Wonder From Down Under: The Bowen Technique

Tom Bowen was a genius-a natural healing genius from the land of koalas and kangaroos, aborigines and Crocodile Dundee. Until recently, the only healing secret that had been imported from Australia was tea tree oil. That changed when Dr. Oswald Rentsch, Tom Bowen’s only apprentice, started to teach the Bowen Technique-one of the most effective forms of body work ever developed.

Few people in this country have ever heard of Bowen and his work, but the technique is quite well known and widely appreciated in Australia.

Bowen completed some medical training before World War II, but took up chemical engineering after the war. He developed his own healing methods by studying physics, and anatomy and physiology in order to help his co-workers, friends and neighbors. Dr. Rentsch describes Bowen, in his colorful Australian accent, as “a genuine backyarder,” ie. a self-made healer. Bowen gave up his engineering for full-time practice after too many people started coming to see him on evenings and weekends. Bowen’s practice was fully booked for more than thirty years, treating nearly 13,000 patients a year. People came to him from all over Australia. He died in 1982 of diabetes, working from a wheelchair right up to the end, after both of his legs had been amputated. His apprentice, Dr. Oswald Rentsch, known as “Ossie”, an osteopath and massage therapist, studied with him for two years. Ossie carefully watched, made diagrams and wrote down the moves as he and Bowen treated patients together, to produce the very systematic Bowen Technique. Ossie continued Bowen’s work after his death, and only left his own busy practice a few years ago to teach the technique full time. With his wife Elaine, Ossie gives four- day seminars and refresher courses throughout Australia, and more recently in the U.S. and Canada. A number of naturopaths, chiropractors, massage therapists and body workers, mostly in California and the Northwest have taken the Bowen training in the last two years and are already making a significant positive impact on the health of their clients.

Yet another form of body work? Isn’t it enough to have to choose between massage, chiropractic, osteopathy, craniosacral, Hellerwork, Feldenkreis, Rolfing and Trager? What makes the Bowen Technique so special? There are four aspects which have impressed me while practicing the Bowen Technique on my patients: simplicity, gentleness, depth of healing, and rapid results.

The Bowen Technique is easy to learn and to apply correctly right after being trained to use it. While most people will go to a practitioner for treatments, the simplicity of the technique allows it to be readily learned for self-treatment as well. There is only one basic move, a gentle sideways challenge to a muscle belly or tendon, then a brief rolling motion over the top which allows the muscle to resume its normal position. This one move is modified to treat any area on the body. Subtle, yet powerful, the Bowen moves send impulses to the muscles, nervous system and brain which help to align and balance the musculoskeletal system and the rest of the body. Moves are done in specific patterns so as to create areas of resonating energy which help heal whatever is within their boundaries.

The Bowen Technique is so gentle that people hardly notice that they are being worked on. They sigh and go into a state of deep relaxation almost immediately as I begin to work on them. This healing trance requires no induction. Only a few simple, gentle Bowen moves are necessary to obtain profound relaxation. Two minute waits between successive groups of moves allow ample time for the body to respond and for relaxation to occur. There is little discomfort and no pain involved with the Bowen Technique, because there is no deep tissue work or hard probing into tender, sensitive muscles or joints.

Rapid results are the norm with Bowen rather than the exception. Chronic conditions may resolve in only one or two treatments, given one week apart. In some complicated cases more frequent treatment may be useful, but is not usually necessary for most people. I have been continually surprised by how quickly the body responds to the Bowen Technique. I am skeptical of treatments until I have seen them work. Although the Bowen Technique is relatively new to this country, other Bowen practitioners are reporting the same kind of good results that I have seen in my own practice. Because the Bowen Technique is highly systematic and practiced in the same way by each practitioner, the results are usually quite predictable, and depend more on the technique itself and its applicability to a person’s condition, than on the practitioner who is using it.

The third aspect of the technique is deep and long-lasting healing. When people come off of the treatment table after a Bowen treatment, they often exclaim “the pain is gone!”, “I feel really different!”, or “What did you do?” It is unusual to have no immediate change for the better. Even in those cases, change often occurs within the next few days, following a brief healing crisis in which the symptoms are temporarily worse, then greatly improved. In most cases the first treatment starts the healing process and the second, or occasionally the third treatment finishes it. While being treated with the Bowen Technique it is important to avoid other forms of massage, chiropractic or bodywork for at least one week after each treatment.

The Bowen Technique results in relief of pain, increased joint mobility, improved circulation, and correction of joint subluxations and muscle spasms. Bowen practitioners are able to help back pain, whiplash, temporo-mandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), sports injuries, knee problems, frozen shoulders, tennis elbow, bursitis and headaches. It is also used effectively to adjust the coccyx, correct pelvic and menstrual problems, and to stimulate healing in hayfever, asthma, colic and bedwetting. That may seem like a lot for one technique, but it can be really effective for these conditions, which may have a musculoskeletal or neurological origin.

Here are the cases of three people from my practice who responded well to the Bowen Technique:

Nancy, 23, had had pain in the hips since she was a teenager. The pain was severe and radiated down the outside of her legs to her knees. It would come on particularly when she was angry or upset. Exercise would make it worse, and it had come on from extensive gymnastic practice in high school and college. No treatment had ever been successful in relieving the pain. After two Bowen treatments, Nancy reported that the pain was completely relieved. It returned once after an emotional trauma a few months later and one treatment took care of it.

Sam, 52, had chronic spasms in his neck and shoulder. He never seemed to be able to relax. He worked too hard and took his problems home from work. During his Bowen treatment, Sam went into a very deep state of relaxation, nearly asleep. When the treatment was finished, he said that he had not felt that kind of rest in years. The effects stayed with him and his pain completely went away within a week after his second treatment. He then took his first vacation in a decade.

Jill, 49, had asthma and chronically swollen, painful knees. The Bowen moves were able to relieve her bronchial spasms and allow freer breathing, but did not totally cure the asthma. Her knees, however had a complete reduction in swelling and pain, and considerably increased mobility after two treatments. Now she can go up and down stairs without pain.

These kind of results are common for the Bowen Technique. Simple, gentle, deep and rapid, this is Tom Bowen’s healing legacy. It is truly a wonder from down under.


Drs. Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman and Robert Ullman are naturopathic and homeopathic physicians and cofounders of the Northwest Center for Homeopathic Medicine in Edmonds, WA. They are coauthors of The Patient’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicine and Beyond Ritalin: Homeopathic Treatment of ADD and Other Behavioral and Learning Problems. They can be reached at (206) 774-5599.

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Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman ND MSW Written by Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman ND MSW

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