There’s a pretty common misconception about what constitutes “real” massage out there. It isn’t just in the general public, or some of our clients, it is even common among massage therapists. The misconception I’m talking about is that massage has to be high-intensity to be effective- the only way to get that muscle to relax is to really get in there and force it to relax. It’s massage therapist vs client’s body: two will enter the treatment room, only one will leave.
Now, I believed this in massage school, and when I first started working. “Bear the pain and you’ll soar like an eagle,” is the mantra one of my instructors taught me, and that was my working philosophy. I had a lot of happy clients, and I felt good about the work I was doing. Sure, I was exhausted after every shift, and my neck and shoulders constantly felt like they were made of steel; but I was winning the battle against muscle tension.
Then one day I gave a massage that started to change my perception: A young woman came in for a relaxation massage and asked for light pressure only. She didn’t like anything deeper, if I felt a knot she wanted me to ignore it. Just be gentle and slow, anything more demanding always left her feeling terrible the next day. So that’s what I did, I focused on the flow of my strokes. I imagined that my hands were the water in a stream she was lying down in on a hot day. Making no demands; just there, flowing. And something amazing happened- her muscles still relaxed and softened, and her posture was more upright after the session. Eureka!
When I work with oncology clients, I have a similar philosophy. No extra demands on their body, just presence and flow. When I get a massage from someone, that’s the kind of work I prefer now. We as massage therapists can be deep without being hard or forceful. We look at 2-D pictures in textbooks and it shows our skin, fascia, and muscles as strata, but is that really accurate? Everything in our body is connected with tissues, we’re one big network of proteins and fluid. I can help your neck by working on your ankles, and I can help your deep muscles by working on the superficial ones.
Now, I am not trying to argue that everyone should just get gentle massage. It isn’t one size fits all. Luckily for people who want that high-intensity massage; there are plenty of massage therapists who only want to do that type of massage. But for people who need gentle massage for medical reasons, or people who just prefer it, I think it’s important to know that there are massage therapists like me out there who see the power of gentle work.
I’d like to end with another anecdote. I was demonstrating what we call “therapeutic holds” on a student in the oncology massage class I assisted with a couple weeks ago. I was just holding her forearm, showing the level of pressure we use- the weight of the hand only- and as I was feeling her tissues soften she said, “It feels like you’re giving me a regular massage”. I could feel her muscles relaxing, she could feel her muscles relaxing, just through this light touch. When touch is given gently, and with intention, it can be just as powerful as “deep” techniques.