Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bowen Therapy 1: An Introduction

Bowen Therapy, while little known in the US, is popular in Australia (indeed, it originated in this country) and is quickly making inroads in the UK. The actual origins of Bowen Therapy are clouded in mythology:

Bowen is called after the man who developed it, Thomas Bowen of Geelong, in the Southern Australian state of Victoria. Bowen left school at fourteen and in spite of having no further formal education, by the mid seventies was one of the busiest therapists in the country, treating by his own estimates, over thirteen thousand clients a year. As remarkable as this is in itself, the claim that 90% of people only required one or two treatments is even more astounding. This kind of statistic however does hold up even today, as most busy Bowen therapists will tell you that the average number of treatments required by clients will be between two and four.

EoR has previously looked at such outrageous claims. Without knowing how many of the 13,000 patients were in the one-visit or the two-visit categories, assuming 10% needed the three-visit regime, that equates to 15,600 consultations in a single year. Assuming Mr Bowen was a workaholic and worked the full 365 days a year without a break, and also that he was an insomniac requiring only 6 hours sleep a night so that he could run his clinic for the full 18 hours a day (assume 6AM to midnight, with no break for meals, rest or toilet breaks), that means he was working fulltime doing a little over 42 consultations a day, with 25 minutes for each consultation. If you then assume he may have had the occasional day off, or even stopped to eat occasionally, the superhuman effort involved becomes even greater.

The actual way the method is implemented appears, at first sight, plausible:

The treatment consists of a series of gentle moves performed with the thumbs and fingers, over muscle, tendon ligament and skin. The pressure that is applied by the therapist is very little and is referred to as eyeball type pressure, that is the type of pressure that could be applied to the eye, without causing pain or damage to the eye. The therapist uses the slack skin to access the tissue, applies pressure and then makes a rolling type of move over the area. Although not a flick, the movement of the muscle creates a sort of alarm in the brain, which in turn triggers a neural response in the body.

The explanation starts slipping into woodom very quickly, as the author explains nervous feedback loops in the body (a well described phenomenon) and how Bowen transforms these:

A Bowen move interrupts this flow and creates a blip, which the brain in turn needs to interpret. In the process of this interpretation, a point of reference is created and blood is sent to nerve endings in the areas being worked. It’s as if the brain is asking "What happened?" and when not given a reasonable answer, tries to recreate the parameters of the move.

Bowen is different from other manipulative therapies (EoR can't get enough of that description!):

A key feature of The Bowen Technique is that of the therapist leaving the room in between certain moves in order to allow the work to take effect. With the move being as subtle as it is, the body and the brain need time to establish a) what has happened and b) what action if any needs to be taken as a result. The therapist leaving the room allows for this to happen and far from being a passive action is actually allowing the work to start to take effect. In addition an advanced therapist is not simply using a set of pre determined procedures, but is actually working according to the energetic and physical changes of each client and the breaks allow the therapist a space from which to make effective comparisons.

Why can't these miraculous changes work with the therapist in the room? We are never told. Apparently, the human brain can't think clearly if there's a bowenist in the room (though EoR admits he's seen believers in bowenism who seem to suffer from this intellectual deficit).

Even with these very light touches and "advanced" therapeutic absences, Bowen, like any good woo therapy, doesn't actually do anything:

The key element within all of this however, is the need to understand that it is not the therapist that is doing the repair. The principles of Bowen start with the understanding and conviction that the body is capable of repairing itself, given the right time and conditions. As there is no physical adjustment or high velocity thrust movements, Bowen is a treatment, which creates a set of parameters whereby the body’s own restorative ability is accessed.

Also, like other woo therapies, scientific proof is exceedingly hard to obtain:

Researching anything is a time consuming and expensive exercise, but in the case of CAM it raises several other issues. If we are to treat the individual as a whole, then it follows that the treatment given will vary from one client to the next, as different needs and abilities to respond arise. How then can this be put into the rigid format that would fall into the category of ‘scientific’ and therefore be acceptable by the medical profession?

Presumably, these wooists have some basis to decide which magic massage moves to make. If so, it would be easy to run a scientific study of a specific condition and group of patients that all required the same treatment. If there is no logic to their choice of moves (which EoR feels the bowenists are arguing for) then what on earth do these people think they're doing? Nonetheless, if any studies show that there might be an improvement, the bowenists are happy to jump on the scientific wagon. If they fail to show any effect, the above disclaimer is an easy out (are any of EoR's readers reminded here of the magic of homeopathy? or are they perhaps just thinking "selective data"?). EoR will return to some studies beloved of bowenists shortly. Of course, testimonials published in newspapers, and helpfully headed It Works For Me (that's the gold standard altie protocol) are always much more helpful.

Also, like all other altie therapies, Bowen claims it is better and kinder than other altie therapies:

Many other therapies inflict the will of the therapist on to the patient. In osteopathy, chiropractic and physiotherapy for instance, a diagnosis is made and treatment is given accordingly. On the face of it this may seem okay, but Bowen doesn’t work like that. The important thing about Bowen is that it allows the body the space to decide what is wrong and how to go about fixing it. Many conditions will respond that the therapist was not even aware of, simply because the body has made the decision to restore lines of communication to that area. A Bowen therapist will understand that the body is capable of healing the cause of the pain and not only the symptom.

So if some condition the bowenist didn't know about improves, the bowenists are more than happy to claim that they cured it. Like all true woo therapies, bowenists don't even need to know what's wrong with you:

Diagnosis therefore is not generally an area that a pure Bowen therapist will enter. Rather he or she will offer the work to the body and allow it to decide what, when and where it will use the treatment.

EoR is beginning to wonder why you'd go to one of these magicians. If his body already knows what's wrong with it, and can heal itself, can't he just sit at home and allow it all to happen naturally?

A little further searching shows clearly how Bowen works so effectively:

A Bowen treatment works by stimulating your bodies own healing energy. Some sensitive people can feel energy moving around the body along the major energy pathways or meridians. Although Tom Bowen was not trained in Chinese medicine, most of the Bowen moves correspond with acupuncture points which are like nodes in the network through which energy flows through the connective tissue. By stimulating these points with a Bowen move, new information is input to the nervous system, stimulating and causing changes in the energy flow. Traditional medicines have known for centuries that blockages and dysfunctions in body energy (or Chi) are the cause of illness and disease. By allowing energy to flow freely the body can make its own corrections, effectively healing itself. The Bowen practitioner does not need to make a precise diagnosis and know the cure. A body's own intelligence makes corrections where needed. [...] In cases of extreme injury, like burns or a broken bone within a cast, it is possible for a skilled practitioner to perform Bowen on the aura or energy field above the skin.

This is the best of all possible worlds: gentle massage, qi, meridians, selfhealing, auras, body intelligence. And an aside: if Bowen is so good for burns isn't that a simple condition that can be tested in those notoriously difficult to arrange scientific studies? Who cares what precise meridians the bowenists touch, or which specific moves - isn't the point these people claim that bowen does something?

Is there nothing these bowenists won't touch? Probably not, given that one of the Bowen moves is the Breast Tenderness Procedure. This page also makes more of the magic (yet, strangely, ill-defined and undetectable) energy:

Module7 of Level 3 covers positive and negative energy during Bowen Therapy. It includes an explanation of what positive and negative energy means as well as methods of how to ensure that you do not deplete your energy levels while performing Bowen therapy when clients bring in with them different levels of energy.

It gets wackier still:

The Bowen Technique affects very strongly the Chakra system and Auric field. From a clairvoyant point of view, a patient suffering from physical pain or psycho-emotional stress will show imbalances in the chakra system, and areas of dense, gray-dark, low frequency energy in the auric field. After receiving a few Bowen moves, the energy in the auric field will be instantly stirred up and gradually the areas of dense gray energy will clear and shift to white light or gold high vibration energy. The patient's energetic field will become radiant.

Back to Bodytune where the various schools and subsects of Bowen are listed - another sign of an unproven therapy since even the therapists can't agree on which are the 'real' moves nor how they should be done.

While Bowen is generally promoted for muscoskeletal problems, there are many areas that the bowenists are prepared to invade to further their empire: asthma, fibromyalgia, fertility and birth, broken neck, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy being a few.

Unfortunately, even though Bowen is a miracle cure, regular "tune ups" are recommended since, apparently, the body keeps forgetting how to heal itself. Others might think that conditions that have variable intensity are simply reoccuring without any relationship to any body reschooling that may or may not have taken place, with a healthy helping of the placebo effect.

You can become a bowenist with only 14 days training.


  1. Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. Excellent work as always, EoR.

    I want to point out that there is a different "Bowen Therapy" in the US, having to do with psychotherapy. There's the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, with an Introduction to Bowen Theory.

  2. Good point. EoR ignored the results on Pubmed for the psychological Bowen Therapy.

    Maybe the existence of an already extant Bowen Therapy in the US has slowed the uptake of the woo Bowen Therapy?


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