The Simeon Pressel, MD, Method of Massage
The German medical doctor Simeon Johannes Pressel (1905-1980) developed his method of massage therapy through decades of daily practice to become an instrument for diagnostics, treatment and prevention. His source of inspiration was Anthroposophy by Rudolf Steiner. Even though not very well known today, this massage therapy is quietly practiced in many areas and various manners.
The following was written as a continuous text and was only divided into separate tabs in order to make it more readable.
General Description of the Massage
The identifying dynamics of the Pressel massage entail that only the legs and sacral area are massaged at the first treatment, emphasizing a flow from the feet upwards. At the second treatment only the back and arms are massaged, emphasizing a flow from the head downwards. At the waist there is an invisible dividing line for the therapist’s hands. The effects of the massage radiate to the opposite half of the body, to the part that was not massaged.
The treatments alternate between “upper” and “lower” massages. Both sessions are executed in a rhythmical exchange and can be interpreted as a lemniscate (figure eight or infinity symbol like shape, see top of page) which does not only have local effects, but also works from its opposite pole. An energizing and healing effect begins with the outer treatment of the musculature and from there reaches the workings of the inner organs.
Dr. Pressel’s words about this effect are as follow: “If you blow into a straw from both ends at the same time, everything stands still.”
This image illustrates the most important intent of the Pressel massage: to initiate a current and to stimulate the free energy flow that every human being possesses, upward and downward between feet and head. The self healing force can be experienced in different ways: as warmth (the blood circulation increases), as lightness, as relaxation (muscular), as tiredness (when waste products are excreted), as determination, as peace of mind, lightness in the soul, as music or as spiritual presence.
The composition of a treatment can easily be compared to a symphony that starts out softly and lightly, transforms into movement and bubbeliness, then internal brightening, then a feeling of forthcoming and awakening and so on - in varying rhythms and moods before it finally sings out in thoughtful consideration and enhanced awareness. Even pauses are built into this composition, as well as a rest period at the very end. As a result the enlivening, energetic life current not only is stimulated, but also gets shaped by orderly, forming impulses.
The therapist works with hot water bottles, dry brushing, various oils – sometimes using the entire hand, sometimes only the finger tips and sometimes applying cups (dry cupping).
Cupping is an ancient, traditional healing art practiced in most cultures, but today nearly forgotten in the western world. Recently it has been rediscovered and is starting a comeback. The setting of cups prepares, strengthens and completes the massage treatment in a most wonderful manner.
Every treatment is adjusted to the needs of the individual client in respect to quality and depth of touch and duration of treatment. But as the primary purpose of this massage is to strengthen the flow of the client’s own healing forces, the massage therapist does not focus specifically on problem areas. The areas of the life processes that have gotten lost are put back into functionality by this massage. An awakening on the physical level allows the discovery of imbalances like hardenings and tensions and allows for self participation in the process of change as the power to face oneself is strengthened.
When a creek is obstructed by mud, we can of course dig out the mud with a shovel. Or we can pick up a stick and make a narrow trace with it through the mud: now the water starts running and if we just pay attention and make sure this little channel is kept open it will on its own, little by little, remove the obstructions and grow larger and larger until it has once again become the lively, rushing creek it was meant to be.
The image of the creek flowing freely illustrates the purpose of the Pressel Massage nicely: to create a living foundation for an awakening that will enable healthy interaction between soul and spirit.
This massage addresses what is healthy in the human being and it requires the awareness and the will for self discovery. It is suitable for all areas of illness as long as the patient is capable of and ready for the work of self exploration.
The therapy must of course be adjusted for weakened patients and children, and sometimes it even has to be partially altered.
“A dear child has many names” says an old Swedish proverb. While Dr. Pressel still was alive his therapy was simply called “The Massage”. When he was asked to come up with a more defining name, he simply declined. He strongly rejected the name ”Pressel Massage”, it was far too personal for him and it also invited misleading thoughts about the quality of touch (pressing). He disliked the name “Streaming Massage” as much as he disliked names like “Dynamic” or “Rhythmical” Massage since “a massage that does not flow or stream and is not dynamic and rhythmical can not be a real massage. Every name seemed limiting.” Dr. Pressel was not very interested in such formalities, which left the ones taking over the legacy after his death with a big dilemma. Even though the name “The Dr. Simeon Pressel Method of Massage Therapy” is very cumbersome, it is accurate and reflects the views of Dr. Pressel.
Biographical notes and the Wartime
As a young man (1922) Dr. Pressel received a series of massage treatments and this inspired him to later become involved with massage therapy himself. He studied medicin and became a doctor specializing in natural medicine and homeopathy. He did his residency in Jena at a clinic for natural medicine. The subject of his doctoral thesis was syphilis.
In his first medical practice in Bayreuth, from 1933 on, most of his patients received back massages, probably also in the side lying position (see picture).
An old midwife from Koenigsberg showed him how to set cups at that time, an art that had been totally forgotten in Germany. He was to learn a lot through the practice of cupping.
This was the point in his life when he discovered Anthroposophy. It would become the guiding star for the rest of his life. Here he also developed his connections to Eurythmy and Curative Eurythmy which he deepened further throughout his lifetime.
Later several other artistic therapies were added – he participated in painting courses, clay modeling, singing, speech therapy and Bothmer gymnastics and always tried to awaken interest for these therapies in his patients.
According to verbal reports he was not interested in becoming a member of the Anthroposophical Society in the 1930s as long as internal strife existed there, something he did not want to take part in.
Later he never spoke about the following epoch of his life and the people surrounding him did not press him to talk about it. He was married to the medical doctor Anneliese Rausch and had two children with her – a musically highly gifted boy and a girl who was left severely challenged through damage caused by immunizations.
During WW2 Dr. Pressel was drafted and sent to a field hospital at the front in Poland. Some hand written booklets containing texts by Steiner, Goethe and Novalis accompanied him during this time when he cared for the sick and wounded, but was not able to treat them in the manner he believed in. He was forced to carry a hand grenade at all times, but fortunately never used it.
About two weeks before the end of the war he was captured by the Russian army. Approximately at the same time his wife and children were killed by an air raid on Bayreuth - this he did not find out about until afterwards, while in the prison camp.
He explained later that he was grateful never to have experienced brutalities neither directed toward himself nor any of the other prisoners. His talent for languages probably helped establish the humane conditions during the prison term. He quickly made an effort to learn enough Russian to conduct conversations with the officers and the prison guards. By means of a fiddle he was also able to reach his fellow prisoners on a cultural level. The fiddle was taken away from him three times, but he was always able to buy it back with his tobacco rations that he never wanted for himself.
The Stuttgart Practice
After returning from White Russia in 1948 Dr. Pressel started work as a school physician at the Waldorf School in Stuttgart (1950-1955). It was during this phase that the massage of the calves was developed. The children and young people were traumatized from the war and their connection to Mother Earth had been greatly disturbed. This manifested itself through a variety of symptoms. Through the calf massage people were put back on their feet and thus were able to restart their conversation with the earth. Dr. Pressel discovered early on that the calves revealed basic information about the condition of the entire person, which was confirmed by the diagnostics he performed on the back.
From this point on the alternation between the calf (lower) and the back (upper) massage became an important characteristic of his therapy. Dr. Pressel generally stuck to this pattern of massaging the calves and the back during alternating treatments with a minimum interval of three nights in order for the body to process the treatments. He very seldom made exceptions, when he did these were in a rhythm of 2:1 repeated for a few cycles when either the upper or lower part of a patient needed emphasis.
During the massage training it is unfortunately impossible to uphold the rule of keeping three days between the upper and lower treatments. There one has to practice leg massage one day and back massage the next.
This basic system , which has a foundation in the anthroposophical image of the human being, dictates that the leg and back massages never can be combined. The invisible line of separation drawn at the waist always has to be upheld.
Lies Pressel writes extensively about the reason for this basic system - the separation of the lower and the upper body, the alternation between leg and back massages and the connection to our foundation, Mother Earth (see bibliography).
What does not apply to other forms of massage with their different qualities of touch and other goals, is fundamental to the Pressel Massage: The leg treatment and the back treatment have opposites effects and only through their alternating togetherness do they create a complete healing stroke of the pendulum. Additionally the lemniscate movements of energy (see illustration) has the effects that what is on the top left appears on the bottom right, in a transformed form and in reverse. In order to sense this, the therapist needs a highly trained, very refined sense of perception.
This massage form has nothing to do with a “feel good” treatment or a spa massage, but is rather a very specifically aimed reorganization of the body according to the principle of “less is more”.
One of the basic elements of the massage becomes thus very clear: what is done in one part of the body has an effect somewhere else . Likewise, what is felt in one part of the body has its cause in another part. A complex web of causes and connections is unlocked, one step at the time, like hieroglyphics that will start speaking to those who pay attention and are able to see the rules.
In the 1950s Dr. Pressel on several occasions spent time in Holland with Dr. Bernard Lievegoed in order to further immerse himself in Anthroposophy. The knowledge of the seven planet qualities that he developed there soon became the spiritual essence of his massage. During the evening gatherings he held for his patients he readily explained about the qualities of the different planets, whereby he typically described two opposing planets at a time. What is meant here is the anthroposophical view of the planet forces as a cosmic seven fold development of nature and the human being and their various sentiments that can be brought to flow into the massage (this has nothing to do with astronomy or astrology). Dr. Pressel’s ambition was to learn how to cultivate a consciousness of the different qualities of touch through acute awareness . He called the planets his teachers.
Through his collaboration with Elisabeth van Schouwen (later Lies Pressel) a new element was added to the massage in 1958: She suggested he expand the massage by adding grips developed by Margarethe Hauschka, MD, in order to harmonize and complete the massage. Dr. Pressel welcomed this. Lies Pressel, who was trained in Hauschka massage, had collected valuable therapeutic experience through her previous practice. She noticed that Dr. Pressel nearly exclusively worked with his fingertips using grip qualities described as “friction” by massage therapists. The effect is deep and energizing, heavily influenced by the qualities of the planets “above” the sun. The strengthening and nourishing qualities of the planets “below” the sun are communicated through the grip qualities of Dr. Hauschka’s Rhythmical massage, which from now on were incorporated in Dr. Pressel’s practice. This resulted in the duration of each treatment becoming substantially longer.
In the Bayreuth practice it was not uncommon to treat up to 30 patients daily so each massage had to be performed in a very regimented manner. It was important to assess the health condition of each patient quickly: Dr. Pressel had a gift for palpating and feeling the essence of the tissue and thereby also what was essential for determining the diagnosis and following treatments. This activity was entirely tangible and conscious and had nothing to do with psychic abilities.
The Final Form of the Massage
In the beginning of the 1960s the massage of the sacrum (see picture) was added to the massage of the calves for later to be expanded further by the addition of the massage of the hip joint. It needs to be stated that “The Massage Therapy of Dr. Pressel” was indeed Dr. Pressel’s achievement, but the content was heavily flavoured by Lies Pressel, for instance by the addition of the massage of the sacrum and the understanding of the deeper spiritual connections.
The collaboration with Lies Pressel did not only result in the addition of new grips, but also in an extended duration of treatment caused by the new built-in rest periods that allowed the patients to absorb the effects of the massage on a deeper level. The following procedure evolved and it remained the framework for the daily routine in the practice for more than twenty years: Every 45 minutes a patient was received by Lies Pressel, placed on the massage table and wrapped in order to warm up. This was followed by an initializing, further warming and relaxing massage. Then Dr. Pressel would take over. Lies Pressel would finalize the treatment and round it off with an “after treatment” or, if necessary, with an organ embrocation (rubbing in of ointment) in the Hauschka style, or maybe even a prescribed injection. Dr. Pressel noticed that the effect of the injection was greatly enhanced if given directly after a massage treatment compared to when given by itself. The patient would have a final rest period while the next client already was being treated in the next room. If possible, the patients would come for treatments twice a week at the beginning of the therapy, then once a week and then, depending on the patient’s progress, every fourteen days. This is how the patients who were already receiving therapy would create openings for the new patients. If at all possible, each patient would have a specific, recurring appointment so he/she always would come on the same weekday at the same time, all in accordance with the motto: “Rhythm replaces force”, but also in order to reinforce the above mentioned orderly impulses to the Rhythmical System of the patients.
A fifteen hour work day was more often the rule than the exception for Dr. Pressel until the very end of his life. The patients who came to see him from far away would receive a lower and an upper treatment with just one night in between every six weeks. This only worked with patients who had completed the regular initial course of therapy beforehand so their bodies were already familiar with the massage and able to divide up and process the effects of these concentrated treatments in the proper manner. Something similar applied to the so called “lightening fast massage” for patients that arrived late for their appointments. There was a completely different scenario from what we see in today’s practices and hospitals where economics dictate that the massage therapists work increasingly faster and more “effectively” and the aspect of time as a healing tool is clearly no longer understood.
The outer Framework
The collaboration of Mr. and Mrs. Pressel was not without interruptions due to the four children that were born to them between 1960 and 1969. They grew up in the same house where the patients came and went every day.
Most of the patients were very familiar with the family situation since they had come for regular treatments and consultations for years, even decades. The confidence the patients felt in Dr. Pressel had its basis in his preventative practices, wellness care and strengthening of the clients’ own life forces in general. His patients noticed and appreciated this, especially during outbreaks of flu epidemics when there were remarkably few acutely ill patients to be cared for in Dr. Pressel’s practice. It was also extremely rare that Dr. Pressel had to attend to emergencies at night and on the weekends. This might sound strange or even presumptuous to anyone not familiar with his practice. But one could keep in mind that since ancient times the healthcare system in India has been such that the family physician only gets paid if his patients stay healthy. When someone gets ill, the doctor has to work for free. From this a culture and knowledge of healing has developed that understands how to keep human beings healthy. Dr. Pressel’s massage therapy can be understood as a European variety of this tradition.
Lies Pressel has many comments about the financial consequences of Simeon Pressel’s way of practicing medicine, like “Simeon Pressel could never have been convinced to become anything but a public doctor because he wanted everyone to be able to afford his treatments.” This lead to very low earnings, especially since one third was held back from the already meager reimbursements he received from the public health system because he did not work “economically”. “I am not a business man, I am a physician” he said over and over again, which already then did not impress the established medical association very much. Only when a female doctor decided to come to his drop-in clinics for a few months in order to investigate, and after having patiently waited her turn and thereby seen that the same patients returned over and over and always indeed received the same lengthy treatment every time, there was a certain measure of tolerance from the public health section. Unfortunately this did not last long since the female doctor left the association and everything returned to how it had been before. An attempt to charge a co-pay of DM 2.50 was immediately stopped by the public health insurance with the threat of being dropped from the system. Dr. Pressel did not want this to happen so he continued on with the DM 2.80 that he received from the public health insurance per patient. According to the system, when an M.D. administered a massage the public health insurance considered it nothing more than a small palpation and thus did not pay additionally for it while a licensed massage therapist would receive about DM 15 per treatment. The medical association kept advising Dr. Pressel to refer his patients to a massage therapist instead of doing it himself, but Dr. Pressel would firmly settle the matter by responding that a massage therapist could not perform the kind of massage he wanted and regarded as effective.
Pressel and Hauschka
Lies Pressel was trained in rhythmical massage by Olga Smits (who often observed at Dr. Pressel’s practice in the 1930s) and thereafter in a formal training course conducted by Dr. M. Hauschka. The courses took place at Bingenheim Castle and in Stuttgart. At the end of the 1950s there was not yet a training school in Boll, but there was a strong wish among Dr. Hauschka’s colleagues to found a school in order to develop a unified form for the Rhythmical Massage and the artistic therapies.
Dr. Pressel’s work was not unknown here, but it was rejected. It was considered therapeutically irresponsible to address a patient’s Astral body and Ego through massage. Lies Pressel’s therapeutic collaboration with Dr. Pressel was also not understood within this circle of colleagues. But Dr. Hauschka herself valued the work of Dr. Pressel. This lead to his being asked to give a lecture on his work on the planet qualities to a graduating class in 1978, which he was happy to do. After this Dr. Hauschka voiced a wish for him to deliver this knowledge to every graduating class. The wish was not granted by Dr. Hauschka’s board, so as a result Dr. Pressel only gave his lecture that one time.
Dr. Hauschka and Dr. Pressel, both massaging physicians, stood each other near on a human level in their readiness to serve, their modesty and also in their artistic spiritual pursuits. They even died in the same year, 1980.
Origins and Development of the Training Courses
During his lifetime Dr. Pressel received very little acknowledgement for his work from his colleagues. An important exception to this was the Bavarian doctor Gretl Stritzel. She showed genuine interest and came to work in Dr. Pressel’s practice for weeks at the time on several occasions during the last years of Dr. Pressel’s life and thus learnt his therapeutic massage form. It is due to her that the idea of offering massage courses surfaced around 1975.
Dr. Pressel found it hard to leave his patients in order to conduct a training course and did not see himself able to devote more than one week at the time to this. Otherwise he was more than happy to share the therapy he had developed. To him the massage meant an opportunity to diagnose, heal and prevent. It was a mission for him to pass this on since it had proven itself so very effective when none or only few other therapies were available.
When one considers that many anthroposophical, homeopathic and other natural remedies are brushed off as ineffective while patients suffer from the increasing side effects of allopathic medicines or allopathic medicines simply becoming intolerable, our “simple” option for treatment takes on new importance. Dr. Pressel commented on this in the following manner: “There might come situations where we have nothing but our hands to use as treatment tools and then we need enough people to know what they can do with them”. Perhaps in the not too far off future not even pharmaceuticals will be of use to us any more.
From approximately 1977 on several one week and quite a few weekend courses were conducted. Dr. Pressel taught, Lies Pressel and Gretl Stritzel assisted. The participants were professional therapists, curative pedagogues and housewives who wanted to care for their families. The number of participants was between six and twelve, which is still upheld today in order to enable the very intimate connection required for teaching the essential, delicate nuances and progressions of the movements that are impossible to supervise in larger groups. These courses took place during Dr. Pressel’s last three years of life and the final phase of his battle with cancer. He finished his last course one week before his death.
Because of Dr. Pressel’s leadership, strong presence and his focus on the “Here and Now”, nobody during his life time gave any thought to what would happen to the development of the massage training after his death and which problems might be expected. His passing in 1980 brought on great confusion since nothing had been prepared nor discussed beforehand. Lies Pressel asked him on his death bed if he wanted her to continue on with the massage practice, which he confirmed with a vigorous nodding of the head (he no longer was able to speak).
Lies Pressel was soon asked for treatments by “his” patients and continued the work they had started together in a small, private massage practice. Little by little she discovered how much of Dr. Pressel’s abilities and knowledge she had absorbed into herself over the years and now was able to give forth on her own.
Gretl Stritzel had already for several years had her own practice where she also did massage. After the death of Dr. Pressel it was of the greatest importance to her to immediately continue the development of the massage training. This was all too soon for Lies Pressel, so from here on she and Gretl Stritzel parted ways. The continuing development of the massage followed two separate streams that sometimes flowed away from each other and sometimes ran in parallel. As often is the case with these kinds of differences and branchings off, the outside world was left somewhat confused about what was going on with the massage.
Recently Lies Pressel, who carries on the work of Dr. Pressel, and Thea Friemel, who carries on the work of Gretl Stritzel, have started a dialog in order to bridge these differences.
Lies Pressel’s courses
Lies Pressel has been conducting training courses since 1982. This is how she summarizes the experience:
" At first I conducted the courses as I had experienced the training myself: After one week of training there was a half year “pause” for practice. I soon noticed that some of the participants started to call themselves Pressel therapists after completing only this one initial week and then showed no interest in continuing their training. Since I feel a great responsibility towards the patients this was a big problem for me. In addition, I always noticed how insecure and overwhelmed the students felt after the initial week of training when they were left on their own to practice. An experienced colleague advised me to make the initial part of the course 3 weeks long. The thought behind this was that the students would gain a solid basis of knowledge and additionally the student who were not serious would be weeded out. This is how it ended up being. But still, after 3 weeks of training, I often heard students lamenting that they wished they had one more week of training coming. I reflected on this. As time went by it became more and more difficult to expect the students to be gone from home for 4 weeks. The participants were often mothers with small children at home or people who could not take the course as part of a professional education. Once again I had to change the format of the training, this time to an initial formal course of 3 weeks followed by 3 months of independent practice, then 2 weeks of formal course activity followed by another 3 months of independent practice. After completing this the students would participate in 8 more days of formal course work ending in a medical seminar and a final exam."
In today’s world even this is too long for most people. Therefore I also offer a training schedule consisting of four times 2 week courses with approximately 3 months of independent practice between the formal courses. I have used this course sequence in several cities and countries. Experience has shown that the first 2 weeks of training, in spite of being short, are enough to learn the basics to practice safely on healthy individuals.
During the second 2 week course numerous additional scenarios are presented and practiced, for instance what I incorporated into the massage from Dr. Hauschka which demands a completely different quality of touch. Special attention is given to this difference – it has to be properly understood and practiced. The contrast between these grip qualities allows an opportunity for a unique completeness which can only be accomplished by a thoroughly and properly trained hand. The foundation for the massage can be found in the qualities of the seven planets, which we are trying to get closer to through daily conversations throughout the training.
During the third and fourth parts of the training a lot of time and attention is dedicated to case studies and the composition of treatment plans, both in theory and in real cases. A treatment plan is like a composition with lots of undertones unique to the individual therapist. Through years of practice the hands become more and more sensitive and they transmit the impulses in a more and more subtle manner until the massage has become a work of art, a “healing art”.
Of course the training reaches far beyond the formal courses.
It is obvious that the individual therapist over time develops his/her own signature. This is good as long as the basic structure and intentions have been absorbed so thoroughly that the individualization does not result in a falsification of the massage. The therapist has to be extremely aware of the “why” and “how” each time a change is made, only then can it lead to an enrichment of the massage.
The ideal configuration for this training would be 3 initial weeks for the basic course followed by the before mentioned 3 months of practice time, then twice 2 weeks courses each followed by the 3 months of practice and then a final 1 week course with the medical seminar and the final exam. The reason why the independent practice time between each formal course should not be much more than 3 months is that any errors or bad habits the student might develop during the practice routine can be corrected right away. After the training sequence of courses has been completed there will be a weekend seminar “Master Class” offered every year.
Many people have a strong wish to act in a helping way. Strict self discipline and a willingness for self sacrifice is a pre-requisite. This will also be addressed during training.
It was Dr. Pressel’s conviction that one would not need much of a medical background to learn this massage form. What was important for him was a basic knowledge of the Anthroposophical understanding of the human being. It was also necessary to be in a healthy state, both physically and mentally. The deciding factor for Dr. Pressel was that he wanted to give every person in possession of a healing impulse the tools to utilize his/her gifts.
The setting of Cups
Cupping is at the very least done during the two initial visits. The cups are set in the sacral area of the lower back for the lower treatment and for the upper treatment the cups are set on the upper back, on the back of the rib cage.
Dr. Pressel describes his further widespread use of cupping in his book “Bewegung ist Heilung” (“Movement is Healing”- not yet translated to English) along with a history and deeper understanding of this old healing art. He always preferred to set cups in the manner he was taught by an old midwife, using a live flame.
Today cupping is offered in a wide variety of forms and is easily performed even by the untrained hand.