I WAS A 22 year old advertising assistant when I was taken for my first "Spa Day" by a perky and sycophantic magazine sales rep hoping to land a few more ad pages from our client. At that point in my life I was certain that a job was a job and that I was pretty much doomed to a life of low-wage passionless hell. I thought that was what being a grown-up was all about: you work for a living and working pretty thoroughly nudges out the living you were working for in the first place. But you gotta pay bills, and working in an office at least affords you evenings and weekends, which was a step up from the mall, my previous work venue, where I quit over my inability to get two consecutive days off, much to the disturbingly genuine surprise of my clueless manager. Advertising was at least more glamorous than the mall, although I was paid significantly less. But I had decided that expensive dinners, spa days and box seats at baseball games I cared not a whit about made up for the low wages and the incessant barrage of verbal abuse and attacks on my self-worth that I endured on a 40 hour a week basis.
So I went to my spa day and after a rather unremarkable facial and a spa pedicure that my Pisces soul relished with unrepentant hedonistic delight, I was delivered into the hands of the massage therapist, a very gentle and down to earth man who seemed very out of place in the slick and glitzy cosmetological spectacle of the upscale day spa phenomenon. I asked him a lot of questions about his job, and I complained to him a lot about mine. I tried hard not to cry. I tried hard to relax. Mostly I succumbed to the Germanic Midwestern hostess in me and worried about keeping the conversation flowing. I was so typical. But all the while my inner yenta was nudging me impatiently, "people get paid for this" she whispered, "you could get paid for this."
My therapist finished with a chakra balancing that made my spine sing; both of us were a little surprised by how intensely I felt it -- it was like someone switched on a light in me. By the end of the day I had declared my intention to do this work someday. It seemed tailor made for me. I had been giving massages since before I could remember, trading them with girlfriends, and later boyfriends, offering them to fatigued adults, trying to relieve my mom's fibromyalgia symptoms. It had somehow never occurred to me that this could be a viable career choice. My high school guidance counselor certainly never brought it up; her best suggestion was an ill-fated all expenses paid trip to the local state university for a broadcast journalism degree. But school really cut into my partying time, and it turned out that j-school was grooming me for a role that was nothing like TV's Murphy Brown, so after losing my full scholarship to academic suspension, I got a job at the mall. The rest is agonizingly mundane history.
So after my mind-blowing massage experience, my research began in earnest almost immediately. I looked into all the local massage schools, but they were all private and their idea of making payments was more than double the cost of my rent. I tried to save up, but unexpected expenses arose one after another and my bank account continued to hover right above zero. I left that job a few months later looking for greener (and kinder) pastures to fund my dream. Nearly every career decision I've made since then was with the destination of massage therapy in mind.
Fast forward five years to a sultry Friday afternoon in July in which I am perusing the junk mail, a guilty pleasure to which I sheepishly admit, and in between flyers for the latest furniture store sale and a Chinese takeout menu, there's this catalog to the local community college. I immediately flip to the M's in hopes of there being some sort of massage class. Much to my great surprise there is. Even better, because it's a county college I can get real, honest-to-God financial aid. After desecrating a towel soaking up the great wet spot on the couch, I made some phone calls and a month later I was getting my student ID picture taken.
The thing I remember about my first massage class was the way we sized each other up as though we were competition to beat out; as though Massage Therapy were some great professional game of musical chairs and we didn't want to be the one left standing when the music stopped. None of us understood yet that a therapist can only see a couple dozen people a week, so there will never be enough of us, and that each of us will attract a clientele uniquely suited to who we are. We were simply overwhelmed by the time and financial commitments we had just made, and we all wanted to be the best. By the second class we were stripping down to our underwear in a big room to get on the tables and whatever mistrust we had for each other quickly gave way under the responsibility of respect. The first thing I learned as a massage student is that there is a place in the world just for me, and that that place should be nurtured and respected.
I was so afraid as I learned to give massage. I realized there was so much I didn't know, and my self-conscious awareness of my own ignorance convinced me to forget all that I did know intrinsically about how to give massage after a lifetime of offering my hands. But gradually I learned that the things that I had been doing weren't so wrong, they had names; they were Official Techniques. With the approval of the authority figures secure, I relaxed. I learned that we learn rigid rules for How To Do It at the beginning, because you have to start somewhere, but that once you know them it's okay to relax and do it your own way to make it yours. I learned that as long as you act with focused intent, success is practically guaranteed, but at the same time there will always be more to learn.
As I began my second semester and delved into the realm of anatomy, I realized once again how little I knew. It turned out those muscles I'd been trying to rub so mindfully ran in certain directions, that some things I'd been doing were ineffective because of the way our bodies are laid out. Entranced, I watched a video of a human dissection and saw how paper thin some of our muscles are -- how intricate and fragile and strong these bodies are. My reverence for my work tripled as I began to understand how beautifully and simply connected to mind and spirit the body is -- how you can affect mood and blood pressure from simply touching someone. I have always been a mind and spirit kinda girl, but my anatomy class connected myself to my body so tangibly that my entire perception of reality shifted.
Massage is so brilliantly effective for so many things; stress is only the most evident. Headaches are often caused by unintentionally hunching the shoulders, an unconscious organ-protecting response we have evolved for use in dangerous situations, which tighten the muscles in the neck. Stress is our culture's term for chronically stimulating the sympathetic (also known as "fight-or-flight") response in the autonomic nervous system. Stress not only exacerbates muscle tension, but also unleashes a chain of events on the body such as chronic stomach upset, impotence, insomnia, poor eating habits, raised blood pressure and depression, each of which also feeds into the cycle anew and ensures that stress becomes chronic. Massage breaks that cycle by not only relaxing the muscle tension, but also lowering blood pressure and releasing chemicals into our nervous system that calm the relentless fight-or-flight response that stress elicits. This allows us to sleep, to digest our food, to get turned on, to laugh and not take the world so seriously, all of which are parasympathetic responses. When we are relaxed, in a parasympathetic state, we become open and responsive and we feel "more like ourselves." Obviously there is an appropriate time and place for both actions of the autonomic nervous system. The intent with massage is to bring them into balance.
On the purely physical side of massage, it takes up the slack for a major shortcoming in the western medicine model: doctors rarely touch their patients, or encourage patients to touch themselves. A person who regularly massages their organs knows sooner if there is hardness or tenderness, long before someone who never touches themselves would, and can bring that awareness to a physician sooner which keeps a relatively minor problem from developing into a full scale disease. Taking responsibility for knowing how our bodies are functioning requires us to take a more active responsibility in their own healthcare. I actually had a physician tell me once not to massage my daughter's stomach when she was having abdominal pain. He retracted that when I told him I was a massage therapist, but I am deeply concerned with this practice of inciting fear of touching ourselves; even more so when they are not touching us either. But it makes me wonder things like how many people are taking arthritis medication who don't even have arthritis? Tell a doctor your knees are always bothering you and he will diagnose arthritis and write out a scrip without ever laying a hand on your knees. Arthritis is specifically defined as an inflammation of the joints, but any runner will testify that very often knee pain is caused by tight quadriceps muscles. A muscle that is tight is shorter, and the shortening, in this case, pulls on the tendon insertion at the knee, which makes the knee feel more uncomfortable than the tightness in the belly muscle and so we perceive it as knee pain. Massage relaxes the muscle and brings fresh blood and nutrients to it, breaking the cycle of pain-spasm-pain. Many therapists have stories of working on tight quads and afterwards the client is crying "it's a miracle!" because they haven't been free of knee pain in a decade. Our bodies are so anxious to tell us how to feel better. Massage is one way for us to learn to listen.
And then there is the emotional aspect of massage. It's hard to explain, but many of us have had experiences where we have received massages and found ourselves lying sobbing on the table, thinking of things we hadn't remembered in decades. There is a theory out there that muscles store memories, and the act of working those muscles releases a flood of memories just like you're walking down your old street. One of my teachers related a story in which her client had had a thumb broken several times as a small child and when she massaged that thumb the client started to cry and related all these stories. My teacher was new to the field at the time and didn't know what else to do but sit and hold the thumb and cry right along with her. People don't just walk down the sidewalk or sit in restaurants focusing on unresolved childhood broken appendages. Those wounds lie dormant within us waiting to be heard. And when we begin to cry when our traps are massaged and we are barraged by memories of screaming parents, it may not be easy to connect the dots between the unconscious memory of those muscles tightening in a protective way and the tears we are shedding on the table, but it happens, and it affects our daily lives without us ever even realizing. It is interesting to note that a study on sea slugs found that after only a couple of electric shocks, they begin to physically recoil in the exact same way when touched by any non-shocking device. Even sea slugs have muscle memory. Massage practitioners have seen this response time and time again, to the extent that my teachers felt it worthwhile to do an entire unit on how to handle clients crying on your table. But what a great gift, this opportunity to bring old and repressed issues to our consciousness, to have a chance to integrate and move beyond and maybe ultimately find forgiveness for others and for ourselves. This is how a culture heals.
I could write a whole separate essay on massage and grieving. But let me just simply say: if anyone you know is grieving, get them a massage.
Touch always comforts and soothes. It is good for times when life leaves us writhing in anguish, it is good for kids with ADHD, it is good for shut-ins and the elderly, it is good for all the anger, fear, sadness, loneliness and helplessness in us that is nourished every day by the media and our bosses and terrorism. It is good for everyone.
I always imagined myself finally escaping from corporate hell and working in a soothing, ethereal room massaging ethereal new-agey people looking to unify and tone their tripartite beings. But it turns out that the people who need massage the most are those that I had most hoped to escape: CEO's and lawyers and all of the raging SUV-driving consumerist walking wounded need massage most of all because they have usually gotten the farthest away from themselves. If some of these people could be convinced to get still and vulnerable, release stress, and confront some of their inner turmoil, they might not be so inclined to make such far reaching fear-induced decisions. Which forces me to take a look at my own prejudices. Why did I only want to massage those I found "deserving" of being whole and feeling good? Does that really heal the divisiveness that riddles our world with conflict and hatred, or does it feed into it? These questions lead me to the realization that the greatest thing to me about becoming a massage therapist is the ability to use massage as my own little form of loving activism. Every person who finds their way onto my table will (hopefully) spend the rest of the day basking in the glow of having loved themselves, and from that place of fulfillment may go out and spend the day spreading kindness. Even if it is something small like not cutting someone off on their drive to the store, or being a little nicer at home, these little things spread a low-level sense of well-being around like a virus that grows exponentially with all they come into contact with. In the equal and opposite way some Expedition driving jerk in the throes of a midlife crisis hopped up on caffeine and road-rage can ruin your day and cause you to be irritable with everyone you see, which might cause them to be cranky with the people they meet, and so forth.
Massage is not a miracle. There are many things it cannot help with, and there are even some problems that massage can exacerbate, which is why I am training in such an intensive program -- to know when to say no. But it does work wonders on so many problems, and touch gets people in touch with themselves so that they can be active in their own healing process. Massage is a holistic "gateway drug" -- it gets people into herbalism and activism and exercise and introspection and all manner of other things that ultimately lead to integration. And while massage may not be the final solution, it's a pretty good start.++