What is Zero Balancing?

by David Lauterstein

Zero Balancing is a fascinating advanced bodywork which specializes in the balancing of both the human energy field and its anatomical structure.

The common ground between modern bodywork and energy work is perhaps the most fertile within the entire mind-body realm. Virtually all studies of trauma indicate that healing involves more than the physical “fixing”. Equally it requires the resolution of attendant emotional, mental or spiritual dis-ease. However, the common ground between structural and energetic approaches to healing is notoriously difficult to map. Physical medicine for the most part has nothing to say regarding the flow of energy.

Frustratingly, energy work, on the other hand, all too often relies on unproven belief systems rather than tangible physical evidence. One may sympathize with that closet-mystic and genius, Ida Rolf, who, when asked why she worked with the connective tissue, fascia, answered in exasperation, “Because that’s what I can get my hands on!”

And so the great question in wholistic bodywork is – how can a therapist get his/her hands on both a person’s energy and on their physical structure?

How can we, through bodywork, precisely and simultaneously balance the physical and energetic aspects of our clients? Today this question is being addressed elegantly by what may be the most revolutionary development in bodywork of the last quarter century. This development is Zero Balancing. Founded in the early 1970’s by Dr. Fritz Frederick Smith, MD, osteopath, Rolfer and acupuncturist, Zero Balancing (ZB for short) provides answers and fascinating new questions in the search for bodywork’s holy grail, the unified approach to mind\body healing. Its theory reconciles the rigorous demands of Western science with the cosmological radiance of Eastern models of health.

As a hands-on skill it is an eminently teachable and a non-invasive means to restore and maintain well-being. From thousands of reports its therapeutic impact is so profound as to evoke spiritual metaphors. For massage and bodyworkers, movement therapists, acupuncturists, psychotherapists and all manner of medical professionals, Zero Balancing provides practical access to both sides of the body\energy equation. This article examines the theory, practice and therapeutic impact of the art and science which is Zero Balancing.

Modern physics informs us that a given phenomenon, be it atom, quark or galaxy, may be regarded as particulate matter or as quanta of energy. For example, we may see an ocean wave as an object, a thing, or, with a shift of perspective, we recognize the wave rather as the movement or energy which passes through the water. Energy and matter intraconvert in a cosmic dance of form and force. Buckminster Fuller, the visionary /architect, reminds us even God may be seen as “a verb, not a noun.” In Zero Balancing there is particular importance placed on the “interface” when and where energy and structure meet. Think of the place where the wind meets the sail of a boat. In politics imagine the moment when a popular “movement” may alter the form of government. Zero Balancing cultivates a highly developed sensitivity to the interface of the structure and energy of the therapist with the energy and structure of the client.

As with the great currents in the ocean, energy within the human body, while complex, moves in broadly definable ways. It is extremely important to know that in Zero Balancing the body substance containing the most matter, the skeletal system, is regarded as conveying the densest energy – just as the thicker 220 line delivers more “juice” than the 110 in the electric wires of your house. To tap into this energy the Zero Balancing practitioner contacts the skeletal system. Its bony armature conveys the force of gravity though itself and assures our buoyancy within the gravitational field. This system also absorbs and conducts powerful forces of muscle contraction, impact, momentum, etc. as we move through our lives. Significantly, the skeleton lies deepest in our bodies, deeper than the voluntary layer of our muscles – we can consciously tighten our muscles, but the bones remain below our conscious awareness and control. Therefore, for the bones are reserved a subjective sense of ultimacy. “I feel it in my bones”, “bone-tired”, “chilled to the bone”. These expressions give experiential testimony to the bone layer as the repository for the deepest sense of being.

In Zero Balancing the skeletal system is understood to constitute the deepest and most dense energetic domain. The function of this domain is to connect us to nature. It is experienced as an essential part of us but not as a voluntary or conscious expression of self. Skeletal energy has more to do with the life we share on this earth than with the life we make through our individual efforts. It is part of the form which abides. Referred to in Eastern thinking variously as “ancestral chi”, “kundalini”, “sushumna, ida and pingala”, this energy runs vertically through us in three pathways: the main central or universal life flow through the skull, spine, pelvis, legs and feet, the second vertical flow through the shoulders and the costovertebral joints which rejoins the main central flow at the pelvis, and the third vertical flow which branches out through the shoulder girdle to the arms and hands. It is to a great extent by recognizing the connection of these most fundamental energy flows with the skeletal system that ZB enables the practitioner to put hands on energy and structure in a dramatic, clear and powerful manner.

The second energetic domain has pathways that pervade the entire body. These are identified as the “internal energy flows.” This energetic domain allows us to function as individual egos or ecosystems. The deepest level of this domain is created by our literal movement in life. When we walk and move, we describe curves and spirals which resolve overall into a kind of three-dimensional figure 8. The dynamic energy of this figure 8 movement configuration nourishes and helps keep us integrated as individual beings. The middle level of our internal energy flow is housed within the soft tissues of the body. The middle level corresponds to the meridians of traditional Chinese medicine and the muscles, nerves, blood, organs, etc. of Western anatomy. The function of this layer is to direct the person’s energy toward the fulfillment of nutritional, mental emotional and spiritual needs. The last and most superficial level of the internal energy flows is that described in traditional Chinese medicine as the “wei chi”. The wei chi, a coarse and non-differentiated energy field lying just beneath the skin, functions to selectively repel or absorb certain vibrations and physical inputs from the world around us. If deficient, this energy field may allow our boundaries to be violated by “pernicious influences” of a climactic, physical or psychological nature. The wei chi normally retains a resilient surface tension which enables us to maintain healthy and flexible boundaries.

As distinct from the main central and internal energy flows, ZB identifies the third primary energy domain as the more diffuse “background energy field”. This field has no form of its own but rather permeates the entire body and the space surrounding it. The background energy field can be considered the vibratory backdrop or background music of the body. It may come to therapeutic significance since an acute or chronic trauma can imprint on this field reducing its natural vibrancy and ability to freely respond to life’s changes. Normally the background energy field enables us to gracefully bounce back or flow along with the continually changing nature of everyday life.

To summarize the ZB energy model, there are three primary energy domains in the body:

1) The universal life flow running vertically through the skeletal system which connects us, plugs us in, if you will, to the energy of life.

2) The internal energy flows at three levels – the figure 8 within the skeletal system activated by walking and other everyday movements, the middle level of the soft tissues through which we manifest our individuality, and the superficial level of the wei chi through which we maintain the integrity of our boundaries.

3) The background energy field which permeates the space within and around the body – the vibratory backdrop of everyday life.

The tool developed by Zero Balancing to affect these energetic domains and their interaction within the structure of the body is the fulcrum. “Fulcrum” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a position, element or agency through, around or by means of which vital powers are exercised.” The ZB fulcrum is built by the therapist in such a manner that his or her energy and structure interface with the structure and energy of a client. In addition to this structural/energetic interface at least two other vectors of force are added to the fulcrum. This will result in a complicated geometric form through which to affect the client. The therapist may, for instance, take up the slack then traction and rotate at a joint. Or one may cradle the head and neck, then lift up in a graceful arc. Or, making contact with the ribs gently press into them with curved fingers, summarizing two or more vectors of force.

Once this complex touch is achieved, it is held. Noting that “a person can not not react”, Dr. Smith observed that a fulcrum, when sustained, will often stimulate a deep reaction within the being. Holding this space open is akin to quiet forms of meditation. While Feldenkrais work is spoken of as ” awareness through movement”, Zero Balancing might be better described as “transformation through stillness.”

These fulcrums are applied in a specific sequence to the key joints and areas of energetic significance in the body such as the sacro-iliac, intervertebral, costovertebral and tarsal joints. They are all addressed with specific fulcrums to maximize the structural balance and energetic function of the whole system. The particular nature of these joints, called in ZB terminology “foundation joints”, is that they function primarily in the balancing, absorption and conduction of energy and force vertically through the body rather than being involved in locomotion. These joints have a limited range of motion. For instance, the small bones in the foot – the talus, calcaneus, navicular, cuboid and cuneiform bones- have limited movement between them. Importantly there is no muscle running from one of these bones to another. Therefore with limited voluntary movement and limited awareness (since they lack the proprioceptive input from the muscles) much of the dysfunction which occurs at these joints will remain unconscious, experienced, if at all, in a generalized sense of dis-ease, compression or instability. Excitingly, since these joints play such a crucial role in structural integrity and energy transmission, small changes here will have an amplified consequence throughout the whole being. As chaos theory has shown, if one understands the structure and dynamics of a system, small, well-targeted changes can have dramatic, system-changing impact.

How does the Zero Balancer recognize these far-reaching changes as they occur? How does one recognize change of energy and structure down to the level of bone? To this end Zero Balancing has evolved a very specific set of observation skills. With the use of fulcrums, it has been observed, clients will periodically enter a “working state” in which the body/mind/spirit responds, reorganizes and reintegrates during or following a shift of balance or vibration.

The observable aspects of this working state are called “working signs”. While sustaining or following the effects of a fulcrum, the Zero Balancer is attentive to working signs. These indicators help to refine the exact timing, location and quality of each fulcrum. Mostly they enable practitioners to track and stay in touch from the outside with the depth and quality of clients’ internal processes during the session. Some of the major working signs are rapid eyelid fluttering and the “working breath cycle” characterized by the client’s breathing growing more shallow, then an exaggerated breath, followed by the resumption of normal breathing. Other major signs include, various facial expressions, voice vitality, borborygmus (bowel rumblings), swallowing and sudden involuntary movements. Learning to observe and respond to the working signs takes a significant amount of guesswork out of energy work. Practitioners need not depend on intuition or wishful thinking to sense how the client is responding.

A Zero Balancing session is performed with the client clothed and lasts approximately thirty minutes. After a brief orienting interview, the practitioner does a seated evaluation to gather preliminary information from the ribs, lower back and shoulders as well as to establish interface. The client then lies down. At an easy pace, through a variety of evaluative movements and fulcrums, the practitioner then balances key joints and soft tissues in the lower back, hips and feet. Attending all the while to working signs and careful to check for depletion, the practitioner then proceeds to the upper body. Evaluating and balancing first the ribs and neck, then the trapezius, shoulder joint and scapulae, the practitioner completes the upper body work with special attention to the suboccipital region, if needed, and some fine-tuning through “touch-up” fulcrums. Returning to the lower body the practitioner applies a few more touch up fulcrums and, with a longer integrating fulcrum and final contact, disengages and waits for a few moments as the client settles into their new experience.

Zero Balancing is taught as a set of high-level skills rather than as an exclusionary approach. The insights and abilities stimulated by ZB therefore enrich whatever one’s primary modality is. Most who study it freely incorporate ZB into their massage therapy, body/movement work, counseling, acupuncture, or medical practice. Training programs are offered by the Zero Balancing Association, the Upledger Institute, and by individual teachers.

When describing the impact of ZB it is important to remember that each client is naturally unique and ultimately unpredictable in his/her response. Fritz Smith commonly counsels students to avoid the attempt to make someone have a certain experience, saying, “Raise a flag and see who salutes.” I particularly recall his response to a student’s repeated inquiries regarding the intention of various fulcrums, saying, ” I don’t work with intentions, I work with my fingers.” Nonetheless it is certainly reasonable to ask- what are some of the common intentions, ranges of response and therapeutic benefits to Zero Balancing?

Because the proper function of the skeletal system is one of the theoretical bases for ZB and the literal basis underlying the muscles and fasciae of the body, soft tissue pain and dysfunction are often relieved through Zero Balancing. Headaches, neck and shoulder pain, low back pain and many other physical symptoms may be dramatically affected by the simple application of the various fulcrums. Similarly, alignment will be improved through the attention paid to the foundation joints. Clients report experiences of a new uprightness and enhanced relationship of their body to gravity. Feelings of being taller, lighter with a greater fluidity to each of one’s everyday movements are commonly reported. Although more difficult to prove, it is certainly hoped that ZB, as it brings the deepest structures and energetic domains of the body into graceful balance, will have an ameliorative impact on disease and degenerative processes in the body.

Psychologically, sustained or acute trauma can imprint on the background field, impede or destabilize the internal energy flows, and may, ultimately, affect the vertical energy flow. By emphasizing fulcrums into the key energetic and structural domains crucial to the individual, Zero Balancing can help balance the psyche. Experientially, clients report a heightened sense of calmness and a lessening of needless anxiety. Occasionally the ZB client may experience the release of old feelings as old stress patterns held within the various energetic domains are relieved. A restored sense of hope and power is commonly reported. This likely stems from sustained experiences within the working state. Living in a sustained manner within this expanded state of body and mind allows one to gain a more flexible, expansive perspective on problems which in one’s everyday state may seem insuperable or overwhelming.

For many practitioners and clients the most intriguing and revolutionary aspect of Zero Balancing is its spiritual impact. Intriguing because it is at once exciting and difficult to believe, given our materialistic culture and upbringing, that hands can touch another person’s spirit directly and hold, amplify or balance it.

In our culture today, many people are engaged in a search for a more harmonious and sustainable way to live. There is a hunger for deeper feelings of clarity and connectedness. ZB is revolutionary in that it provides a dramatic and body-felt amplification of this experiential realm. It provides a much needed and direct experience of living in sustained harmony, clarity and connectedness. ZB’s theory and practice here has some essential contributions to make toward the urge and need for wisdom in our age.

The dense energy domain, which ZB primarily focuses on, is experienced as deep within us but not as a personal attribute. It has more in common with the “élan vital”, that vital energy or spirit which infuses us and enables us to live. ZB has discovered that this domain is accessible through the skeletal system, particularly the foundation joints. To have identified an anatomical locus for spirit upsets the monopoly which religion has had on spiritual experience. Now spirit is accessible reproducibly and everyday through an enlightened approach to anatomy. Anyone can access spirit without having to subscribe to any particular belief system. This allows for the spread and democratization of spiritual experience which is essential to our age if we are to move beyond egotistical lifestyles and the politics of disintegration.

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Freedom is a word that I have not heard used much since the sixties – those incredibly inspiring times in which, to paraphrase the Freedom Singers, many groups of people were walking and talking with their minds and hearts set on a higher level of integration for mankind. Perhaps freedom fell into disuse because we simply lacked the deeper technologies for its achievement. During my first course with Dr. Smith I leaned over to him and whispered emphatically, “This is really the science of Samadhi!” His whisper back, in disarming and comical modesty was, “Yes, but don’t tell anyone!” Samadhi means enlightenment or freedom from illusion. Zero Balancing frees the background field from past vibrations which linger in time beyond their usefulness; frees the internal energy flows from past and present stressors which needlessly impede our life function; and balances the skeletal system thus freeing the core/source energy of our lives. All this work heightens the perception that the source of our happiness lies not in the temporary satisfactions of the ego, but rather in the appreciation of the life we share and in the honoring and re-creation of this life we share on this earth at higher and higher levels of structural and energetic integrity. ZB, through its energy model, simplicity of transmission and practice, and powerful therapeutic impact represents a qualitative step in this integrative process.

So welcome, dear readers to what may be a happy moment in the growing science of Samadhi. And welcome, bodywork, to the 21st century! And welcome finally to Zero Balancing which may help us all give new substance and new power to the dream and to the expression – Free At Last!


David Lauterstein is the co-founder of The Lauterstein-Conway Massage School and a faculty member of the Zero Balancing Health Association. He teaches trainings in Deep Massage: The Lauterstein Method and Zero Balancing at Lauterstein-Conway in Austin, Texas, and throughout the US and in England. Core Zero Balancing I and II and advanced ZB trainings are held in Austin annually.

Visit our Continuing Education page for more information about Lauterstein-Conway’s Zero Balancing trainings. For more registration and information, call the Lauterstein-Conway School at 800-474-0852 or e-mail DavidL@TLCschool.com.