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