Link: Demystifying Massage Terms

My awesome massage therapist has an awesome blog. Rebecca is a fabulous LMT and one of my best friends (normally not really advisable, but we are both Boundary Superstars).

She recently decided to start writing explanations for some of the things massage therapists say that can leave our clients kind of, well, confused. That’s no good.

What the heck does that mean?
What the heck does that mean?

I’ll bet that at least a few of you have experienced this before. Even if you haven’t, Rebecca’s a really talented writer. Go on, you’ll be entertained at least!

She takes on undressing here and breathing here. Enjoy!

Reconnecting Mind and Body

The human body has many secrets, and it does not divulge them to anyone, except those who have learned to wait.
-Paul Auster

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a client come to me for a massage and ask me to fix them. I probably can count the number of times I’ve said that to a fellow massage therapist during the intake. It’s a cry born from many different emotional places: frustration, desperation, laziness, humor, and too many more to list.

One of the most powerful components of massage is its ability to establish and reenforce the mind/body connection. For anyone who spends even part of their day dissociated from their body, the way a massage can serve to welcome the mind back home can seem miraculous. At least, it always does to me when I’m at my lowest.

Over the years, I’ve had many variations of the post-massage conversation where a client will remark on how the session served to remind them that they are human; that their bodies are not machines existing only to serve the mind. That they can only ask so much from their bodies before the body needs to be given something back.

It’s not surprising that so many of us default to this separation of mind from body with the body serving as the mind’s fleshy car. It’s a convenient way to sell us things, and the notion that we can keep demanding more and more from our bodies is pretty seductive.

Because of that, I’ve really tried to resist the “fixing” narrative that people have about massage therapy. I’m not a mechanic and your body isn’t a car. I’m going to boldly argue that even if you’re in pain, you aren’t “broken”. I don’t believe that your body needs to be fixed, but it can be attended to, listened to. The mind/body connection is weakened when we treat our bodies as simple vehicles, massage can help your mind and your body reunite.

An Hour of You

Last week was a rough one for me. I think a lot of it was the weather, but whatever was going on I had a difficult time staying present outside my massage room.* I wasn’t even aware of how much I was struggling until I received a massage.

For the past couple of months I have been practicing mindfulness while receiving massage. In my experience, the two enhance each other in this wonderful, organic way, and I would encourage anyone who wants to to give it a try. During this particular massage, I could not be mindful. My mind would shy away each time I invited it back. I decided to try practicing passive relaxation during the session, which eventually calmed me down enough to be mindful again.

What struck me at the time was how valuable it was to have that hour for myself already scheduled into my week. I remember wondering if I would have had the discipline to reset my mind/body connection with that slow passive relaxation if I weren’t already in a situation where there was nothing else that needed my attention.

That’s another benefit of massage, isn’t it? You already have that hour (or 90 minutes, or however long) set aside as you time. You are already engaging in an activity that enhances the mind/body connection.

The massage I received last week ended up being one of the most powerful massage experiences I’ve ever had. I was able to embrace and then release some emotional stuff that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do on my own.* I started to feel like myself again almost as soon as I got off that table.

Your massage is a time for you. Embrace and enjoy that.

* I very rarely have trouble staying present when I’m giving a massage. The very fact that I’m maintaining presence for someone else is what makes it easier.

* For people dealing with trauma, please seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional. Massage can be very helpful in dealing with emotions, but massage therapists are not qualified or empowered by law to do anything beyond listen to what our clients choose to share with us about their emotional experiences. This blog assumes no liability for how this post is used.



Back off, ego

I recently had an interesting insight after giving a massage. I’ve been incorporating my mindfulness practice into sessions with some of my clients lately, and it seems to be improving the effectiveness of the sessions for them. I’ve really begun embracing my role as a facilitator of healing, and I’ve focused my intention away from “doing” work to creating a space where change can happen.

Many of my clients are perceiving this as energy work, and it seems like energy work to me too. There is a part of my brain that shies away from this categorization because it isn’t like the energy work I have been formally trained in. It’s not something I am actively doing (there’s that word again), it’s something that is happening spontaneously as we focus on particular parts of the client’s body.

The insight that I came to was that the part of me that wants to reject this is part of my ego. The change in my work is benefitting my clients, but it cannot be quantified or studied objectively. I cannot “prove” it to anyone, or explain it with pure logic. Therefore a part of me wants to dismiss it as wishy thinking (and star maths if any of you are fellow “IT Crowd” fans) and never tell anyone about these experiences.

Yet I know from my own experiences of receiving massage in a mindful state that it enhances the work for me. Do I really need mechanistic studies demonstrating effectiveness to accept that something more is happening when massage is given and received in a mindful state? Or is it more that my ego wants to post links to studies here to prove to you all that it makes a difference? I’ve come to believe it’s the latter.

I don’t need a specific name for the space my client and I are making during these mindful massages yet. We can both appreciate that change is happening, and they can get off the table feeling freer and looser. Names can come later.



Reflecting on 2014

Today marks the last day I will be in my office in 2014. It was such an amazing year for me; I learned so much from everyone, and had a great time doing it! I thought this would be a good time to reflect a little on this past year, and share some of my hopes for the next.

To prepare to write this blog post, I decided to read through my posts from last December and January. I was honestly expecting to get a little chuckle, or possibly even a gentle headshake, out of myself when I was shiny and new to the business world (unlike the expert I am now, naturally). Instead I was pleasantly surprised at how much is still true.

I had forgotten how much I used to have to compensate for with my wrist issues. Partly it’s normal for me now, but I realized that my wrist is very gradually healing. My flare-ups are less frequent, and my pain is much less severe in between them. One day I think it will even be weight-bearing in extension again.

Which brings us to my greatest triumph of the year: discovering that I am still capable of working deeply with some of my clients. I continue to honor and respect the gentle work I do, but I enjoy being able to work directly with the deeper muscles on some of my clients. Reading about where I was one year ago versus today, it’s clear that I have made more physical progress than I have been giving myself credit for.

Next year I plan to keep on improving my strength and stamina, I’ll keep finding new and interesting ways to practice self-care to share on here. I also plan to allow myself to speak a little louder and be more visible next year.

Thank you all for a wonderful year. May 2015 bring us all joy, prosperity, and greater wisdom. With Love, Margaret

Good vs Bad! (or not)

One of the most deeply ingrained habits that I’m trying to change right now is my tendency to categorize things as good or bad. Kale is good, sugar is bad, or joy is good, anger is bad, or my favorite, my injury-prone side is bad, my not injury-prone side is good. I’ve been making these kinds of judgments for as long as I can remember, I bet that most of us have. I just accepted these kinds of thoughts as facts and didn’t really examine them further.

It was actually in my first oncology massage class that I started to question this. I think that every oncology massage instructor who is awake will at some point tell students to never refer to a client’s compromised side as the “bad” side. The sides are treated and untreated (assuming this even applies). That was straightforward and easy to accept. Don’t call part of a client’s body bad.

But what about my own body? Do I have a “bad” side? My left biceps femoris is weaker than my right, so is it bad? I’ve certainly referred to it that way in the past. It’s not bad to have a weaker side though, it’s a consequence of going through life. It’s something that I am working to change, but I’m not going to refer to parts of my body as “bad” until I somehow achieve perfect balance. I’m going to try to re-frame that for my clients too. Maybe you have a weaker side, a less-flexible side, a side that hurts more; and that’s what we’ll call it.

I think that the same can be said for food: some are (much) more nutrient-dense than others. I’m working to cut way down on my sugar intake, but I’m doing it because my other health issues seem to decrease when I do that. Not because I have judged sugar and determined it is bad. What about our emotions? What happens when I judge that some of my emotions are bad? Will I still let myself experience them fully? Because that doesn’t seem to be how I roll. I don’t want to get too deep into either of these topics because I am neither a nutritionist nor a mental health professional. I’m just someone trying to live the fullest life that I possibly can.

I think that the more I am able to let go of this instinct for categorizing everything in these terms, the kinder it will make me. Towards myself and the people around me. Is anyone else out there trying something similar? I know of various people who have inspired me with their blog posts about this. It’s still kind new to me. So much of this is, really. Which is such an exciting place to be at!

You are Safe

There’s something about this time of year that seems to make some people feel more vulnerable (this is certainly true for me). I have some wild speculations about why that might be, but for the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter.

One of my favorite people to give a massage to is the person who walks in my door feeling this vulnerability. The person who doesn’t want to be “fixed”, they want to be nurtured and feel attended to. When I work with this person, I am best able to embody my own sense of loving kindness. I am extra mindful of how I approach their body.

The truth about me is that I want everyone I encounter to feel safe and cared for. When someone comes to me seeking just those qualities, I feel my greatest sense of purpose. I love what I do, and these are some of the times I love it the most. Today was one of those days, and my heart is full.

Testing the Theory

Ever since I read that massage dosing study a couple of months ago, I have been really eager to try it out in my practice. Naturally, I need the right client to test it out with (and I think it will take a while before I can find someone who has the time to come in twice a week for four weeks); but I just love the idea of working so closely with someone to help them get relief from pain.

Another point I’d like to take from this article is the unrealistic expectations we sometimes have about massage. I’ve been a professional massage therapist for over seven years, and I still sometimes fall prey to this assumption that I can fix* a problem someone is having in one session. Sometimes  it does happen that way. That’s great! But that needs to be an exception rather than the rule.

Particularly in the case of chronic pain like  they studied for the paper, it can be really easy to overdo the work. To put more stress on the body instead of bringing relief. By having lots of massages of sufficient length in a short period of time, it frees up massage therapist and client to move the goal posts a little closer. Let’s try to take your pain level from a 7 to a 5 or a 6, then take it down another point or two (I made these numbers up for the purpose of illustrating my point).

One thing that I have definitely seen in tracking the outcomes for my clients is the importance of working very mindfully with chronic pain.  It’s a complicated physiological condition, and approaching it with a battering ram hasn’t worked nearly as well for people as approaching it more like peeling an onion. (Side note: improve use of similes and metaphors- yikes.)

The final cool thing I want to point out about this study is the way those effective 60 minute massages were applied. They did focus on the neck, including using deep techniques, and then they spent the rest of the time doing soothing strokes to the rest of the client’s body. I’d guess it made the sessions more relaxing for the subjects than they otherwise might have been. It also goes back to a much older study (which I probably won’t be able to find quickly enough) which demonstrated that full body massage was equally as effective as targeted massage for low-back pain. Pretty cool, right?


*The concept of a massage therapist “fixing” a client’s body is probably the topic of its own post. For now, suffice to say that I don’t see my profession in those terms.


MLD and Qi

Lately I’ve been seeing more clients for MLD in my practice, in addition to increasing its presence in my own self-care; and an idea is forming in my mind about MLD from an energetic perspective. Way back in massage school we were always talking about how whenever you are moving blood, you are moving Qi. So why wouldn’t that be the case with lymph as well?

Part of the reason that I’ve only just started thinking about this is because of how Western ideology based my MLD training was. The discussion was limited to our current understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the lymphatic system. No doubt that’s part of why the Vodder style of MLD is the most widely recognized in the medical profession.

Still, I’ve found that the most of my clients who really gravitate towards MLD are either themselves energy workers of some sort, or they are really sensitive to energy work in general. Obviously, this is a teeny, tiny sample, but this post is tagged “Musings” rather than “True Science Facts” so I think I’m okay.

Since it’s summer in the Midwest, many clients are coming in with Qi stagnation. The humidity causes dampness to build up in the body, and the Qi can’t flow freely (from a TCM perspective). This frequently presents as pain. So far, I’ve gotten a positive response using MLD (either exclusively or in combination with massage) in my clients who are looking to relieve stagnation.  As the summer continues, I’m curious to see if my practice will continue to support this idea, or if I’ll look back on this post in September and feel silly.

In unrelated news, Sphere has a proper website now. These are exciting times!

Isolation, Touch Deprivation, & Safety

Touch was never meant to be a luxury. It is a basic human need. It is an action that validates life and gives hope to both the receiver and the giver. The healing of touch is reciprocal.

-Irene Smith, massage therapist and educator

I recently had the opportunity to speak about oncology massage at the Chicago Gilda’s Club. It was a fantastic group of people who were really engaged in the topic; I hope they’ll let us come back and speak again sometime.

When I was preparing the slideshow (which we didn’t end up needing!), one of the points I mentioned was how isolated cancer patients can feel, and how many of them experience touch deprivation because their friends and loved ones are too scared of hurting them to touch them. These are huge issues in this population, but I think they are more widespread than we often admit.

Anyone who is familiar with Harry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys (which are rather upsetting to read about now, be warned if you decide to click this link) knows that touch is a fundamental human need. These experiments involve the subject doing the touching, rather than being touched, but they are still informative about the value of tactile stimulation. Other studies have demonstrated that touch-deprived babies don’t thrive or sometimes even survive. This newsletter has a big article on infants and touch written by two of my professional heroes: Ben Benjamin and Ruth Werner.

I don’t work with infants or children in my practice, but I don’t think that adults have lost the need for non-judgmental, non-sexual touch. I think that as busy as we are now, as connected as we are through our various electronic devices, many of us still experience feelings of isolation (with varying levels of intensity). Massage is arguably the true world’s oldest profession, and I think that speaks to our continuing and profound need for positive touch.

Massage therapy is also safe touch. Physically safe, because each session is modified for a client’s individual needs. Whether for lymph node removal, surgery, a muscle strain, etc., no one should be pushed beyond what their body can handle. It also provides emotional safety, because the client is able to set their own boundaries for the session. I instruct my clients to undress to their own level of comfort. For some this means they get fully undressed, for others it means they remove only their shoes, and there are many people somewhere in between. Clients get to dictate as much as they choose where I do and do not touch (the exceptions here should be obvious, but just in case- I don’t touch the genitals, ever).

I began this post with my very favorite quote about massage. It is so simple and it expresses so beautifully the truth that I have found so far in my work. I help my clients with various illnesses and injuries, even anxiety and insomnia. It is not a passive process though, we are communicating throughout and mostly without words. As they relax through my touch, I relax with them. Truly, I leave each session healed, renewed, and with a greater sense of connection to the world.