Interview with Gail Stewart

Gail Stewart Photo.png

Interviewer: Layo Nathan

Interviewee: Gail Stewart

Several years ago, Trager Practitioner Layo Nathan interviewed Trager Instructor Gail Stewart which was part of a wider MSc study  into Trager Practitioners' perceptions of the experience and effects of Trager Psychophysical Integration. With particular focus on their understanding of 'hookup', working with the mind, and what they consider to be the mechanisms of effectiveness in Tragerwork, this interview was part of research conducted by Layo as part of her thesis that she was working on at the time.

How long have you been involved in Trager work?

“I took the first-class that Milton Trager gave in 1975 at Esalen Institute. Someone called me and said you have to get down here, there's this man he worked on my neck and he's going to be giving a class for Esalen staff. And since I was a staff relative, I was eligible to go and it was probably a week from then and she said 'You need to come down and take it', so I did.”

So you already did other kinds of bodywork?

“I was teaching massage at the time and I did Reichian breath work, all of which I still do.”

What stands out in your memory of that time about the Trager approach?

“Well, the comparison I came home with was a religious one. I had been doing Esalen massage and it was a bit like the Catholic Church, and this (Trager) was a bit like going to synagogue…. in that I remember from my childhood going to synagogue, and seeing people talk to each other in the pews and have a little interaction…. the joy, the casualness of spirit in their work. It was an awakening quality, and everyday life quality in the movement and the contact that lightened up my work so I became interested in continuing it.”

So did you get worked on by Milton at that time?

“Yes, he worked on everybody. And the way he taught at that time was he would work on everyone and as soon as he finished working on whatever part of the body we were practising with and there were two people who had been worked on, they went off to work on each other, attempting to reconstruct what they had felt. And of course we were all standing around watching until it was our turn, so also what we saw…”

So is there a memory of your first important experience of Trager work, the first effect in your body?

“I don't have a memory of, 'oh my God' like my friend had, other than delight, that I already mentioned. That same kind of delight I felt from the energy of seeing it, of lightening up. Yes, just going from heavy to light, from seriousness to something like joy and that was also in my tissue. It was fun, so it was gradually that the effect of Trager took place in my body, I noticed it over a few years of practising and receiving, because there was no one else to receive from once Milton Trager went home. So most of our receiving at that time was from classes and from the little bit that we could retain. First, when we were doing it, it was like… getting out of the oily grind, was how someone described it. And actually being more playful in connections to bodies and then finding that in fact that playfulness had an effect of literally lightening and connecting us. But I think that we were so focused on the joy of it that we may not have noticed for a while the actual tissue effects that it had. It's so hard to separate these things. For example when I first started teaching about six years later, we had night classes from seven to 10 every night and the whole class would go out to a coffee shop afterwards because everyone was so awake that no one felt like going home and going to bed.

 So in Trager work we use no oil.

“No, no oil, in fact I know there was a research project done in Quebec into the effects of Trager and they were using feedback instruments, and when they put oil on, the effects weren't the same. I thought that was interesting. I don't remember the details now.”

So what do you think was the reason for that?

“I still use oil in massage and there is something between me and the client and that's palpable so at the level that we are feeling tissue response we miss a little bit of that if we use oil.”

Feeling tissue response was a term of Milton's. His joy was in that. What does that mean, tissue response?

“Just on a textural level, tissue texture and density changes. It's as if…. what I imagine it is, the elongation and decontacture of musculature, and also an enlivening, a more responsive elasticity in the skin and certainly a change around the joints which may have to do with the muscles. As a recipient, the nervous system is a big part of what I feel the change in. A physiologist would be able to say more about this from a physiological point of view. That whole sense of less density and more aliveness can be felt both as the receiver and as the person who is touching. You know there is actually more aliveness and probably actually feeling micro movements more circulation, and vibration in what is under my hands.”

And of course that gives you information?

“And of course changes in temperature and visual changes in colour. But I think Milton was less visual, and I am too, so those at the last ones that come to me. It's much more the quality of movement that changes in the body, because we're weighing and moving and that movement simply becomes freer, the range becomes greater. Although sometimes freedom isn't felt in the expansion of range, but all of a sudden there is no effort for movement to happen that was previously feeling a bit heavy and ponderous before.”

Why do you think that occurs?

“I'm so much into the how, I don't think much about the why. I could take your arm right now, and I could feel if you're giving it to me or not to.”

Go ahead if you want to do that.

“Okay, how it occurs is: as soon as I take your arm, I know if you're giving it to me or not. And if you are not, then there are just a number of ways to receive your weight and play with your weight so that something in the weight of your arm says,’ Alright I'm holding on.’ Up here now and squeezing just softly, (biceps/triceps) I am not really squeezing your tissue, I am engaging the intelligence that is here. Your tissue is alive right? So I'm saying hello with this little movement and matching your density and I'm also accessing all my experience of how open, juicy, alive and elastic triceps/ biceps feel. There are two things, I am communicating with this tissue. I have an understanding of softness that I'm expressing in my hands -- of softness, lightness, and elasticity and receiving and just feeling what is there. And then you then matched me with a sense of receptivity to my receptivity in a way, and you are feeling your softness. Milton talked about this as, it's not the tissue, it's the mind we're after. It's all this ability to have feeling experiences, of soft, light. These are all very precise mental abilities that we all have, and in recognition I remember what it feels like. So kind of by moving or softly bouncing, or sometimes just receiving your tissue with the softness of my hands, I am receiving it mentally, I am connecting to you with my ability to feel you, which Milton might say, is with my mind.”

“And you could feel me doing that and it's different from when I just take my hand and just squeeze one centimetre, or with this number of grams of pressure. It’s way more and we've demonstrated that again and again in classes. And so I can withdraw my whole feeling mechanism of body, mind, intelligence, memory, and desire to contact, all those things I can withdraw that and just use my fingers on the same amount of pressure and you'll feel the difference, I'm not there.”

It feels like more of a doing rather than the open question.

“Now I am picking up your arm and I am enjoying the weight of your arm just hanging there and I am getting all those enjoyment signals in my body. My skin is tingling and I am expanding, I can literally feel my own expansion in a very physical way, as I feel the weight of your arm, based on the pleasure of just that sensation of just feeling the weight of your arm.  It's as simple as that.” (Laughter)

What is that about? Do you have any idea why it should be so pleasurable and such a deep experience?

“You know, I could go from the opposite there, from the negative and say…. well no, I can just go from right here. There is a phrase of Milton's that really rings true to me. Finally, it's just an arm. (Laughter) Not all the associated tensions, not all the getting ready to do something, not all the being worried about this or that, not all the holding on. Just an arm.”

I remember he would say it's empty, there's nothing to do.

“In the process of learning both in Mentastics, where I'm doing the exact same thing with my own body that I was just doing with yours, the ratio of feeling to doing is increasing and that just keeps happening. And that's the skill level there: the amount of effort to I'm using to raise my arm is decreasing and the amount of noticing, the amount of my mind that is involved of awareness is increasing each time I lift it. And that's intentional. So, I asked myself a question, 'What is the weight of my arm?' So my mind is more employed in weighing than in lifting. So there's got to be a feedback there, that feels really pleasurable So when I dropped it and when I go to raise that again, it is a different arm, it's fresh: it's expanding those parts of my brain that are involved in the arm.”

So how does this work with clients? Be really explicit. We are teaching them…

“This has so many levels with clients; I'm like this too. I'll come into a session and someone says how are you feeling and I'll say, 'I am feeling great', and they'll put their hand on my shoulder and I will say, 'Oh, my God. That feels good. I felt my shoulder drop, and it’s warming up. That was a little tight and I didn't realise it.' People come in their various levels of that, carrying unconscious tensions and with both touch and movement and suggestion of imagery, this remembering of feelings of something opposite of tensions -- any one of those things might begin this process of softening, lightening, letting go, de-contracting. And for Trager, it really is a combination, if you just used imagery you wouldn't get it, unless your body was so skilled at remembering all of these feelings, you could say to me maybe, 'remember that Trager session', and my shoulder would start going back to that place because it is in here. Everything that you have ever learnt is in your subconscious mind somewhere, and you can recall it; you have the skill to do that. Basically a lot of what we're doing is re-minding the body of pleasurable experiences and sometimes we can do that just by saying, remember the last time you went to the beach, and something might start happening physically, emotionally, hopefully you had a nice experience at the beach. So, when a client comes in, how it works is, either they identify or if they can't, we identify some areas of holding, or a whole attitude of just being a little tight. I'm using these words with you, but I wouldn't with clients. But I find out where they are right now and just begin the process of going from where they are to whatever is more open, easy, free, soft, and more swingy, less effort, juicy….. basically we're always working for a balance of relaxation and alertness in the tissue, in their mind, in the being so that,,,, and that's something that is typical of the kind of movement that we ask people to make and that we make with them passively -- that it has both the elements of waking up and relaxing. There are many things that Trager shares with other body mind therapies, this is one of the unique things-- there is something about rhythm and weight, softness and ease -- there is a whole combination of those feeling qualities entering somebody's movement that then starts a relaxation feedback loop so that if I get up and walk just to the end of the room and back, I'm going to be more relaxed because the swinging of my arms and legs are going to elongate something and the rhythm, feeding into the core of my body, is going to begin to soften and elongate there. And my mind is going to be boy oh boy…. talking about the mind, I am changing in the middle of the sentence but I use Trager a lot when I hike, and it feels like it helps me go miles and miles when I am hiking, because the swinging starts a rhythm going and the effort becomes less and less, the momentum of the rhythm becomes more and more what does the work. And my mind which is feeling the weight of my arms and legs swinging, much as someone’s mind who is doing a ‘following of the breath’ meditation, I am following my arms and legs swinging, so my mind relaxes and I am probably in what somebody would call a trance, although I'm very alert, and I feel the breezes better, I see the colours better and I'm in, what Milton would say is, hookup. So that, for him, he just used one word to describe this sphere or feeling qualities of the mind. He used the word mind that way, -- what is instantly perceptible, that is not about thinking. But being in all of these qualities as a single experience, he referred to it as hookup. And that is what hiking is for me, and that’s the direction I'd be going if I was to walk across the room and come back. I can do it in stillness but it helps me to move a little bit.”

I know that Milton would say, ‘Hookup is Everything’. How do you know when your client is in hookup?

“Well, it is progressive of course, there are degrees of it. When I'm feeling all these individual qualities at once, a letting go, a spreading out, and opening up at the same time, an enlivening… So sometimes if I am touching, if I am weighing somebody's head, I can just feel through the head the body, in fact you can do that from the foot or the hand and so on, and you can feel whether the person's body is saying, 'I don't know what you are going to do, I don't trust you so much right now. Gosh this might hurt.' Until I find a place, the level of rhythm, where it says -- sighs -- then we have started that process.”

So what kind of clients is Trager work effective with?

“What kind of client is it not effective with? I'd be careful working with someone who is actively schizophrenic; the kind of thing when touch might be so stimulating even just putting a hand on. I have to go from the other side…. Because of the variation of rhythm with someone who is very fragile…. the rhythm might be almost nothing, and Milton, when he would work with someone with a spastic condition for example, he would just rest the weight of his hand on them and be in hookup itself and maybe talk with them a little -- not in any way that was particularly studied -- something that would just talk to that rhythm. Interesting that I'm talking about rhythm, and because I think it's really key, even though it may not be perceptible, of their nervous system, of their mind. So he'd be talking from hookup, very casually…”

Really tuning in to very subtle signals. He worked a lot with paralysed limbs.

“Yes, that's who he started with. He wasn't thinking of doing this work with normal people at first. He was working on paralysis, post polio syndrome, stroke, and that sort of thing. And you know the story about his handling the guy coming out of an operation and his being so limp that people had to hold him in so many different places to prevent him coming apart -- and gradually as the anaesthetic wore off, he became more and more rigid. So Milton said, this is not structure. We are working with the mind here.”

So when he was working with paralysed limbs, what was going on there? We talked about feeling and subtlety of movement…

“There were a couple of things, depending on paralysis. Milton himself said, ‘you know if you have a severed spinal cord, you're not going to do much with it.’ And I don't know, maybe he would say something different today. But I think he was working with all the other perceptual systems that are available to that person. I'm going to say what I saw him doing lots of times, not so much with full paralysis, but a lot of partial paralysis, stroke, spasticity after accidents -- he was looking for, and playing with people's capacity for response, and he was also showing them what response feels like. So if they couldn't move something, he would do both parts of giving the stimulus and creating a response in their limbs, say. He could see them feeling something happening, and every once in a while he would feel a little spark and say, yes, that! So when he was working with paralysis rather than over- tension over-use, that's what he would do. So with spasticity on the other hand, when somebody's movement was very jerky, he would play with that jerkiness until it was smooth. He'd have them use the spasticity to move. So, I remember one time watching him work with a man who had had a motorbike accident, and his whole right side was extremely spastic; he could move the arm but it would like punch out. And Milton started playing with him -- and there is this Dr playing with the patient and he is joking around with him, saying, 'I bet you'd like to punch that guy who hit you on your motorcycle, wouldn't you?' And Milton started punching like this and that guy starts playing with him and we are all sitting there watching this movement become smooth. (Laughs, and sniffs) Every time I think about it I cry, part of it being the relationship between the doctor and patient being so transformed, that play … and that opening to possibilities in this completely casual, easy going way…finding a place that wasn't caught up in that paralysis. And of course Milton knew about that. He had the experience, and he knew that that was possible, but he knew about it before he ever had the experience -- you know -- it was one of those lucky things -- that he had confidence in the body, he would say the mind.”

How much do you think those qualities of simplicity and playfulness have affected the work?

“They are the work. Accessing those qualities in our minds and bodies and then contacting people from that space is the work. It's a transfer, like, you know, children get things from their parents. They get their movement habits. I mean, that's always accessible, it's always available. It's like creating an atmosphere. I can see Milton's point in calling it mind. It really is an atmosphere of mind. The practitioner comes in who has this feeling -- it doesn't have to be Trager practitioner, somebody who just has it naturally-- And they come and hang out with you, and you just start picking it up, because it’s pleasurable. You don't want to run away from it, you want to be closer to it.”

So it's a very different kind of relationship from a lot of doctor and patient power relationships?

“Absolutely. Although Milton would use his authority as the doctor and say 'just do this will movement, it will help you.' So in that sense there's a great deal of confidence and power.” (Laughs)

Tell me whatever story that comes.

“Ah, I was just thinking about the Parkinson's tape, you have seen that tape, where he turned to the wife of the man that he is treating and says, 'Now remember to say to him, not in a scolding way, the doctor said remember that the bottoms of your feet are round’.”

So he did use his authority….Was there any particular time that was a real landmark moment of understanding for you?

“Yes, I had forgotten this. I had a motorcycle accident once. And after scolding me for riding a motorcycle, he said to me, which was so sweet of him, being his student, 'You are too valuable to be riding a motorcycle.' So, after scolding me he got me to lie on the table. And I had felt that I had bruised my ribs, bruised the soft tissue, there was nothing really bad. I had had some internal bleeding but …. I was over that part, but I was still sore in my ribs. And he started work in my chest in this nice gentle way, nice big, very soft rocking movements, and suddenly I saw myself hitting the pavement, again and again and again except this time it was soft. I actually had a flash of myself hitting the pavement, and I'm not a visual person; I'm generally kinaesthetic. So there I was, rocking, rocking into that memory being changed into a pleasant experience. So that was an ‘aha’ for me. … So things that Milton said -- so many -- often they were teaching things, involving movement… usually involving weights swinging or tissue shimmering in a rhythmic way, with pauses. So there are really very quiet moments, and often very active moments. And I'm remembering him telling a student in an advanced class, saying, 'Don't try to feel. Feel what you do feel.' So much of what he was trying to do with us, was about letting go of effort, and that included mental effort. And when letting go of this effort, he would say, 'You know, it's not a go- to- sleep thing. I'm very much awake and what's easier than that? And easier than that? And I haven't found the end of it yet.' There was a progressive process always. And of course he called that space that he liked the best, the feeling of nothing.”

This idea of non-effort is so different from what we are educated to do.

“Yes, and that's where I think the pay-dirt is. Unlike some forms of body-meditation, what I love about this is, that it's applicable to any daily movement. So when I reach for a cup, when I walk down the stairs, when I climb up the hill, when I pick up the load, what I learnt in this session, in the Mentastics, is applied there, and sometimes the things I pick up teach me how to move. I am feeling their weight and connecting with my body. So what this means is, I can be in hookup when I'm doing fast, complicated activities, if I am aware and playing with the weight of my body, including writing bills -- the way I hold the pen. So it's a game, it's a constant game in my life.”

So it's not about being slow, meditative?

“No, well, it is about being meditative -- but not necessarily slow. And I think that probably we have to slow down when we are learning it -- but not necessarily. Let's say you have a really tight leg, back -- your whole body is like a log. So if you lie down and I start rocking you, I'm going to find a rhythm that feels your weight -- and that is probably going to be a slow one at first. Although it could be a Tahitian rhythm, rather than that Hawaiian. It would depend on what I felt your weight responding to -- so no it isn't necessarily slow. But it's always easy, and it's always feeling the weight, and then you get into more subtle things. It starts out with that. Once the joints start to open, once the soft tissue starts to elongate, once the skin starts to wake up, then the rhythms become deeper and a little more complex and harmonious.”

So thinking about clients. Maybe you have a story about a client, how do clients change?

“Well for sure, every single client gets lighter and longer after a session. And, unless there was some bad connection that happened between us. Occasionally that might happen if I missed getting what somebody wanted, or needed -- or they were scared, or  they had a pain that I wasn't aware of, or didn't treat well -- other than those exceptions, every single client gets up and reports lighter and longer. So in terms of continuing, when clients follow up on that, that feeling perception gets stabilised and leads to other things. And that length and that lightness of course means that the whole body is starting to move in a freer away – well that's what it means to me anyway. So, the next time they come in, there is still a recall of that lightness and length that they felt the last time, that is accessible in the first few moments of this session whether they are doing it themselves or lying on the table -- and usually there's something else they're noticing, maybe something feeling a little achey, so we may  focus on that -- but still there is the lighter, freer feeling that keeps continuing -- just like it keeps continuing with me with my Mentastics or every time I raise my arm and that's no mean thing! I think that's the basis of probably everything that happens -- it's the basis of the feeling awareness, as the density decreases I have more capacity to feel. As I move into a more pleasurable direction, I have got a path now, I keep moving into that pleasurable direction and I would say, to use a metaphor drawn from another bodywork -- people begin to unwind.”

So there is generally from the first session to the last session some change on the physical?

“And the mental, emotional -- and I don't have the authority to talk about the spiritual for other people, but that essence…. we are really cultivating a sense of well-being. You could put it in that way. Basically we are training -- one of the biggest things that Milton was teaching in the trainings that was applicable to any thing not just Trager, is recall. So, reminding people that they have the ability to recall a pleasant experience and suggesting that they do it as an exercise again and again. What a simple thing! But that’s really what we're doing and we apply that specifically to experiences we are having in sessions. It can be applied to any thing, under any circumstances -- you know. I have played with it when I have been in pain -- toothache pain is a little rough, I haven't quite got there yet -- but other kinds of pain, actually using recall I have been able to do some really good stuff.”

So remembering a different pleasurable sensation.

“And of course there is a trick to remembering -- there is a method and he teaches us a method. It is very simple and you don't try to remember it -- here is the 'don't try' again -- it is really just a wandering through my mind. I just started to do it, it's almost like a meandering through my mind -- what was that experience? There is no grasping in it -- it really is an opening. The process of the recall involves opening the mind, and that involves opening tissues. I can feel my head opening, and my body softening as I do the process. The very act of wondering is itself a physical and mental process – wondering, wondering, wondering, and then we get there a little bit more, 'What was that like?' And that involves visual memory -- I was standing there, or I was sitting there… and a breath just came. I don't know what I was recalling -- all my recall experiences!”