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Looking After Yourself with Trager Mentastics

by Harry Dalford and Julie Kingston(more info)

listed in trager, originally published in issue 175 - October 2010

In June Harry and I worked at the Glastonbury festival, the biggest live green field music festival in the world. We gave Trager taster sessions to people with a wide variety of conditions from camping backs and shoulders, to serious illness and disability. As each session was limited to 30 minutes it was essential to send them away with self care movements, as a mechanism empowering them to ease their own discomfort.

How to Ease a Tired Back. Trager at Glasto2010 
How to Ease a Tired Back. Trager at Glasto2010

The Trager Approach does not only consist of table work, but an equally important part is allowing the client to find movements that replicate the feelings they experience on the couch and enable them to learn how to let go of their own discomfort. These can be small 30 second interventions or something longer and more playful.

In the only book co-authored by Milton Trager MD Movement as A Way to Agelessness[1] Mentastics (Mental Gymnastics) are described in the following terms.
" All movements on the earth - waters, winds or living creatures - follow the undulating curvature of a wave. Sound and light exist as waves with specific frequency and length. Mentastic movements create wave like shimmerings that resonate through the body and have a loosening and lightening effect on both body and mind."
The self-care movements are simple and are designed to raise self awareness, elicit feelings of lightness, ease and comfort in the body. They are never repeated to the point of discomfort or tiredness, but are effortlessly flowing and used with a spirit of enquiry; what could be lighter, and yet lighter than that? They are to counter the tensions and rigidity that build up over time and are held unconsciously as patterns of holding in the body.

Mentastics are in essence a form of moving meditation; they are not analytical, but require quiet presence to connect with just feeling the body, playing uncritically with resistance and discovering the subtlety of feeling. It is about pleasure and flow and finding delightful sensations.

 Dr Milton Trager Leading a Mentastics class
Dr Milton Trager Leading a Mentastics class

For example, maybe you are sitting at your computer reading this article, pause and ask, how are my arms and shoulders feeling? Perhaps you have a little tension in your neck and shoulders??

What would it feel like to lean over a little and allow an arm to dangle loosely towards the floor and feel the weight of your hand? Give your hand a little shimmer, pause sit up and ask yourself, how does my hand feel? Perhaps now repeat on the same side with some soft circling motions like a pendulum, pause see how it feels in your arm and shoulder? Begin to play with a loose whisking motion, soft at the wrist, as it you were frothing up bubbles in a bucket of warm soapy water by your side. Let your arm rest in your lap and compare the feelings between each arm/hand. Play with soft shimmering movements for a few seconds at a time.

It need only take 30 seconds or less to let go of tension and give your arm and shoulder a lighter softer feeling.

If there is any discomfort remaining explore how you are sitting, where is your neck and head, is there a more comfortable position to sit in?

Small children naturally play with movement and balance, not because they need exercise, but because they want to have fun and explore.

Whilst at Glastonbury Harry and I were on our feet for 12-15 hours a day, and often walking long distances, standing and waiting or watching performances. We used a number of very simple Mentastics to keep us feeling supple and weightless.

Harry has often said, "Being an Engineer, I like clear explanations of how and why things work and I have come up with a short and perhaps overly simplistic way of explaining the physiological processes involved in Trager work and particularly why the Self care / Mentastics are so important".  At the Montreal 2007 Trager Congress I experienced a bit of an 'AHA' moment after attending a 'Sensational Joints' workshop.

This workshop introduced me (Harry) to 'proprioception' and the major part it plays in the physiological process which is the 'mechanism' that controls the human body. Some two years later I refined this simple explanation of how and why Trager works and particularly why Mentastics / self-care are such a powerful tool.

When an enquirer asks "what is Trager and how does it work?", I start by inviting the enquirer to 'make a strong Bicep' and hold it for a short while. After a few seconds I will enquire if the arm is comfortable? Does it hurt? And usually the answer is no, it is not comfortable and yes it hurts, upon which point I will invite them to stop hurting themselves. Trager work does not require pain and it is not an endurance test. It is a deeply pleasurable and delightful experience. I then ask why did their arm hurt and usually receive an unclear response saying that it is because the muscle is under strain or similar?

I then give a very simple analogy of how muscles can be likened to a sponge. If you hold a sponge under a running tap, water will percolate through it. So the major blood vessels are the pipes feeding the tap. If you squeeze a wet sponge you will remove most of the water and if you let the sponge go it will suck the water back in.

In a muscle, blood and fluids are carrying oxygen and nutrients (amongst other things). In the process of working, the muscle uses this fuel and produces waste products that the circulation system removes to the 'waste processing plant' (kidneys / liver / skin etc). However by holding the 'Bicep' one is squeezing the 'Sponge', making it do the work, but not allowing the 'suck' part of the cycle to replace the fuel and remove the waste produce.

The longer the muscle is held in the squeeze part of the cycle the more 'waste' is produced until there is no more fuel to use. Now, the waste is a very important part of the process because it is a chemical, (essentially acidic), which acts as an irritant to the cells and nervous system receptors in the muscles and connective tissues in joints. This chemistry, for example lactic acid, is the stuff that makes your muscles feel tired and achy if they have been over worked. This is a clever design feature in the form of a bio/electrical/chemical safety valve which sends information to the brain which then sends other information to the muscles telling them to release the workload or create movement thereby allowing the "suck" part of the cycle to take the waste products away so that they are not irritating / stimulating / eroding the muscle / connective tissues / nervous system receptors.

By allowing the muscle to go though its complete design process it works efficiently and is comfortable and movement can actually be pleasurable.

If this information is ignored, as they are when individuals form 'holding patterns', a hostile chemical environment is formed in the area held. This can result in stiffness, restricted movement, achy discomfort and eventually inflammation. If a body's chemistry is very unbalanced it will result in spasm / cramp locally of muscles, or in extreme cases of dehydration / imbalance, the hostile environment will affect many of the bio feedback mechanisms throughout the body. For instance, as in heat stroke/exhaustion as I experienced when I was going through the selection process (P company) for the Parachute Regiment, running long distances in heavy kit on a very hot day.

This mechanism / process is the same in any muscle in the body, whether is a stiff neck and shoulders, tired arms / tennis elbow /RSI / carpel tunnel syndrome, lower back pain / Sciatica.
If muscles are held under long term tension, whether this is caused by postural imbalance, past injury or high levels of stress hormones, there will be a knock on effect on ligaments, joints and in fact on the whole structural integrity or tensegrity of the body.

It could even be speculated that this induced chemical imbalance, often brought on by stress hormones causing over tightness in muscles, could be a root cause for many neuromuscular conditions such as MS, ME, Fibromyalgia. Maybe these various conditions manifest in different ways from the same root cause, given the different chemistries, stresses that individuals experience in their lives.

So how does Trager work and Mentastics address this process?

The very first aspect of Mentastics is 'Presence and Awareness'.

Coming into a state of awareness and addressing what the body is experiencing at any given time is a skill. Like any skill it must be practised or one becomes less skilful.

By actively asking yourself "What am I feeling?" "How does my - hand / arm / shoulder / finger /toe / leg / ankle / neck / earlobe - feel as you are activating the information highway between that point and the Hard drive (your brain) where this information is integrated? If there is no feeling then perhaps some external information/stimulus is required to induce a feeling.

However it is very important to note that one does not have to induce pain to find feeling and awareness!

In a state 'not moving' ask your self, how do my cheeks feel?

With your Right hand, stroke your right cheek firmly but gently downward once. Pause and integrate the information that your touch has sent from your cheek to your brain. What does your right cheek feel like? Does it feel any different from your left cheek. Which side feels more pleasant?

This exercise gives information to the nerve endings in the skin and in the muscles of the cheek. It also gives proprioceptive stimulation to the nerve endings in the articulation of the jaw.

Again in a state 'not moving' ask your self how does my right wrist feel?

Hold out your right hand, palm up, fingers relaxed. Feel the weight of your hand as it is suspended from the wrist. Gently turn your hand palm down. Does your hand feel heavier or lighter? Gently turn your hand, palm facing to the left, thumb up. Does this change the feeling of the weight? Now turn the palm to the right thumb down. Finally allow the right hand to rest next to or in the same position as the left hand. Does your right wrist feel any different from you left wrist? Is the feeling in your right wrist a good one?

This exercise is another very good example of proprioception.

In all (but a few) of the 'Joints' between each of the bones in the body there are nervous system receptors called proprioceptors. One of the main functions of these is to provide structural and positional information to the brain for analysis. In this way a blind person is able to navigate in a room and can judge their proximity where they have learnt the position of the features in the room.

Another example / exercise - if you enclose the little finger of the left hand in the right hand and pull on it, the proprioceptors in the knuckles of the little finger will transmit to the brain that it is experiencing tension. Let the finger go and experience the lack of tension. What does your little finger feel like? If you press the point of the little finger of the left hand into the palm of the right hand, the proprioceptors in the knuckles of the little finger will transmit to the brain that it is experiencing compression.  Again bring your hands to an equal place of rest and ask your self what does my left little finger feel like? Does it feel any different to the little finger of my right hand?

In a healthy body this kind of information is being subconsciously, continuously, transmitted, analysed by the brain and instructions to muscles sent to accommodate movement or stasis as required.

When bio / electrical / chemical safety valve is ignored / bypassed, the sensitivity of the nerve ending receptors is compromised by the induced harsh chemical environment created locally or globally, is it any wonder that fatigue both physically and mentally is created?

For any engine / mechanism to remain efficient, it must be well maintained. If you are a top class sports man you must practise your sport or you will not remain in the top class. An engine requires its moving parts to be regularly lubricated or it will seize-up. The mammalian mechanism is the same. If you tried the suggested small exercises above and could not feel any difference - perhaps you need some proprioceptive practice.

Maintaining / practising with the information highway which is the nervous system - running small tests and analysing the results and sending 'Conscious instruction' to the peripheral bits of hardware (neck / shoulders / legs / arms / hands / feet) from the hard drive ensures the smooth running of the system without software conflicts.

If there is an episode is experienced, an accident resulting in injury, or an emotional crisis the 'Factory settings' can be adversely changed. A person who is bereaved might be worried about their personal circumstances, as well as suffering a loss of a family member / friend. They would probably feel lonely and fatigued. Their posture will likely be hunch shouldered with a concave chest. How could this posture and state of feeling effect their metabolism?

First of all, the head is out of alignment, thus the neck and shoulders are supporting a constant eccentric load. Secondly, breathing is shallow and inhibited. For short periods this may not be a problem; however if this posture becomes habitual, then the default has been changed and like any habit is not so easy to break. Try this hunched shouldered posture, try to breathe and see how it feels. Not so good is it? When you think of it, take a look at people who walk past you and note how many stoop forward as they walk

By applying presence and awareness, this discomfort can be recognized and a process of changing the default to a happier posture can commence.

To find out why the best form of self care / defragging is to brush your teeth every day while standing on one leg please contact Harry Dalford or Julie Kingston.


1. Milton Trager MD with Cathy Hammond. Movement as A Way to Agelessness, Station Hill Press 1995.


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About Harry Dalford and Julie Kingston

Harry Dalford BEng(Hons) IPTI LTP is a former Paratrooper, sky-diver, skin-diver and rock-climber who practises and teaches Aikido. He is a self-employed, Engineer/Surveyor/Builder and practises Trager in the self-built studio he shares with his partner of 15 years Julie Kingston. He is the current Chairman of Trager UK, and is also the Trager UK Newsletter Writer/Editor. He may be contacted via Tel: 01483 894741;            

Julie Kingston BA(Hons) LTP BWY MIPTI MICHT IHHT VTCT became a British Wheel of Yoga Teacher in 1993, went on to study CranioSacral Therapy, Life Coaching, Indian Head Massage and Swedish Massage.  She has two grown-up children and practices Trager and other therapies in her home studio. She is also a partner in a drumming company, Drumheads Live organizing community, education and corporate djembe drumming events. She is currently UK representative and the Trager International vice president on the Council of Trustees of Trager International, and has also served on the TUK Board of Directors. She may be contacted via Tel: 01483 894741;

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