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Giving and Receiving :: The Health Benefits of Massage, for Clients and Therapists

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday April 23, 2012

The room is peacefully lit. Music (a mix of classical, New Age, World Music, soothing electronica) plays softly. My client relaxes on the massage table; I do my best to make sure he or she is comfortable. Is the room warm enough? Does the client need a bolster under the ankles? This must be a safe, inviting space where the client is able to shed not only stress and tension but also the unconscious, continual muscular armoring against a world that delivers crises and insults of all sorts, and on every front: Professional, personal, familial. We are a nation of people under enormous strain every day. Massage therapy represents a chance to get away for an hour or so.

A client might present tough, unyielding fascia, which is the connective tissue that runs throughout the body in a single, three-dimensional web. Fascia supports and cushions our organs, bones, and muscles, but it can also be like a kind of shrink-wrap that closes around muscle tissue and bounces a therapist right off. A good therapist knows how to make friends with the fascia. This is the first step to getting into the deeper muscle layers, but relaxing the fascia is in itself is a therapeutic goal.

Deeper than the underlying muscle layers and more fundamental than even the task of opening up and relaxing the fascia is a quality of attention--an ability to hear the client's body with the hands, and an ability to soothe, reassure, and communicate with the client through confident, intuitive, and informed touch. It's a therapeutic connection that works both ways: The client receives care and healing, but the attentive, attuned practitioner also benefits.

I've been doing massage since I was 12 years old. This was probably an outgrowth of an interest in medicine, anatomy, and physiology that I recall having since kindergarten, when I discovered a map of the human body in our old encyclopedia set.

The bones and muscles of the human frame presented a fascinating puzzle that could be taken apart layer by layer as one turned the pages of a series of transparencies that first lifted away the skin of a painted man, then his muscles, and finally his viscera.

Once I could read, I was able to delve in more deeply, finding out more about the functions of individual organs, various disease states, and just what it was that made different sorts of tissues. (Thanks, Mom, for keeping your old Tabors Medical Cyclopedia!)

Moving on to massage was just putting what I had learned into practice--and learning about the layers and components of the human organism in another way. The soft tissues and skeletal structure--nerves, bones, muscle, fascia, and skin--create the physical structure of the body. People never think much about it unless they experience pain, but the physical body is the scaffold for everything else in life: Thought, work, creativity, family. The body is, generally speaking, strong and resilient, but it does need good care in order to function at optimal health. We can stay strong, stave off pain, and age more gracefully if we pay attention to diet, sleep, exercise, and other aspects of our physical condition.

When things go wrong, of course, there are doctors we can turn to. But better still is preventive maintenance--following sensible dietary guideline, staying active, making sure our muscles and joints remain limber. That's where massage comes into the picture. Even when there's an injury involving soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments), specialized massage (orthopedic massage, for example) can help.

Therapists who have a talent for bodywork enjoy the physical and energetic components of the profession alike. Everything from navigating the "bony landmarks" (the bones that are close to the skin, where you don't want to apply direct pressure unless you are applying cross-fiber friction to a ligament or a tendon) to the deeply intuitive sense of how a client's energy is flowing, or not flowing as the case may be, adds up to a complete and organic picture of a person's health status. An attentive therapist also needs to be conscious of his or her own body and how it works: After all, what is the point of trying to offer healing to others if you harm yourself in the process?

There's another aspect to massage therapy: Offering healing to others can be a profound healing journey for the therapist as well as the client. In massage school my class was a study in extremes: Young people looking for a career, and middle aged people with empty nests looking for a second career or a sideline, something to fill hours and make a little extra money. But there was another distinct category as well: Many of the students in my class were there because they had suffered physical or emotional injury, and massage had helped them recover. Knowing first-hand, so to speak, of the power of massage to heal, they had decided to learn how to take that healing capacity into their own hands in order to experience it from the other side.

But being a healer is about more than mastering technique or even having a talent for the work. The hardest, and most rewarding, part is learning that there is always more to learn--about the science behind the art, about new and emerging techniques, about the people who come to you for healing, and about yourself.

All of that sounds fun and stimulating, and it is; but it's that last part that is especially challenging, and especially hard. If you are thinking of making massage a career, or a second career, it'll help you to know this: Massage isn't really a job. It's a vocation. Better put, it's a gift. What your clients pay you for is the time and the room, the space in which a session can unfold. But you're not really selling your services. How can you put a price tag on the primal connection of massage, or on the impulse to cultivate health? And yet, massage is also a business--a big business.

"From spa, hospital, sports teams and private practice, massage is an industry that is growing rapidly," the website for the Cortiva Institute, a chain of ten massage schools across the country, says. "According to the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment for massage therapists is expected to increase 20% from now to 2018, faster than average for all occupations."

What any massage school you consider attending might not tell you, and what I learned only after entering the field and having to deal with these things, is that a successful massage practice takes a lot of marketing, a lot of patience, a lot of dedication--and an absolute conviction that massage is the career for you. It means treating your own body like that of an athlete in training. Nutrition and exercise and close attention to body mechanics are essential to career longevity. Many massage therapists only last two or three years in the profession because while giving massages may seem easy (what could be less taxing than giving back rubs? That's the uninformed attitude many people have), this is a physically demanding job.

I once heard someone make the observation that, "Massage is a great way to make extra money, but it's a hard way to earn a living." That is especially true for male therapists, even more so in the current economy. Though this is less true than it was even a few years ago, men and women alike tend to have a preference for female therapists. (Another piquant little nugget I heard someone utter: "Men are afraid that a male therapist might be gay. Women are afraid that he might be straight.")

Others see massage as a luxury, rather than as a means of promoting and maintaining their health. It's hard to get past those attitudes. Making a living at massage means putting in a lot of work in the marketing and business end of things. Massage may be all about touch, but it's not as "touchy feely" as you might have thought.

For me, massage (both giving and receiving) has been about putting a real and hobbling fear of physical contact (and physicality in general) behind me. Touch, in my early experience, was a painful and frightening thing. That early reality created physical and emotional problems. Massage helped resolve those problems.

We're taught that our bodies are untrustworthy things, and all too often we abuse them with poor diet and poor health choices of all sorts. We are also taught to place a premium on physical attractiveness... worse, a narrow and unimaginative stripe of physical attractiveness. That, too, can lead to poor health choices. To some, the body is a nuisance; to others, it's a temple. But the simple and universal fact is that the body is a person's home. Neglect and abuse it and you ensure misery, if not now, then later on. Cherish, nourish, and keep it in good health and life itself will be a more valuable, joyful experience.

Massage is part of that picture for a growing number of people, but there's still a sense of confusion and mystery about it. In short, here's how I think of it: It's not about the hands. It's about connection and compassion. It's not about technique; it's about learning to listen and respond with respect and care. And it's certainly not a mere luxury. It's a primal and necessary form of nourishment, whether one's role is giving or receiving.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.