One component of both Esalen-style massage and the neurological resetting I do in Structural Integration, is gentle rocking, shaking, pulling, or other light movements of the limbs and joints. Below is a presentation I once did on the “Trager Method”; more details are on the Esalen page, and see also an essay “Trager Mentastics: Coming at life from a question” by Roger Tolle.


A method of gentle bodywork and movement education (like Alexander) that teaches the client to release muscular tension and loosen restricted movements through both neuromuscular and mental techniques. Its keywords are “free” and “light”: Trager techniques teach the client to express freedom and lightness in her movements, which in turn releases both muscular stress and psychological tension.


Milton Trager (M.D.), 1908-1997. Trager was an aspiring athlete who studied medicine and physical rehabilitation his whole life. He honed his movement techniques in his twenties, refined them into the “Trager Approach” in the 1950s, and started teaching widely in the 1970s. Trager was a light-hearted person who emphasized fun and freedom in his workshops.

How I use it in my sessions

I don’t do Trager routines per se, but just include a couple elements of his work in most of my sessions. His techniques of (1) gentle traction and movement combined with (2) visualizations and awareness-focusing can help “reset” a part of the body. This is relevant to the work of Dr. Rolf’s Structural Integration in that both can change a body’s proprioception — its sense of self in relationship to gravity. This can change posture, ease old holding patterns, and bring awareness of held tension through biofeedback. And it’s relaxing!

One key to the way Trager works is that I make the movements somewhat random. The therapist varies the speed, rhythm, or amplitude of the rocking-like movements. This means the receiving body can’t predict the movements, so it can’t hold on; it can’t as easily hold muscles that are unnecessarily tight, or unconsciously guarded. During the gentle traction, the client visualizes “what could make this movement feel more free? What could make this limb feel more light?” and can thus tune in to muscles that are holding, or movements that are restricted. This produces a deeper, neurological type of relaxation and looseness, one that can sometimes be felt days later.

What the Trager Method itself looks like

Client lies clothed on the table. Therapist rocks or slowly shakes every joint, lightly and gently, according to each body part’s own natural amplitude. This relaxes the joints and makes the body feel light. At the same time, therapist gives client relaxation techniques and guided visualizations. Client is told to recall this feeling of freedom. Client then gets off the table and therapist leads her through flowing, dance-like movements, while recalling the sensations of lightness. This brings the freedom felt in the passive movements into active, client-guided movement. Visualization + movement = mental + gymnastics = “mentastics”.

Who uses it, and why

Athletes, to achieve full relaxation a day or two before an event. Seniors, to restore vitality to their stiffening bodies. Arthritics, to feel relief from joint tightness. People who have injuries that contraindicate more forceful types of bodywork. And finally, massage therapists who want to relax a client on their table.

How it works

  • First, the therapist attunes with the client, what Trager called “hooking up”: this means starting with a meditative hands-on “listening” to the body to sense the client’s energetic levels — physical, mental, and emotional.
  • The sustained, slow rocking causes the brain to release muscle tone. The effect is just like reciprocal inhibition, save that the entire body is being inhibited.
  • Once each joint has “released,” the client is shown how to remember that feeling during activities of daily living, thus allowing her to achieve her own release.
  • The brain neurologically “resets” the resting tone of each muscle group. This release can be felt as a sense of ease for many days after.
  • Range of motion at a joint is partly restricted by the tone of muscles that cross it. Lowering the resting tone of those muscles increases overall ROM.
  • Restrictions are physical, but may also have causes in the brain: patterns of movement that are ”fixed” in the premotor cortex.
  • Finally, on a purely physical level, joints are nourished and lubricated by this flow of synovial fluid, and production of more synovial fluid is stimulated.

How it differs from “Joint Play”

Emphasis is on the whole body, not the joints themselves. Movements are more gentle, slower, and larger amplitude. The client’s whole body is involved. Session lasts 60-90 minutes, allowing deep relaxation. No pain. Active movement is included. Mentastics. “Psychophysical.”

Is it legit?

Yes. Unlike the nonscientific modalities taught by unschooled natural healers (think Tom Bowen’s “Bowtech” or Daniel David Palmer’s “chiropractic”), Trager was a doctor who investigated both his techniques and the theory behind them. And unlike non–evidence-based energy work like Reiki or Therapeutic Touch, physiological bases for Trager’s techniques can be clearly demonstrated.