By Diane M. Marty
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/ Winter 2003.
Initially, a stiff neck or an even stiffer schedule may have sent you to a massage therapist. But chances are your repeated returns will be a result of the overall sense of well-being you experience from this healing bodywork.
At first, your therapist may seem to be doing all the real labor. But clients soon discover the quality and scope of relief they receive during a therapy session is very much in their own hands. Your influence and attention can boost the benefit of each and every massage. To reap the optimum benefits from this renewing ritual, here are some simple strategies.
If you arrive early for your appointment, use the extra time to decompress. Focus on something in the room — a picture, the music or a ray of light — and breathe slowly. Relax your shoulders and quiet your mind. Let this place and time become your sanctuary in a frantic world.
Communication is the ultimate tool for enhancing your massage experience. The most vital information your therapist needs involves your primary intention regarding your massage. Did you schedule the massage to reduce anxiety? Are you searching for relief from an injury? Or do you need to release some suppressed emotions? Your therapist will rely on your comments to devise the best plan of action to accomplish your goal.
Just as an informed doctor has a better chance of honing in on health issues, an enlightened therapist can target trouble zones and generate solutions. Use the brief conversation with your therapist at the beginning of each session to create your own hybrid experience. On your first visit, mention any chronic conditions, bothersome injuries or serious ailments during this consultation. The greater the insights into your individual history, the more tailored your treatment will be. For instance, migraine sufferers might receive some myofascial release therapy, while the therapist might employ shiatsu techniques to relieve carpal tunnel symptoms. Lymphatic drainage treatments can help ease cancer pain. Your therapist can ease many diverse conditions, but only if he or she knows of your concern. When going for repeated visits, fill your therapist in on any new developments — a new job, a recent fall, a death in the family — which might have an affect on the session and your health.
Be clear about whether you’d like some focused attention on tender areas or whether you’d like those sensitive spots avoided altogether. If you do request some pointed concentration — on a touchy back, for instance — expect some discomfort as your muscles release. But always let the therapist know immediately if the massage crosses your pain threshold at any time.
Cold muscles are tense muscles. Since body temperature can fluctuate throughout the massage, don’t hesitate to say something if you need more or less coverage. Tell the practitioner when the room needs to be warmer or if you’re easily chilled.
Some clients have difficulty enjoying their massage because they feel self-conscious undressed. Therapists are trained clinicians and, in many ways, share the ethics of medical professionals. They work with burn victims, mastectomy patients and disfigured people. In their practice, they’ve seen un-movie-star-like bodies and less-than-athletic physiques. Clients will not receive comments on their cellulite, criticisms on their lack of muscle tone or commentaries on calorie control. Indeed, these corporal qualities pass by many skilled practitioners’ eyes completely unnoticed. Therapists are trained to care for each and every body, yours included.
If you still feel you will be unable to enjoy the massage unclothed, inquire about treatments — like reflexology — which allow clients to remain dressed. Another alternative is to have just the upper part of your body worked on until you’re willing to indulge in a full body massage. Talk your options through with your therapist.
The therapist will check with you several times during the massage to verify the pressure feels just right. But, if at any time you would like more vigorous action or less intense effort, don’t be afraid to speak up. Because everyone has a different tolerance to touch, therapists depend on their client’s instructions and reactions to determine the depth of pressure to apply. And, although therapists are trained to note visual clues for a client’s discomfort — tense facial expressions, curled toes, tightened tendons — your feedback ensures clear communication. After all, moans and groans can signal both agony or bliss. Depending on sighs and other sounds to convey your current state of pleasure or pain is an iffy tactic at best.
Other than that occasional dialogue, your massage experience might be a wordless one. Unlike salons, where continuous conversation seems to be a requisite, massage rooms are quiet places. Therapists will let you lead the conversation, but they do not expect you to talk.
Not all therapists are trained in every mode of massage. Depending on their specific schooling, practitioners may specialize in certain types of therapy. Add to that variable the unique educational background of each therapist, as well as their individual styles and strengths, and clients have the opportunity to explore a wide spectrum of approaches and techniques.
Tracking what works and what doesn’t ensures favorable outcomes in the future. Use every session to build your knowledge of massage, to learn what feels good to you and to observe which procedures improve your state of mind. When certain maneuvers or manipulations feel wonderful — or if you’d like to avoid them in the future — ask your therapist to describe or name the movement. Then, armed with this information, you can replicate or evade similar results in the future.
While the classical strokes of Swedish massage are familiar to all therapists, more complex techniques (such as the Feldenkrais Method) will be known to only a select subgroup of practitioners. If you decide to experiment with more specialized types of bodywork that are unfamiliar to your therapist, he or she will be glad to refer you to a trained professional in that area.
Embarrassing as it may be, bodywork can produce some interesting bodily noises. It’s possible with the release of so much tension, your body lets go of something else. Therapists are accustomed to flatulence. In fact, it’s a healthy side effect of massage. Often a client will be so relaxed that they fall into a quasi-sleep mode, often awakening to their own snoring. Again, therapists respect each and every body and all that comes with it.
When the body is touched in a healthy and safe environment, there oftentimes can be an emotional impact. Some clients find themselves crying during or immediately after a massage. If this happens to you, think of this reaction as a positive one. Therapists are familiar with this kind of release and will help guide you through it. If you hold a lot of trauma within, it is often helpful to pair your bodywork sessions with talk therapy sessions to process what has just happened to you on the massage table.
Many massages end with the client asleep on the table. So, when your time is up — and that moment always comes way too soon — your therapist will make certain you know they are leaving the room. The therapist will also advise you to take your time getting up. They do this for a number of reasons, one being that raising your head too quickly after a lengthy therapeutic session can cause dizziness. At your leisure, dress, retrieve your belongings and exit the room leaving the door open. Be aware that because of an elevated metabolism, clients often need to visit the restroom after their massages and menstruating women will likely experience an increased flow.
Allow time for a gentle re-entry into real time. Be tender with your body — and your mind — immediately after your massage. The actual massage may be over, but you will carry its positive effects with you throughout the day — and night. Utilize massage on a frequent basis, and you might just get accustomed to “feeling good.”