Monday, March 23, 2015

Zero Phase

Zero phase, in Manual Lymphatic Drainage, is the moment when the hand is touching the skin but there is no pressure.  During the training, our teacher would come around and ask the one on the table receiving if the giver was getting their zero phase. Very often, they were not. The lightness of touch requires enormous concentration.  How fascinating that the resting of the hand is the most difficult to master. 

The hands make many different movements in many different sequences. All of them must be memorized and the hand must learn to make the movements skillfully.  With every movement, there is a zero phase.  The movements are repeated with deliberate slow monotony. The skin is stretched as far as possible (often not far at all) and then returns to the zero phase. 

The initial lymph vessels are found in the skin.  They open, drawing fluid, proteins, fats and other small bits into their lumen (space).  They close again, causing the fluid, now lymph, to move on into other transport systems that will carry it to the lymph nodes.  The hand movements cause these tiny initial lymph vessels to open and close faster.  They close at the zero point.  Closing is as important as opening.  It is the rhythm of the two that matters: open and close, movement and zero.   

I don’t know when I have had to work so conscientiously to not move, to rest my hand with no pressure, to stop before moving on.  How much easier it is to push or pull the skin, or a muscle, or a hand or leg.  Or in a moment when I am troubled by something, how much easier to push at the thoughts, trying perhaps to uncover something that will ease my disturbance.  What if I could find a zero phase? What if I could ask my mind, like my hands, to rest without pressure until something small closes for a moment and then opens again?

Hildegard, our teacher who is 85 years old and has probably the most experienced MLD hands in the world right now, tells us that dancers often do well with MLD.  There is a quality of rhythm and grace to the movements - after you have learned them each with painstaking attention to technique - that reminds one of dance.  I have always been rather a clumsy dancer and painfully self-conscious but as my hands learn the techniques and sequences well enough to actually find the zero phase, I believe I feel this dance with the fluid of the body.  When I draw my hand back to the zero phase, that place of touch with no pressure, I feel the buoyancy of the fluid underneath the skin and sense, at least in my imagination, the rhythm of the opening and closing that I cannot see.  My hands then seem to move with greater ease and possibly find their dance.

The zero phase reminds me of my pranayama (yogic breathing) practice.  There is the inhalation and the exhalation.  Then there is the inhalation with a pause when breathing stops, and then the exhalation.  At the end of the exhalation there is pause when breathing stops, and then the inhalation.  These pauses are referred to as breath retention. Breath retention is written about in most of the major sources within the yoga tradition and  there are numerous accounts of yogis being able to suspend their breath while buried alive for days and reactivate normal breathing practice afterward. Patanjali writes of breath retention in the Yoga Sutras (II.49-53) as a way to find greater clarity and quiet in the mind. Some translations/interpretations refer to the later stages of pranayama as a place/time where prana (life force) permeates everywhere and is the path to a place of bliss. 

The practice of pranayama shares a difficulty with zero phase.  One must release all pushing or pulling for the breath will not be forced or hurried.  Dancing with one's breath asks for the lightest of touch and requires enormous focus.  I doubted my capacity to find zero phase as I often doubt my capacity with pranayama and yet, there are moments, when I feel the dance show up as an unexpected gift.

During my first week of training, I had the honor of working on a woman who agreed to be a model for us.  She was also in her eighties and had been an MLD therapist for many years.  She said two things to me: “Imagine you are skipping though a field of daffodils.”  And then, “Do it with abandon.”  I am certain there is mystery and magic to be found through the portal of the zero phase. 

Photo by Ginny Wilson

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