Peace at Hand's Healing Blog


The Art & Science of Massage

Posted on March 27, 2010 in: Musings - Tags: massage

Most times when I get a massage, its from someone I know.  Often I trade with co-workers or friends, and when I pay for bodywork, it tends to be because I'm working with a former teacher.  There are frequently wonderful moments, but rarely are there surprises.  This afternoon, for the first time in at least a few years, I got a massage from a stranger.  A new massage practice opened up down the street from one of the places I work, and when they offered a Groupon I couldn't resist checking it out.  (Do you all know about Groupon?  Its wonderful.)

It was an experience--and not an entirely good one, but it has really made me stop and consider the art and science of massage.

Regardless of what some Western medicine practitioners might believe, massage is a healthcare profession and as such, it is a science.  Students spend a lot of hours studying anatomy and physiology. We learn the physiological process of relaxation--the way the autonomic nervous system shifts to a parasympathetic state and what that means.  (Ever wonder why your stomach growls embarrassingly loudly during a massage even though you ate lunch only an hour ago?  Digestion is a part of relaxation, and massage therapists take it as a compliment, so don't apologize!)  We learn the eleven systems of the body.  And we learn the names, locations, attachments and actions of nearly every muscle in the body, along with the bony landmarks that allow us to locate those muscles, and the relevant ligaments.  What's more, we learn to palpate each of those muscles, and address them if they are somehow out of balance.  Its a lot of information, often presented in a short amount of time and in my experience, massage therapists are more adept at treating and explaining soft tissue issues that medical doctors.  

Some massage therapists have a stronger handle on the science than others.  I will admit to having forgotten the names of many of the muscles.  I know what to look at and what to look for, but mostly I name things in general terms, like erectors (the long bands of muscles that run along either side of your spine) or hamstrings (the backs of your thighs) and if I really need to be more specific than that, I break out a book or consult Google.  Many of my colleagues can pull out names of the tiniest muscles without stopping to think, and they amaze me the same way math-heads amaze me when they can balance equations in their heads.

Knowing the science of massage is what allows a therapist to ask you to move your arm in several different ways and then explain to you why you hurt.  Its what allows us to listen to you explain what you are feeling, and then instantly touch the place that is tightest.  It can seem like magic, but really it is knowledge coupled with experience.  Those things can allow a massage therapist to perform a perfectly adequate and even effective massage.

But I have come to believe that a skilled massage therapist is also an artist.  In the same way that a captivating painting or amazing piece of music is more than the sum of its parts, having the tools and knowing the rules isn't going to create something that inspires people.  To some degree, the art of massage can be taught, if a training facility is given enough time.  There is a finesse to using tools and a flow of strokes that can be explained and practiced, but much of the art of massage is about grounding one's self, being fully present, connecting to a client, and piecing together a sensorial experience that resonates with the mind and body on the table.  I suspect that comes mostly with experience, but I also question whether a massage therapist who doesn't come to the profession with some level of intuition for bodywork can ever really get there.

The massage that I received this week was all science.  I can't complain that I didn't leave feeling physically better because I did.  I stood taller, my shoulders relaxed and my hips felt more in alignment.  The trouble was that while all that was happening, I felt like a subject who was being fixed and not a client who was being tended to.  There was no real beginning, middle and end to the session (it stopped rather abruptly), little details (like not working the scalp with hands covered in lotion) were overlooked, and deep work sometimes felt invasive.  There was nothing technically wrong with the session, but no part of it made me feel whole, connected to the therapist, or even relaxed.  

And I think that is the key to what makes massage clients happy: the ability to combine art and science equally to create a fulfilling experience.  I think that training programs and healthcare facilities too often focus on the science of massage and overlook the art, and that does a great disservice to both the profession and the client.

So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish

Posted on July 27, 2010 in: Musings - Tags: teaching

Yesterday was the last day of class for the term at PMTI, and my students, who will graduate on Saturday, planned a closure ceremony.  They all had a chance to speak about their experience over the past 18 months, and laugh and cry together as a full group one last time.

They have all taken their final exam.  I spent most of last Monday on the massage table, being worked on by four of my students.  When I was finished, I had a chance to speak with the other instructors who evaulated the finals.  Across the board, we were impressed, both by the quality of work and by how much our students had grown since the begining of the semester.  They have each found an individual way to express the work, and they all have big plans for what they want to do with it.

Massage training, especially the way PMTI structures it, is a process.  In my experience, both as a student and as an instructor, there is no way to understand the process until you go through it.  Nothing that anyone might say really means anything until you experience it first hand.  During our closing circle yesterday, one of the students said something like, "When I started here, I didn't know what I was in for.  I thought massage school was going to be muscles on charts.  Its not."

He couldn't have been more right.  The process seems to be laid out on paper.  Students know when their classes will be held, when assignments are due, what books they need to read.  They understand, intelectually, the process of learning.  Massage school, however, isn't just an intellectual process.  There is something about touching and being touched, about learning how to hold space and "listening" to tissue that shapes a person in a unique and unexpected way, and in a way that (I believe) is impossible to really prepare for.

I am so proud of my students.  Every one of them has struggled through a process that is not easy--juggling families, full time jobs, studying, and all of the emotional Stuff that comes up during such a deeply kinesthetic, often esoteric, experience.  I'm proud of the way that they have grown, I'm proud of the way they supported one another through the process, and I'm proud of the work that they will be doing.  I am also deeply, deeply inspired by having watched them touch and care and be.

Soon, I will be able to call this fabulous group of massage therapists my colleagues, and I could not be more excited.  They're going to do amazing things.