Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just A Relaxing Massage, Part 1

We make a lot of claims in massage therapy. Some of them are proven. Most of them are not. I was thinking about this today as I went to talk to a local clinic about their massage offerings. Their website included the “improves circulation” and “removes toxins” claims that we hear so much, and that have no evidence to back them up.

Much smarter people than me have written about this, at length and with remarkable clarity. I suggest you check out Tracy Walton’s take here for more detail.

I want to talk about why we make all these claims in the first place. There are days when the entire profession feels like a collection of people tied up in some kind of inferiority complex. And, yes, I am including myself in this whole mix. We make all kinds of claims about what massage can do based on anecdotes, or long-standing oral tradition, or sometimes wishful thinking.

It goes, so often, like this: “Massage is relaxing. . . AND it can increase circulation and boost immunity and it might even make you able to fly.*”

(* — massage will not make you able to fly. Unless your therapist hands you a plane ticket at the end of the session.)

What’s wrong with stopping at “Massage is relaxing?” When did it become not enough to facilitate deep, uninterrupted relaxation? I have the good fortune to live a slow life most days, with time for exercise and reading and general contemplation. Most of the people I know are not so lucky. One slow hour with nothing to do but receive skilled bodywork seems like more than enough.

Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush on

This week, I am working on removing the word “just” from my vocabulary when talking about massage — as in “just relaxation.” As I know from my understanding of the nervous system, the effects of relaxation are profound and wide-ranging in the human body. I’m going to stop diminishing that.

Next week, I will explore some of these effects and the profound meaning of calming the human nervous system.

Inner World, Thoughts on the profession

Be the Weirdo

There are so many conversations I would like to have about massage therapy, and about health care in general. The one about equity and accessibility of care. The one about basic massage education and its preparation (or lack thereof) for a career. The one about how much to charge and when/if to raise your rates. The one about complementary and alternative and where does massage live.

That last one — the complementary/alternative one — has been on my mind lately. For myself, I’m pretty firmly decided that massage therapy is complementary in nature, and is most effective when used in concert and communication with other forms of care. What’s on my mind is how we think and talk about those other forms of care.

I am struck by how many people come through my office and will tell me about their doctors with an eye-roll or knowing wink. Some will straight out tell me that their doctors are scam artists who are just in it for the money. I am working on changing this kind of talk.

There are better and more productive conversations we can be having about healthcare right now. I’m working with some super-smart nerds at Healwell trying to have those conversations in public.  In my daily private work, it’s a little more challenging.

It all comes down to acknowledging the feeling behind the words, the hidden voice that speaks through the filter of disdain for traditional medical care. And to honor that, to hear it, I need to ask better questions. Questions like: where did you feel unheard? What calms your mind? What wakes you up at night? And, when I’m feeling a little combative, questions like: do you think doctors go to medical school because they want to hurt people? How would you handle a day scheduled around too little time with every one of your patients?

Questions that want to look directly into the heart of the heart, the deep and vulnerable truth that always comes out somehow. This is terrifying, for both me and my clients. I am not sure how to do it.

I am bolstered by a conversation I’ve been having with some of the people I traveled with last month. In the country we visited, the standard greeting was a warm, heart-to-heart hug, sometimes with a kiss on the cheek. People we met thought it was strange that we would wave and say “Hello” without reaching out to touch them. We got used to the hugs and the human connection.

As we got home, some of us joked about becoming the “weirdo hugger” in our workplaces. But at the same time, many of us noticed that the same people who thought it was weird when we hugged them, would linger a bit until they got their hug. Every day.

This makes me think that we really do want to connect with each other in some real way. We have just built some of the most elaborate defensive systems on the planet to protect ourselves. And sometimes all it takes to get through those defense systems is to become the weirdo. Hug the people. Ask the questions. Start the conversation.

It’s not always going to end well. I have had experience with that this week. I had a couple of honest conversations. The outcome was not ideal, but my comfort and peace in my own soul was off the charts.

Weirdo power.


Jet Lag

I’ve been home for about a week now. It has officially been long enough that I can no longer use “jet lag” as an excuse for not responding to messages or generally not being productive. Time to be honest.

I’m not responding (to some messages) because I don’t want to. Some things that were so important before I left are really not so important any more. My priorities have shifted. My mind has changed. This doesn’t work for me anymore.

But we can’t actually say any of those things out loud, can we? Can we?

The people I travelled with are keeping in touch on a WhatsApp group. Underneath all the funny “Here’s me after my long flight” pictures, there is a longing that we all share. It is the longing to keep something alive.

We all exited our daily lives for a while and challenged ourselves with a foreign place and the opportunity to look ridiculous while learning something new. For each one of us, it opened up something. We are trying to find a way to keep that something open. It is a question of shifting around our daily lives to accommodate, rather than shifting back into our old selves.

The thing is, most of our lives are pretty crowded, like the market stalls in the town where we stayed. Something has to shift. Something has to give. This doesn’t work for me anymore.

We started a sub-group, dedicated just to holding each other accountable for the things we want to change. Our goals range from finding space for daily creativity to cutting out narcissistic people for good and all.

It’s only been a week, but just knowing that group exists, and that I’ve written down things I mean to do, has changed the way I fit back into my home life. Some things really are not so important anymore.

Now what happens is I have to live out these changes. As soon as I get over this jet lag . . . .



I have been thinking about elephants.

Yesterday, I spent the day at Akagera National Park in Rwanda. We drove through the hundreds of acres in the park, hoping to see all those big animals you go on safari to see. I was most hoping to see an elephant.

We have been learning a bit of traditional Kinyarwandan dance. The day before the safari, we learned a bit of a dance for women called umushagiriro. The movements were meant to mimic the grace and elegance of elephants.

Photo by Anthony on

It was a surprise to me since I am used to the American idea of elephants as clumsy, lumbering sort of beasts. I thought if I saw an elephant in a more natural setting, I might understand the dance a little better.

Outside of a zoo, I’ve only seen an elephant once, while traveling in Thailand. It was awful, to be honest. It was a young elephant who was chained to a steel frame in the middle of an empty field. The elephant rocked back and forth, shifting aimlessly. It reminded me of a traumatized child, rocking in a corner to soothe herself. As it turns out, the comparison was apt. The elephant was in the cruel process of being “broken” so it could be ridden by tourists.

We did see an elephant in Akagera Park. It was seated in the middle of tall, lush grasses quite a distance from the road. It looked so much like a stone that we only knew what we were seeing when it moved it’s ears. We stopped the car and watched for a few minutes, mesmerized by the movements of the elephant’s ears. We all agreed that it did indeed look like the graceful and elegant moves of the dance we were learning.

So, I have been thinking about elephants.

Our perception of elephants in America comes from our so limited perspective. We see elephants in captivity, constrained by the size of the zoo where they live. Or, we see elephants on television, filmed in their natural habitat. Still, they are constrained by the editor of the film and the size of the screen we watch them on. The elephant I saw in Thailand was altered and restrained, mistreated into becoming something different than a wild elephant.

It makes me wonder about other mammals, humans in particular.

How many people, who we judge as awkward or unattractive, are just beautiful souls who are constrained? How many people, whose behavior seems strange to us, are just suffering under some cruel outside pressure?

And, what can we do to release our fellow humans into a more natural habitat so they can rest in comfort and safety and reveal the grace that was there all the time?

I believe this question will drive the next phase of my professional life, so I will keep it close to me as I take more dance classes to learn to move like an elephant.

Thoughts on the profession

Leaving on a Jet Plane

It is New Year’s Eve. I took on an extra couple of massages at a local business today. I probably should not have done it, but I am getting ready to travel so I thought it might be a good idea to make a little extra money.

Holiday massage clients are generally not the clients I work best with. Infrequent consumers of massage. Out-of-town-travelers. Lovers of all things “deep tissue.” My clients today were the deep tissue kind.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the whole question of the effectiveness of deep tissue. Not in this post, anyway. The more interesting thing to me, on this eve of the new year, is how I reacted.

It wasn’t pretty.

Photo by Kat Jayne on

The first client assured me I could “dig around in there” and that he didn’t like the “fluff and rub” kind of massages. True, the spot he pointed to on his neck felt noticeably different than the opposite side of his neck. As I worked into his tissue, I had an almost shaking wave of anger.

This is not my client. This is not my work.

I worked the entire session while breathing through this anger and holding it away from the space I tried to hold for the client.

The second person came in and told me almost right away that she liked a “firm” pressure. As the session went on, it became clear from her feedback that what she meant was wrenchingly deep. And again I felt this wave of anger. And again I spent the session breathing through it, holding it away from the client.

I’ve written in this blog before about how I am not a deep tissue therapist. I have no desire to be a deep tissue therapist. But, since I work sometimes at someone’s else’s business, there is always the chance that I will be assigned a client who wants to “feel the massage” — meaning they want to be sore when they get up off the table.

This has always troubled me. It always felt like this kind of work was not my style, and often was not even effective in the long run. (If someone gets a punishingly deep massage every week for the same pattern of tension, is the massage really working?)

I used to be able to do the work with just a mild sense that I was not at my best, then move on. As I lean into my plans for 2019, I am finding that this is becoming impossible. This next year is forming into a year of clarity, of integrity, of letting go that which does not serve. It started last month with the end of a friendship. It is continuing, apparently, with this visceral reaction to work that feels wrong to me.

It is New Year’s Eve. My new year starts in a few days, when I take a very long plane ride to another country and spend about two weeks all the way outside my comfort zone. I’ll be there when this blog gets published.

In a different country, without the constraints of the familiar, I plan to examine what I mean by working with integrity. Today, two clients gave me a very big clue. I thank them and honor them for that.

Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

It Depends

There’s this thing that gets said a lot in almost every class I teach, no matter what the subject or how (in)experienced the students: “It depends.”  Meaning: more information is needed before I make a recommendation.  Meaning: every human is different.  Meaning: never stop thinking.

I am sitting at a desk in a remote location, away from home and away from people, planning out my 2019. What are my goals for the year? What do I want to create? What do I need to let go of?

I used to do this on a fairly regular basis, but it has been a couple of years since I actually sat down and wrote out the plan for the next year. The first time I did it, the words came to me faster than I could write them down. There was so much missing from my life at that point. It seemed lots of plans and ideas wanted to rush in to fill the vacuum.

Before I started writing today, I looked at that plan. Most of it didn’t happen. Or at least it didn’t happen in a way I expected. There was one sentence though, stuffed into the middle and written when I was tired and wanted to go to bed, that happened exactly as I wrote it. It was eerie, how precisely this thing happened. This one, half-forgotten sentence that became the thing that shifted my entire life.

So, can you plan an entire year before it happens?

It depends.

To me, this writing is an exercise in continual awareness of the kind we want our students to have when we say, “It depends.” Standing rigidly with knowledge or plans or protocols limits our ability to help. And it kills our ability to find wonder in the unexpected, half-asleep moments of our lives.

We stand, in this profession, in our knowledge and our experiential learning. We are not, should never be, trapped by it. We work with humans, after all, in their infinite variety. Every one of them is different, and if we stop thinking we stop serving.

Photo by Pixabay on

Let us not be constrained by the container of our own understanding. Instead, let’s try to flow, like cats do — adapting to the shape of the container before us, or abandoning it entirely when it doesn’t serve.

May your new year be full of awareness, critical thinking, and the magic of conditionality.

Inner World, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession


Last night I watched this documentary about Maria Callas. I had a small sense that there was something tragic and sad about her life outside of opera, but I had no idea just how tender her story was. She existed in this space where she had attention, celebrity, adoration — but she didn’t have the love that she wanted. In her last relationship, she was literally a commodity, a glittering novelty collected by a rich man who loved the idea of her.

The idea of her.

This led me to thinking about a recurring, spiraling conversation I often have with my friends. Our conversation is about humanity, and about our particular skill in honoring humanity. Too often, our default mode is to objectify, to make of each other a one-dimensional thing. The person in my way at the store. The person who is driving too fast. The person talking too much at the end of the day.

Another recurring and spiraling conversation I often have is about the role of massage therapy in health care, about how we can integrate the profession into the medical model in a way that elevates patient care. Believe it or not, watching that documentary brought both of these conversations together in my mind.

What I am hearing sometimes, even in my own head, is that we might be taking on the least desirable parts of the medical model. We might be turning people into objects. The frozen shoulder. The back spasms. The testicular cancer with distant metastasis.

While this objectification might be useful for a moment — we have to apply specific knowledge to be safe and effective, after all — it too easily becomes a habit. And hidden within this habit is the seed of what could be damaging cruelty.

Turning someone into a limited object is a door that opens onto a path. This path has so many stops along the way that drift us further and further from each other. Stops like: not listening with full attention and an open mind, ignoring someone’s stated needs in favor of our own assumptions. In the darkest depths of the path as it winds through the shadow side that is in all of us are the -isms and oppressions that break our collective hearts.

I am in no way saying that integrating in the medical model will make us into a crueler, harsher profession. I am saying that constant vigilance is required. May of us went into massage therapy because we loved the idea of working with a whole person. Many medical professionals love this idea as well.

As Maria Callas grew into her talents and found fame and recognition, her personal life started to fall apart. As this profession grows into its next phase, we must be ever-aware of the state of our own being.

Maria Callas often spoke of herself as two different beings: Callas, the diva and performer, and Maria, the woman. By all accounts, she didn’t find a way to integrate those beings. As we grow into next-level massage therapists, let’s continue to find ways to integrate our two beings: the evidence-based practitioner with the human-loving soul seeking connection.