Follow Grandma on a SHEN Retreat

Going on a SHEN Retreat    


“You’re going on a retreat?” “What on earth is SHEN? “ “Is it Chinese?” “Do they stick needles in you?”      “Is it Massage?” “Ooh!….yes! – What do you mean you keep your clothes on?”


I blame it all on PMR.(Polymyalgia Rheumatica). For those of you who’ve been reading my Follow Grandma blogs  you’ll know I recently developed  (PMR) a non-life threatening disease that mainly affects women over the age of 65. You wake up one morning, unable to move, constrained by a stiff neck and shoulders, with hips and other joints that are swollen and painful. When you eventually manage to get upright your balance is affected and you shuffle along like a prisoner in chains. The simplest thing, like reaching down to put your socks on, is impossible – I’ll spare you the other details but it is a disabling, painful, frightening and depressing condition

I decided to do some research. Was I doing anything that might be contributing to the disease? Was there something I could change that would help me with the pain or improve the symptoms? If that meant changing my diet, my life style or gently exercising more I was willing to give it a go.

Some things did give marginal relief – hot showers helped to get my circulation and movement going in the morning, exercising the few parts of my body that did still move allowed me to extend my range of movement. However, the moment I sat down for half an hour I seized up again!

I felt as though I had blockages in all my joints. Something was painfully stopping my movements and it ranged from that very stiff neck right down to my knees. Once my limbs were activated there didn’t seem to be an underlying problem, and it appeared the message from my brain was getting through to my muscles and nerves. However, the movements were restricted by something that felt like sticky and painful glue in my joints. I wondered if acupuncture might help and asked some respected medical friends for advice. Although they couldn’t recommend a local practitioner they suggested I might benefit from a therapy called SHEN. I’d never heard of it but decided  to learn more and check it out on the Internet:

SHEN wasn’t claiming to offer a ‘cure’ for illness. ‘SHEN Therapy is a breakthrough approach to emotional health, a radically new understanding of how emotion influences the body & the mind.’
(SHEN is an acronym for Specific Human Emotion Nexus)

As I read more I learned that the treatment involves the practitioner using his or her hands to locate very precise points on the body and then, through a process of holding his hands over the point or physically holding that part of the body,  releasing contractions that may be trapping emotions. Think about static electricity and the energy that your body normally holds. This energy, which should flow naturally, (in the same way that your blood circulates) can be disrupted by life’s events and cause blockages. SHEN deals with these blockages and enables the energy to flow more freely.

I had no idea if I had any “trapped emotions”. I had just returned from holiday in India with my daughter and friends, I was planning another scuba diving trip, I have no real worries and was coming to the end of a 70th birthday year of celebration and genuine thanks for my friends, family and health. Suddenly I had been sideswiped with this immobilising and painful illness.

I did some more reading before deciding to give it a try.

Medical science has been unable to explain how emotions can affect and upset the body. Even how the feelings and sensations of emotions could remain trapped there for so long is a mystery because medical science has overlooked a very simple factor; the body contracts whenever it feels pain. It is this contraction that is the culprit.

SHEN certainly seemed as if it “Did no harm” and so I decided to look for evidence of how or if it might help my PMR form a personal (anecdotal) perspective.

This horrid disease has brought some unexpected experiences, moments of delight and some fabulous people into what have been (at times) pretty miserable months. SHEN therapy has been one of these good experiences and when I met Marion, a former nurse and now a practitioner in Angus, (Scotland) I realised I had also met a caring and gifted person. Within minutes she had explained in a straightforward way that SHEN did not cure. However, it could help to release blocked emotions and that might help to reduce my acute symptoms of pain, discomfort and immobility.

The treatment is carried out on a comfortable cradle-type bed, which is suspended over the massage table. This is designed so practitioners can place hands underneath the back of the body during treatment. Marion explained that she would do the work whilst I lay on my back fully clothed, warm and comfortable. This was all about relaxing and letting go completely, so it was ok to fart, belch, cry or just sleep during the session! I liked it already.

She was also clear that this was not a counseling session or anything like that. That was reassuring since I felt comfortable and in full control of my emotions. That was until I began to explain to her how my GP had told me there is no conclusive test for PMR and I had made a decision not to take steroids until any other medical conditions were excluded. I then added that my doctor had impressed on me that if I did have PMR I had a one in ten risk of going blind if I didn’t take the steroids.

As I said this, and without warning, I felt myself experiencing the emotions of a six year old girl who, 64 years ago, had an eye operation for a squint and woke up unable to see; bandages wrapped tightly around her head; a little girl who stumbled blindly around obstacles in a children’s hospital ward, frightened and alone. In those days parents were excluded from daily hospital visiting. Now, as I cried, I was vividly recalling that distress all over again. These emotions had been well and truly buried before this SHEN session.

Marion looked at me and said simply “Yes, something similar brought me to becoming a SHEN practitioner.” She went on to talk about her life as a child on Barra, a Hebridean island, with no electricity or running water. When she was nine she developed appendicitis and was taken by boat to hospital in Glasgow. She spoke only Gaelic and was suddenly plunged into a world of bright lights, white coats and hospital life. Like my childhood experience and emotions, hers also resurfaced through SHEN much later in her life after she had become a nurse.

So I began my SHEN journey with a course of regular sessions in Scotland. Each one lasted at least an hour and a half. Marion’s hands would move lightly to different points sometimes resting on a particular joint. On one occasion I was acutely aware that my right arm around the biceps became red hot, like a raging inferno. Afterwards when I checked how hot had it felt to her she’ said she’d felt no difference and this often happened to people’s bodies when their energy was moving.

The sessions continued to be relaxing. Sometimes I had more mobility afterwards and even though it meant a painful journey to and from home I felt the sessions were helpful. I was learning to ‘let go’ on a different and deeper level and experience a new state of relaxation. Sometimes I was fully conscious; sometimes I drifted in and out and occasionally I had a welcome snooze. I lay in a warm comfortably suspended state whilst the wild winds from the North Sea beat against the windowpanes.

However, the overall symptoms were not getting better and after tests and discussions with a rheumatologist I decided to take the steroids. The symptoms diminished dramatically almost overnight. (This appeared to be conclusive medical evidence that I had PMR!) And, two weeks later I was able to sit down long enough to make the journey south to see my family.

Polymyalgia Rheumatica has demanded that it be respected. It’s as if it intends to teach me something and I am listening. The underlying cause is not known and medical consultants shake their heads and say they have no idea whether it’s viral or genetic. However, it does appear to burn itself out after about 18 months. For my part I have every intention of recovering my health and strength and maintaining it. In the process if I discover anything more about my emotions that helps me to maintain my health then that’s all to the good.

The SHEN sessions I had in Scotland had provided a new, responsible (and very relaxing) way of dealing with my body, mind and emotions. I’d discovered another way of letting go and I wanted to continue uncovering the impact other buried emotions might be having on my physical wellbeing. Marion was encouraging and put me in touch with Tony Bailey, her teacher and ‘guru’ who lives in England.

Let me remind you what I wrote further back:
This horrid disease has brought some unexpected experiences, moments of delight and some fabulous people into what have been (at times) pretty miserable months.

This week I’ve travelled to Bewdley in the heart of Worcestershire where Tony Bailey warmly welcomed me to the Sanctuary he has created in his delightful Georgian home on the banks of the river Severn. I’m here for a three-day mini retreat and I’ve had a double session of three hours of SHEN treatment this afternoon.

I am still processing what happened. But part of that process is feeling freed up to write openly about what I am experiencing. More blogs will follow.

Earlier, I walked along the riverbanks and watched dozens of swans cavorting on the river in the spring sunshine. A large squadron of them flew magnificently in formation just above the river’s surface. I watched with amusement as one bedraggled loner, unable to take off, chased them and with huge web -footed strides literally ‘running on water’ for several hundred yards.

Later I watched with astonishment as lone swans solved problems of mobility and direction by ‘going with the flow’ of the river Severn; allowing the current to take them sideways and backwards in order to successfully, and without stress, reach a source of food. What a metaphor for life’s problems, and one that I thought I might adopt.

As I reach the end of the first day of this mini retreat I realise my energy has changed. It is past midnight. I have spent the last few hours writing with enthusiasm. Before that I was strolling around the old Georgian town of Bewdley, taking photographs, recording my thoughts and enjoying the ebb and flow of river life. I observe a definite and positive change in my energy. I have felt exhausted for months. Now, late at night, I realise that all evening the feeling of fatigue has been completely absent. I am ready for bed, ready for sleep but I’m not weary. What an extraordinary, and welcome, end to the day.

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