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The Butterfly Touch method developed by Eva Reich shows how less means more and how power lies in gentleness.. ...
2022-11-21 09:00:00
healthy living

Like Stroking a Butterfly’s Wing
A Most Delicate Massage

Photo by David Clodet/Unsplash
Like Stroking a Butterfly’s Wing
Like Stroking a Butterfly’s Wing

The Butterfly Touch is one of the shortest and the most delicate massages in the world. Its power lies not in strength but in gentleness. 

Read in 7 minutes

The baby was motionless, its eyes closed, its skin blue. It wasn’t breathing. The staff in the room froze, fixed their eyes on Dr Eva Reich, and waited wordlessly. The young doctor bent over the child and started to stroke it, so delicately that she barely brushed over the tiny hands and legs, gently moving over the little belly, almost without touching it. Her every move, in all its softness and smoothness, was simultaneously energetic and assured. After a moment, the little body twitched. The skin grew pink, the chest expanded and started to rise. The baby opened its eyes. Another life saved.

Reich assisted with difficult births and looked after infants whose lives were endangered. There were a lot of them in her care because Harlem Hospital in New York catered for premature babies from all over the city. It was the start of the 1950s, when babies were usually separated from their mothers straight after birth and left alone, deprived of touch. It was assumed that because their nervous system was only just developing, their memory wouldn’t register anything at all from this period of their life. Reich questioned this attitude.

Her parents were the psychoanalysts Anna Pink and Wilhelm Reich. Her father, a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s, was one of the first therapists in the West to work with the body in psychotherapy. Apparently, he introduced it into his practice quite by accident—during one of his sessions he touched a patient, which suddenly restored his lost memories. Intrigued, Wilhelm decided to take a closer look at the therapeutic role of touch. In time, he came to the conclusion that the gentler the touch, the more potential it has. 

Eva worked as her father’s assistant and watched his work with great interest. Wilhelm, however, quickly directed his work to “orgon,”—the term he used to describe life energy. He researched it, constructing ever more peculiar inventions, which made him the laughing stock of the scientific community (and an object of admiration for American bohemians). Eva, however, concentrated on touch by developing her own technique, which she called the Butterfly Touch massage.

Less Means More

The name is not coincidental. Reich loved butterflies from childhood. As a little girl, whenever she saw a butterfly she immediately reached out to it with the hope that it would land on her hand. Sometimes she chased it, trying to catch it, so she could have a good look and then let it go. Hence the name and key principle of her massage—it should be as gentle as touching a butterfly, so as not to damage it, or even knock the pollen from its wings. This is because Reich believed that the minimum stimulation has the maximum effect. For this reason, she also recommended that the Butterfly Touch should last between five and fifteen minutes, depending on body size and age. She emphasized that extending the length of the massage does not increase its effectiveness. When performed for longer—for thirty minutes or an hour—it becomes an altogether different technique. In Reich’s practice, less means more.

The Butterfly Touch mostly consists of stroking and circular movements. Sometimes gentle shaking is used, comparable to trying to lift jelly in such a way so that it doesn’t fall apart. The movements are performed in a sequence of several dozen steps, starting from the head towards the feet and from the center outwards. Although this sequence is strictly defined, some parts can be left out, e.g., when the person signals that they don’t like a certain body part being touched, or if they’ve had an injury or operation. Every hand movement simply brushes across the skin, usually with the fingertips and sometimes even above the skin—because the massage is not only about working with the physical body but also with its  energy. Reich based this on her father’s research: a gentle touch causes an individual’s energy field to expand, while a firm touch causes it to contract. 

“Expanding and contracting energy is a natural process, similar to how the nervous system works, where the sympathetic part stimulates the body and the parasympathetic part slows it down,” explains Marta Targońska, a trauma therapist and teacher of the Butterfly Touch massage.

“When energy is expanded, we experience states such as pleasure and joy, but also anger, which is an expanding emotion. This can be seen with the naked eye: the person is communicative, their skin pink and warm, their voice lively, and their movements unrestrained. Contracting is the opposite of this. It’s a kind of withdrawal, occurring, for example, when someone experiences anxiety, pain, or sadness. The skin then often becomes gray and pale, the gaze vacant, the voice quiet, and there’s a lot of tension in the body.

“Due to stress, difficult experiences, and trauma, this process of natural progression from one emotional state to the other can be disrupted, and the free flow of vitality blocked. This, in turn, may result in a deepening of bioenergetic contraction and the development of defense mechanisms—in extreme cases, even disease.”

With her massage, Reich could reverse the effects of contraction. In infants, this can occur as the result of, among other things, an endangered pregnancy, a difficult birth, the separation of the child from its mother, or the way the baby was cared for in its first weeks of life. Like her father, Reich used the word “trauma” to describe any difficult experience that impedes the flow of life energy. In turn, she referred to the memories of trauma stored in the body as “armor.” According to Targońska: “Armor can include increased muscle tension, for example in the jaws, shoulders, or pelvis. But armor can also affect internal organs, causing, for instance, colic in infants, and irritable bowel syndrome or painful periods in adults.” The Butterfly Touch dissolves this armor.   

Gentleness for All

After working on the pediatrics ward at Harlem Hospital, Reich began using her experience to help adults as well. For twenty-five years she mainly worked in rural areas of Maine. She also traveled extensively around the world, running courses and workshops to teach parents how to build relationships with their children using the Butterfly Touch. She encouraged them to use the massage especially during the first three months of the baby’s life, but also to continue it later when the child was a toddler or even a teenager. She also persuaded attendees to use the massage on each other: wife on husband, husband on wife, friends on friends. Her dream was to create a technique accessible to everyone; one that could be easily learned without the necessity of taking long and costly courses, or owning a massage table and other specialist equipment.

Initially a first aid tool for babies, the massage has begun to be used to help people of any age, not just the traumatized, armor-wearing ones. It has been recognized as an effective way of relieving stress, improving the functioning of the whole body, and bringing pain relief, even in serious medical cases such as oncological or palliative care. The massage doesn’t require undressing, so it can also be used on some people who have experienced sexual violence. The method is totally safe, the only contraindication being the possible lack of consent from a patient. There is no recommended frequency—it can be used sporadically or regularly, once a week or even daily. 

Today the method is no longer taught by Eva Reich, but by her former assistant Richard C. Overly, to whom we largely owe the spread of knowledge about the Butterfly Touch. If not for him, the massage would probably only be known to a small circle of doctors and therapists, because Reich didn’t care about publicity and viewed the publishing of her research and achievements a waste of time, which could be better spent caring for her patients. 

Overly first came to one of her courses as a participant. The method fascinated him so much that he repeated the training as soon as the opportunity arose, and shortly thereafter started learning and practicing with Reich. He then became her assistant and started actively promoting the massage, developing educational programs directed at wide audiences while meticulously documenting her research. In 1997 he founded the Gentle Bio-Energetics Institute, whose mission is to popularize her work. Reich herself retired five years earlier. She spent the final period of her life bedbound having experienced a series of strokes. She died in 2008.

Before she passed away, Overly wrote and published the book Dr. Eva Reich’s Butterfly Touch Massage, in which he described and illustrated the entire sequence in detail, movement by movement. He also included an instructional DVD, so that—just as Reich had dreamed—anyone could learn the massage by themselves. 


Translated from the Polish by Irena Kretowicz

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