Hurts So Good

In Search of the Perfect Massage

By Mari Gayatri Stein

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2010.

My first impression of massage was tinged with both mystery and respect. The seed was planted when I was a kid living in Hollywood. Every Tuesday, I remember watching my mother, Rhea, in her oversized, men’s blue terry cloth robe, disappear into the guest room followed by Hilda, a buxom blonde Swede carrying a large contraption and a bottle of oil.
My mom was a worrier, highly intelligent, and high-strung. The woman who emerged 90 minutes later was a woman transformed. If there was anything on my wish list—a trip to the zoo, the latest movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, or a triple scoop of rocky road—this was the time to put in my request.

A Team Effort

A great massage goes to the core of who we are. Not only does it feel good, but massage teaches us the art of being without doing—the secret of contentment. In the right hands, massage releases much more than our muscular tension. It allows us to relinquish our fears, let go of pent-up emotions, feel our untapped joy, work through grief, and surrender the old, conditioned responses and ideas that no longer serve us. The perfect massage is a work of art, a Picasso supine on the table. With the right ingredients, a massage can ascend to the pinnacle of true perfection.

So what is the recipe for the perfect massage? Start with expertise. I want my massage therapist to have strong, confident hands that have racked up plenty of massage miles. She or he should be forthright in approach, clean and modest in person, punctual and passionate about massage. I want to feel safe and know the therapist has good boundaries—a sensitivity to where we both begin and end.

The setting needs to be uncluttered and serene. I don’t mean fancy, and I don’t rule out those singular touches that reflect the personality of the therapist. After all, a massage shouldn’t be robotic and distant. It must have a heart, but at the same time be free of emotional attachment. In a way, it is the perfect relationship.

Massage is a team effort. I miss out if I’m distracted, not breathing in synchronicity with the movements of the therapist’s hands or neglecting to focus on the waves of body sensations. I retrieve my wandering mind when I catch myself planning and problem-solving, whereas I turn myself loose to journey freely in the dreamy, restful states that spontaneously arise as I relax more deeply. Here is an opportunity to release stresses long buried in my body, mind, and spirit.

I like to know a little about my therapist, but I try to discourage conversation during the session, as tempting as it may be. An overly chatty massage therapist is the worst. Might as well have a thousand ducks waddling around the room in full quack.

Communication is paramount. I need to convey my likes and dislikes in a gentle, non-bossy way. Sounds like a primer for living well in all of our day-to-day interactions. And what better training ground?

Many years ago, I took the plunge and purchased my own massage table. I love being at home, greeting the practitioner in my caftan, and having my dog, Mumbles, sleeping nearby (and on occasion, licking my nose through the hole in the headpiece). Sometimes I want background music, but I also prize silence and the soothing sounds of nature—rain, crickets, songbirds, the fountain flowing, the wind chimes blowing.

I haven’t always enjoyed this luxury. Many a massage has taken place in unusual, exotic, dull, even seedy locations.

Rating the Experiences


One of the most exceptional massages I ever received was in Thailand where I was traveling with my father. When he went off for a day of sightseeing, I put in some spa time.

The salon was on the top floor of a celebrated Bangkok hotel. A lovely, petite, young woman greeted me with a bow. I remember the scented room full of golden light, candles, and the feel of warmth and water. It felt utterly, divinely decadent. Before I stretched out on the table, the therapist bathed me and shaved my legs, then she proceeded to give me one of the most memorable massages of my life.

She never spoke, but was completely attuned to my body language—fingers tensing at a too deep movement, eyebrows elevated at one not deep enough, the change in the rhythm of my breathing, an adjustment in the position of my head. Afterward, I asked her to marry me. She didn’t get the joke, but she did see how elevated my physical and mental states were. We bowed, and I floated down the open stairwell, my whole body smiling.

Rating: P for perfect, but alas, unrepeatable.

The Farmhouse

I remember a massage on the terrace of an organic farmhouse in the Southwest. The therapist was a young, ingenuous hippy, and the massage was sincere, but riddled with uncertainty. I felt worried for him, the way you do when you watch a trapeze artist who is unsteady. And was it possible I detected the faint scent of ganja on his breath?

Rating: A for effort. I for indiscriminate.

No Boundaries

Another time, at an elite spa in Palm Springs, I got a fantastic massage from a real jerk. After pummeling me with hands, knees, and elbows, he propositioned me with an arrogance that deserved a swift kick in the pants. Ethics cannot be overemphasized in the world of massage therapy. I had never encountered a predator before. I should have reported him, but I wasn’t very savvy in those days and making a quick exit was the best thing I could do at the time.

Rating: Too loathsome to dignify with even an F.


A few years ago, when I was in New York City attending the Neighborhood Playhouse, I sought out a massage at a downtown health club in Manhattan. The massage room consisted of a table in a cubicle that looked like it was designed for a toilet rather than a massage table. It was thoroughly seedy. To retain an illusion of control, my compromise was to keep my underpants on. The MT was business-like and preoccupied. The massage was outstanding in its indifference.

Rating: Incomplete—completely nebulous.


When I was living in Pacific Palisades, I discovered Bhava. She was a Sikh—statuesque at almost six feet, dressed all in white, and topped with a turban that reminded me of a large dollop of vanilla ice cream. Her intentions of purity flooded through her fingers like healing light. The massage was transcendent.

Rating: P for perfect.

Taking Flight

Then there was Rusty. I savor the memory of one technique. He would place both hands under my shoulder blades and lift my upper back while I let my weight sink into his touch. I felt like a grounded eagle who was being restored to flight.

Rating: E for excellent.

Talkative Theresa

Other notable moments include talkative Theresa who had a way of kneading my forehead until all the worry lines (visible and invisible) of my lifetime melted into endorphins. As you might glean from her nickname, she was garrulous. Still, she gave a great massage, but there were only pauses in her dialogue.

Rating: C for consistent and chatty.


I must not overlook Didier, a Frenchman who gave massages at a resort in Tahiti. His was a sound massage, except he had bad breath, body order, and an emanation of Galloise that announced his arrival. But he was fun and had Gallic charm. Besides, the tropics were an invitation to lower the bar a little.

Rating: L for light-hearted. O for odoriferous.

Namby Pamby

I was staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. I have found massages are often inferior in hotels and certainly over-the-moon expensive. I had flown down to see a heart specialist, so it was caution to the wind when it came to small extravagances. I had requested a woman, but instead, in walked a young man, obviously fresh out of massage school—earnest, nervous, and at the same time full of himself. (I would wager that he was an out-of-work actor.) This was one of the most namby pamby massages I have ever experienced. His strokes had no articulation, and every time he leaned over me, beads of sweat rolled off his forehead onto my face. I could only laugh. Afterward. The bill wasn’t funny.

Rating: U for utter waste of time and money.

The Perfect Panacea

When I am in pain and unable to exercise or move freely, massage is a panacea for my ills. In grief, the massage table has proven to be a safe place to let the energy of sadness and longing break up and flow through me like a purification. After open-heart surgery, when only my scalp, face, neck, legs and feet could be touched, massage helped me to heal. When I have writer’s block, a good rubdown often coaxes my muse out of hiding. Massage has been an antidote to depression. I am always a happier and nicer person after a good massage.

We all need to be touched in a loving way. Massage is the art of loving touch—truly a spiritual experience. Maybe that’s the answer to peace on earth—a proliferation of massage tables. What better journey on which to embark than the search for the perfect massage?