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There's the Rub

Health Wanted


Published August 13, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

I'm lying on my back in an office by Lake Champlain, a slight breeze blowing through the gauzy curtains as Brenda Kerr begins to massage my legs. Not bad, I think -- soothing, in fact. All of a sudden, the Merchant Ivory moment turns into a scene from Flatliners, my muscles starting to twitch uncontrollably with short little pops that jolt throughout my hamstrings and calves as Kerr massages deeper, digging her elbow in.

Welcome to the world of Hellerwork, a '70s-era holistic approach to healing the body that's making a comeback. Part deep tissue massage, part movement education and part spiritual awareness, the practice is catching on with devotees that include chronic-pain sufferers, asthma patients and professional athletes. This "structural integration" is said to not only relieve specific problems but improve overall well-being, even sex lives.

I read about an Olympic cross-country skier who grew an inch after her structural integration sessions. An inch taller! I began to envision my ho-hum, 5'5" existence giving way to the life of the tall: Cristal champagne, cruises on the Mediter-ranean, eye-to-eye conversations with Grace Jones...

I set up a few appointments with Kerr, who recently opened Katahdin Spirit Structural Health, Vermont's first Hellerwork studio. Honestly, I didn't expect much from the experience. Despite a few hangovers, some tight muscles from running and the occasional spastic game of tennis, I felt fine.

Filling out the client health information form increased my skepticism. It asked "What in your life is your biggest concern right now?" "What, if anything, would you like to improve in your life?" and instructed me to show up clean and sober to the session. (Who shows up dirty and drunk? At $120 a 90-minute session, Hellerwork can't be attracting Burlington bums.)

I found my way to Kerr's studio on Battery Street for my first appointment, also known as "section one." Hellerwork, which was founded by a Polish former aerospace engineer named Joseph Heller, is based on the practice of Rolfing, the original method of structural integration founded by Ida Rolf in the 1950s. (Both were too preoccupied with their visions, apparently, to come up with more creative names for their practices; another related method of movement education created by Moshe Feldenkrais is called, no surprise here, Feldenkrais.)

Hellerwork is pretty similar to Rolfing, though Heller designed his program to be less painful than its predecessor. The techniques are based around the manipulation of the fascia, or the sheath of connective tissue that wraps our muscles and fibers. When we're stressed, injured or beset by repetitive motion, it's like something's tugging at this "body stocking," causing the fascia to lose fluidity. By rebalancing the entire body, the theory goes, structural integration brings back the nice, loosey-goosey state we were all born in.

Hellerwork is broken into three areas: Super-ficial (focusing on the "sleeve" muscles near the body's surface), Core (deeper, or "intrinsic," muscles) and Integrative, during which rotational movements and joints as well as overall fluidity are targeted. Each of the 11 sessions has a theme, from "Holding Back" to "Control and Surrender" and "Losing Your Head," all of which is explained in the 31-page client handbook.

The theme for the first session is Inspiration. After standing me in front of a mirror to examine my posture -- where she points out a Quasimodo-like hunch in my left shoulder that I've never noticed before -- Kerr gets to work on my lungs. While I'm stretched face-up on the oversized massage table, she rubs beeswax and coconut oil into my neck and ribcage, asking me to "breathe" in the areas she's working on. (I'm used to breathing through my nose and mouth.) Kerr then releases my diaphragm by applying deep pressure on each side of my rib cage, before some quick wrap-up work for the day on my hamstrings and back. Maybe it's the smell of coconut oil on my skin, but the rest of the day I'm more Tarzan than Quasimodo. I can breathe more deeply than ever.

The next day, though, I'm back to my old habits, hunched over my desk and taking short, quick breaths as another deadline approaches. What gives? Turns out I've forgotten to study my client handbook, which provides movement lessons on standing and sitting properly and between-session reminders on breathing -- and how it relates to "what inspires you" and "what depresses you."

Hellerwork is divided into three parts, and each of these parts has three components: bodywork, movement and dialogue. So instead of playing Enya-like massage music, practitioners initiate meaningful conversations with their clients, which is supposed to help explore the emotional issues that have led to the body's imbalance. It also creates the necessary level of trust for some of the later, more invasive sessions. Some clients, particularly those who have repressed body-connected feelings, cry during Hellerwork; others giggle.

I'm not one to reveal my personal life to a complete stranger, but I find myself opening up in extraordinary ways to Kerr, who listens attentively like the big sister I never had. We chit-chat about my upcoming wedding, the Appalachian Trail, which Kerr hiked in 2001, and a fellow Hellerwork practitioner in California whose clients always show up stoned. We also discuss the ins -- and I do mean ins -- and outs of Hellerwork. She tells me about one client who comes for nasal work.

"What, you massage the sides of her nose or something?" I ask.

"Oh, no, I stick my pinky up there -- with a glove on, of course," says Kerr, bending her finger like a puppet. "You'd be surprised how far I can get."

I don't dare ask about the "pelvic floor" session.

So, does Hellerwork hurt? Well, yes, there were some toe-curling moments, and not the ones that 50 Cent and L'il Kim sing about. The amount of pain varies by client, but for me it's more slight discomfort than anything excruciating while Kerr goes after my muscles as if she's combing through tangled hair.

Does Hellerwork, well, work? Absolutely. Folks looking for a quick fix may walk away disappointed, but those willing to incorporate the posture principles in their day-to-day routines swear by structural integration. "It's not complicated, it's simple," says Kerr. "It's simple little things that we bring our awareness to, or let go of, and all of a sudden our lives get a little less complicated."

New moms with sagging bellies have been reshaped, even cured of their postpartum blues, by Hellerwork, while arthritic seniors and injured athletes have been able to garden, ski or golf again. One 13-year-old girl with scoliosis straightened so much after a few Hellerwork sessions, she couldn't fit in her back brace.

After a few Hellerwork sessions, I'm feeling better than I thought possible, reminding myself to breathe deeper, walk taller, and stop letting my left shoulder hunch up. OK, so I'm still 5'5". But who needs Cristal and the Riviera, anyway, when we've got Magic Hat and Lake Champlain?