10 Tips for Giving a Better Massage

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After getting some basics down students start learning about different modalities.  They start wondering which modality they would enjoy receiving and giving.  Inevitably they ask their instructors “what type of massage do you do?”  They want an easy answer of one to two modalities, but that’s not how I think about massage anymore.

What’s involved in my style of massage:

1. Throw away modalities.  When you learn a modality you get a style to emulate and a reasoning why it works.  The truth is we don’t know the real reasons.  Using only one modality is cutting off techniques you could learn or be “allowed” to use.  Don’t restrict yourself.  I didn’t care for my time in the spa when I worried if they asked for Swedish massage for example, I shouldn’t use such and such technique because it is a myofascial technique.  Why can’t I use the stroke that is best at that time for the client?

2. Make sure clients are always comfortable.  If they’re not comfortable then I’m not nurturing trust, and they’ll be tense and unable to receive the benefits of a massage.  Comfortable means I let them know upfront that I’ll accept feedback at anytime about anything that is making them uncomfortable.  It’s my responsibility to empower them to be in control of what happens to their body in my session.  Sometimes clients won’t offer up feedback willingly, so you still have to check in occasionally and prompt them for a response.

3. Leave your ego at home.  To make sure they’re comfortable you can’t bring your ego into it.  I see students and teachers who want to improve, but upon receiving feedback they get frustrated, disappointed, or worse angry.  The moment that happens you just nonverbally said that you don’t really want feedback.  Yeah, you went to school for this and you may “know better”, but it’s their session and body.

4. Don’t plow, allow.  Give yourself time to sink into the tissue.  Don’t just bulldoze through it.  I’m not a fan of “no pain, no gain.”  If they tell you it’s too much, you don’t know better.  You don’t have to go deeper to “work it out.”  They decide what is deep for them and that can change each session.  If they say no, and you don’t listen, I think you just committed massage rape to their tissues. Learn how to check pressure.

5. Understand your anatomy.  This can never make your massage worse.  Understanding anatomy helps you understand pathology.  Understanding musculoskeletal anatomy helps you plan your massage.  It gives you the ability to muscle test, stretch, and work the muscle competently.  You could forget them when you work at the spa and just work the area.  However, if you want the pleasure of seeing your client struggle to walk like a new born fawn, because of an awesome massage, then you need to learn to work muscles from attachment to attachment.

6. Cultivate mindfulness.  Everything is multitasking, no more doing one thing as well as you can…except for us.  Your client paid for your attention.  Most students are hungry to learn as many new techniques as possible.  New strokes are nice, but they only get you to average.  Mindfulness is bringing your attention and awareness to what you’re doing.  Have you ever driven down the highway while thinking about groceries, rent, errands, arguments, and then notice you passed your exit five miles ago.  That is the absence of mindfulness.  While massaging you shouldn’t pay attention to mental chatter or be distracted by your phone.  It’s blasphemous.  Your touch feels horrible and you told the client that some text message is more important than the price they paid. What deserves your attention?  Body mechanics, nonverbal cues from the client, objective data you notice, and time management.  Don’t think you’re doing them a favor by going over time.  You may be making them late while decreasing the amount you earn per hour for massage.  Massage is not a volume business.  Protect what you make per hour.

7. Master flow and transition.  To take your massage up a level you must connect with the client at the beginning, then flow and transition through the massage.  Really it’s the quality of touch that makes the massage, and not the number of techniques you use.  Quality of touch includes relaxed hands.  Don’t jump around the body, and do try to build your strokes on top of each other.  I imagine orchestrating a symphony with each stroke having the purpose of building on the stroke before and also preparing the tissue for what follows.  Since it is so hard to teach, it often comes with experience.  The best experience for mastering connection, flow, and transition is to pay attention while receiving.

8. Slow down.  To continue increasing the quality of your massage you must slow the pace down.  Beginning students don’t know enough techniques.  You worry that your techniques won’t get you through an hour massage.  Eventually you know more techniques than you could hope to use in an hour.  Instead of cutting some out you decide to speed up so that you can fit them all into the session.  That massage sucks.  Use less strokes and slow down.  Even if you’re behind and feeling time pressure- slow down.  Nothing communicates I messed up and you’re getting short changed like a therapist hustling through a body part.

9. Immerse yourself in your new craft.  I was watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi and this chef is at the pinnacle of the sushi world.  He charges $300 a plate, has no appetizers, and you must make a reservation a month in advance.  His advice is to immerse yourself.  Now when I say to immerse yourself I’m not suggesting you go broke taking every continuing education class available.  Yet, you need to continue doing things to improve.  I read about research in the field.  I also read books, blogs, watch videos, and take CEUs that I deem worth it.  Keep increasing the number of techniques you know.  Continue brushing up on your anatomy.  Join an association that will keep you current.

10. Be professional and personable.  I never want a client uncomfortable on my table.  When I’m with friends I may act inappropriately, but not when I’m working.  You don’t know who you might offend.  That doesn’t mean that your client wants a robot.  You want to give clients a reason to come to you over another therapist.  You think that other therapist isn’t going to smile, give a decent massage, and offer water at the end.  What sets you apart?  Preferably both your massage skills and personality.  You need to learn the balance that gets people returning to you.

What’s that?  You still want to know what kind of massage I give.  Let’s just call it that slow cooked, melt off the bone, style of massage.