An Interview with Tim Custis, Bodyworker

by Cathy Sivak

At the age of 16, two life events coincided to steer the life of Tim Custis: he took his first drink, and he injured his back in a contest at his part-time job. He then graduated from high school, was married days later, and within a few months had a daughter. He then was divorced by age 20. Each life experience seemed to further pave his path towards full-blown alcohol and drug abuse, DUIs and back pain episodes that increased in severity until he unable to work and had to draw disability payments. This pattern lasted "well into" his 20s.

Eventually an MRI revealed the exact nature of his back problems - protrusions on four of his lumbar disks. Then doctors told him he would have to learn to live with the pain; there was no treatment. "I literally had a spiritual awakening, I heard a voice that said 'Don't listen to him, you'll find something that will help you.' That's when I started going into alternative therapies," Mr. Custis says.

He found varying levels of benefit from chiropractic, massage, bodywork and acupuncture treatments. But the pain continued. His chiropractor suggested a visit to Mark Lamm, a bodyworker who developed a deep massage treatment method called BioSync®. The sessions not only helped Mr. Custis' body, but also created lasting impact in other areas of his life. After six months, he quit drinking; 30 days later, he quit smoking; and over time, his perception of the world and interactions with people were transformed.

The change in his own life led him to launch a new career focus, facilitating people's physical and emotional healing through the body's release of negative energy, pain and emotion. He trained in BioSync and began practicing as a bodyworker in 1987. Custis' ongoing training and experience led him to develop the Spiral Release® bodywork method and create his own practice, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Spiral Release Bodywork®, which treats clients and offers public talks and workshops on personal and spiritual growth. Spiral Release bodywork consists of deep tissue bodywork and neuromuscular therapy. Mr. Custis uses his intuition, sight, hearing and touch to locate and permanently release physical pain, trauma and stiffness. Sessions with bodywork clients also include instruction on Conscious Energy Release Techniques. He is a certified Master BioSync practitioner and teacher through the BioSync Research Institute, and further carries a Certified Bodyworker designation from the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP).

Tim Custis & His Career

What inspired you to get into your holistic bodyworker career?

It evolved out of my own physical injuries. I didn't come into it in a "traditional" way. Being told by the medical model that you are going to live in pain for the rest of your life could be devastating for a lot of people. I'm glad I had the awakening at that moment that guided me into alternative therapy. I started first with chiropractic that led to acupuncture and then to massage and then bodywork.

The work I do on clients is done fully clothed, I do not use massage oils, and its intuitive based, not anatomy based, so the approach is quite a bit different than massage therapy working on the anatomy through all the protocols. My work is more individually based and free flowing; I work with the client in the moment, with what is going on with them.

It's very deep work. It's not subtle work, and it makes profound changes to a person's physical and emotional state, thereby affecting the spiritual state as well. It has a lot to do with the person's intention when they come into the therapy room for a session. If they are not interested, then obviously they are not going to acquire a release on an emotional and spiritual level the way someone who has intentions to do so will. I have people who come in for physical problems but I also have people come in for emotional problems. The greater the desire and intention to make that kind of change in their lives, the greater the experience they have, and the bigger the change they are able to create.

It's intuitive to listen to the body, and gather information by the way a person moves, what they say and how they say it. All of that is very important in them being able to let go of a pattern they may have been carrying their whole life. Even just a pattern in how they say something, can help give information on how something needs to be released, or helping a person to rephrase things in a positive way and then let go of it. The language is very important.

So this is not a passive process?

I expect the client to participate in the process - it's not something passive. The more they are able to participate, the more they are able to let go. I believe that I don't heal anybody (I don't claim to be a healer), but I do facilitate healing for people. It's up to that person to let go of their own stuff. The faster and easier they participate in the process, then the faster and the easier they are going to let go of their stuff. Certainly I'm there to support and guide, give them the tools and information they can use, but ultimately it's up to them...I don't want somebody coming in saying "fix me."

It's a very physical, deep tissue work that does incorporate the use of energy, because everything in the universe is pure energy, ultimately, when it is broken down. Quantum physics has proven that. You can't do bodywork or massage without interacting with a field of energy. Some people who do massage or bodywork don't really incorporate that philosophy, so they are not using their intention to incorporate energy in their process, when it could dramatically influence or enhance the work they are doing just by using their intention. You don't have to learn an energy technique, although I have studied various energy techniques in order to acquire more knowledge. I've picked up or blended things in. As you acquire more knowledge, then your modality will change and evolve on its own. That's how Spiral Release has continued to evolve. It's not a fixed modality.

Tell us about your shift from BioSync to start your own practice, Spiral Release Bodywork®, in 2000.

I studied the BioSync technique for 14 years. I have a certificate for 5,000 hours in training, but I certainly did far more than that with 14 years with the innovator of that technique. As often happens with teacher and student, after a certain amount of time, they grow apart. I stepped away in 2000 to do my own thing, and that's where Spiral Release came from. Having studied one technique for so long, it greatly influences the work that I do today. However, I've been able to integrate, develop and bring in new things to make my work effective.

The technique is just like the name states; it uses spirals and circles through the movement of the forearm, the hand, the foot, whatever I need to use to get access into another person's body and get them to release whatever they are holding. Most of the time I am using my forearm. The basis of the technique itself is to penetrate into the soft tissue of the body using a lengthening stroke. When the tissue is lengthened, it is more susceptible to change. Then you use the spiral movement to actually create the change in the tissue, and use the energy to complete the spiral movement into a full circle, which allows for greater permanent change within in the connective tissue.

Because we're using energy, we are able to effect change on a cellular level so a person can release their emotional holding patterns and their limiting function patterns within their body. Every limiting experience we've had in our lifetimes (and for those people who believe in past lifetimes) is recorded in the body's structure. You can actually look at people and see reflected in their structure some of the aspects of how they function in life now. When you make a shift in the structure and release those energetic patterns, then people's behavior can actually change; belief systems can change, emotional patterns are released. It's kind of like a person upgrading their computer, but they can actually upgrade to a higher state or a more functioning state, they are no longer including certain behaviors or patterns.

An example would be a woman who is being abused in her relations. She gets out of that abusive relationship, swearing she'll never get into another abusive relationship. Then she turns right around and picks another guy who abuses her, and then can't understand how she picked another person like this. Those are deeply ingrained patterns in her body, made up of energy that attracts the energy of the other person into her field. That's how they end up repeating themselves. If you go into the body and shift that pattern so that it gets released or dispersed or shifted in some way, then the person is no longer attracted to an abusive person.

You can use that scenario across the board with so many different things. In my case, being an alcoholic, I was able to get sober by releasing the patterns within my body that were causing me to drink. The great thing is that you don't have to know what those patterns are to release them. You could go in and work with a psychotherapist or a psychologist; they'll take you deep into your past and figure out why you are acting the way you are today. With this type of bodywork, you can just let go of it without having to know what it is. Not having to figure something out is a big relief for a lot of people.

Describe a typical client session.

That's another area where I am a little different than other practitioners. I like to work with people for two hours. I feel that the body integrates change more efficiently and easily when you work through the whole body as opposed to working on parts or pieces. The body is integrated and so connected that sometimes it's difficult to know exactly where the problem is. For instance, I've released holding in a foot and their neck pain went away. Lots of times there isn't a direct or simple explanation for why someone has pain. A two hour session gives me time to work with the entire body. I do offer one and three hour sessions and one hour can still be very effective. I try to accommodate people to what they want and what they are willing to do. That's a key aspect to their letting go, their willingness and intention to do so.

The sessions start out with me listening to the client, people like to explain their history. I watch how they move, because that gives insight into how the body wants to let go. We begin working, and many times I start in a similar way, but its very intuitive work, so if I get intuition that I need to something different than I did with the last five people, than that's what I do. It can change even with the same person. Each time they come in, I treat them as if it's the first time I've seen them, because I want to work with them in the moment. I don't want my past judgments or history to effect how I am working with them now. Because every stroke you take with this work creates change in the body, it makes them different when they come in the next time. We work through the whole body, from head to toe. We try to focus in on where there problem is, and hit as much of the rest of the body as we can. I have specially designed equipment, as well as doing workon a mat on the floor. I don't use the equipment a lot, but it can be very helpful in getting access in areas you can't get into on a flat surface like a massage table or on the floor.

What do you enjoy most about your role in patient/client care?

The term "patient" insinuates there's something wrong. I'm really about what's right, not what's wrong. So I prefer the term "client." I believe that thoughts create, and if you put all of your attention on what's wrong, then you are creating what you don't want. It's important to focus on what's different instead of what's "wrong." I work with people to get them to change their perspective about how they see their bodies, how they work with their bodies, and to really get them to look at how they talk about what's going on, to look at the phrasing, and where they put their attention. That's key in being able to shift how a person is creating things in their life, if they are giving energy to their problem instead of energy to their healing.

What's fun for me is seeing people make changes in their personal life as their physical body is changing, and then being surprised how changing their physical body can affect their personal lives. Most people come through the door and have a physical pain they want to get rid of. I usually work with people who have tried everything else and who are at their wits end to get rid of the pain. During the process of working on release of the pain, they begin to see changes to their personal lives, in their behaviors, in how they respond to situations in their life; they are no longer getting stressed out. They're totally surprised that getting their body worked on can have that kind of impact in their personal lives.

I had a person who always wanted to work in a non-profit organization, but didn't have the courage to step away from the security of the corporate job, the income, the retirement, into an unknown area. Through working with her body, she was able to release some of the fear, and were able to quit her job and go off to her calling. Her whole life changed, and she directly attributed Spiral Release with her being able to let go of those patterns.

What are some common myths about bodywork?

Most people don't really correlate a difference between massage and bodywork, so that is a myth.

The misconception about bodywork is that they have to take their clothes off, that they are going to get oil massage, and that it is passive most of the time, and that they can't make deep profound changes in their personal life through this kind of work. Most people don't even know that you can get change across the world of massage. It comes from the practitioner's intention and ability, and of course, from the client's intention and desire for change.

How does membership in the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) and the American Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP) support your career goals?

ABMP is an organization which supports massage and bodywork practitioners, helping them grow their business by offering malpractice insure; medical and dental group insurance rates; and group purchasing rates from suppliers. It empowers the group, as opposed to being off on your own.

AHHA is doing a lot to help the average person get connected to the holistic field. It helps them see what's out there and to approach the holistic field, how to find practitioners, and the importance of taking responsibility for their own health to ultimately get where they need to be.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

I started doing some spiritual teaching and personal growth teaching, which I thoroughly enjoy - educating people in the benefits of things in life that are perceived as not beneficial, like pain and fear. Both pain and fear can be helpful in the healing process. They are not the enemy. They can be the advocate and a helpful tool in healing. Just spreading the word, and letting people know there are ways of getting better. Sometimes just changing your perceptions, gaining awareness and paying attention to your body and things in your life can be helpful in healing a lot of different things. I'm starting to teach my work, which I've been doing on a limited basis, and I'd like to expand that. Just have fun. I really enjoy what I do, and find it very rewarding.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your training. How did it build on your previous educational experiences?

I didn't take the traditional route, high school, college, start a job then get married and have kids. My education was a PhD in life. I drank until I was 30. I was very emotionally and spiritually devoid. Physically I was on the bottom end of the scale. I was in pain 24 hours a day. I couldn't move my head more than a quarter inch to the left or right at the worst point of my back problem. It eventually affected my whole body, not just my lower back. After many years, when MRIs became available, I was diagnosed with protrusions on four of five of my lumbar disks, and then told nothing could be done. I literally had a spiritual awakening, I heard a voice, that said "don't listen to him, you'll find something that will help you." That's when I started going into alternative therapies.

I didn't have a college education; I got my high school diploma. My educational process has been sought out through my learning through letting go of things in my own body, and experiencing other modalities in the alternative health field, then delving into emotional things that came up through working on my body, and working down my spiritual path through acquiring knowledge through reading and workshops and teachers in the field. It definitely was not a traditional path, but I'm extremely grateful for my physical injury and my alcoholism, because they gave me tools and experience and gifts that I would never have gotten through the standard educational route. I feel grateful for that. Education is important, but there are many types of educations. There's not always one particular road for one particular person.

How can prospective bodywork or massage therapy students assess their skill and aptitude?

If they are questioning if they have the skill or aptitude, they are probably not ready for it. It's an intuitive choice, if you have an interest, then you should go out and research some of the techniques and actually experience them. Start out with some basic classes to see if you like what you are doing. Ultimately, if you like what you do, everybody is intuitive. You don't have to learn anatomy to be a good bodyworker; if you have an interest in anatomy then by all means, learn it, because it can be very beneficial in your practice. I have acquired a lot of knowledge about anatomy, but I don't specifically use it in my work. The most important thing is enjoy what you do, then you can pick up the skills, or you can bring out your skill sets that you have that maybe you haven't developed over the years, such as intuition. I think everybody is intuitive - they just haven't developed the skill set.

What factors should prospective bodywork or massage therapy students consider when choosing a school, program or certification course?

The teacher is important, because that is who they are coming to learn from. It's just like a client picking a modality. You can go in and have a session from a practitioner and not get good results. Does that mean the modality isn't any good or that the practitioner isn't any good or what does it mean? If you've heard of a modality and it's been around, odds are, it's a good modality. If you are not getting the results you are looking for, you may be working with the wrong practitioner. Likewise, if you are looking for a class, pick a teacher that is going to offer you the knowledge and information and skill sets that you need, based on how you learn and what you learn, and how effective they will be in imparting information and knowledge to you.

Picking a school could be important in terms of specific classes you want, but ultimately the teacher is the person you are learning from. Certain schools will have a reputation for having good teachers, so that might go into the factors for picking a school. Sometimes you don't know until you get into a class if you belong there. If it's not what you need, maybe you can drop the course and use your tuition for another class. If you do your homework and research, you can find out about the reputation of the teacher and the class ahead of time.

How do you feel that the bodywork and massage therapy educational system could be changed to better serve society?

Having talked to other teachers and taught at some of the schools, there's a wide range of training out there. You can get very basic training, which can get you licensed and get you working, to very advanced, involved training. Again, it depends on the type of practitioner you want to be, and it comes right back to the client being empowered and involved in their own healthcare. It's up to them to become knowledgeable about what they want and who they are picking to do the work.

The practitioners also have to be empowered and want to offer good work, and they have to be coming from a place of integrity. Those are all important things. They have to have a passion about what they are doing; it can't be about a paycheck. I don't think we want to rely on bureaucracy getting involved in controlling schools and what they teach and how they choose to teach it. Then it tends to get too jumbled up, and too cookie cutter and it can really cut the creativity in this field. That's a huge component, being able to expand and grow and reach new places to be able to help society. I'm all about empowering the people, the individual. If people are empowered, it will guide and direct the education and the training. If somebody's not doing good work, the client will know...and won't go to those people. If the client or patient becomes educated and learns what's good work, and that does require homework and experimentation and research and learning on their part, rather than passively picking someone out of the yellow pages, then that's on them, not on the schools or the practitioners.

Industry Trends, Information & Advice

What are some of the trends in bodywork that massage therapy students should be aware of?

I don't work directly with the insurance companies, and that's a choice on my part. Bureaucracy can get in the way. I come from the holistic mindset, not a scientific mindset. Something doesn't have to be proven to me scientifically, if it works for someone, that's good enough for me.

How can the reality of a career in bodywork or massage therapy differ from typical expectations?

The reality is that it is demanding work. A lot of times people don't realize how physically or emotionally demanding it can be. Because they get into it with the mindset that they want to help other people, they oftentimes forget to help themselves, and as I mentioned before, they get run down or have burn out because they are not taking care of themselves When you start having physical pains of your own, you need to recognize that it might not be the work you are doing, but is instead because of something that you have been carrying around, and the work has brought it up to the surface. If you work on those things, you can have a long career in this field. I think sometimes the physical demands of doing this kind of work are much greater than people think. It can take a few years before it turns up. If they had been working on themselves all along there is less chance of developing problems.

What are the best ways to land a job in the field of bodywork and massage therapy?

There are a lot of spas out there that offer bodywork and massage. Coming out of massage school, a spa is good training ground. You really get experience by doing the work. Hands-on is where you gain the experience. In California, I've seen a lot of places opening up that are bodywork focused. It's harder for practitioners to make a living as a member of a group practice, because you have to share part of your income. A solo practitioner has difference challenges, like all the responsibility for getting clients, location, marketing and expenses. Again its going to depend what route someone wants to take, how good they are, and how empowered they are within themselves. Some people won't feel comfortable going off and starting their own business, they aren't confident enough in their own work to go solo. Other people don't want to work for someone else. There's a place for everybody out there. Some people will need to work for a spa or at a massage business to get training; some people may never want to leave that environment.

How is the job market?

I would think that it's pretty good, depending on the part of the country. I'm in one of the hottest areas of the country for the holistic field, the San Francisco Bay area. The person wanting to get into the field, needs to do research before going off and getting training. What are the jobs like? What's available? Do a little research first, and then go get the training. If you really want to do massage, you might have to move to an area that will offer more opportunity. It can be a very competitive business; some of the unique modalities can offer practitioners a unique niche for their business, so they are not just doing massage.

What can recently trained bodywork/massage therapy students expect to earn when they get into the workforce?

That's kind of all over the place; it will depend on what part of the country they are in and where they go to work. Anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000; but you're probably not going to make $100,000 a year just out of school, and certainly not working for someone else. The potential to make that kind of money is out there if you are offering something special and unique to people who are looking for help. If you are doing straight massage, the potential for getting that kind of money is going to be hard to get to, unless you own a business and have other people working for you.

How has the Internet affected the bodywork and massage therapy profession?

It's been a huge help. It gives people access and information to modalities - they may never have heard of Spiral Release without plugging massage into Google. It opens up a lot of opportunities and doors for people to empower themselves and acquire knowledge before they act. It gives them more choices. Now they can locate and find info about modalities they never would have had the opportunity to know about.

Is it important for someone to be passionate about healthcare in order to be successful as a massage therapist?

For people to make the kind of money they want to make and to offer the help and to be good at what they are doing - all of those things have to incorporate passion. If you have the passion, you have to incorporate the things you don't like. Maybe you don't like marketing, but you need to have it to have a business. If you are passionate about your work and what you do, then you'll find a way to do the marketing. You'll also feel that energy and passion from you to your clients, which allows them to heal faster and change faster. People know when you are passionate about what you are doing.

Closing Remarks

Do you have any other advice or insights about the massage therapy profession that would be interesting or helpful to potential bodywork and massage therapy students?

Whether you are a client or a student, it all comes down to being empowered, taking responsibility for your own health or your own learning, and just being part of the process, and being passionate about learning and healing. Really create what you want in your life, stop creating what you don't want. Stop putting your focus and attention on what you don't want; don't focus your attention on your pain. Focus on healing. That's most important.

One of the things that I've done in my own life is that I spend a great deal of time working on myself. The more I change myself, the more I have to offer my clients. I've spent 25 years (half my life) doing really deep work on myself, and I continue to do that on a dally basis. For practitioners, that's one of the best things they can do for themselves. Receive work to change themselves, get bodywork, go to workshops, do spiritual and emotional work. Those are all really important things to do as a practitioner - to move from being an average practitioner to somebody who is doing really top-notch work. "Healer, Heal Thy Self!" is a very true statement.

When I am working on other people, I am also working on myself, we are all connected. I've felt shifts in my own body taking place while working on someone else. You have to have intention and thought processes and knowing in order for those things to occur. A lot of practitioners often are so focused on helping other people that they end up having problems with their own bodies to the extent that they can't do their work anymore. That doesn't help anybody. There's nothing wrong with putting yourself first, with taking care of yourself. If you do that, you are able to offer more to other people in both your practice and in your personal life.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with Tim Custis, click here.

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