We All Just Want To Go Home

People who get up and go swimming at the Y at 4:30 a.m. are an entire other species as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the ungodly hour or even the exertion I find unwholesome. It’s the thought of changing clothes.

Just now I have removed my pajamas and put on something that allows me to take a walk down the lane. Excruciating. I live in the country, surrounded by trees and rivulets and mountains, with the sea within view, and if the wilds of nature were my only companion I would gambol freely in my jimjams!

But they’re not. I have neighbors. They might see me parading down the road in my flannels and have confirmed a few suspicions they’ve harbored about me and whatever else goes on in there.

As I sit here I realize I am cold. I don’t like being cold. It will take a while for me to warm up inside my clothes. I won’t feel like moving much until I do.

This is why I can’t even imagine putting on a bathing suit in February and trucking my weeping tired self off to a vat of water where I may or may not get warm enough to enjoy. Do bathing suits ever warm up unless you’re lying in the sun and it’s 80 degrees? I can’t even conceive of that kind of fabric against my skin, and putting my body in water. Keep me fuzzy, for all enduring time!

Most of us – me included – would like to protect ourselves from the inevitable change and growth that just being alive procures, and this is evidenced in the small things (like improving our attire) and then the big things too (like improving our habits, our minds, our relationships). But we also know we need to keep moving, and in fact it is something to look forward to. Every day is an adventure story unto its own self.

What we need is an incubator, a holding tank, a very little pot, to get us from one part of our lives to the next.

I am not a great gardener. I’m learning but it sure takes time. When you put a whispery seed into soil to get it started, you don’t plunk it in the ground right away. Especially up here in Maine, when things don’t really start warming up until June.

No, you put the baby seed into a bassinet — a seedling pot — something that holds it, but does not prohibit growth. Something that a seed can feel its way into, which is invisible, but is there.

I suppose this is why we swaddle babies, or find our pets tucked into the most impossible corners and under things (especially cats). Cozy promotes life.

And look at us: hot water bottles, warm towels out of the dryer. Bed warmers. Heated car seats. We wrap our hands around hot beverages, again and again and again. All of us are heat-seeking, because when we are warm we can expand. We feel like getting up. (Or not.)

It’s a cold world, and that coldness is not necessarily based on temperature. We can feel cold and immobilized even when everything is sunny and hot. You know what I mean: it’s your neighbor’s outdoor July 4th picnic and everyone else is whooping it up. You’re not feeling it, sitting there in your shorts and tank-top, sweating and smiling weakly, working on your excuse to go home.

In therapeutic massage and bodywork we help people go “home.” We present our clients with a person-sized envelope they can crawl into and not come out for a while. Even in a session where there is a perplexing issue being addressed: when we bring our heart into our work, as most of us do – because we can! because we have the luxury of time, in our line of work – we provide the warmth, serenity and safety our clients need to try out being who they are, and to entertain the idea of being something else.

And I would also like to say this is not mere coddling? Or some low form of placation, or something to sniff at as merely palliative. Touch matters.

In 2010 Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote “No Longer on the Doctor’s Checklist, but Touch Matters” for The New York Times. She said, among many other excellent things:

The laying on of hands sets medical practitioners apart from their counterparts in the business world. Despite the inroads of evidence-based medicine, M.R.I.s, angiograms and PET scanners, there is clearly something special, perhaps even healing, about touch. There is a warmth of connection that supersedes anything intellectual, and that connection goes both ways in the doctor-patient relationship.

More recently, this past March The New Yorker ran a piece by Maria Konnikova, “The Power of Touch.” She cites many studies on how touch centers us and heals us, from encouraging healthy emotional development in children, to reducing the chance of catching a cold. She writes:

The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.

Let’s not underestimate the true power of what we do, as practitioners, and then when we are receiving work too. Especially when it is thoughtfully, intentionally, entered into as a ritual, as sacrament really, as an honoring, saying “You matter. You matter now. You matter again. Here. You matter here.”

Professional nurture is the purveyance of therapeutic massage, and it is very good food indeed.

We are the warm clothes that allow clients to transition from one part of their day to the next, from one part of their lives to the next. Our offices are like potting soil and the next-sized pot, where people can come in and get a sense of themselves, and then go back out, a little healthier, brighter, more supple and a tad more willing to move ahead.

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It’s a Personal Thing

“Oh well. That’s a relief. We’re on the same page with that, too!” My new client sat back in his chair, and I thought I noticed his eyes go a little pink. I found it meaningful as well: it had taken a little time, but in under 12 minutes he and I got two very important things squared away: pressure level (firm, but not deep) and talking during session (none please).

I was happy for him, but sad. I knew this man had been getting massage for years. For years, receiving massage therapy, and no practitioners had this discussion with him?

Yes, yes, we want our clients to tell us what they need. “Just let me know,” we encourage them warmly, but the last time you had a massage how easy did you find it to communicate your needs when you’re already on the table? When I get there, I’m hesitant: I find it’s not easy.

My experience with this first-time client sharpened my already strong opinions about how to present one’s work to one’s clients. I’ve been a practitioner for 15 years, had a lot of massage myself, made regrettable mistakes but learned even more from other practitioners I’ve traded with who were good at what they did but had breathtakingly shoddy intake and outtake skills.

In brief, here it is: most clients are not interested in whatever technique you plan on using. If it requires dramatic bolstering, draping, stretching, give them a head’s up, but no need to explain constantly. Nor do they want to know about your next workshop, a meaningful experience you had with another client, or your favorite pet.

Rein it in. Err on the side of saying less, so you can hear more.

The difference – to me – between a good practitioner and an excellent one, one you can’t wait to recommend to others, is how well that practitioners listens. I’ve had plenty of massage from individuals who addressed my issues but who simply were not interested nearly enough in what I wanted, not picking up on my body language or hearing my voice. They steamrollered me with their personality. And they talked. A lot. It was not an experience I wanted to repeat.

How to get to the heart of the matter, then, even before you lay hands upon it?

I suggest getting personal.

This might seem an odd suggestion but look at what you’re doing: you’re massaging a person. For an hour. Maybe an hour and a half. They are mostly naked, strategically covered, and they are dozy. What is more personal than this? Other than bathing someone, or feeding them?

Here are some standard questions I ask. Depending on the answer I get, it invokes other questions…

Are you usually warm or cold?
(One of THE most important questions you need ask. If your client is cold at all, they will not relax. Also, if they’re sweating, they won’t relax either.)

If I use hot towels or essential oils in session, would that be alright?

What kind of pressure feels good to you? Do you know?

Do you want silence?
(I’m a non-talker and try to get that clear up front. A few exchanges is fine but I can’t concentrate if my mouth is going.)

Are there any parts of your body you don’t want me to touch?
(aside from the obvious of course) (sometimes I need to explain it anyway, for people who’ve never had a massage before and really don’t know what a professional’s parameters are.)

Be curious. It’s a fine quality in an MT. Listen. Find this person, who will soon surrender their body to your care for the next duration, utterly fascinating. Does their nose drip when prone? Tuck a tissue into one of their empty, up-turned hands. Do they have a persistent cough? Proffer a mint. Light too bright? “Would you like an eye pillow?” Is the music okay? “Maybe something more lyrical, less chant-y…”

By the way this is a good practice to get into not only with your first-time clients, but your regulars as well. Never assume you know. After 7 weeks, 7 months, 7 years, check in with them again: are they still getting what they need from the session? One of the fastest ways to breathe life into your practice is to see every client as if you’ve never seen them before. Ask them questions you haven’t in a while.

In short, take your client by the hand and lead them to the dance floor. You lead, they follow. Make yourself trustworthy: a little communication goes a long way. Notice them, the way a good server respectfully observes her customers, anticipating their every need, noticeable at key moments but most of the time, not noticeable at all.

When you have that kind of trust from your client, you might wander into the weeds and stars to that place where alchemy occurs, and where words no longer form. Just you, and the client, and the music.

Powerless

We’ve had an Ice Storm (yes it deserves caps) here in Maine. Maybe you heard about it. Week of Christmas: undriveable roads, trees breaking and crashing, massive power outages, cold. The only benefit was everyone’s standard question shifted from “You ready for Christmas?” to “You got power?”

None of us knew when our electricity would come back, so we all had to behave as though it wouldn’t. Priorities shifted immediately: securing water, heat and light trumped casual window-shopping, looking for stocking stuffers. Parties were out: the mere idea of going a-wassailing in a small dress, holding a big drink, held no allure. Most of us got as warm as we could, made sure all the perishables were in a secure location somewhere out on the porch (mother nature at least deigned to provide a deep freeze), ate some take-out by candlelight, and were in bed before 7 p.m., praying for the light to return.

The sun blazes as it sets, illuminating a world coated in crystalline ice

The sun blazes as it sets, illuminating a world coated in crystalline ice. Hayford Hill, Belfast Maine. December 2013

Or, if you were me, sipped hot herbal tea, assessed firewood, minded the oil lamps and tealights, and listened – with increasing anxiety – to trees falling as the freezing rain draped every pine needle, every twig, every limb and every vine in ponderous ice. Water is heavy. In the pitch black all around my house, I heard trees creak, yawn and thunder to the ground, and could do nothing about it.

This would be the true definition of “crisis” – an unstable condition. While exertion is good for the soul, it took on a sinister undertone: much of what we had to do had to be done quickly, before it got dark, before the woodstove went out, before it rained or snowed, again, before before before….and then, suddenly, it’s too late and you must give up or give in.

I am a massage therapist, and therefore accustomed to having things nice: usually clients are glad to see me and smiling when they leave. People feel better after I work on them and it’s incredibly, sometimes immediately, gratifying. With a little effort and attention I can make a big difference in a small amount of time, and that’s not something everyone gets to do. A person gets used to all that, and starts to want it all the time.

I am also self-employed: I run my own practice and therefore have the tendency to believe that because I’m in charge at my office, the rest of my life should follow in march step. I know this isn’t true? But honestly there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe that, not for one minute, and starts quaking and chattering whenever there’s disruption in the schedule, which there is, all the time, and that part of me can sit on a tack as far I’m concerned.

Losing electricity – losing power – means abandoning hope, not being sure, not really pushing for an outcome. It means dealing directly with what’s in front of you and not making assumptions, even though you feel entitled: to feeling good or even just feeling certain.

Ice Storm 2013 was a year-end variation on a year-long theme for me, where I found I had to give up a lot of things (i.e. lose my power), not as a tactic for getting what I wanted in the long run, but as a means…for the means. Building the mandala just to whisk it away.

As I slowly start seeing clients again – as we all timidly crawl out from under the covers and the confines of our house (some people’s worst adventures were trying to get out of their own driveway: slicker than bobsled runner, encased in wet ice, with everything rounded and hardened and no surfaces to grasp: like trying to climb the sides of sudsy punch bowl) and bravely attempt re-introducing ourselves to our own schedule – my work takes on a different tone.

Here massage does its palliative wonders to restore weather-weary bodies to themselves. It’s a time to be reassuring, attentive, warming; treating clients as newborns, frankly. Who is this tired, tense, grey-pale and shivering individual? What is the story their flesh, muscles, and aching bones have to tell me today? How can I help rebirth them into their own lives? And who am I, as I attempt to do this?

After the fall, there is silence before we know the next move. It’s enough for me to stand with my clients, as we both scramble for footing in this world, and wonder “what?”

All The Warm Things

“Oh my God that’s amazing.” I was just beginning the session and my client spoke aloud. Was her effusive praise directed at my hands? My technique? The massage oil? Essential oils? The linens she was on, or the music I’d selected?

No, no, no, no, and no annnnnnd….no.

It was the warm towel I put on her feet.

“I know you think I come here for your massage,” said another client, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. “But I don’t. I come for all the warm things.”

It’s important that we care about our career: our reputation, amongst our colleagues and the community; our sense of trajectory, in terms of improving our work, introducing new modalities as it seems appropriate; and re-marketing/re-branding ourselves so that we get a regular influx of new clients. (People still need to discover you for the first time, even if you’re doing what you’ve been doing forever.)

I have to say, however, that based on my nearly 15 years of experience as a massage therapist – and nearly 20 of receiving it on a semi-regular basis – the client doesn’t care about any of that. Take heed! The client wants to be warm! Cozy! Swaddled, if I may. “Burrito-ed” is how one of my friends puts it.

Not stuffy or sweltering, but…nestled. Tended.

Warm.

It’s November here in Maine. We know we’re going to be cold for a long stretch, at least until May. That’s where the warm towels come in.

If your landlord permits it, having lit candles in the room not only creates a feeling of warmth but in the winter adds (albeit microbits) of warmth. Plus it's just pretty.

If your landlord permits it, having lit candles in the room not only creates a feeling of warmth but also adds  (albeit microbits of) warmth. Plus it’s just pretty.

As a professional licensed massage therapist, I am many things to my clients. But the most basic service I give them all is feeling taken care of. Here, modern MTs might balk at the idea, with their arsenal of training, experience and perhaps the need to justify themselves (the phrase “bow and scrape” comes to mind) before the almighty healthcare industry.

“I have charts! Books! Formulas! Techniques! Proof! Certificates of Mastery!”

Keep up on that stuff, but remember: clients don’t care. They want to feel like you care about them, not your agenda for them. (Reminder: you do care about them. That’s why you’re a massage therapist.)

Okay, so: right now, an easy way to convey your kind regard for their every need is to make sure they are WARM. (And please don’t assume this post is only for those of us in the 44.4 latitude: if you work in air conditioning, warmth is still an important part of your practice.)

Ways you can help:

Ask. During the intake. “How does the temperature in the room feel?”
“When you’re relaxing on the table, do you find you’re on the warm side or the chilly side?” Most people who suffer from being chilly will let you know.

At the beginning of the session: “Are you warm enough?”
I hear, often, “Yes, I am cozy, but my feet are still cold.” On goes the hot towel!

Feel. I like to do compressions down legs and feet, even if I’m starting the massage with neck and back, not only for the client to feel a full sense of themselves from the get-go, but also to notice what’s cold and remedy it right away. Most people can’t relax if they’re cold, and your work is in vain if they’re not relaxing.

Also, if you’re massaging and you suddenly feel or see goosebumps, the client may be getting chilled. Find out.

Plan. What do you have in your office to help a client warm up? Here’s what I got: a landlord who (thankfully) lets me set the thermostat at 70, a table warmer, flannel linens and fleecy blanket, essential oils that are warming in nature, and a crockpot stuffed with towels that I heat up and place strategically: on cold feet, cold hands, on the back after I’ve massaged it, rolled up under the neck after I’ve worked there. What you got?

(Also in deep winter I do heated socks.)

(And quite honestly I do not like those hot towel cabinets. Moist heat becomes moist cold and nobody likes cold wet on their skin. Stick to DRY heat, I say. Unless you use hot stones! I bet you do! Those are GREAT. I wish I had a sink in my office bathroom that I could clean them in, otherwise I would have some.)

I’ve also heard heating pads, stand-alone ceramic room heaters, and Thermaphore products work well.

Consider. Of course I have been talking physical warmth here, but there is a deeper warmth that clients really respond to. For some practitioners this takes time to develop, and for others it just needs kindling.

The energy of compassion and the intention for healing is warming. When I practice Reiki, or consider the affection I feel for my client, or drop into that blessed meditative quiet of a session, my hands get hot, almost directly in the palms. “Did you heat up your hands in the crockpot? They’re so warm!” some clients have said to me.

When a client comes in and I listen carefully, my heart energy expands and what I say, how I behave, is infused with genuine care (or at the very least that is my goal)…which the client experiences as…warmth.

Enveloping a client in warmth is always a good idea, whether physical, emotional or spiritual.

(Unless they’re having a hot flash! In which case, life in wintry Maine is ideal: I just open a window.)