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Neural Touch and the History of Tom Bowen

Neural Touchª is predominantly inspired by and dedicated to the work of the late Tom Bowen, of Australia. It is simple, yet subtle; reasonably easy on both practitioner and client, yet profound and lasting in its effect.
There are many stories told about Tom Bowen, and they have varying degrees of truth and fancy to them. Mr. Bowen was not a very talkative person, especially about himself and his life, and some of what he did share has been altered in decades of retelling. It was popularly reported as fact, for example, that he was born in 1904, had served in the military [as a medic, thus the interest in healing arts], returned to university afterwards in study of chemistry, and was working as a chemical engineer at the time of his entry into manipulative practice. All untrue.

Ironically, his true story is plenty interesting enough. Born in 1916 and achieving an eighth grade education, Tom Bowen was working at a series of skilled and semiskilled jobs, finally employed as a general hand at the Geelong Cement Works. There is ample evidence that Tom’s interest in sports, coaching young players and helping with their injuries, was pivotal in his development of manual techniques.

Although such words as “magical” and “miraculous” are often applied to Tom Bowen’s methods, and his personal results, he worked very hard for his miracles. He studied exhaustively any books he could find to improve his technique, and to help with difficult patients’ cases. His favorite sources were osteopathic texts and any colleagues who could coach him on acupuncture and shiatsu.

One area where Mr. Bowen didn’t seem to need much help was in diagnosis. While most osteopaths have extensive theory and testing to determine which areas need work, Tom Bowen knew in an instant. As an example, he would advise his students to look at changes in the set of the patient’s jaw, as that told the whole story. To some degree or other they were able to do so, but never to the quick and comprehensive degree that Tom could.

Even with this highly developed visual sense, Tom always emphasized fine-tuning one’s palpation skills. He was very interested in the nervous system, claiming to be able to feel nerve vibrations.

Once Mr. Bowen went into serious practice, his reputation grew quickly. In 1975, the government of Victoria was investigating alternative practitioners in order to standardize licensing. Officials were taken aback when they found that this untrained manipulative therapist was treating some 13,000 patients per year (averaging 60 – 100 patients per day at his peak). After an extensive interview (that reads more like an interrogation), he was invited, as were other unlicensed practitioners, to take a grandfathering test to be qualified as an osteopath.

Sadly for Tom, this was not to be for reasons that were not  strictly academic. He did exceptionally well on the practical testing, but not on the orals. When required to parrot textbook answers to hypothetical cases he balked, virtually refusing to answer. “Bring them in, and I’ll show you what I’ll do,” was his basic response. He knew from his practice that there was no one solution to a problem, but that it depended on many other interweaving factors — depended on the individuality of the patient rather than his named symptoms or disease. This points to Tom’s position with the naturalistic, “Eastern” philosophical end of the the spectrum

Given a diagnosis of arthritis, for example, a doctor in a standard Western medical practice will be likely to prescribe an anti-inflammatory or anti-arthritis medication. In other words, the arthritis is considered to be “the problem,” and eliminating it, the solution. A more holistic approach would be to examine and treat any and all of the person’s systems that could be out of balance, causing among other things, arthritis. It was Tom’s honesty and thoroughness, rather than any degree of incompetence, that prevented him from being licensed as an osteopath. This didn’t prevent people from coming to see him, and it wasn’t his ego that was harmed But it did prevent him from taking national medical insurance from those who were low on means, and that bothered Tom quite a bit.

By most accounts, Tom had six serious, long-term students. At various times in his career there would be one or two working with him, each one day per week. Interestingly, they were not encouraged to share technique with each other. And in later years, those who did compare notes were noted differences  by how differences in how they had been taught, as well as  common threads which certainly ran through each’s practice.

Tom’s range of technique was enormous, with some procedures used only once a year or so. His brightest students, who were observing and working with him for years, were politely informed on occasion that they had absorbed about 10 – 15% of what he knew. A disconcerting thing to hear, to be sure. But he also reassured them that when they needed it, the rest would come. What’s truly impressive is that fourth and fifth generation versions of the work, comprising smaller and smaller slices of slices of the original, are still so effective. But it is true — even the smallest dash of Bowen’s technology will spice up any therapeutic stew to which it’s added. In true homeopathic measure, the smallest fraction still brings creditable results.

Tom’s students were taught by a classical sort of apprenticeship, long periods of observation, interspersed with occasional testing to make sure they were up to what he was presenting. Nowadays, due to the practicalities of spreading this work to a worldwide therapeutic population, considerable short cutting of the process has been deemed necessary. Whether or not this has become condensed to a fault is open to speculation. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Things should be made as simple as possible . . . . but no simpler than that.”

After having extensively assimilated the offerings of two of the largest Bowen institutes, consulted with three of Tom’s original students, and experimented with the work for seventeen years, I am proud to present to you this technique. It is comprised of Tom’s moves and patterning, contemporaries’ advice, other osteopathic-based subtle influences, and a constant focus on curiosity, attentiveness and openness to new and better ways to treat the human being. If you eventually decide to train, we trust that you will continue in this “living legacy,” truly making the work your own and adding to the overall body of knowledge and effectiveness in the healing arts.

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