear, or as Mona-Lisa Boyesen might say, a state of “startle”. Karrasch says:
If every step of our life seems like danger (and for many of us, it does seem this way), we’re living in survival (achievement mode), not relaxed flow.xi
I am sure M-L Boyesen’s excellent 1978 article “The Startle-Reflex Pattern & Organic Equilibrium”xii would be interesting to Karrasch: it would be fascinating to hear his response. Here is an excerpt:
After the shock reaction (the event passes and one is on neutral ground), the body should reassert the normal balance between flexors and extensors, and obtain a functional harmony between muscular response and respiratory rhythm. This only happens provided that the emotional expression takes place and serves as an outlet for the antagonistic action and adequate respiration. If, however, this release is prohibited, there will be an interruption in the biological rhythm; the organism will develop minimal startle-reflex patterns with concomitant muscular tensions, respiratory inhibition, and postural deformation […] we get the following formula for an organic equilibrium: Stimuli – tension – charge – expression – recuperation – rehabilitation.xiii
Fight-or-flight – a response first described by Walter Cannon, a physiologist, in the 1920s – is a recurring theme in Karrasch’s book. He identifies “too many of us” as being stuck in a fight-or-flight mode (this mode being equivalent to the “achievement” or “survival” modes mentioned above; there is, as I say, possibly an equivalence to M-L Boyesen’s “startle” mode as well). Karrasch says “When an animal senses danger, its adrenal system instructs it either to run from the danger, stand and fight, go numb, or decide all is safe and shake out those danger signals. […] Why can’t we do that?”xiv
Karrasch believes we have lost a connection with our gut which should tell us if “a threat is real or imagined”xv. We can react equally to real and perceived threats, but we need to use our discernment as to what is or is not real, and shake off the response where it is appropriate. Fear conditioningxvi can play a part. Says Karrasch: “a wise ruler rarely loses his head over perceived threats, and that’s why he’s in charge of the community: the body”.xvii Each response will – as Karrasch – like M-L Boyesen – describes – need to be followed by release. According to Karrasch, ideally, we would put our fight-or-flight response into effect only when necessary because of real danger. Responding to perceived and real threats alike, keeps us too often in fight-or-flight response-mode, with too little time to relax.
Karrasch highlights the role of the adrenal glands and the psoas muscle hich connects the upper femur with the lower spine, from vertebrae T12) in what is essentially a powerful physical and hormonal response to a threat. I have come across the psoas muscle a lot recently – in body work therapy and in yoga – and so I was interested to learn more. He calls the psoas muscle the “Primary Storer Of All Stress”, which expresses for him its regulatory importance in the body. He says:
I believe that every hit we’ve ever taken – physical, mental, emotional, chemical, electrical, energetic – are all stuck and stored in that psoas muscle behind the gut; unless and until someone is wise enough to convince us to let these traumas go, or unless someone who parented us was already wise enough to encourage more immediate trauma release.xviii
If we don’t process and eliminate the unresolved through the gut, energy slows and we become ill.xix
The physical response to a trauma is only meant to be temporary, to focus our body to get itself out of immediate danger. It has not evolved to help us cope with ongoing and repetitive insults to our person that need to be “coped with”.xx
Karrasch explains: “Our coping mechanisms placate, dilute, and accommodate […] instead of sorting, processing, and releasing […] Simply put, we lock our knees, tuck in our tails, and gird our loins to cope.”xxi Like M-L Boyesen, Karrasch views the problem (startle remnants?) as a block to our organism’s functionality: “when we tighten our groin or tuck our tail for any reason, we’re slowing our total energy”xxii and exhorts:
Like a puppy dog waiting to be punished, we’ve tucked and tightened our tail against the impending blow (which may have come and gone long ago). […] You’re surviving, and thriving! Wag your tail!xxiii
But, we may have to be decisive to escape:
I’ve realised that at some point you have to make up your mind to do anything you do, or it never gets done. […] If a choice feels uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Keep asking until you drill down to the answers that resolve your conflict.xxiv
Karrasch encourages us to “challenge clients to inventory old coping patterns”xxv. But throughout the book, he makes clear that we must first tread this path for ourselves.
Reading this book, I was curious to know what evolution Karrasch had made from his early days. What are the conceptual differences between Rolfing and his new approach? Does Karrasch still consider himself firmly within the Rolfing school? Given the apparent territorial overlaps between Karrasch’s current methodology and biodynamic massage, it would be interesting to see his response to biodynamic research. Karrasch refers to Wilhelm Reich, and to John Pierrakos, and makes a glancing reference to Alexander Lowen, but mentions nothing of the Boyesens. Perhaps biodynamic research is not available enough to be generally known? It would be great to bring some of this wisdom together.
Regardless of its technical origins, Karrasch maintains a deep connection to the heart in his writing and there is a great depth to his approach. The book has clearly emerged from a spirit of gratitude and generosityxxvi. He dedicates it to all those who have helped him on his path:
This book came about because of my realization, both during work with clients and in my personal life, that each individual essence needs and deserves to be unwound. As others discharge their hurts for us to nurture, we not only learn to respect and appreciate them more but we validate them in a way that makes us, and them, whole. As we approach this unity, we realize the most important trait to develop in our personal and larger world as well, is, simply, gratitude.xxvii
The book is also generous in the amount of territory it covers, much more than I been able to mention here. Having read this review, I hope you feel encouraged to read Karrasch’s book yourself, try the exercises, and find your own response.
i Karrasch argues (p. 21) “If you don’t do the work for yourself, you have no business doing the work to others.” And (p. 18) “…I believe the model is less important than the intention.” Thus, there is a sense that he is writing for those who share a certain type of intention in their practice. He draws a distinction between “system[s] of health and healing” and “currently practised medicine”. We would see this as “alternative” as opposed to “conventional” medicine. He implies (p. 19) that the latter lacks a systematic healing intention because it “supplements deficiencies with drugs which teach the body to become dependent and forget how to function on its own. It often further dampens, slows, or stops energy to relieve symptoms. Too often this doesn’t work. While they endeavour to improve health, too often medical practitioners stop energetic flow. Imagine taking your car to a mechanic when the ‘check engine’ light comes on… he won’t just put a piece of black tape over that light! Yet, too often, that’s how medicine views ‘helping’ patients, by masking their symptoms.”
ii Rolfing is a bodywork practice founded by Ida Pauline Rolf in 1971.
iii Lowen, A. (2003) The Way to Vibrant Health, Florida: Bioenergetics Press.
iv p. 58.
v p. 188 and see p. 67.
vi pp. 48-50.
vii p. 24.
viii p. 37.
ix p. 20.
x See p. 144.
xi p. 188.
xii Boyesen, M-L. (1978) ‘The Startle-Reflex Pattern & Organic Equilibrium’, Energy & Character, Vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 145-148.
xiii Ibid. p. 145.
xiv p. 95, “Trust your gut” chapter.
xv p. 94.
xvi Wikipedia. (2013) Fear-potentiated startle [Online], Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear-potentiated_startle [08/11/2013].
xvii p. 188.
xviii p. 99. There is much discussion available about the psoas muscle; for instance, see Liz Koch. “An essential aspect of the fight–flight-freeze response, also known as the fear response, the psoas expresses our innate sense of safety” Koch, L. (2013) Introduction to the psoas muscle, [Online], Available: http://www.coreawareness.com/about/psoas [26/10/2013]. Liz Koch has many articles available online at http://www.coreawareness.com.
xix p. 95.
xx For more information about the “insults” that lead to the startle reflex, see Keleman, S. (1985) Emotional Anatomy, CA: Center Press.
Robert Sapolsky, an American neuroendocrinologist, has been widely quoted on the subject of the fight-or-flight response. In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers he says, “A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. … Viewed from the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, sustained psychological stress is a recent invention, mostly limited to humans and other social primates. We can experience wildly strong emotions (provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar) linked to mere thoughts. … The stress-response can be mobilized not only in response to physical or psychological insults, but also in expectation of them. It is this generality of the stress-response that is the most surprising—a physiological system activated not only by all sorts of physical disasters but by just thinking about them as well.” (pp. 6-7) See Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, NY: Hold Paperbacks. First published 1994.
xxi p. 137.
xxii p. 112.
xxiii p. 136.
xxiv p. 113.
xxv p. 137.
xxvi As Karrasch says, “Let’s remember to feel grateful so we can be generous.” p. 203.
xxvii p. 7.