In spite of the fact that I am still fully clothed, in yoga pants and a T-shirt, I haven’t felt this exposed since childbirth. I’m twenty minutes into an abdominal massage, and my therapist ventures an analysis I’ve never heard before: “Your diaphragm is loosening up,” he says with satisfaction. “It’s softer and more pliant. Do you feel it? Much better.”
Strangely, I do. When I opted to sample bodywork in the abdominal area, also sometimes known as Visceral Massage or Visceral Manipulation, I was expecting my therapist, Scott Crawford of the southern California-based custom wellness program SOMA Fitness, to take a fairly benign approach—gently rubbing the belly in a counter-clockwise direction in order to facilitate digestion and elimination. Little did I realize that he would spend the hour massaging my internal organs through my belly wall—kneading them gently to relax muscle fibers, break down adhesions, release toxins, and increase blood flow.
However, despite the benefits, I understand why many people shy away from receiving this type of work—the belly is the softest, least-protected area of the body, and lying here on the massage table, I feel very vulnerable.
“The abdomen is the seat of the emotions, and visceral work can bring up a lot of feelings,” says Crawford. On cue, I feel a flash of alarm. Reality check! A strange man is reaching for my liver!! What was I thinking?? But Crawford’s professional demeanor soon reassures. “There it goes,” he comments with satisfaction. “It’s releasing nicely, sliding back and forth.”
Advocates of abdominal massage extol its health benefits. It can improve the digestive processes and balance the hormones. It stimulates the gall bladder, the liver, and the pancreas, improving absorption of oxygen and nutrients and helping release waste. Abdominal massage breaks down adhesions, and enhances the circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids. It helps align the pelvic bones and strengthens abdominal muscles. And for the stress-prone, abdominal work can release deep muscle tissue spasms.
With benefits like these, it’s no wonder that the abdominal area is a focus of traditional Shiatsu massage. At the Spa at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California, therapist Natasha spent many months studying the principles and practice of this distinctive Asian bodywork.
“Shiatsu places a strong emphasis on diagnosis through touch,” she explains. “Experienced practitioners learn how to ‘listen’ with their hands, feeling the subtle qualities of the abdomen, or ‘hara’ to discover information about the organs and energy channels. In this way, they diagnose and treat disease.” Natasha doesn’t perform such diagnostic work in the spa setting, which is, after all, not a medical environment. “But,” she points out, “the Shiatsu massage we offer in the spa relaxes and invigorates the whole body, assisting the flow of energy.”
During a shiatsu treatment, Natasha and other practitioners at the spa typically avoid the energy points located in the abdomen unless specifically requested to do so by the guest. According to the Torrey Pines’s Spa Manager Kim Cogswell, that’s because most guests are uncomfortable with it— perhaps due to widespread cultural taboos. “However,” she says, “massaging the abdomen can benefit the whole body, increasing blood flow in all areas.”
Early Asians were not the only ones to understand the benefits of abdominal bodywork. The ancient societies of the Americas had their own understanding of the practice. The Arvigo Techniques of Maya Abdominal Massage was founded by Dr. Rosita Argo, a Chicago-born Naprapath who spent 12 years as an apprentice to Don Elijo Panti, said to be a Mayan shaman living in western Belize. Her studies with Panti, as well as with local midwives, prompted her to document the ancient bodywork and wellness techniques she learned. While she is the first person to have introduced them to North American and international audiences, they are said to be over 5,000 years old, passed down from generation to generation.
The Arvigo Technique is based on the idea that if a woman’s uterus is off-balance or otherwise out of place, it can restrict the flow of blood and lymph, disrupting nerve connections and causing numerous health problems throughout the body, such as constipation, fibroids, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. By repositioning a uterus that may have “tipped” or dropped, as well as manipulating other internal organs that have become displaced, the body is restored to a state of wellness.
The Arvigo Technique is said to be especially helpful for women experiencing fertility challenges. “There is a spiritual component as well,” says practitioner Ariane Amsz, who studied with Dr. Rosa Arvigo in Belize and whose New York City-based clinic, Wall Street Wellness and Physical Therapy, offers the technique. “It brings you in greater tune with your body. The abdominal pelvic region holds a lot of emotions, and any traumas from the past can be brought up during the session.”
During the session, Amsz presses her fingers in a scooping motion into the perimeters of the belly, from pubic bone to diaphragm, stroking toward the navel. She incorporates various techniques unique to the Mayan healers, such as a twisting motion in parts of the abdomen and a hip-shaking move that Dr. Arvigo named “The Blind Midwife” in honor of the sightless woman who taught it to her.
Ancient Hawaiian populations also performed a form of abdominal massage known as Opu Huli. A component of the traditional Hawaiian massage Lomi Lomi, “Opu” means stomach and “huli” means turn. This type of bodywork is used to help digestion, elimination, and peristalsis of the large intestine. It can relieve lower back ache and facilitate proper functioning of the nerves. Opu Huli was traditionally performed when a keiki—Hawaiian for child—had colic; it was also appropriate for a variety of upset stomach conditions of adults.
At the Spa at the Mauna Lani Bay on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii, the Opu Huli treatment begins with a foot massage. Afterward, warm oil is slowly poured into the navel, and the abdomen is rubbed in a circular motion.
Of course, abdominal massage isn’t for everyone. “People with any health concerns should consult with their doctor first,” advises Cogswell. In general, abdominal massage should be avoided if a person has inflammation anywhere in the abdomen or reproductive organs, and should not be performed on anyone with kidney stones, ulcers, excessive bleeding, or hypertension. And finally, common sense dictates that it is best performed before a big meal, rather than after.