Chair Massage

Excursion into Pleasure

By Sean Eads

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2004.

You already know the pleasures and benefits of massage. Wouldn’t it be nice to experience this therapeutic touch more often to combat the rigors of daily stress? Quick (an average session lasts 15 to 30 minutes), inexpensive (usually costing $1 a minute), and found in a variety of locations, chair massage can do just that, and can easily turn a stressful morning into a calm, productive day.

In Charge of Our Bodies

David Palmer, dubbed the “father of chair massage” and director of the TouchPro Institute in San Francisco, Calif., notes that chair massage will often be found in airports, county fairs, concert venues, malls, and “just about any place where people are standing in long lines.” It has also become a prominent feature in many corporate offices, where chair massage practitioners are brought in on a regular basis to relax personnel. And, it can be a welcome relief when travelling or simply away from your primary massage therapist.

Despite modern equipment, like the chair Palmer helped create in the mid-80s, chair massage actually has very ancient origins. Old Japanese block prints, for example, show people being massaged while seated on stools. It also has basic domestic qualities to it. For example, maybe you’ve gone up to someone you love as they sat and started rubbing their shoulders. The reality, though, is that receiving a chair massage from a professional is far more complex — and satisfying. Chair massage’s seeming simplicity should not be mistaken as being less effective than more exotic techniques. It involves the use of acupressure based on a Japanese technique known as anma, and practitioners usually have too much education for the process to just be called a “shoulder rub.”

Because it is readily available in many different locations and non-threatening nature, chair massage is often the public’s first exposure to professional massage techniques. But chair massage should not be confused with massage therapy. It is not a program designed for heavy muscular-skeletal realignment, and those who practice chair massage often carefully refer to themselves as practitioners rather than therapists.

Chair massage is designed specifically to relax the muscles and improve circulation and movement within the body. But chair massage also has several psychological functions as well. The philosophy of chair massage is to help you take control over your own health. Palmer says when clients finish getting their chair massage, they are often overwhelmed by their sense of well-being. “What’s most important is we make clear to people that they are in charge of how they feel. Our society often promotes an unhealthy expectation that as you age, you naturally become uncomfortable. One of the most powerful messages basic relaxation massage can give to the world is you don’t have to feel bad.”

What to Expect

According to Palmer, one of the most crucial aspects of chair massage is establishing and defining one’s expectations. As a result, expect a strong emphasis on communication when you seek out a practitioner. Chair massage is not a strenuous process, but you will be screened for any aspects that could complicate the procedure, such as having recent heart surgery or uncontrolled diabetes. Pregnant women will also want to avoid getting a chair massage.

As the massage begins, the practitioner will do several things to ascertain your level of comfort. After you are settled into the chair, which is purposefully designed to evoke a nurturing fetal position, practitioners will perform a pressure test with their fingers on different parts of your back. This is your first chance to control the direction of the massage.

The practitioner will continue to solicit such information from you throughout the session, allowing you to answer by voice or simple hand gestures. After all, different parts of your back will likely respond better or worse to different levels of pressure. This feedback, Palmer says, is a crucial aspect to the overall goals of chair massage. “Our culture trains its citizens to look to specialists for the answer, even if that specialist is a doctor, a lawyer, a realtor, or a massage practitioner. We’re constantly being trained to think that someone else knows better than we do about what we want and what we’re feeling. But only you know how you’re really feeling.”

By talking to you during the session, the practitioner is turning your attention toward an awareness of your body. “We live in a culture that numbs us from the neck down,” Palmer says. “We say, ‘Don’t listen to your stomach growling, take a pill’; we say ‘don’t listen to the anxiety you feel, take a pill.’ We numb ourselves to the sensations and wisdom that every cell in our body contains and is trying to communicate to our brains. Chair massage is not creating a dependent relationship, but allowing recipients to take control of their own sensations inside their body.”