The Bowen Technique: Simple, gentle, effective
by Julian Baker
Julian Baker is Europe's leading Bowen practitioner and teacher, having brought the technique to the UK from Australia in 1992. Baker originally trained as a reflexologist in Australia before discovering Bowen whilst living in Queensland.
My first ever complementary therapy treatment was reflexology, when I volunteered to be a guinea pig for someone who was training. I have to say that I was the reluctant and sceptical type, ignorantly bordering on scornful of things I knew nothing about.
Still the opportunity to have my feet rubbed for an hour seemed too good to miss. It was wonderful and when I got the chance a few years later I undertook the reflexology training, qualifying in 1989.
It was whilst practicing in a squash and fitness centre that I became frustrated, not with reflexology, but with the general perception surrounding it. People simply would not accept that I could help injuries and indeed prevent them in the first place, by working their feet.
They would traipse off to the osteopath, masseur or physiotherapist and pass me by. It was beginning to get to me and I started to look at other therapies that I could learn in order to get people to come to me.
It was by chance that I came across The Bowen Technique. From the age of thirteen I had had neck problems, which had been treated by many therapies. Reflexology was keeping it stable, but I still had occasional problems whereby I would experience acute pain. A friend suggested that I try Bowen, which at that time I had never heard of.
My first experience was not positive. It was quick, it didn't hurt, I didn't really feel very much and I left in the same pain as when I arrived. In addition, the therapist kept leaving the room and coming back and I became more and more frustrated as the session progressed.
By the next day, however, my pain had virtually disappeared and I had to radically re-think my somewhat insular views about what therapy was. In a short space of time I had booked on to the course of instruction and in 1992 I returned to the UK to introduce Bowen and reflexology to a doubtful British public.
In 1994 an article in the Daily Mail catapulted Bowen into the nation's consciousness and in a very short space of time, my practice had changed over from 50/50 to 90/10 with Bowen taking the driving seat.
The article in the paper had put bookings for my clinic through the roof and I was working an eight day week in seven. In addition to clinic, I was also in demand as a teacher of the technique and before long Bowen had taken over completely.
The main advantage for me was that there was effectively no limit to the number of clients I could see in a day. In Brisbane a busy clinic day would have me treating seven or eight clients as a top number, whereas with Bowen I can see upwards of 20 and not feel tired. So what is The Bowen Technique, how does it work and what are the advantages for someone like a reflexologist?
Firstly we should look at where the technique originated. Thomas Ambrose Bowen developed the technique in his clinic in Geelong, Victoria, Australia over many years. He left school at the age of fourteen and was employed as a labourer and carpenter in various fields.
He was a very keen sportsman and ran a Salvation Army boys club, coaching swimming and umpiring cricket. His main gift was an incredible eye that was able to spot structural imbalances and identify where these originated. With a few very simple and gentle moves, he would start the process of repair immediately, often without the client realising that anything had changed.
The results of his treatments spoke for themselves however, and Bowen was without doubt the busiest therapist of his time, treating by his own estimates around 13,000 clients a year, with most of these being first or second treatments. People would travel for hundreds of miles to see him, often in long-term pain, and would be corrected in a couple of sessions.
He died in 1982 at the relatively early age of 62 after losing both legs to diabetes. Eight men who he referred to as his 'boys' observed his methods over the years. One man, Ossie Rentsch, went on to teach his interpretation of some of Bowen's moves, although Bowen himself suggested that he had only ever shown them 10% of what was possible.
The Bowen Technique is a remedial therapy that is applied by the therapist applying gentle pressure to soft tissue with fingers and thumbs. There is no deep tissue work or high velocity thrust movements as in chiropractic and there is no massaging of areas, so therefore no friction.
As a therapy it is incredibly gentle, both on the client and also, importantly, on the therapist. Another advantage to Bowen is that there are no contra indications and it can be used even in acute situations, where other forms of therapy might be avoided. In fact, as far as Bowen is concerned, the more acute the better. The tiniest of babies through to the frailest of adults can be treated and as the work can be performed through light clothing, it is ideal for these two particular groups of client.
A key element of the Bowen principle and indeed all complementary therapies is that we work holistically, according to the major law of natural cure: 'That the body be treated as a whole, without referral to named disease' So although with Bowen there is no situation whereby we cannot safely treat, we are not treating the disease or condition, but are treating the person.
Probably the most common presentation for a Bowen therapist will be back pain. With Bowen we will tend to treat all of the body in the first visit, including the neck, knees and shoulders, as it's almost impossible to be completely sure where any given pain is coming from.
Moving over the extensor in the Bowen Ankle Procedure
There are four main elements that define Bowen and these are based on what Bowen did rather than any suggestion of an optimal approach.
1) THE BOWEN MOVE
The Bowen move is very specific and involves the movement of soft tissue in a certain way. The move is a rolling type move not a flick, designed to disturb the tissue and create a centralising focus for the brain.
The pressure used is quite subtle and is often referred to as eyeball type. Try pressing your finger on to your eye, (with you eyes closed!) and see how much pressure you can comfortably apply. At a certain point you will want to stop pressing for two reasons. Firstly your finger is saying stop and secondly your eyeball is saying the same thing. This is the communication between muscle (the eye) and practitioner (in this case your finger) which sums up the application of Bowen.
Of course the pressure isn't exactly the same as you have just applied to your eyeball. The pressure will vary from one client to the next, depending on size, muscle mass, pain levels etc. But the principle remains the same: find the muscle, apply pressure and make a move.
In order for us to make the move, we need to bring in another element, which is the skin slack. The skin covering the area that we wish to work on needs to be moved in order for us to have access to the specific point. A key element of the Bowen move is that we must not slide at any time. If you put a finger on the back of your hand and imagine that it is glued there, then any movement (without sliding) will move the skin. Depending on how much skin you have you should be able to move the skin a centimetre or so in any direction, before coming to the limit of the slack.
By applying very gentle pressure, less than eyeball even, you can move the skin in one direction. Then apply the eyeball type pressure and move in the opposite direction. If you do this on the back of your hand again without sliding, you will feel the tendons and ligaments under the skin being moved over. In its crudest sense, this is a Bowen move and is refined by adding a rolling action, which needs to be demonstrated.
2) THE STOPPERS
Bowen discovered that he could use certain areas of energy in the body as reference points for other moves or procedures. The whole spine acts as a shock absorber for the body and as reflexologists we are well aware of the synergy relating to the number of curves in the spine and the foot. The apex of these spinal curves, however, hold the most degree of stress and therefore the most energy and Bowen capitalised on this source of energy, calling the moves in these areas stoppers or blockers. In point of fact, they neither stop nor block but as they do create a focused section the name is not altogether inappropriate.
3) THE BREAKS
Bowen was a man who had an innate ability to be able to 'see' imbalances in the body and was accordingly able to start the process of correcting these very quickly. Once he had started the process, he would leave the client alone in the treatment room, before returning some minutes later to re-assess and determine what more, if anything, needed to be done. This element of allowing the body to rest, starts the process of
repair and is terribly important. The length of the breaks will vary from client to client and with different procedures, but on average we will leave clients for around two minutes in between each set of moves. The implications for these breaks become more apparent for experienced practitioners, and at the start of training, many people find this a very difficult concept.
We are used to sitting in front of our client for an hour, working their feet and probably listening to them talk and now we are expected to do a few small moves and then leave the room! It's a big leap, which although not suiting everyone, can even be seen as a blessing for some.
The breaks are probably one of the least understood parts of Bowen and yet it is during the breaks that the work starts to take effect and changes are implemented. Another bonus is that once the therapist has become competent with the technique, he or she is able to treat more than one client at a time.
4) NO OTHER TREATMENTS
The Bowen Technique is a jealous and possessive therapy. From the perspective of understanding how it works, it is important not to mix up the signals that the brain is being asked to interpret. The most fundamental principle of Bowen is that it is the client that is doing the work, not the therapist and for this to happen the body needs time and to be left alone.
This is not to say that other treatments are in some way less valid or powerful than Bowen, but simply that we need to give any process a chance if it is to be effective.
For some people Bowen isn't enough and there are many clients who will prefer to have reflexology or to be massaged. When we want to give Bowen however, a recommended space of a week is given in order to have a clear canvas. It is not uncommon for reflexologists to use The Bowen Technique for two or three weeks with one area, then return to the reflexology after that.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
One of the least understood areas of the body is the brain. Even specialists in the study of the brain will disagree about its most basic of functions, with some people saying that the brain is a whole and others insisting that it operates within a modular system with a bit for each mental function. And yet we can be sure that it is the brain which is responsible for the entire system and that any attempt to affect physical change has to be examined and accepted by the brain.
There are something like 600,000 signals that travel from the brain into the body every second and these in turn come back to the brain with information which is then interpreted and sent back out. Whenever we feel, hear, see or even think something, the brain brings in past experience in order to categorise the sensation and create an appropriate response.
In the case of the Bowen move, the brain is unable to do this instantly and needs more information to form a response. As it is, just when the brain is asking for more info, the therapist has left the room, and therefore the brain has to send specific signals to the area in order to gauge response. If the client is lying down, the immediate response is nearly always rapid and deep relaxation.
The client will also often report that they feel a tingling sensation or warmth in the area just worked. "It felt like your hands were still on me," is a common comment. This demonstrates that because the move is out of the ordinary, the brain is looking for information about what happened.
One of the more difficult elements to come to terms with is how little is done during a session. In addition, the client may well walk out of the treatment room having felt little or no improvement over and above a sense of relaxation. However the reactions to Bowen can often belie its soft and gentle appearance. Stiffness, soreness, headache and feeling like "I've been run over by a bus!" are common. All excellent signs, they demonstrate that the brain has started the process of repair.
This process when started is generally rapid and it is not uncommon for even longstanding pain to be reduced or resolved in two or three treatments. Most sports or work-related problems will be dealt with also within the two or three treatments, making Bowen not only effective, but cost effective for the client as well.
Although muscular skeletal problems such as frozen shoulder, back and neck pain account for the majority of presentations for Bowen, there is a lot of work that is effective with more organic problems.
Although it's important to point out again that we don't treat specific problems, Bowen has been widely used with asthma, migraines, irritable bowel, infertility and reproductive problems. Even hay fever, the blight of so many summers, is affected excellently with Bowen.
There are no such things in this life as guarantees and this can be said of Bowen as well. The beauty of it is that it is simply offered to the body. If the body accepts it then it can and will start the process of repair. If it doesn't accept it then no harm is done. You can't really say fairer than that. As Meng Tzu, said "The way is near, but men seek it afar. It is in easy things but men seek it in difficult things."
For further information, a full course prospectus or a list of accredited practitioners contact:
European College of Bowen Studies, 38 Portway, Frome, Somerset BA11 1QU
Tel/Fax: 01373 461 873
Reflexions, July 2002