A novel approach to teaching anatomy and physiology

Ashland Middle School student Rosanna Widner studies anatomy and physiology in an interesting way: She takes massage classes.

Over a five-week course, Rosanna, 13, has seen first-hand the human body's range of motion. She has discovered details about the skeleton, tissue and organs, and she has learned the cornstarch theory.

She demonstrates the theory by pressing her fingers into wet cornstarch, which has the consistency of human muscles.

"If you move hard and fast, the muscles won't be pliable," she says, while her fingers meet resistance against the white goo. "But if you go soft and slow, they relax and you can manipulate them to relieve soreness."

Over the summer, school children's interests in science learned through field trips or new hobbies may assist their academic performance this fall. But it's rare that a teenager gains knowledge in muscle fiber, nerve supplies and the digestive system through massage classes.

That's because massage schools are rarely geared to kids. An exception is the Family Massage Education Center in Ashland.

School director JoAnn Lewis says she likes teaching people of ages, "because I believe it is vital to our culture's survival to know positive, respectful, healthy touch."

Lewis, a licensed massage therapist, has been teaching massage to the public since 1997 and training for the International Association of Infant Massage since 2005.

With children, she explains techniques using cornstarch and other easy correlations.

She instructs them to follow the muscle tissue "like it's a road map." Lifting an upper leg by grasping a hand on each side is "sandwich" style.

"They may not know the Latin names for the parts of the body, but they begin to know how the body works," she says. "And they become more aware of their body."

Getting them to massage a family member is the next step.

"They have no problem with touch," she says. "They don't have the pullback as some adults. They are more apt to touch and take guidance."

And they like learning that if you go slow, you won't tickle someone.

There is an added benefit to learning with their family. "We send kids to school to get information, but here they learn with a loved one and that brings a closer connection," she says.

Youthful masseuses and masseurs are reaping other rewards, too.

Pete Whitridge of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education, a national organization of teachers based in Florida, says massage students do more than spend hours studying anatomy, physiology and kinesiology.

They also learn about health and wellbeing, and different types of stretching, gliding and compressing actions that help athletes enhance performance, people with injuries and those who just want to relax.

Most important, he says, they learn how to give and receive feedback, a useful skill for anyone, anywhere.

If they practice their newfound techniques, research shows they can reduce their stress and be better prepared for school.

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine has found massage improves right-left brain activity and motor skills.

On a recent Friday, Rosanna could have been tense. She and her mother, Lisa Widner of Ashland, were at the Family Massage Education Center, getting a refresher course on foot massage.

Yet, Rosanna was calm and smiled knowingly when instructor Lewis asked her if she remembered the coin analogy. She did.

Standing comfortably over the massage table, Rosanna peeled back a part of a blanket to expose her mom's feet. She then started rubbing a toe with her thumb as if it were a coin she was shining.

Rosanna says she has benefited from learning reflexology, an alternative medicine technique of applying pressure to points in the foot.

She also likes knowing how to use her body as leverage to avoid fatigue, and the vocabulary of massage, such as "milking" fingers and toes, "thumb over thumb" and kneading.

Rosanna practices on her mom and members of her all-girl punk band, whom, she says, jump around a lot when they're performing.

"I really recommend the class to anyone interested in the art of massage and for kids who want to expand their knowledge of healing and relaxation," says Rosanna, whose stage name is Phoenix Reising.

"The thing I learned most is if my mom or a friend has tension or a headache, I can help," she says.

Her mother says the five-week course, which cost $185 for two, gave her time with her daughter while teaching both to be more flexible and fluid.

A larger lesson was to realize their limitations, says Lisa Widner, who is a home health and hospice worker.

Because of the class, she can now figure out when a home remedy isn't enough and it's time to call a professional.

"The course is empowering to us," she says. "The knowledge offered and the hands-on instruction gave us confidence that we can put what's being taught immediately to use."

Looking at her daughter, she adds, "What we learned today, we can use tomorrow."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com

Share This Story