Healing Touch: Knoxville Energy Workers

Looking to mend your mind, body, and/or spirit? Tap into the power of energy work with our guide to Knoxville's best hands-on healers.

It's a Tuesday night, pretty average really, except that something truly miraculous has just happened to me. I'm lying on Sara Griscom's massage table at Gypsy Hands Healing Arts Center, spent, open, healed, and grateful.

Sara has done all the things a good, highly trained neuromuscular massage therapist can do, yes: She's rubbed and kneaded my muscles, she's worked my myofacial tissue, she's aligned my limbs and carefully applied pressure to trigger points to release tension in my musculoskeletal system. She's helped me undo all the habits of holding and patterns of misalignment that keep a middle-aged gal like me from experiencing the joy of a pain-free existence. I feel better physically when she's done, and no doubt I'll perform better functionally when I walk out her door.

But that's not it. Not it at all. She's done something else for me, something more profound, yet subtle. She's worked on my energy body, helping me grapple with some serious spiritual and emotional issues—second-chakra baggage I'd been dragging around for years, if you care to know—and finally, thankfully, let them go.

The release I got from her energy work was mind-blowing in a way that's harder to describe than, say, a hamstring letting go—it was like a weight had been lifted off my soul. When it's over, my spirit feels like it has a little more range of motion, my emotions a little more flexibility than they did just a few hours ago. Like I said, spent, open, healed, and grateful. A little wigged out—but in a good way.

This is all in a day's work for Griscom, who's not your average massage therapist by any means. She is, rather, an intuitive guide (the protégé of East Tennessee favorite psychic son Bobby Drinnon) and a healer trained in multiple traditions—massage therapy, Mayan and Maori healing, and Reiki among them. She uses her hands to help her "hear" what's going on, and to help her clients hear it, too. "For me, massage is just a platform—Bobby likes to just call it touch," she says. "But I think everything that is happening with the physical body is a guidepost to what is happening with us energetically. We don't always look at the energetic component, because we're not trained to see it. But really, it's the bigger part. It's the part you can't ignore."

Speaking from a strictly holistic perspective, she's preaching the gospel—all illness and discomfort and disease is a manifestation of an underlying mental, emotional, or spiritual disorder. That is to say, life's physical problems have roots in the nonphysical realm. You can't just throw drugs at your migraine headache if, at the core, it's really about fear of abandonment. You can't rub away chronic lower back pain if your real issue is heartache over a failing marriage. You need to go deeper—and that's just what energy work does.

It can't mend your marriage, or provide you with a material safety net, of course. What it can do, Griscom says, is help draw your awareness to what's really going on so that you can work through it. "Pain calls us into awareness of ourselves in a very deep way. It's a gift if you can see it that way," she says. "But people need help to digest their own experience sometimes, and work through their internal blocks."

When they do, she says, the potential for healing is boundless. "Energy work brings people that much more into awareness of themselves," she says. "They may feel themselves being plugged in or turned on, they may feel tingly or crackly as the energy starts to move in them and their souls are called back into their bodies. It's a beautiful wake-up call. It's very empowering."

This kind of energetic tune-up is readily available in Knoxville, from Griscom and from many others. Energy work—like energy itself—is all around us.

Before you read much further, this has to be said: To undergo energy work is to willingly enter the world of the woo-woo. Yes, the field is growing; yes, it's being taken seriously. The National Institutes of Health now recognizes "energy medicine" as a valid field of endeavor, and is actively seeking to measure and mark its actions and effects via several studies funded through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Visit NCCAM's informative website, and you'll learn that energy medicine comes in two flavors—veritable (the tangible, can-be-measured kind, such as acupuncture), and putative (that which has yet to be measured or cannot be measured, such as Reiki, a Japanese energy-work technique).

What constitutes "energy work," the likes of which is plentiful around town these days, is this latter kind. Energy work is a field that seeks to channel and move energy via very subtle manipulations of the body combined with an intention set by the practitioner. By and large, it is an intuitive art, a tuning-in process that defies physicality altogether—and sometimes transcends it. Like I said, woo-woo.

Because energy work is nothing so much as the laying on of hands—a newfangled spin on a practice that's as old as humanity—it's making serious inroads into the world of massage therapy, or what can be known in contrast as "body work." A cursory glance through the list of body workers registered with the American Massage Therapy Association (amtamassage.org) reveals that somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 percent of local licensed massage therapists (LMTs) now offer some form of energy work as an adjunct to or as a primary feature of their practice.

There's a reason for that. "All massage has an energetic aspect to it," explains Val Whiting, spokesperson for the Tennessee Massage Therapy association. "We are learning that in using some energy techniques, we can lighten up on the physical compression. That's pretty attractive to us, since massage is 60 percent labor. Plus, it's a trend—we are always looking for something new to indicate that we might offer something different."

It's a new take, in other words, on massage with benefits. The therapeutic effects of the garden-variety rubdown—Swedish massage, with moderate pressure—have been well established, thanks largely to the efforts of Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. In study after study, she's shown that massage has measurable benefits for immune system dysfunction, diabetes, depression, cancer, HIV—it even helps premature babies grow faster. "It's turning out to be an incredible thing for reducing chronic diseases," Field says.

So why not stick with the same old strokes? Because the benefits of traditional massage—the likes of which Field studies so rigorously—can only be experienced with repetition. You need more and more and more of the stuff to keep the benefits going. Massage stops, muscles tense, cortisol levels rise, and you're back in the same old boat. Unless you're married to Sven, it's an expensive and time-consuming path to wellness. And for all its feel-good glory, this kind of body work is—well—a little shallow. Skin-deep, if you will.

Plus, focusing solely on the muscles and the connective tissues of the body—the stuff we're made of—leaves much of the inner frontier unexplored. Energy work promises to open your healing horizons in more transformative and lasting ways—if only, as Griscom noted, by helping you find your own way past the whole physical mess and connect to what's authentic. To the chi, the prana, the universal life force energy, that which animates…call it the Holy Spirit, if you want to.

I can't prove a thing, but I've had profound experiences with energy work, and can say what I believe to be true. A good energy work session is like a psychotherapy session—it can help you calm down, breathe deep, and grapple with long-buried emotional issues without having to blab on and on about them. It can help you heal, not only because the practitioner is doing something "to" you, but also because it can awaken your own reserves of balance and well-being. Energy work can help you find peace and solace as you stumble along your spiritual path (whatever it may be). And, mostly, it feels good.

Oh, and one more thing—a few of the most talented energy workers I've ever encountered are right here in our small town, Griscom among them. Here's a guide to some of the best—a who's who of the woo-woo.

For Steve Palmer, finding his path into energy work was following a thread of truth. Working as a physician's assistant for orthopedic surgeons at St. Mary's, he spent his days working with the physical body, hampered by Western medicine's insistence that what you see is all there is. At night, in his spare time, he followed the thread—working on friends, then friends of friends (like me), following his own intuition. He started to explore the world of qi gong, the Chinese art of energy management. Then, in 1997, an invitation showed up in the mailbox. Would he like to travel to China to study with renowned master of External Medical Qi Gong Dr. Lu Guanjun?

The answer, of course, was yes. And whereas Palmer learned much about the ancient energetic healing technique, the most profound finding was that the thread stretched halfway around the world. "When I got there, and had the chance to work with Dr. Lu, the similarity in our technique was so close that even though we were working on the opposite side of the body there was no boundary between me and him and the patient," Palmer remembers. "The sense that I came away with is that this form of healing is one of life's truths—part of a thread that runs through every culture and every body."

Energy healing has many forms and names, Palmer says, but this thread that runs through it is the same. "External Medical Qi Gong, in particular, is part of traditional Chinese medicine, used there in hospitals today as a diagnostic tool to find blockages in the body and to open the energetic channels," he explains. "I listen to the body, locate the challenges there, and direct energy to help release stagnation."

That helps to restore balance to the body when your knee hurts, or you're grappling with peptic ulcers, or undergoing chemotherapy. What's even more healing, though, is the solace you can find in his ultimate message—communicated directly through his touch. "The challenges and difficulties we experience have only tweaked the outside covering," Palmer says. "Really, there is a complete oneness with all of us; in the energetic body, we are all the same."

The Buddhists have this concept of "bodhisattva"—the idea that wisdom beings walk among us, that they're here to contribute to enlightenment of all beings. I've worked with Palmer for years, and he is, I'm convinced, one such being. Placing yourself in his hands means letting your boundaries go, opening to the thread of truth, and feeling yourself lifted on his energetic tide.

Pulling up to Caroline Munday's office, I have to recheck my directions. This doesn't look like a portal into spaciousness; it looks like a typical Rocky Hill ranch house. And Caroline—well, she doesn't look like a tour guide on a journey to the infinite. She looks like a typical West Knoxville suburbanite. But looks can be deceiving. Munday is an experienced Reiki master, delivering universal healing energy to her clients in the sunroom of her home.

Reiki, in case you don't know, is all the rage in energy work; it's perhaps the most commonly found form of the stuff. It is a type of hands-on discovered in 1922 by a Japanese man named Usui Mikao after he spent 21 days fasting and meditating on a mountain top (no, I'm not making that up). The idea is that, through a direct transmission from teacher to student called an "attunement," one can tap into the current of healing energy Usui discovered, and then use it to heal self and other. (This ability goes from hand to hand, in other words—you have to be initiated into the club.) Reiki comes in levels—I, II, III, and master—with each one able to access and transmit a higher vibration of healing energy.

"Reiki takes you deep into yourself so that the body can heal," Munday explains. "The Reiki energy flows through the practitioner and into you. But it's the energy that has a life of its own; it has its own intelligence. It knows where to go to heal."

Munday sees herself as nothing so much as a conduit, or—to be more precise—a receiver. "Healing energy is around all of us all the time, and we all have the potential to tap into it," Munday says. "But most of us are like radios set on static. What Reiki does is tune us in to the life-force energy."

During my 75-minute "tune up" with Munday—as she moves her hands slowly and gently over my clothed body—I feel calmer and calmer. I feel serene and cool, as if a refreshing icy wind has blown through me, evoking the austere beauty of a winter landscape: white, clean, silent, and still.

When I share this image with her, she reassures me. "We are all walking around feeling very depleted and constricted, and when you're in a constricted state, life force can't flow," she says. "Reiki moves out all the blocks so that we can fill ourselves back up with energy and love. Reiki and divine energy are the same thing."

As a loving mother and wife, Margaret Whitefield Lesch has always had a healing touch. But when her husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2000, she set off on a quest to put the tools that would heal and help him right at her own fingertips. "I learned a little Reiki, and took a workshop in Healing Touch," she remembers. "One night, I asked to practice on him. I put my hands on his chest and it felt as if a vacuum opened up; he was empty. I worked to fill that void with universal life energy. The next day, he felt better than he had in six months. I knew I had to learn more about this."

She did—and has a mile-long resume to prove it, packed with workshops and certifications in all sorts of energy-healing techniques, including Nervous System Energy Work, an emerging field that focuses on enhancing the physical structure by balancing and nourishing the nervous system. Her basis, she says, is in Healing Touch, a relaxation-oriented modality founded in the late '80s by a nurse, Janet Mentgen, R.N., to help calm and center patients caught up in the Western medical model. But the treatment she offers is her own special blend—informed by intuition, experience, and philosophy.

"We think of ourselves as physical beings, but the whole body is made up of atoms; everything is electrically charged," she says. "When everything is working right, and your chakras are spinning properly, it's like a box fan pulling in cool air to regenerate and activate and nourish the body. But when we are out of balance, things get turned around. We get so that our body can't draw the energy it needs from the universe."

Lesch's work aims to turn the fan back on; her technique is gentle, nearly imperceptible. Still, the net effect is relaxing—and that kind of unwinding of the autonomic nervous system is what underscores all healing, Lesch says.

A large part of her secret, she says, is that she helps her clients learn to stop for a moment in their busy lives of sending energy out, and learn to take some in for themselves. "We all walk around thinking we need to take care of everything ourselves," she says. "But a lot of the reason energy work is so powerful is that it teaches you to be receptive. Part of the healing process is learning to accept help."

If you're the kind of person who needs an organized, systematic approach to healing, and likes an explanation for everything—even the inexplicable—then Jin Shin Jyutsu might be a good fit for you. Like Reiki, it's a form of Japanese energy work developed near the turn of the 20th century. But unlike Reiki, it's a structured format that uses pulse reading to make the subtle more tangible. The idea, explains Meredith Harrison, is that the body's energetic system has 26 subtle "safety locks"—that is to say, points at which energy might be shut down if there's a problem. "The safety locks are like circuit breakers," she says. "When something goes wrong, the lock shuts off and a symptom arises, like an alarm."

Jin Shin Jyutsu finds the broken circuits, flips them on again, and channels fresh energy to the problem area, restoring the body's energetic balance in the most natural way. "People out there are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Western medicine," she says. "They're tired of pouring chemicals into their bodies. It's a relief to find that there are non-invasive options like this that can have a profound effect."

Once a pulse diagnosis is made, Harrison follows one of Jin Shin Jyutsu's "flows": that is to say, a recipe for a series of hand positions stimulating two locks at once. She diagnoses me as being in need of a lung organ flow (which, recently having recovered from pneumonia, I probably am), and proceeds. When she does it, it feels like nothing so much as…nothing, a little light pressure on, say, shoulder and knee.

As for what she's doing… "I'm trying not to think too much," she says. "I'm feeling the pulses, opening the space for the client to breathe. So much of life is about doing; making time for Jin Shin Jyutsu is about being."

I feel good when she's done, rested and refreshed, and am amazed when she gives me one of Jin Shin Jyutsu's secrets: When I'm watching TV, sitting around, or meditating, I should hold my middle right finger with my left hand. This will balance my tendency toward anger and irritability. "I love to give people homework," she says. "For all its complexity, Jin Shin Jyutsu is also something that you can do on yourself. The techniques are really quite simple. You don't need to know how it works or why it works to benefit."

When I show up at Gina Baker's office, I'm exhausted, upset, in pain. I'm suffering from a horrible migraine headache, and in need of help—not just to offset the current symptoms, but to find a way out of the headache trap. She welcomes me into her small office with a hug, listens carefully to my story, then invites me onto her table. "Let's just play," she says. "Let's see where we go."

In the following hour, we go to lots of places—every ache and pain in my body, which Baker seems to find effortlessly. We go into my thoughts and feelings. And we go back to the past—to times and places from my childhood, exploring sources of both happiness and trauma there. I laugh, I cry, I tense, I relax—all the while, Baker soothes and calms me, makes me feel held safe by her and by the universe. She gives me an open field on which to unfold, which—to my own amazement—I do.

Afterward, I feel a little shocked at how quickly and willingly I gave it all up, but lighter, too—scrubbed clean. I feel like I've crammed a year's worth of psychotherapy into one hour, which I happily spent flat on my back. This is Baker's full intention. "Everyone has an inner voice, but we are so busy in this world that we just can't hear it," she says. "We get caught up in taking care of business, taking care of everybody else, and we forget that we're all still little children inside. We don't give ourselves permission to play and to cry and to feel honestly anymore. Children are innocent, and so are you—but you've become hardened by the years and forgotten that. My work is to help you find your inner child, and ask her what she needs."

I cringe a little at the "inner child" concept—it's been so overworked and thoroughly mocked in the last 20 years. But I do feel that Baker has reached through the years, through the layers of crust, and touched a part of me that was there at the beginning. That's no accident. "What we're doing here is really spending time in the womb," she says. "When we work through a treatment, it's really a process of rebirthing."

As for how she does what she does, it's a mystery. "I have a gift," she says. "I'm trained in Reiki, CranioSacral Therapy, myofascial release—but these are just tools in my box. I'm a nurturer and healer who draws on whatever resource is needed to help people get back into their bodies and feel better."

Like Sara Griscom, she's an intuitive. She just knows things, and I feel that she understands things. More to the point, she understands me—and that may be the most healing gift of all. Are my headaches all about detachment from my inner child? I can't say for sure, but I'll be working with Baker—as well as Griscom and Steve Palmer—over the coming months to find out.