What Do Elephants Have To Do With Massage?


About three years ago I decided to go for my PhD in somatic depth psychology. I’d spent the last two years establishing a healthy massage therapy practice in LA, and although I found the bodywork meaningful, I wanted to go deeper. Some folks scratch their heads upon learning that I’ve no intention of becoming a licensed psychologist.   But the whole premise of somatics – mind-body psychology – is that mind and body are intricately interwoven. They affect each other, and express each other, in myriad ways; a degree in somatics is as much about healing the body as healing the mind. Though it might strike some as wacky, this is a premise with firm scientific support. Every muscle, organ, and system of the body is in dialogue with the brain, and psychological factors of emotional and social well-being (and even belief itself!) have been shown to carry significant impact on health outcomes.

It is unfortunately part of the legacy of Western civilization to enshrine the abstract rational mind and denigrate the body as though it were only a machine or a slave. No wonder our bodies complain with aches and pains, and worse! Bodies are in reality vital, sensitive, living things. What’s more, it is through our bodies that we know the world directly, rather than abstractly, and know ourselves, in the moment, as we actually are – through movement, gut reactions, emotions (deeply rooted in the body!), touch, and all the sensual pleasures of being alive.

Our embodiment, and our need for nurturing contact, body-to-body, with others, is so deeply rooted in our being, that children who do not receive touch in early infancy are far more likely to develop severe physical and psychological problems. After three years of study, the vital connection between psyche and body is so clear and obvious to me that I no longer feel much need to defend it against naysayers. And while I’ve doubtless lost a few clients who find this perspective a bit threatening, I’ve found many others who are hungry for it.

Then, last October, I made the decision to complete my PhD fieldwork by researching human-elephant communication in Cambodia.

Mind-body psychology was a big enough leap, but elephants? What do elephants have to do with mind-body psychology? What do elephants have to do with massage?

Lets see if I can connect the dots…

Me and Ruby

Me and Ruby

 Honoring the Body

The unconscious tendency toward denigration of the body in Western thought goes hand in hand with a deeply entrenched Judeo-Christian mythology of human “dominion over nature” (Genesis 1:26). We may not think about this consciously, but it weaves through our culture, so that even secular individuals are largely trained to view the natural world this way from a very young age. It is a popular tendency to think of science and religion as being somewhat opposed, but this is one area where the underlying myth – the myth of dominion – runs straight from one into the other. Scientific tradition attempts to be above and apart from the phenomena it studies. Deeply engrained in early scientific investigations of animals was a profound assumption of animals’ inherent inferiority. That assumption, in itself not verifiable at the time, has skewed the results of animal research ever since.

In this system, animals (much like the body) are seen as aspects of a natural world that is fundamentally beneath us – whether we conceive of animals as mindless biological mechanisms, or slaves that exist solely for our benefit. As we dishonor our bodies, so do we dishonor the animal world. That the body is a source of wisdom, knowledge, vitality, pleasure, and meaning is lost in this perspective. Likewise, that animals are wise, intelligent, sensitive, emotional, and lead meaningful (if imperfect) lives for their own sake – suffice to say there has been very little room for that perspective prior to the 21st century.

Now to be clear and fair, I don’t mean to imply that all Christians and all scientists are anti-body and pro-dominion over nature. There are many scientists actively (if cautiously) challenging these ancient assumptions, and many Christians who interpret Genesis as a call to stewardship of the environment, not exploitative dominion. My purpose here is not to draw political lines in the sand regarding our present situation, but rather to investigate the deep, historical roots of our unconscious assumptions.

By way of contrast, Vine Deloria writes of the Sioux – one of the first peoples of North America – and their relationship with the animal world. According to the Sioux, humans were not above nature, but a part of it. Animals were seen as experts in their own sphere of life, and were understood as teachers and companions, rather than objects to be acquired and consumed. The Soiux ate animals (as animals eat animals), but with a spirit of gratitude and humility, rather than a presumption of privilege and superiority. They regarded all animal species as “peoples” who lived and understood the world in their own unique way.

Elephants around the world “check-in” with each other by placing their sensitive trunks in each others mouths – a combination of gesture, touch, and chemical communication

Navigating how to understand and honor the indigenous notion of animals as “people” is a vast topic worthy of much discussion – and something I’m not going to attempt to address in this essay. Instead I’m going to focus on elephants. Because I believe by our own standards of scientific observation, we now have enough data to conclude that elephants are indeed a nonhuman people.

That elephants have complex emotional and social lives has been well documented for decades. They form intricate social systems and have been known to adopt orphans (an action that flies in the face of theories that animals are merely machines programmed to replicate their own genes). Also well documented is their recognition of death – they mourn lost loved ones, and visit the bones of dead elephants with reverence and ceremony. They have a sense of self, recognizing their own images when presented with a mirror, and they have shown themselves to be tool-users and complex problem solvers. Like humans, they suffer devastating psychological effects from trauma, and have shown clear symptoms of PTSD. Their memories are prodigious and they are as fallible to negative emotions as humans – some elephants have taken revenge on their abusers decades after the fact. They are also complex communicators, using a combination of trumpets, squeals, rumbles, gestures, touch, and infrasonic (low-frequency) vibrational communication that can  take place over vast distances.

Matriarch Ning Wan leads the herd in an afternoon mud wallow...

Matriarch Ning Wan leads the herd in an afternoon mud wallow…

Pushing against the ancient unconscious bias that animals can’t be people is a mountain of data that elephants have far more in common with us than we ever imagined. And yet as is always the case with scientific breakthroughs, the culture lags far behind. In this instance, there may be more resistance than usual – we are deeply invested, emotionally and financially, in believing ourselves to be the only intelligent form of life on earth. That’s a very hard belief to surrender, evidence or no.

So just as the body, a font of wisdom and vitality, has been relegated to unconscious dominion and slavery, so too have elephants, a wise people in their own right, remained our slaves to this day. Some have challenged me – “if elephants are so intelligent, why are they allowing us to abuse and enslave them?” But such arguments don’t hold up when applied to humans either. The basic intelligence of the human organism has never been an inoculation against slavery – as decades of human slavery attest. Consider instead: a very small number of humans develop certain technologies; a larger number of humans learn how to use those technologies; the humans who were not privy to this development are then easy victims for technological “might-makes-right.” I am using technology in the broadest sense, understanding that written language is a technology – something to keep in mind when faced with the fact that the majority of Cambodian humans remain illiterate to this day. All Cambodians belong to the human species – some are born into environments where they learn to use certain technologies (such as written language), others are not. This is not a reflection on human intelligence, but on privilege and power – and ethics.

Volunteer Nikki and Ning Wan

Furthermore, the ability to use technologies through cultural transmission is only one form of intelligence. Knowing how to effectively navigate a complex ecosystem and manage hundreds of social relationships is another kind. We can pat ourselves on the back for our unique technological accomplishments, but it can equally be argued that our modern lives are riddled with problems and suffering because we no longer know how to navigate our world effectively – why else the dramatic increase of anxiety, depression, mental illness and chronic illness in humans over the last century? Elephants share our complex emotional lives and are equally vulnerable to trauma – but they don’t seem to need anti-depressants. That is, as long as they are left to their own devices.

Attempts to understand elephant language are only just beginning. It is a challenging enterprise, for while they clearly have a complex system of communication with each other, we cannot assume that it has much in common with our human systems of abstract syntax. How then do we bridge the gap?

To answer this question, we have to look at what we have in common with elephants – though perhaps it is an aspect of ourselves that we have long denied.

Despite her history of abuse, Milot is sweet soul,   and easy to approach.

Despite her history of abuse, Milot is sweet soul, and easy to approach.

Embodied Communication

One thing that we share in common with the elephants: we are embodied creatures with bodies forged for the unique conditions of this particular planet. As we become more willing and open toward the deep reality and wisdom of our bodies – as we get back in touch with the sensual body-consciousness that existed on earth before civilization began – we may in fact come to touch a kind of ancient preverbal intelligence that elephants and humans share.

In a culture where mind and body are split, the disembodied conscious ego reigns supreme, attempting to dominate the unconscious body (and perhaps, the unconscious deeper self). From its perceived position of power, the ego, whose constant instinct is toward control, eagerly denies and suppresses this “other intelligence” that resides below. This encultured process of repressing body awareness is alarmingly similar to how we have justified the exploitation and rape of the natural world.

So we come full circle – the struggle to honor the body, and the struggle to honor the natural world, are deeply intertwined. We have become alienated from elephants in much the same way that we remain alienated from our own human bodies.  Healing the one wound may indeed begin with healing the other.

me and Ning Wan

My final encounter with Ning Wan.

At the end of my time at the elephant sanctuary, I stood before Ning Wan, the elephant with whom I had found the deepest connection, and had a final conversation.

I had a different reaction to each of the elephants at the sanctuary – some inspired fear, others seemed dissociated, or simply indifferent to my presence. I had moments of connection with many of them. But my interactions with Ning Wan were on another level entirely. When she approached, I felt honored. She radiated a deep sense of peace, but also authority; like a priestess of a kind. Of all the elephants at the Sanctuary, only Ning Wan had never been used for commercial purposes. I believe I was able to connect most deeply with her because she was psychologically and emotionally the healthiest elephant on the grounds.

There was one seeming point of contention between us, and that was my digital video camera. As a fieldworker, I was somewhat voracious in wanting to “capture” everything that happened at the Sanctuary. It was during my second encounter with Ning Wan that I first got the very strong impression that she didn’t care for the camera at all. She had approached me just after emerging from her river bath – she came right to me and stopped, even as the other elephants were moving past. I was honored, a little frightened by her interest in me. I was also filming. I wonder, when I analyze that footage, if I will be able to pinpoint any particular moment when the camera became an object of her disdain. It is a stretch to imagine Ning Wan somehow understood the camera and its function – thought she’s certainly seen hundreds of cameras in her day, and observed how humans use them. Rather, I think she noticed that my attention was divided between directly encountering her, and focusing on the camera. In that moment, quite pragmatically, my attention was split between the actual embodied relationship, and my relationship to her abstract image (and everything it might signify in the human world back home). If her elephant intuition told her there was something duplicitous in the divided psyche of the human that stood before her, I can’t entirely say she was wrong.

From that moment on, I was intensely aware of Ning Wan’s reaction to my camera, and began to take greater lengths to keep it off my person when she was nearby. On a subsequent visit, she approached me while my camera was some distance off, and after our interaction, she went right towards it, and after sniffing around my bag, she knocked the camera tripod over with her trunk (fortunately it was undamaged). Of course, I can’t prove that she knocked my camera over on purpose. But frankly, I have a hard time accepting otherwise.

Are you here to connect with me, she seemed to be asking, or are you only here to serve your own human purposes?

Ning Wan relishing the cool mud on a hot day...

Ning Wan relishing the cool mud on a hot day…

Fortunately, my relationship with Ning Wan was not confined to the camera dynamic. I was able to attempt many “conversations” with her, each time humbly trying to understand what was working and what wasn’t. My rational mind would spin stories about what something might mean.  But by that stage I understood that the rational ego could not take the lead on this (thought it certainly might help organize the data after the fact). Somatic, embodied communication – sometimes referred to as “attunement” in psychological literature – is more often framed as an implicit process, engaging the global, holistic thinking of the right brain, rather than the more linear syntax of the left. What this means is that just like a human mother and infant, our bodies were communicating meaningfully with each other regardless of the language centers of our brains.

And this brings me to the question at hand – the reason a massage therapist would be interested – perhaps uniquely qualified – to study human-elephant communication: the primacy of touch. Touch is the primal arena of connection and boundary between organisms. In mammals in particular, relationships are mediated, and strengthened, through physical contact. It isn’t only human babies that suffer from lack of contact – all infant mammals suffer when deprived of touch.

Ning Wan and Pearl check in with each other during their morning bath.

Ning Wan and Pearl check in with each other during their morning bath.

Touch is (if you’ll forgive the pun) something of an elephant in the room in our modern western culture. It’s hard to imagine a healthy family without healthy touch. equally important – whatever your sexual mores – touch is the basis of most sexuality and intimacy. And as such, many of us are terrified of touch. We have to ban it in schools and in traditional psychotherapy, because it can mean so much, and yet so many of us don’t know how to handle (or understand) what it means. And yet even the most touch-averse individuals recognize the value of a firm handshake between partners, a gentle hand on the back in solidarity during troubled times, the relief of being embraced and held by a trusted, safe, and beloved other.

Elephants may not share our abstract language brain centers (to be fair, they also have brain structures that humans lack), but they do share our capacity, and our need, for touch. Every time I touched an elephant at the sanctuary, I used my years of experience as a bodyworker to sense into her response. It was messy, inexact work – it had to be. But with every moment of contact, I learned a little bit more.

DSC_5603And every time I touched an elephant with intentional sensitivity – letting her know, body-to-body, that I felt and respected her reactions – the relationship grew a little bit stronger.

Healing the Traumatized Soul

The final piece of my answer to the question, “what do elephants have to do with massage therapy?” is simply this: the elephants of our world, just as much as the humans, are in need of healing. There was not an elephant at the sanctuary that had not been ripped away from its family as an infant, and most of them had been subjected to slavery and other abuses over the long decades of their lives. Imagine: an alien race takes a two year old human away from her family, barring her from any opportunity to learn the language or social conventions of her own people, and “communicating” with her solely for the purpose of dominating her spirit – physically beating her when she does not obey. Imagine coming across this human in late middle age, and trying to have a conversation with her – what would she understand? What would she need? How would you seek to touch her humanity, to comfort her soul?

The African elephants, while not used as slaves, are being slaughtered en masse by poachers to feed the illegal ivory trade, still alive and well in China and the USA. Elephants who witness their families being murdered are psychologically scarred, and as adults are prone to rage and violence. As the elders are murdered, elephant society begins to break down.  We have done this to them, and they need our help.

The aim of massage therapy – as a healing art – is to touch the wounded soul by touching the wounded body. This is so even when we are “only” releasing the tension from muscles gone rigid from navigating this strange modern existence our bodies have been plunged into. The loss of reverence and connection to the wisdom of the body, and our loss of reverence and connection to the elephants, are two expressions of the same wound. The need to touch the wounded, to offer comfort and care to the forgotten and disenfranchised, in ourselves, and in the natural world, is an archetypal call to heal what is broken.

As we touch and hold the forgotten, the rejected, and abused, we take another small step toward wholeness; toward a world dominated not by power, but by love.


Epigenetics and the Healing Power of Touch

Earlier this year massage therapists around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.  A new scientific study confirmed that claims of massage as a “healing art” were not new age embellishments after all.  Not only did these scientists discover that massage speeds the physiological healing process, they also discovered how – through a biochemical process known as epigenetics.

The study, helmed by neurometabolic researcher Mark Tarnopolsky, showed that massage actually turns off genes that cause inflammation, and turns on genes involved in cellular repair.  In short, therapeutic touch encourages DNA to behave differently, effectively speeding the healing process.  This comes as no surprise to massage therapists and bodyworkers, who understand intuitively the benefits of their work, even if they can’t explain the mechanisms involved.  But science must be conservative in order to maintain its integrity, and from a scientific perspective these results are extraordinary.

A word is in order about the new field of epigenetics.  In traditional genetics, we understand that genes in our DNA give rise to physiological traits which make us who we are.  But epigenetics tells us that DNA is not a simple matter of a gene determining destiny – that gene also has to be expressed over the course of a lifetime.  Whether and to what degree a given gene is expressed is determined by environment and experience.  And, because humans in affluent societies often have considerable power in influencing their own environment and experience, it follows that we have the potential to influence our own gene expression.  DNA becomes less of a mandate defining who we are, and more of a set of potentials and possibilities about who we will become.

These changes in gene expression are very real.  Epigenetic biochemical markers accumulate over time and have been correlated with susceptibility to cancer and other diseases, changes in cognitive ability in learning and memory, and levels of anxiety and confidence.  In short, epigenetic activity appears to hold tremendous influence over both the quality and quantity of our lives.  And the research into this field is only just beginning.

Clean air and water, good nutrition, and an active lifestyle are all factors that can affect our epigenetics for the better.  But what about stress?

There is a large and growing consensus in the scientific community about the damaging effects of chronic stress.  Our bodies were designed for quick bursts of fight-or-flight arousal in an otherwise peaceful natural environment.  Our modern urban lifestyles replete with work deadlines, traffic jams, bombardment with sound, information, and advertising have the potential to over-tax the nervous system even when nothing seems overtly wrong.  There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that long-term stress throws the entire organism into disorder, causing wear and tear to multiple physiological systems and ultimately opening the door to disease.

Stress in mothers affects the epigenetics, and thus development, of infants with long-lasting consequences.  And, no surprise, general studies of epigenetic changes in stressed-out mammals indicate that maintaining high levels of stress is not good for our gene expression at any stage of life.  Most disturbing, chronic stress may leave us epigenetically predisposed for higher anxiety, which is likely to stress the system even further.

Long before we reach this point, the wise among us will stage an intervention on our own behalf, and break the cycle of stress.  We do this by recognizing it for what it is, and taking whatever steps necessary to remove it.  In drastic situations, the well-to-do might take a Mediterranean cruise, while those with depleted resources may stage a very real psychosomatic breakdown, putting themselves in the hands of others.  For the rest of us, a dedicated practice of meditation or prayer may do the trick, as might well-timed camping trips or other escapes.  For others, it’s regular strolls through a pleasant area, bike rides, or a good run or trip to the gym – although there’s some danger in these latter activities of pushing too hard instead of releasing.  I’m convinced the growing popularity of yoga in America is happening largely because a good yoga practice teaches intuitive self-regulation of the nervous system – it strengthens the mind-body connection, and leaves us less helpless to our own stress reaction.  These are all good resources, and there are many others.

Sometimes, we just need to be touched.  Sometimes we need a strong or soothing set of hands to intervene in our rigid tissues, to sink into our accumulated stress and break the pattern.  Anyone who has ever had a quality massage will tell you – no scientific studies necessary – that the release of stress in healing bodywork can be profound.  Quite literally, the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system winds down, and the “rest-and-restore” parasympathetic nervous system activates.  That’s why falling asleep on the bodywork table is such a good sign – sleep is a parasympathetic response, an indication that the body is finally letting go, that the threat is past, and healing can begin.

To sketch a complete picture of the relationship between epigenetics and healing touch, we must include the implications of stress reduction.  A gifted pair of healing hands is massaging not only our tissues, but our very DNA, the blueprint of our being.  If epigenetics interprets DNA as a set of potentials instead of a mandate, the role of the healer is to help draw forth the highest potential.  As poetic as that sounds, it has a basis in human physiology.  Nothing could be more natural.

Of course, the extent of this form of therapy has limits, and we mustn’t let out speculations run away with us.  Massage has been further vindicated as a healing method, but so too have quality sleep, nutrition, and fitness all been essentially linked to health and wellness. Like neuroscience, epigenetics is a science flush with the excitement of its own youth, and much more research has yet to be done.

In the meantime, it’s nice to know that touch actually does heal, on a physiological level.  It’s comforting to know that healing physical contact with our fellow humans is part of our design.  And whatever the physiological limits to bodywork, we have yet to consider the psychological healing that can be facilitated through therapeutic touch.  That’s another subject, for another day.