Helping Hands


 

When Pat Cane was first invited to Nicaragua in 1988, during the height of the civil war, she believed she would be working on an art festival. A psychologist, educator and artist in her late 40s, Cane had much to contribute to the solidarity project for a local community center. Though they appreciated her art, what people really wanted to know about were the body practices she did each morning. "They said to me, 'Your art's great, but teach us what you do for yourself," she remembers.

Though she had not yet even formally trained in massage therapy, Cane ended up teaching tai chi and acupressure to people in the village—and, before she knew it, a movement was born. Inspired by the powerful activism she saw around her, Cane called the group Capacitar, a Spanish verb meaning to bring life and empower, and modeled the program after the popular education method developed by Paolo Friere.

The Start of Something

Since 1988, Capacitar has helped thousands of people in more than 30 countries around the world begin healing from the traumatic experiences of war, sexual and physical abuse, natural disaster, genocide and massacre. The group's guiding principle is "body literacy," which Cane describes as "taking Friere's work to the level of the body to access the deeper wisdom of the human spirit." A Brazilian author best known for his classic "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," Friere identified literacy as a requisite for achieving social justice. In 1962, he taught 300 sugarcane workers to read and write in just 45 days, spurring a movement to promote simple and effective methods of teaching that could easily be replicated for large groups.

For Capacitar, modeling this approach means helping people wake up to their own potential to help themselves, and then taking what they've learned to others in the community. Because the experience of grassroots trauma is so vast, Capacitar has opted to teach "body-based skills" in group settings. Cane has found that the individual therapeutic model, most commonly used in the West, is impractical or culturally inappropriate in many parts of the world. "Trauma is stored in the emotional brain, the inner part of the brain," she says. The best way to access these recesses of pain is not through psychoanalytical methods, but through the body itself, which, according to Cane, works at a much deeper level.

"You have to recognize the tremendous hunger the human body has to be in its center," she says. The lack of mental health professionals in most countries where Capacitar works makes this simpler model of advocating self-care the most effective. During Cane's recent work in Sierra Leone, a country of 6.5 million, she encountered only one psychiatrist. Similarly, Sri Lanka, where Capacitar worked after the tsunami, has very few psychologists for a population of 19 million.

Helping Yourself

Capacitar's programs teach simple self-care practices that can be understood and used by anyone, regardless of education, ethnicity, age, gender or religion. Penny Bellad-Ellis, a nurse educator in South Africa who has worked with Capacitar since 2004, believes the practices "create a feeling of solidarity and 'oneness' in the group," particularly significant in a country scarred by apartheid.

Practices are based on the Asian medical theories of meridians or channels of energy in the body that are connected with organ systems and associated emotions, like anger, fear or grief. The work can be done anytime and anywhere, and doesn't require special equipment or supplies. Breathwork, tai chi exercises, visualization, meditation and energy holds on the head, heart, shoulder and crown are taught to release anxiety and traumatic memories, while promoting relaxation.

For finger holds, participants grip each finger for two to five minutes, breathing and letting go of emotions that arise. Emotional Freedom Technique involves tapping or pressing on acupressure points to open energy flow. Participants are also taught to do foot and hand massage, and to identify the specific acupressure points that can help ease pain and stress.

The practices can be modified to address the specific needs of different groups. Bellad-Ellis says the common experience of physical and sexual abuse by many attending the programs requires touch be used sensitively, and participants are always given the option of keeping their hands just above the targeted area. She adds that Capacitar's practices are designed to create a place of physical and psychological safety, so participants don't often feel the need to refrain from touch.

Aiveen Mullally, an educational consultant and psychotherapist in training in Dublin, Ireland, has worked with Cane since 2003 when the organization first came to Ireland. Mullally has successfully incorporated the Capacitar techniques into two workshops she facilitates, one for women with breast cancer and the other for caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer's disease. "No matter what group I've ever used them with, they are always people's favorite no matter how uncomfortable they are initially with the idea of touch," she says.

Making Access Easy

In keeping with the replicability ethic of the organization, Capacitar publishes manuals that offer detailed photos and instruction in using the practices to address trauma, cancer and AIDS specifically, as well as how to teach them to children. The organization also provides free comprehensive descriptions of their practices that can be downloaded from their website. Emergency Response Kits explain the practices simply so the techniques can easily be passed among family and community members.

Energy healing resonates well in traditional societies, where people often see connections between the techniques taught in the workshops and their own cultures. "People will tell me, 'my grandmother used to do something like this,'" says Cane. Teaching in Sri Lanka, participants made the connection between their own Ayurvedic history and the practices, and in Africa they were likened to the techniques of the "sangomas" or traditional healers.

Though the practices themselves are appreciated, the terminology often has to be adjusted to fit various cultures. "We don't use the word massage because of its connections to prostitution," says Cane of her work in Central America. Instead, programs are called healing touch or bodywork. Similarly, in many places "admitting trauma is like admitting alcoholism," she says, so workshops are instead called healing stress or promoting wellness.

Cane, who at 68 visited 15 countries last year and spends two-thirds of her time on the road, often travels to places avoided by other aid organizations, giving help wherever it's needed. Visiting Sierra Leone last August, she found herself face to face with a population and a problem she'd never before encountered in her 20 years of work: amputees. Rebels— many of them child soldiers—commonly had their hands, arms, fingers and other body parts amputated as punishment during the brutal 10-year civil war. "I told the boys, 'If you can't do it with your stump, imagine you are doing it with your energy limb that still exists,'" Cane recalls. "It was amazing. They could feel what the others were feeling. They felt whole again."

Similar stories come from all over the world. Mullally, who worked with Capacitar in Sri Lanka six months after the tsunami, describes a young woman who came into their workshop in visible pain, but began to brighten and become more involved as the program continued. "Afterward she came up to me to say that she had been bed-ridden for the last two months, lying on a plank of wood with chronic back pain," Mullally explains. Participants in Capacitar's projects routinely report striking reductions in stress and trauma symptoms, including headaches, back and shoulder pain, stomachache, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Dr. Geneviève van Waesberghe, a missionary sister in Rwanda who has worked with Capacitar since 2006, says that the mission of the organization goes beyond the individual healing practices. In her words, it inspires compassion and hope. "Capacitar is so simple, so available," she says.

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