I’ve observed as I’ve worked in the growing industry of massage therapy over the past several years, that increasingly more people have begun to utilize the services of massage therapists.  Often, working on first-time clients, I can pick up on the fact that the client doesn’t necessarily know what to expect.  People often ask me:  “What should I be doing?”  “How do I lie on the table?”  This post is going to explore some thoughts about how to receive massage and to inform a little about what we in the field of massage therapy can offer to a client.  Some of this information may seem obvious, but I think it’s good to review such matters from time to time.

Firstly, comfort is an important part of the process.  You want to know that while you are lying on the table and your brain is releasing relaxation hormones that you can enjoy it as fully as possible.  Jewelry (necklaces, bracelets, rings, etc) will get in the way every time, so definitely leave those items at home or in a safe place within a bag that you’re carrying.  You will ALWAYS be covered by a sheet and one or more blankets.  The only area that will be exposed is the area to be worked on.  Modesty and respectful boundaries are key to feeling comfortable.  Some folks prefer to be fully unclothed, and others prefer to leave undergarments on.  The bra will have to be unclasped to work on the back.    The body should remain neutral while receiving massage.  This can be deceptively difficult for a large number of people.  When you are lying in a neutral position, the body can be worked more easily and the outcome of the session can be longer lasting.  One of the psychological benefits of massage is the abnormal experience of receiving therapeutic, full-body touch.  It’s neurologically restorative.  Massage can promote the feeling of peace in one’s life by prompting the brain into the relaxation response.  This is important in an era where our minds are constantly active or stimulated by digital information.  Massage counteracts the physical and mental strain of an internet lifestyle.  Rest is important for muscular as well as personal well-being.
Also, you should feel during a session that your reasons for scheduling an appointment in the first place are being addressed.  This starts from the very beginning when working with your therapist.  Come to a session ready to discuss your reason for massage.  Any answer can be acceptable:  “to relax”  “I have been experiencing piriformis syndrome and my physical therapist recommended massage.” “I find that massage informs my meditative practice” “I recently found out that I have fibromyalgia and I’m looking for bodywork to maintain my comfort level.”  etc etc.  These are all well-known reasons to engage in the process of bodywork.  I want to encourage our clients to be holistically aware of their wellness.  The more information you are able to communicate about where your body is that day and what your goals for it are, the more rewarding your experience will be every time.
I think it’s important to you as a theoretical newbie to massage to understand the background of the therapist that is working with you.  The answer will vary as states (and sometimes counties) have differing licensure laws.  This is common in many fields that require a certification process to remain in practice. Pennsylvania put laws into place only recently governing licensure and guidelines for massage therapists.  This is ensuring a degree of training and professionalism in the field that I believe in wholeheartedly.  Massage therapists, no different from nurses that you may know, take exams and are required to maintain CPR certification and to pursue on-going education.  Each therapist you meet will have a style all their own determined by their interest in the field and the training that they’ve pursued.  Finding the right therapist for you can feel like striking gold.  There should be a strong degree of trust in the skill of the person administering the session and between therapist and client.  Trust will elevate the therapeutic bond.
As for training, massage therapists often receive the same basic training that you would expect of any of the health fields.  For instance, I attended a 1,200-hour program in Clinical Massage Therapy in Westport, Connecticut prior to moving to Philadelphia.  This program was designed so that students received 4 semesters of Anatomy and Physiology, courses in Neurology, Pathology and Kinesiology as well as 4 semesters of training in Meridian theory and acupressure.  This training was very rigorous and thorough from a scientific perspective and typical of the early training in any health field.  In a way, a pre-med course is built into the curriculum of the strongest massage schools and licensure is helping to ensure those standards.
Specific to the field of massage, the training is focused on touch and its’ healing properties for the functionality of the soft tissue of the body.  Massage therapists really are the soft-tissue specialists of the health world.  Our training helps us to understand the neurological laws of the muscular-skeletal complex to help a wide-variety of pain issues.  Through the application of touch, massage therapists work to relieve local muscular knots, adhesions and micro-spasms to relieve symptoms like hyperflexion, ischemia, dull and sharp pain from nerve entrapment, etc and this process helps to rewire the relationship between the neurological and muscular systems in the body.  Or simply put, touch affects the body in a way that can promote health.  Massage restores balance to autonomic systems like the circulatory system, promotes the “rest and digest” response and just plain feels good.  There is increasing scientific research being put into understanding the principle by which touch and the pleasure of receiving touch promote healing in the body.  It is thought that if the body is given long and frequent enough periods of feeling good, it starts to promote its’ own healing at an improved rate.  Health really is feeling good.
It is my hope that by reading this blog and this post you will have a clearer understanding of your goals as a massage client and gain some insight into the training that your therapist brings to the table.  I encourage you to ask questions during sessions.  I always explain in detail the mechanisms at work in my treatments WHEN the client asks.  I should pause here and add a bit of a long caveat:  an aspect of massage therapy that I think should never be lost is  providing a meditative space away from the hustle and bustle of being alive and awake in a complex world.  As a therapist, I try to provide that space of silent and passive sensory experience.  That alone can be so enriching and healing and is an important aspect of what all massage therapists provide, one that should be maintained as the field evolves.  That being said (and this is especially true for regular massage clients), conversing with your therapist about the work being done can open a whole world of insight into your body.  That insight should empower, inspire and renew you, ensuring a healthy feeling from within.  It’s a reset button for the rich, complex, ever-changing, always-consistent organism that is you.  You are a human being.  Welcome.  Get massaged.  Allow it to enrich your life in surprising ways.  Feel well.
Andrew Marsh is a graduate of the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy in the 1,200-hour Clinical Therapy program.  He also holds a BA in Anthropology from Ithaca College.  His massage style is a mixture of neuro-muscular therapy, acupressure and applied kinesiology.  In his work, he seeks to fuse the gap between Eastern and Western understanding of the body.  Andrew performs in the chamber ensemble Murmuration in a variety of settings around the east coast trying to bring improvisation and conceptual art into the classical music world.