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What is Massage Touch?

How long does it take a patient to determine the quality of work when she receives a massage from a therapist she’s never visited before? Most people say that within the first minute or two they can predict how the whole massage will feel. No matter what particular area of expertise or how many sophisticated workshops we have taken, probably no other aspect of our work defines us as therapists and communicates to our patients who we are as the subjective feel of our touch.

The more deeply we work and the more sophisticated our therapeutic goals, the more important a refined touch becomes. Most of us have experienced work from therapists well-schooled in advanced therapies who are not proficient at transmitting that knowledge through their hands to accomplish their goals.

Cultivating a sensitive and powerful touch generated by soft hands is a life-long process, but virtually impossible to explain. One essential quality that comes to mind is the concept of “intention.” Without a clear intention of the depth at which you focus your energy and a specific goal of what you want to happen, your strokes are simply empty gestures. We all have had massages where beautiful, flowing strokes were emphasized, but we really felt nothing happen in our bodies. This is a result of placing more importance on “form” than “function.”

Some people complain they leave a gentle massage without feeling any change in their bodies. Conversely, the most frequently mentioned complaint about deep work is that it is painful. Rarely is there a need for pain in massage. In fact, pain is actually one of the major obstacles to our goal of relaxing and lengthening muscles and releasing tension.

The biggest cause of pain — or a harsh touch — is attempting to make things happen, rather than letting things happen. Do not try to force tissue into releasing. Rarely is pain a result of working too deeply; often it is simply a product of working too fast. The deeper you work, the more you must slow down. If tissue does not respond, applying more force is rarely the solution. If you find yourself shaking, your joints hyper-extending, or pain in any part of your body, then you are working too hard.

Proper biomechanics are imperative to prevent strain and enable a soft touch. Force should be generated by either gravity or powerful “core” energy provided by your legs, rather than muscular effort from your arms. Many therapists work too close to their clients so their elbows are flexed and force is provided by muscular effort rather than by a direct line of relaxed, but extended, joints all the way to your feet. If fingers do not supply the power you desire, cultivate skill with other tools such as knuckles, forearms, or elbows.

One of the major goals of effective touch is to lengthen shortened or fibrosed tissue. To do this, it is necessary to grab and stretch the tissue rather than just sliding over it with compressive strokes. Patients sometimes mention they feel like they are being molded like clay when their muscles are stretched, rather than just squeezed. Slipping across over-lubricated tissue allows for compression, but very little stretching. Over-lubricating is another cause of overworking and a harsh touch — try turning a doorknob when your hands are slathered with oil to see how much effort is needed to accomplish a simple goal.

Massage therapists are notoriously generous and often attempt to accomplish too much in a single session by working too fast or too hard. Even in a full-body massage, pick one or two areas for each session that will leave your client more integrated and whole, and focus patient attention on these areas. Take your time to free these areas rather than playing “Beat the Clock” in an attempt to cover the entire body, giving equal attention to all parts. Patience is probably the single quality that dictates our touch. Slowing down and gently waiting for the all-important “melt” to happen is what creates lasting and sometimes profound change in our patients. Waiting for tissue to melt makes our work more efficient by letting us know when we have accomplished our goals in an area, as well as validating our effectiveness, making our work more satisfying.

Massage is a form of dance between you and your patients. Some patients need more direction than others, and one should not try to dance the same dance with every client. Your strategy will be dictated by many factors: the quality of tissue and holding patterns, areas of fear or pain, and countless other subtle factors, but most of all, the bond of communication and trust between the two of you. A nurturing and easy touch is the most powerful tool you can have to establish this bond.


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