When we strip naked in front of a total stranger, then let that total stranger touch us, is that person zeroing in on our cellulite? Or thinking, I'll just knead this mass of tissue, which happens to belong to the 18th body to lie here today? The relationship between client and massage therapist is an intimate one. Or is it? Judith Levinrad Norman, an instructor at the Swedish Institute in New York City, the oldest massage school in the United States, describes what the therapist brings to the table:
I'm not shy, I'm an outgoing person, but I know there's the potential for a little anxiety during a massage. I prefer that people feel comfortable enough with me to take off their underwear. If, say, you have lower-back problems, there are things I can do to access those muscles, but not as well if you're wearing underwear. When I had my first massage I left mine on, and by the time I realized that I should have removed them it was too late.
Touch isn't always a positive thing in people's lives. I don't touch clients randomly. I shake their hand. I ask them how they are and what they need. It's not just, "Hi, get naked, get on the table." It takes a tremendous amount of trust for people to allow someone outside their circle to touch them. Some people actually find it easier to have a stranger touch them. Because I'm a professional, the relationship is clear: They pay me to help them feel better.
Massage for me is like meditation. It's about clearing out my mind and being as present in the moment as I can possibly be. Anyone can go like this [makes a kneading motion]. But it's your presence and connection that makes the work profound.
I try reading little signs of discomfort. I might sense that a client is steering me away from a particular area. Or a facial expression can give me a clue. I try not to get frustrated with someone's difficulty in letting go. People have the most trouble letting go in their pelvic structure—their butt and hips. And when they're struggling, I'm thinking, Come on, let it go, let it go. When I sense someone finally loosening up, I say to myself, Yeah!
I love the draping. Draping a sheet over the parts that I'm not working on allows a clear boundary between the client and the massage therapist. I work only on the area that's uncovered, and the clients know that, so they don't have anxiety. New York has specific guidelines about draping. At first I thought they were too much, but now I appreciate the clarity. I recently had a client who wasn't modest at all. He was making jokes about the draping, but it made things feel safe for me, in case he had any misperception.
Many people—men and women—don't want a male therapist because of the misconception that there's a sexual connection with massage. Sometimes women are afraid to go to a man because they're afraid he'll see her through the eyes of a man on the street. But it's our obligation to see things professionally. If you go to a doctor for a breast exam, you trust that your doctor is looking at your breast as a piece of tissue. It's the same with us.
There are different types of touch—how you touch your mother, how you touch your life partner—and the way I touch any client is in its own category. So although I'm touching you, there are certain levels of intimacy I'm not allowing myself to reach. But I'm also not not touching you, not distancing myself. If you don't make that human connection, you lose a tremendous amount of efficacy.
We have our emotional responses to people, but we have to acknowledge them and know where to put them. Like any health care professional, we make ourselves vulnerable, too. The first time you meet a client, you don't know who this person is. Some clients are easier to work with than others. If someone comes to me who's really a type-A personality, I may have to work hard not to judge that person. But I don't judge because of a professional ethic.
A client once came to me mortified that she hadn't shaved her legs. She had read in an article that unshaven legs were massage therapists' pet peeve. I told her, "I work with men who have a lot more hair than women, and it doesn't enter into the session." But it still created a block in her ability to relax. We're an active, let's-go-to-the-gym culture, but we're not a be-at-home-inside-your-own-skin culture.
After you've worked on a lot of bodies, you see with your hands. You don't see with your eyes anymore. I don't need to look—my hands know.
Rona Berg is the author of Beauty: The New Basics (Workman).
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