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The Hand: A Users Guide

In school we are taught to use all the parts of our hands. The thumbs, the fingers, the palm, the knuckles - use them all and save yourself from breakdown. It has been a mantra of sorts that I have employed throughout the years to keep my own body healthy and safe from breakdown: “Switch it up. Use all the parts. Don’t stick with the same tools.” Obviously I would be a horrible massage therapist and an even worse massage therapy instructor if I didn’t include the forearm and the elbow in that toolbox. But for the purposes of this article and for the sake of an anatomically curious argument, I am lumping those in with the hand. Clearly these are different body parts and giving the entire lower arm from the elbow down one label is ludicrous. Or is it?

You may remember from your anatomy lectures that most of the muscles that are responsible for moving the hand are in the forearm. The flexors, on the inside of the forearm, reach from the medial elbow bone all the way down through the wrist, into the palm and out to the grabby part of your finger bones. And the extensors extend (pun intended) from the lateral elbow bone, through the wrist and the top of the hand all the way to the fingernail part of the finger bones.

There are, of course, lots of other little muscles in the hand that give the hand its unique ability to handy things. But you’ll notice that it’s pretty hard to do any of those things without the use of the flexors and extensors. Try snapping. You’ll notice that it’s hard to snap without seeing some movement under the skin in the forearm. It’s kind of like trying to jump without bending your knees. Or sneeze without blinking. Or scream without raising your voice - to quote one of my favorite songs. It’s just not in the cards.

The dilemma, though, lies in the fact that even though there are amazing ways to use all the parts of your “hands” in your practice to save your body from mechanical failure, they are still your hands and they still are not unlimited in their abilities. I frequently get asked about how I can still be doing the work I do without my thumbs falling off or my fingers turning into arthritic claws. The answer is to work beyond the hand.

Try this: Set up a table and borrow a friend. I would not attempt this with an actual client for reasons that will become clear in a minute. And make sure that you borrow a friend with whom you feel comfortable and have a considerable amount of trust developed. Ask your friend to remain clothed but lie on your table, prone position, face in the face cradle. You, then, now have the task of working on your friend with this one rule in mind: You are not allowed to use any part of your hand or forearm, from the elbow down. You can use your upper arm, your shoulder, your head, your feet, your knees. Obviously we are keeping clear boundaries and a respectable practice, so stay in communication if anything feels weird - for either of you.

This is where getting creative kicks in. You might find yourself using your shoulder to release their shoulder. Or your knees to sink into their glutes. Or your feet to lengthen their hamstrings. You may catch yourself a handful of times with your hand in go mode ready to lend a hand. But your job is to resist. Your lesson here, is to understand what the rest of your body is doing to help. Your takeaway is to assess how much you are dependent on your hands and to figure out what else you might be able to rely on.

As you are calling forth on your shins, your back or your calves to do the work normally charged with your hands, ask yourself how easy or not easy this is for you. Does it feel incredibly awkward and make you want to stop as fast as you can? Or does it open doors to new ideas that you never knew were right there at your fingertips? Then, and here is the most important part, when you go to use your hands again, think beyond the hand.

In an irony of all ironies, in order to make the best use of your hands, take them out of the equation. No matter what this exercise feels like for you in the moment, your ability to lengthen the life of your most important tools lives in the energy (for lack of a better word) that reach past your elbow. The muscles and tissues that congregate to create the rest of you are there to support your work. Lean on them. They will surprise you.

“And so she woke up

Woke up from where she was lyin' still

Said I gotta do something

About where we're goin’”

- U2, Running To Stand Still


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