Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2002. Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Lord knows I could use a massage. Work finds me chained to a computer, where my best efforts at ergonomics make little dent in the insidious strain that is all too common in the electronic age. My lower back constantly taunts that I have neither the proper posture nor the abdominal strength to prevent its aches.
And then there are sports. They've been part of my life for as long as I can remember, but it's only now, in my mid-40s, that the effort involved in having fun athletically has become so taxing on the body. Years of basketball left me with aching knees and various other torments. Today, playing tennis has led to a sore elbow and shoulder, as well as assorted other pains. Skiing causes my legs to ache and my Achilles tendon to rebel, sending ominous warnings up my leg. The pains that are part and parcel of playing have a decidedly different impact on me than they did 20 years ago. Nagging injuries now nag for weeks, even months, while serious injuries cause my athletic career to flash before my eyes.
So why, then, hasn't massage -- like anti-inflammatories and ice -- become a consistent part of my routine to squelch the aches and feel good physically? I was exposed to massage before, in the too-distant past, and had enjoyed it. But I didn't go back.
It may have been the same reason lots of other things in our busy lives don't get done -- lack of making it a priority combined with general laziness.
Perhaps there were other, more personal reasons. Despite my best (and sometimes not-so-best) efforts, those pounds gained so easily in my 30s weren't going away that easily in my 40s. Like many at the advent of middle age, I wavered between helpless resignation to nature's march and furious attempts at halting, even reversing the effects. I often wondered how I got to this point. Like the Ernest Hemingway character describing how he went bankrupt, the answer seemed to be "gradually, then suddenly."
Perhaps the reason I didn't get massage was also financial. As a cheapskate, it's hard to justify the expense of such luxury for myself. Then, as many men fear, there's the vague notion a massage could arouse sexual feelings unwelcomed by either myself or the therapist.
But I got over my misgivings. Not only did I need a massage, and could afford one, I convinced myself I deserved one. I'd read about the benefits -- it would relieve stress, make me feel and maybe even look better, enhance my athletic endeavors, and, most important, move health to the top of my priority list, where it belonged.
So I made an appointment with Nancy Swanson of Body Life Massage Wellness Center in Greeley, Colorado, a certified massage therapist recommended by friends and colleagues. I struggled for a moment with the idea of a female therapist. Wouldn't a man be easier to face, more attuned to my needs, and more sympathetic to an aging jock going to seed? Wouldn't a man better understand the love handles and the hairy back? Wouldn't it take sexual worries out of the equation? But rave recommendations from friends, who assured me I would literally be in good hands, tipped my hand toward Swanson. As I set up an appointment, I explained to her I was a rookie to massage and hadn't had one in several years.
I approached her office with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. The thought of lying, perhaps naked, on a table while a strange woman massaged me caused my muscles to tighten, reminding me why I'd come. But I'd been to enough beaches to know that people come in all shapes and sizes, and I convinced myself that therapists must deal with people like me all the time.
My fears evaporated soon after I arrived. After completing a standard medical history form, Swanson welcomed me to a comfortable chair, where we spent about 20 minutes talking. She told me what to expect from her, and asked what I expected. I told her relaxation, respite from aches and pains, and above all, comfort.
Swanson said I could either be naked under the sheet or wear underwear, whichever I was comfortable with. She pointed out that she could be more effective if I was fully unclothed. She was professional and matter-of-fact, and I decided I should let neither inhibitions nor underwear intrude on the experience. Swanson left for a moment, and I disrobed and lay naked on my stomach under the crisp, clean sheets and blankets on the massage table. The light in the small room was dim and soft music played unobtrusively.
When Swanson returned, she started the massage by applying long strokes down my back, helped along by lightly scented massage oil. Immediately, it was as if she were pushing away not only years of stored tension and tightness, but also my anxieties. She worked my neck, which she noted was the repository of a lot of tension.
She did a gently therapeutic massage. Many rookies, especially men, mistakenly believe they can handle deep-tissue massage, she said. But what may feel good initially can lead to significant soreness in the days following.
Next was a shoulder that pained me not only on the tennis court, but also doing simple things like lifting a gallon of milk or walking the dog. After massaging from shoulder to fingers, she had me do some mild isometrics, pushing my arm gently against her opposing force.
Before moving to my lower back and legs, she put a cool pack on my neck and shoulder and covered me with the sheet and blanket. Later, she used deep-heating analgesics on my problem areas.
As she worked her way to my lower back and gluteals, the anxieties returned for a moment. But they were quickly displaced by her sure, smooth strokes. She was careful to keep the sheet strategically placed and safely tucked in, even while manipulating my legs to stretch tight hamstrings and a stubborn Achilles tendon.
By the time Swanson finished my back and had me roll over on the table to lay face up, I was completely at ease. Even when she massaged my stomach, which has seen too many beers and too few sit-ups, I was too relaxed to care. The hour melted my anxieties away, and by the end, I wondered why I had ever worried, especially about sexual arousal. It was never an issue.
The experience of being massaged from head to toe, front and back, left me feeling relaxed, refreshed and slightly silly. The anxieties and excuses that had prevented me from getting massages over the years now seemed not just trivial, but foolish. And at $45* (not including tip), it was a bargain. As Swanson left me to lie quietly for a few reflective moments before getting dressed, I couldn't help thinking I had spent far too much time worrying about the wrong things. The energy spent fretting over body image could have been much better employed taking an active role in my health.
Swanson confirmed my thoughts later, as she was showing me stretches and exercises which could help my sports injuries, as well as the toll from sitting at a desk. She related that she saw all shapes and sizes of bodies among the 30 or so clients she worked on each week. She lamented the culture that in many ways promotes a negative self-image, and said she works to help each client achieve a sense of peace and acceptance in the hour they spend with her that can carry over to their everyday lives.
As I left, I knew she had succeeded with me. I see now that massage can help ease the transition to middle age and beyond. It can help as I play sports or sit at a desk. And it can help give me a healthier body, as well as a healthier image of that body. I spent the rest of the day guzzling water as directed and thinking that I could certainly get used to regular massage. Lord knows I could use it.
(Read more about what to expect at a massage session
.)Kieran McConnellogue is a freelance writer in Greeley, Colorado, and is now an avid fan of massage.*The national average cost for a 60-minute massage is $60, according to a 2005 national survey.