Peace at Hand's Healing Blog

Entries tagged "massage"

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.

Where Do I Begin?

Posted on December 18, 2009 in: FAQ - Tags: advice, FAQ, massage

It seems to be the question of the week.  As I've been trying to decide on a topic for a first post, I have also had several new clients contact me to ask the same question: Where do I start?  They know that they're interested in massage for themselves or a loved one, but have no idea how to go about making it happen. What sort of bodywork do they need?  How do they choose a therapist?  Is it safe to give as a gift, without knowing what sort of massage the giftee might want?

One of the problems with answering questions about massage is that very often, the only honest answer is, "it depends."  The best advice I can offer is to poke around on line or make a few phone calls, and find a massage therapist who resonates with you.  As with any health care practitioner, what makes a MT "right" is highyly personal.

There are a few things you can look for, though.  First, check their credentials.  You'll want someone who is licensed in their state and who has completed a 500-600 hour training program, preferably at a COMTA accredited school.  Second, make sure that they are comfortable talking about their work.  If they don't sound confident when they speak to you, its a pretty good indication that they won't be confident when they actually perform massage. 

If you are booking a session for yourself, getting what you want shouldn't require any buzzwords.  Ideally, you should have a clear idea regarding your goals for the session.  Maybe you're just looking to relax and unwind, or maybe you are hoping to help with chronic shoulder tension.  Whatever it is that you want, be sure to articulate that to your MT, and expect them to have a conversation with you about it, to make sure you are both on the same page. 

If your massage session is a gift for someone else, you should be looking for a practitioner who is willing to speak with the new client and determine what they want.  It will be important for a bodywork practitioner to be aware of any major medical conditions up front, but a good MT will have received  well-rounded training and should be able to customize their session based on what the client tells them at the begining of the appointment.  If a therapist insists on knowing whether the massage is Swedish or deep tissue or any other industry-specific term, or (in my opinion) if they expect to charge more for deep tissue work, that should send up red flags for you.

The bottom line is that you should trust your judgment--if, after speaking to a therapist or reading through their website, you feel comfortable with them, give their massage a shot.  If their work isn't what you want, you always have the opportunity to dialogue with them about it until you work it out, or to find another therapist.  As with anything else in life--organizing your closet or working through your to-do list or writing the first post for a new blog--all you can do it pick a place that feels right and jump in.