Maya Abdominal Massage: An interview with Bria Larson
Before I start this interview, I just want to note how difficult it was to find a stock image of a woman’s belly that wasn’t about weight loss, pain, or pregnancy. That was disturbing to me. Pregnancy is one of the only times we are positive about and celebrate women’s bellies in our culture.
Maya Abdominal Massage is another positive way to think about our bellies and celebrate their healing capability. I was introduced to Maya Abdominal Massage about five years ago in a self-care class. Last year, I got to have a Maya massage with Bria Larson for the first time. It was not only healing for me on a physical level but on a deep emotional level as well. I talked with Bria recently about Maya Abdominal Massage and how she incorporates it into her acupuncture practice in San Francisco.
Hi! Can you tell us a little bit who you are and what you do?
Yes, my name is Bria Larson. I’m a Licensed Acupuncturist, Herbalist and Maya Abdominal Massage Therapist. And so in my practice, I focus primarily on Women's health (fertility and pregnancy) and I treat with a number of modalities - mostly acupuncture and herbs but I also have about 20 to 25% of my practice that’s just Maya Abdominal Massage which I think we're going to delve into a little bit more today.
So what is Maya Abdominal Massage?
Maya Abdominal Massage is a manual therapy technique that has its origins in the Mayan midwifery traditions of the Mayan indigenous people of Central America. It is a manual therapy technique that aims to increase circulation of blood, lymph, and the body’s vital energy through touch. Some the really specific techniques that it incorporates, that makes it unique from other types of massage, is that there are techniques to help evaluate uterine positioning and also adjust uterine positioning if the uterus is tilted either forward or backward or from side to side.
It works on a bunch of different levels: physical level with circulating energy, blood, lymph but it also helps clients release emotional tension. So many of us, in particular, women, hold tension in our pelvis, in our abdomen for so many reasons. This work, the act of physically touching those parts of ourselves can really, really help release old emotional tension, trauma, shame, all sorts of things.
Wow, that’s pretty intense! How long have you been practicing Maya Abdominal Massage?
I got certified in 2012, so almost 7 years. I came to the work as a patient. I’d been an acupuncturist for almost nine years and I had been experiencing some kind of mystery pelvic pain that nobody could really figure out. Nothing was really showing up conclusively on Western imaging like ultrasounds.
I don't even remember where I first heard about Maya Abdominal Massage but something had passed into my consciousness about the work and I saw a practitioner in San Francisco, Tracy Stone, who still does the work. She's now a chiropractor. And I had a few sessions and the pelvic pain resolved itself.
I just really fell in love with the work and saw the opportunity for it to complement my acupuncture practice because it really works well with Chinese medicine and acupuncture. And it has some unique gifts to offer that we don't have with acupuncture and herbs.
So I got licensed and trained both in Belize and in New Hampshire of all places, the hub of Mayan medicine in the United States.
Only because most of the teachers teach out of this organization that’s based in New Hampshire. And then I was off and started seeing people by the middle of 2012.
How does it work along with your acupuncture practice? You don't do it with every patient, right? And some people do just Maya [Abdominal Massage ] and not acupuncture?
Yeah, that's right. I have some patients that I've been seeing for acupuncture and I think it's appropriate to add in Maya Abdominal Massage. Those patients are often fertility patients or patients who have gynecological issues that have some sort of blood stagnation origin, some pain origin and that have a connection to musculoskeletal tension. It’s less effective at balancing hormones. I think really we're more skilled in addressing the more internal medicine hormone side of things with acupuncture and herbs, but it's a really wonderful manual therapy to complement the acupuncture.
And I also have patients who just come for Maya Massage who don't like acupuncture and then I have Maya Massage patients who are seeing another acupuncturist and with those patients, I’ll sometimes work collaboratively with their acupuncturist and sometimes we’ll collaborate and think through herbs for them or not. It's a really nice mix. It’s physically demanding so I can only do so many a day so that is why it's limited in my practice. I think if I wanted to I could see Maya Massage people all day every day. There’s a growing demand for it but my wrists are not up to the challenge by a long stretch.
I wanted to ask about what conditions does it help with and from your website I found: Gynecological pain, fertility, PMS, urinary incontinence, prolapse of pelvic organs, gas, bloating constipation, lower back, and hip pain, healing from C-section, and other postpartum concerns.
Yeah that those are some of the heavy, heavy hitters. The things that are used most often or used to treat most often. I would also add to that and I do see a handful of pregnant clients. You can do the work after 20 weeks of pregnancy and it can help with round ligament pain, it can help with some of the back and hip pain that happens with pregnancy. It can help in situations where mama feels like baby’s just hanging out on one side and/or there was an existing imbalance in her muscles, like she had a really tight right side and then baby seems to be hanging out on one side.
So a lot of the stuff is geared towards women and women’s issues. Does it help with men too?
Yes, I can I've only had a handful of male patients and most of them I've had referred through Pelvic Floor [Physical Therapists]. The men that I've worked with had a urogenital issue that was related to hypertonicity in the ab muscles or the psoas. So there's some holding tightness in their abdominal muscles that was then causing referred pain or sexual dysfunction or something but it had its origin in a soft tissue issue. Those are the guys that I’ve helped before.
My intro to this kind of massage was through a self-care class I took. Do you teach that to your patients?
Yes, I teach a very abbreviated self-care technique. I don't go into the whole thing.
As you know, the self-care course is over multiple days and you really dive into anatomy and it's really wonderful. But I do teach the actual technique for women or men to do between sessions.
With the self-care too, I find it's a really empowering part of the work because . . . it's helpful in many ways. One way is it gives women an opportunity to get used to touching their abdomen and pelvis and I think there's so much resistance to even acknowledging the reality of a woman's center in our culture because we’re just blasted with images of somebody's six-pack abs as what a belly is supposed to look like and feel like. So getting women to touch themselves and kind of feel what the reality is and to start to tune in to “Oh I'm starting to feel a little tighter. What else is going on? ls it something external in my life? Am I stressed?” Or “Am I at a certain point in my cycle?” So it's one more tool for self-reflection by physically touching your body.
Yeah, that's wonderful because I know if you go to get regular massages or different kinds of massages, they often will just not even touch the belly. You have to ask if specifically want to be touched there. And it is a very vulnerable part of people.
And I think there are plenty of people who don't want to go there and I understand why most massage therapists don't - I think there's liability. It can really - if someone doesn't feel really safe - it can bring out fear or trigger old trauma response and all sorts of stuff if they're not feeling like it's a safe environment.
I understand that the Maya therapy that is taught by your teacher is a whole system of medicine as well as massage. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes, the lineage that I studied was brought to the states by a woman named Rosita Arvigo and she's an American who moved to Belize in the early 80s and studied with Mayan herbalists and midwives. Some of her big teachers were the herbalists and practitioners named Don Elijio and Miss Hortense Robinson. She had a primary male teacher and primary female teacher and she studied with them for decades and still lives most of the time in Belize and then teaches here.
You know in my training, there was an herbal medicine component as well but it's been really hard for me to practice with those herbs because I'm so in the mindset of the Chinese Medicine paradigm of understanding herbs. The practice of Maya herbalism is likely quite sophisticated, however, I feel like something is lost in the translation from that practice when teaching it in a weeklong Maya abdominal massage course.
A lot of the principles of Maya Medicine - there's a lot of subtleties and a lot wasn't written down. It is very much an oral tradition and so it's tricky to translate. I have a hard time practicing and feeling confident with the Central American herbs it because I don't really understand them in a way I do the herbs used Chinese Medicine or even many common Western herbs.
You don’t want to practice it because you haven’t studied it as in-depth as you have Chinese Medicine?
Yes. There’s a lot of really powerful medicine in the jungle and I have respect for and I get a little nervous when people say “Just give Woman's Tonic to every woman in your practice.” As a Chinese Medicine Herbalist, I say “Oh no, wait a second: what is the differential diagnosis? Why is this Woman's Tonic good for this woman?” What should I give to this woman?” My training didn't go into that depth. I’ll just have to move to Belize for a couple of years.
There's a great book called “Wind In The Blood” and it was written by a couple of Mexican doctors who travel to Maya country and talk to Mayan healers about how they understood their medicine and their healing practices and some of the language and concepts do have similarity to Chinese Medicine. They had a rudimentary acupuncture system where they would use quills and bone shards to do an acupuncture type practice. And they have concepts of like Wind Invading the Blood which is similar to Chinese Medicine, but again I feel most of us can really only scratch the surface because there's not a ton published about it.
I actually think this medicine is in danger. It's not like Maya Medicine is growing by leaps and bounds. With all the time in the world, I would want to spend some more time and delve into the bigger, broader context of their medicine.
What was it like studying in Belize? I'm sure it wasn't just classroom time. How was it different from the classes in New Hampshire?
It was, but it also wasn't in Maya country. Rosita does host some classes on her farm which is in southern Belize in the jungle but a lot of the self-care classes and professional training classes are on the Keys which are islands in the Caribbean. Belize is a super diverse country and that part of the country has much more of a Afro Caribbean vibe to it and I think there's a little bit less of that Maya influence so it was wonderful but it wasn't authentic in-the-jungle experience.
She does offer some herbal classes and she also has this branch of her teaching called spiritual healing and we really don't get into that too much in the amount of training that I have done but there are some advanced courses where you know, exorcism is not the right word, but some sort of clearing of spiritual maladies. It’s a little shrouded in mystery so I can’t speak more to it than that.
Is there anything else about this type of massage you want to add?
Some contraindications: there are some techniques that I cannot do. I can't work directly on the uterus if a woman has an IUD. I can't work directly on her uterus if she's actively trying to conceive and it's past ovulation. It is such a moving treatment we don't want to risk messing with embryo implantation or a super early pregnancy. And with an IUD, you don't want to risk damage to the uterus because we can go pretty deep depending on the patient.
Another thing I would add is some people are a little worried that it might hurt and I would say most patients feel super relaxed during the treatment. Occasionally I'll get a patient whose abdominal muscles or hip flexor muscles are so so tight that it's a little uncomfortable. But I try and take the lead of my patient’s body . . . there's no level to get to - it's really working with how the body is presenting and how deep we can go without it being a struggle or chiseling away at someone's ab muscles. That is not the experience we're going for. It might feel deep and we're really moving things around but it should never feel dangerous or super uncomfortable and distressing.
How can people find out more about you and about this type of massage?
My website is larsonacupuncture.com and it’s got a bit more about my bio and about my services and you can send me an email through the website. And if you want to learn more about Arvigo Maya Abdominal Therapy, the website is arvigotherapy.com That’s a great resource and they have a lot of great articles on some of the applications of the work. I will say, I have found is a bit of a narrower scope that I've seen success than what the Arvigo claims. I find it's less helpful with digestive things than is celebrated and promoted through that lineage, but other practitioners might have a different experience.