You are a Body. Not a Head.

Winter in Maine is a wonderful time to get familiar with your body: how much you use it, and when it is telling you to stop. I know most people feel themselves most fully in the summer. Well, who wouldn’t?

When we are warm and unencumbered, we struggle not against howling gales nor winch up with the mincing steps of navigating ice. When it is beneficent and redolent all around, we toil and weary but the air supports us, and besides, we are mostly barefoot.

We know our stuffs most certainly when we prevail our squishy flesh upon a few snowdrifts, for example, in below-freezing temperatures. Many things not in our favor. Except our body. Which is quite excellent, when you can feel its health.

I was thinking about it a lot today while putting in a few shifts of excavation. The Blizzard of ’15 gave us everything it promised. Today, it was a game of “Find The ___.” Find the cars – find the gas tanks – the compost pile – the woodpile. Carve paths to each. Throw snow around. Gasp and sweat.

With each heave-ho, I was aware – believe me I was aware – of all the muscle groups working together on my behalf. It is truly amazing, it really is. Do you ever catch yourself in a task and marvel at how it all works?  “Do this,” our will drives our body, and the body says, “Yes,” and it happens. (With varying degrees of success of course.)

I played with centering myself in different parts of my frame. The temptation is to just work with one side of your body – hack away at a pile relentlessly until it vanishes – but this is not an elegant approach. (Plus it just really makes everything hurt after a short period of time.) I switched arms, even for just a few shovelfuls, even though the switch felt non-instinctual and clumsy. It gave the other half of me something new to do and surprised muscles that weren’t very busy until that moment.

I also found things went a lot better if I firmed up my abs and gripped tight into my glutes. Things also went better with taking breaks and going inside for water. This was exercise!

What a gift: to be body aware, and play with what we find. My instincts have been honed by nearly fifteen years of practicing and receiving massage therapy. I have studied, contemplated, touched and been with Body. A day outside mooshing snow around is continuing education, as far as I’m concerned.

Doing massage therapy is a great way to spend your humanity: loving the warm, electrical, water-filled bags that are us. And by love I don’t mean anything more than full attention: but full attention is the most loving thing we can do. Whether we are lying on a massage table or asking the herculean of ourselves with winter labor, it is, therefore, love.

Besides being a massage therapist there is just the benefit of receiving massage, which not all professionals seem to do with the same consistency. There’s a lot of overlap between the restaurant industry and massage therapy, as I see it, and I say a massage therapist who doesn’t receive semi-regular massage is like a chef that does not go out and try other chef’s fare. It’s mostly unheard-of in the restaurant world. It should be in ours.

There are so many benefits to massage therapy, but one of the greatest, and possibly hardest to describe, is the gift it gives us of being in our own bodies and having someone else helping us affirm our existence as a body, not just a head.

I’ve written before about the seduction of our age: the supremacy of mind and inconvenience of our body, as if all we are is a pair of eyes inside a slab of jello-y meat.

Massage therapy is a subversive act. It says “hush now” to our mind, which like a spoiled child insists it’s king. Our attention, if we allow it, trickles out of the confines of mind and into the glorious vistas and uncharted waters of our frame.

We become aware of the strangest places: the underside of our upper arm. The webbing between our toes. The very top of our head. Behind our knee.

Body awareness in session gives rise to few words (thank God) but these are the top 3 phrases I’ve heard:

“I had no idea that was sore.”
“Oh my God that feels so good.”
“That’s the spot.”

To be in our bodies and notice what was quiet but aching; to be there when we’re consumed with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing; to have another person acknowledge – with their hands – what’s been bugging us for days. That. Spot. It’s been confirmed and now it’s already starting to feel better because someone who not only cares but has the knack for professional kneading is very keen on helping.

When we are aware of our bodies, we experiment with what works. We play with how we move, lift, respond. We’re more apt to listen when it’s tired, we’re more inclined to notice when we feel good.

Massage therapy gives us ground substance against which everything else is measured, and gives us refuge when we’re feeling stressed. We know how it feels to not be stressed: we’ve had massage! We can go there again, either by recreating it on our own through self care, or, hey, better yet, calling up our massage therapist and making an appointment.

We’ve tasted the good stuff. We know how to make it happen again, how useful it can be.

Even – maybe and especially – when thrusting about amid ponderous snowdrifts.

“Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage — it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”
David Lauterstein, quoting Nietzsche in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page

 

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Confidence, Julie Andrews-style

I didn’t have it, at first. When my sweetheart’s co-worker’s wife called me up for a gift certificate, I cringed a little. This guy usually goes to another practitioner in town: an excellent MT, highly trained with decades of experience, who with great devotion peels people apart.

Not my style, although I admire therapists who do it well.

Anyway I was nervous, in a way that I’m not usually nervous, knowing I was going to see this client. Both Nate (said sweetheart) and this guy’s wife had told me: he expects deep work, he expects deep work.

“He wants to be ripped apart,” Nate said to me.

“Geez, I do deep work but not that kind,” I replied. “Holy cow. Should I tell his wife to get a gift certificate with someone else?”

Nope, it was clear that she thought it was a good idea for him to try a different practitioner: me. And apparently he was happy when he got the gift certificate to come see me, so my fate was sealed. She had his whole birthday planned around this session: I was the pivot point.

I was up for working on him: I’ve always loved a challenge. But I was filled with the what-ifs. “What if I don’t lock in? What if I don’t connect? What if my strength isn’t enough, my technique isn’t enough.”

It was also his birthday. No pressure or anything. And, Nate’s co-worker. No telling what they’d talk about if the session wasn’t up to snuff.

To me, confidence is grounded in reality. You acknowledge your strengths, but you are also very aware of your weaknesses. You hope you do well, but you’ve been around for the many times you haven’t.

Confidence is closer to determination than power.  Its root is “confide.” It is, at its essence, belief, not proof.

All of us know what it’s like to go walking into a situation where we feel less than enthusiastic about our prospects for success. The gift of confidence is that it acknowledges this, yet we press on, usually due to the little conversation we have with ourselves beforehand. There’s relationship in confidence, even when you’re whistling in the dark to yourself.

A perfect example of this self-talk is Julie Andrews singing “I Have Confidence” in 1965 movie “The Sound of Music.” It’s excitement, dread, plowing ahead, hesitating on the brink. This IS confidence, even (and especially) when, after great expounding on all she will accomplish, she says merely: “Oh help.”

I know how she feels.

When my client arrived for his session, I began the intake, and starting looking, right away, for how I could connect, for if we could find that from the get-go I knew I would find my way in the session. It was my only (and best) hope. I couldn’t compete with whatever he’d experienced before, I knew that.

Massage therapy is mutual: it sure looks like the massage therapist is “doing” and the client is “getting.” But what I love most about massage, and what keeps me interested year after year, is the dialogue of it.

I’m not a talker, so I don’t mean conversation, necessarily. It’s inquiry: my hands & my client’s body, where they meet.* That meeting place has its own language and I trust that completely. Very often the more I think, the more trouble I get myself into when I’m working (and why I was lacking hope for my work: I was thinking too much about the session beforehand).

Most artists understand this, and above all else, massage therapy is an art. It is a learnable skill, but it’s an art, and the discipline of it is deep listening. Which can only be done through the medium in question: mine happens to be touch.

We were wrapping up his intake. “So I’ve heard you like deep tissue work,” I said to him. He nodded.

“Well,” I said, interested at whatever was going to come out of my mouth next, “I suspect that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what kind of work I will do. I promise to ‘get in there.’ Just maybe not in the way you’ve come to expect.”

He was.

“That was…fantastic,” he said, 90 minutes later.

If you’re a long-term client, I know that what you need changes over time, so I ask you please: refresh me. Let’s begin again, if there’s elements of your session that could be different or better for you.

If you’re a first-time client, I hope we will have many sessions to come, but there’s a good chance we’ll make quite a bit of progress in addressing, ameliorating and answering what you first bring to the table: literally and otherwise.

I provide the time and space for the best version of what could happen in session. We’ll find it, but find it together. In that togetherness, I have every confidence.

* otherwise known as “working at interface,” a Zero Balancing concept that I’ve been learning from David Lauterstein and his Deep Massage. In case you’re into the technical aspects of this.

Let Teenagers Ask You Questions

If you want to know more about yourself, get in front of a group and field questions about your line of work. Not just any group, though. I highly recommend teenagers.

I was asked to present to our local technical center’s health class: about 10 high school girls were there, and the teacher – an ER nurse who is into alternative and complementary healthcare – wanted local professionals from all realms of health and well-being to talk to her students about their job, rather than just have them study it, which I thought was a great idea.

On the drive over I realized maybe I should collect my thoughts a little. I have the tendency to fly by the seat of my pants in these kinds of situations, but maybe I should be, I dunno, a little prepared? As if one can ever be with a room full of adolescents?

I decided I would tell them a bit about myself, my training…be honest as to why I even tried massage therapy in the first place: I hated my job. I was desperate to do something different…I flopped myself into massage school and did the program with grim determination…no lifelong dream, no blinding flash. I just wanted to do something beautiful with my life before I died. And now I had the best career in the world.

“But rein it in,” I reminded myself as I parked the car. When I’m nervous, I become a ham, and prattle.

It was a great classroom: this was health class, so there were practice dummies for CPR, anatomy charts and an entire plastic skeleton hanging from a hook. I felt right at home. The girls were seated at tables that were in a horseshoe around what I think was supposed to be my “presentation area.” I found an office chair with wheels, and rolled myself right in amongst them. Their eyes widened a little.

In the first ten minutes I think I firmly established myself as a professional, with a lot of training and experience, and also a bit of a weirdo. I got their eyes up out of their laps and away from the walls, and made them laugh. By the time I said, “Okay, so, I’m done, please ask me questions now,” they were ready for me.

First question, right out of the gate (and the girl who asked it sounded like she had been holding it in for hours, she said it with so much expression and enthusiasm)
“What do you do if someone smells BAD? I mean really BAAAAAD?”
Titters all around.

I gathered quickly this was probably something all of them were reeeeeeeally interested in.

This is what they wanted to know from a massage therapist? Immediately I knew I had a job to do: not be a ham, but an adult. So here was a great opportunity to inspire their compassion and understanding. But – wow – I also could not bullshit them and act like bad smells are not gross or a big deal. Sometimes they are.

“Okay, so here’s what you do,” I started out. “You acknowledge you are grossed out, to yourself. You have to deal with it professionally though. You meet and work with this person as thoughtfully and maturely as possible. Later, you talk about it with another colleague: You do not share it on FaceBook, you don’t bring it home and expect your girlfriend or boyfriend to help you cope with it. You get your yas-yas out with a peer but with that client you are respectful and encouraging.”

“There might be a few reasons why that person smells bad,” I persisted to mounting giggles and comments sotto voce. I listed a few: medication, they can’t smell anything well let alone their own body odor, no soap, poor hygiene. “Maybe they don’t have hot water at their house. Maybe they don’t have running water, period.” They softened a little. Some people don’t, in rural Maine.

“And it goes across class,” I said. “Not everyone who walks in your door who looks like they might smell, will. It’s really nice when clients shower before coming to you, but not everyone does, and that includes people who look well-off and clean. They get on the table, you go to drape them and: boom. A waft, from the gluteal fissure. It’s part of the job. In fact…”

The noise level ratcheted up a notch: “Waft? Waft? She said ‘waft.’ Waft!” Then, they had to ask me about the gluteal fissure. “Yes, the butt crack, ladies, the butt crack,” I said, while rolling my eyes and smiling a little at the ensuing howls and whoops. The conversation morphed from being about People Who Smell Bad to Smelly Butts in General.

“Oooh! Oooh! What do you do? If a butt stinks?” I was getting this from a few girls, all at the same time.

At this point I did a quick personal check-in: was I losing my command of this presentation (if you could call it that) over a very minor point (but one to which my audience was riveted, thereby ensuring their attention)? Should I reel them in with more serious matters? I snuck a peek at the teacher. She seemed to be as interested in their line of questioning as they were.

“Well,” I started carefully. “You …well. You deal with it, again, professionally. Discretely.” I described my tried and true technique of anchoring the drape line above the sacrum, which admittedly doesn’t allow as much hand contact with the upper hip muscles, but choosing between that or breathing deeply, I opt for breathing deeply.

“Do you wave a bunch of incense around? Dump essential oils on them? Open a window?” More questions from all sides.

“I have burned a little white sage. Especially if there’s a fart. Yours, or the other person’s. Hey, it could happen…!!”

Pandemonium: This lady said “waft,” “butt crack” and “fart.” We cannot believe this lady says this stuff.

Other questions that surfaced in the hour, more easily summarized:

Q. “What do you do if you don’t like feet? If you can’t touch them?”
A. If you don’t like feet, you probably shouldn’t become a massage therapist.

Q. “Do worry about making enough money? Or are you comfortable.”
A. I’m comfortable, but I will always worry about making enough money.

At one point – and I’m still not sure how I got there – we did do a little hands-on training: how to touch someone. They paired up, taking turns standing behind one another, and practiced using full hand contact on each other’s upper shoulders, then using their body weight – not just their hands – to bring pressure into their partner’s muscles. It went really well: there were a lot of happy sighs and blissed-out faces…along with the giggling and running commentary.

The reason why I recommend talking to teen-agers, if you can find a small group that’s easily engaged and a teacher who’s game? Adults will try to impress you with their questions. Teenagers, by in large, are going to try to embarrass you. They will make you answer honestly, or they will fillet you. It’s good practice in keeping it real. Which is why we do massage therapy in the first place.

News Flash: Massage Therapists do not have special magical powers!

I’ve said this, but Jill just said it best.

Bodywork Art

crystal-ballRecently an article came out on Facebook that went semi-viral in the massage circles that was titled “20 Secrets Massage Therapists know about your Body!” While the article had a few reasonable tidbits of valid information, for the most part it was packaged, or should I say, TWISTED into an article that will do nothing good for our profession. It could prevent first time clients from seeking massage therapy, and it supports stereotypes that are not serving our profession.

Additionally, it has proven to provide some form of validation to some massage therapists who are making false and unethical claims, and/or support working out of scope.  I want to be clear to state that I don’t blame those who contributed to the article for the end result.

The article is not so much the problem itself, but how many in the massage therapist community have responded to it. The article…

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What We Do Not See

We went for 3 weeks without a sunny day. A lot of us started to develop a skin over our eyeballs. We woke in the dark, fumbled through our day, yawned until twilight then curled into blankets and rolled into another deep sleep, crowded with dreams set in murky depths.

The winter solstice was also a New Moon, not that any of us would have noticed, having long forgotten what lit orbs in the sky looked like, and even if they were there, we would not have seen them for the seamless overhang of clouds. (Long forgotten. Yes, we have a terrible memory.)

When the sun finally did arrive it was Christmas afternoon. The ponderous grey rolled back and exposed a blue sky and blinding sun. Not only had I forgotten that the sun could be so strong, but so had my entire eye anatomy. Everything cramped.

My eyes were sore for a while.

Bunny.Moon.nationalgeographicThe sun is there when we don’t see it. So is the moon. So are a LOT of things: magma, the stratosphere, bacteria, plumbing. There’s enough evidence it exists. So we say it does, even though our eyeballs forget and strain at the re-membering.

Believing in what we do not see goes beyond the physical. There’s the deeper physics of relationship. What is thread that binds platoons, believers or indoor soccer players? Well, it’s that psychological fabric, the warp and woof of commonality. It’s invisible, but take it “away” and what you have is just a random assortment of people. With it, you have community.

Even more ephemeral – yet perhaps most strong – are conditions of the heart and mind. Faith. Peace. Love. We feel these things, and we offer them to others, who feel them in return. They are more real for some of us than anything visible. They are true.

As a massage therapist I touch bodies for my work. I do it with care, curiosity, with the intention to accomplish something. Interestingly I do not ever see with my eyes what I aim for with my touch. If you are a bodyworker you know this is true.

My intention is like an X-ray, and combined with hands that know and a brain that recalls, I think I “see” the soft tissue I address and the bones cozied within, but I never see them. What I see is skin. What lies millimeters beneath that skin, and what I envision, shall never actually be in my hands.

Regardless of how we feel about our palpation skills, our anatomy knowledge, the tremendous (or paltry) therapeutic experience we have locked into our hands after years (or just a few months) of massage: there is more we do NOT see, as massage therapists, than what we do.

Which leads me to my next thought, which is: we may be one of the most guessing-est professions there are.  It’s essential we’re trained well, and we consistently update our knowledge, but that aside? I feel there is an element of wizardry under the learnable skill set of therapeutic massage, and it makes the difference between a massage therapist whose work we like OK, and the massage therapist we can’t wait to have another session with.

There’s your professional magician. And then there’s the lady who’s been to Hogwarts.

This kind of talk will get me in trouble with schools and professional organizations. I’m not dissing education or professionalism, at all; I expect the highest from all concerned. But the people who’ve touched me best, touched me most deeply and made the biggest difference for me have been educated, trained, and then gone sidling up to realms unseen, within me and around me, and partnered it for a while. Quietly, respectfully, but wholly.

This is true of great artists of all kinds…spiritual leaders…politicians, even… detectives…

Did I say wizardry? I meant to say sleuthing. As massage therapists there’s a lot of clues we have to track down, pieces to put together, answers that only become clear over time, to solve mysteries. We need be like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot and use our imagination, as well as our brains, to arrive at the truth.

One of the most interesting columnists, to me, in the ABMP‘s (Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals) magazine, “Massage and Bodywork”  is Douglas Nelson and his column “Table Lessons.” He reminds me of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and his columns are written like small mysteries to be solved.

In his article from the July/August ’14 edition of Massage and Bodywork, he commented:

Words and images have powerful effects, both positive (placebo) and negative (nocebo). X-rays don’t always tell the whole story – there isn’t always a direct relationship between what is seen and the pain a person is experiencing.

What is not seen is more powerful than what is visible, perhaps? Well I could get behind that.

And then there’s David Lauterstein, whose writing and Deep Massage technique and, frankly, personage, I love and adore and will champion until the cows come home. He has been my teacher and my friend for a few years now.

In his FaceBook page The Deep Massage Book David wrote this past week:

Many of the meanings of energy are not objectively verifiable. They are primarily subjective experience. But the content of massage is as much the subjective experience of wellness, of restored energy, as it is verifiable anatomical or physiological results.

Bottom line,  the massage therapist we love most? The one we reschedule with and who gets our precious positive word of mouth? Is the one who travels all the worlds of us.

It is really a very easy thing to offer someone else. It looks a lot like love.