The Trager Approach by Yaakov Wieder

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Dr. Milton Trager was born in Chicago in 1908. As a teenager he became fascinated with movement; including acrobatics, theater, dancing, and even a brief spell as a semi-professional boxer. By age 16 his family, partly because of Milton’s and his father’s poor health, moved to Miami. His early morning postal route allowed him to spend much of his afternoon at the beach doing acrobatics. One day as his brother shouted “let’s see who can jump the highest”, Milton responded “let’s see who can land the softest”. That spontaneous response began his exploration of “what can be softer?” in his physical movement, and began his lifelong occupation of using the mind to influence the physical body. It set the stage for that serendipitous moment when he tried to give his boxing trainer the same kind of vigorous rubdown that he normally received before each of his training sessions. However, his previous experiences of consciously creating movement of greater softness and finer subtlety was automatically transferred to his hands. His trainer got up from this unique experience and exclaimed, “I never taught you anything like that … kid, you have hands!”. He promptly went home and in two sessions cured his father’s occupationally induced sciatica. He then spent much of his time on the beach looking for the most crippled, misshapen bodies he could find. There were many post-polio patients at that time and he was even successful in getting some of them to walk. Shortly thereafter he moved to California, where he had a successful practice, which included treating many of the well-known celebrities the day. He practiced his work in isolation for many years, disappointed that even though he had helped thousands of peoples over the years, the medical profession showed no interest in his method (even after receiving his MD at the age of 46!!). He became resigned to the fact that nobody else seemed to be interested in learning his work and even if they were, he had no idea how to teach it. Two more serendipitous moments (his life was full of them), in 1974 and 1975, proved him wrong. By 1979(when Yaakov began his training) he had a rapidly growing circle of students and the beginnings of a worldwide Trager Institute.  You can read more of his amazing story in “Moving Medicine” by Jack Liskin. 

Dr. Trager’s work, to an outside observer, seems to vary between tossing around dangling limbs with acrobatic skill to the furthest reaches of the client’s range of motion or conversely, as if he was gently rocking a baby to sleep. In either case, seeing how intimately he made contact with the recipient’s muscular tissue one might conclude that he was just doing some kind of rhythmic massage. However, if you had watched him as he prepared to begin the treatment, you would perhaps get a hint that this was to be no ordinary massage. Dr. Trager would lean slightly backwards, his arms outstretched to the sides with open palms. He would gently sway from side to side with his eyes rolling upwards into his head as if in some kind of hypnotic state. He called this state “Hook-Up”. While teaching or demonstrating his work he would be open to questions while in the middle of the treatment. However, he would strongly admonish  those students who tried to focus on the just technical aspects of what his obviously masterful hands were doing. “It’s not in my hands,” he would shout, “just like it’s not Fred Astaire’s feet. It’s what he has upstairs (in the mind) that counts”. He emphasized that the personal development of the practitioner to reach this internal state of “Hook-Up” and his ability to project that feeling state was the crucial aspect in learning to successfully do his work. He would implore his students not to forget that it is reaching the unconscious mind of the patient that counts. His proof for this occurred when he was a medical student and an old indigent man was brought in for surgery. He was so stiff that if you called him, he would have to turn his whole body around to face you. However, once he was under anesthesia his limbs became so loose and floppy that it was a challenge for the interns to keep his joints from dislocating. After the operation, Milton watched in fascination as the man returned to his old rigid self.

We are born with the potential for tremendous flexibility of mind and body. Injury, emotional trauma, suppressive parenting, even seemingly small childhood disappointments can create a contraction in the body-mind. Throughout our lifetime, these contractions gradually accumulate until only a small fraction of that flexibility remains. The gentle movements of the Trager Approach can be tremendously effective in helping us regain some of that lost openness and freedom.

?How does it work

A) All patterns of tension are stored in the unconscious mind. This holds true whether the cause is physical injury, emotional trauma or just plain habit. Dr. Trager taught that every physical restriction has a concomitant restriction in the unconscious mind. He taught his practitioners that no meaningful or lasting change can happen in the treatment without reaching the unconscious mind.

B) We learn through movement. Through the amazingly complex and constant feedback loop between the various levels of muscular tissue and several different centers in the lower brain, the Trager practitioner has direct access to the unconscious mind.

C) An anthropologist once noted that the biological basis of learning is play! The light and playful attitude of the Trager approach is an essential part of the movement re-education process.

D) This re-education process continues as the client gets off the table and is taught “Mentastics”. These are gentle movements that the client can do on their own to recall and reinforce the freedom that was experienced during the treatment.

E) Trager uses only gentle touch and movement. Even when the movement seems dramatic, nothing is ever done to force a patient past their comfortable boundaries.

F) This safe environment is essential because all trauma patterns are connected to fear. Anything that feels forced or intrusive would only reinforce the patterns of rigidity.

G) “Hook-Up” facilitates in the practitioner a state of openness and receptivity. This state of receptivity is automatically transferred to the client. Milton used to say “Hook-Up is like the measles. You catch it.” Therefore, the Trager session begins even before the practitioner touches the client’s body.

H) The focus in a Trager session is to facilitate for the client an experience of their potential for freedom of movement. It does not focus on “breaking” restrictions. Trager practitioners are not there to “fix” anything, just to model a freer, more effortless way of being. This attitude can have a tremendous effect on one’s attitude to life. Many of us automatically focus on what is wrong, on the glass being half empty. A client can get off the table experiencing 99% of his potential freedom, or being 99% pain-free and yet they can choose to feel only the 1% remaining of their pain and restrictions. In contrast, Dr. Trager had the amazing ability to patiently work on a severely damaged limb with almost no function. He would continue there until he would feel just a tiny movement, a small spark of reflex, a subtle reminder of the life force that once fully animated the patient’s whole body. The result: that patient who was still confined to his wheelchair would feel the intense joy of a whole new world opening up for him.

We mostly grow up feeling that life is a struggle. This feeling comes from experiencing trauma, pain and disappointment. This feeling is reinforced by the example of those around us and by the outlook on life that we learn and choose. There is a way of being that is lighter, that is freer, where work becomes a dance and life a song. With the Trager Approach we can learn that way

Yaakov Wieder studied extensively with Dr. Trager throughout the 1980’s. He was certified as a tutor and workshop leader for the Trager Institute and was instrumental in popularizing Dr. Trager’s work in the New York City area






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