Burnout. BURNOUT! It’s in the back of every massage therapist’s mind. When we started on our journey, someone, somewhere, warned us that the longevity of a massage therapist is finite, and if you’re lucky, you might get 3-5 years out of this career. Well, I’m going on 10 years deep, and there are days where I feel like I’m just getting started. Along my career, I’ve learned some great things to keep me fresh and functional, and they might not be what you’d expect.
Ok, you probably expected yoga. I’ve been doing yoga since I was a teenager (with Kathleen Hitchcock on PBS), in classes here and there, sometimes with more diligence and sometimes sporadically. When I was in massage school, yoga is where my classroom experience clicked: I suddenly got, on a very specific level, what kinesiology was all about. I’m the kind of person who learns better by getting my hands (or, you know, body) into the material, rather than just reading it, and yoga was a huge lightbulb in my understanding of the human body. Going through poses and learning the nuances of how to engage certain muscles (and now I knew where they were!) helped me connect how the body moved, where pain might be coming from, and gave me ideas of how to treat the muscle on the table.
In yoga, a common cue is to “shine your heart”, and now my students get tired of me telling them to “keep their heart open”. I don’t mean this on a squishy, metaphysical, “love everybody”, level, but on a physical push-your-chest-through-your-shoulders level. This forces your shoulders to relax, keeps your neck neutral and long, and allows your power to come from your feet.
I also turn to yoga for another reason: bodywork. Duh. I’m not always able to get on the table for a massage (a tragedy, for sure!), but yoga is a great second place- obviously there is stretching of the muscles, but it also works to un-stick fascia, mobilize joints, creates body awareness, and gives me 5 minutes of just laying down, not having to DO anything, which is the best. Boom.
I know you’re totally thinking about some James Bond scene where a massage is taking place and 007 is getting karate chopped. Sorry to disappoint you, but this is not what I have learned from kickboxing! Rather, kickboxing taught me about body mechanics and power.
I get asked several times a day if I get tired or “isn’t it so hard on your body” to be a massage therapist. I really don’t feel drained or beat up at the end of the day. I mean sure, sometimes I’m glad to be done, but I don’t have to do ice my arms or anything at night. This is because kickboxing taught me to get my power from the ground, not from my shoulders. When you punch, you would tear your shoulders off if you just used your arm and shoulder muscles. But if you pivot and push from your foot, through your leg, and up into your waist? POW.
Shuffling is also a big part of boxing. Since Swedish massage is credited to a fencer (is that the right term for one who fences??), fighting movements will help you get from point A to point B effortlessly.
So, in order to get that power, you need to have good body mechanics. Your stance, when staggered, should be as if you are in the corners of a box; not like you’re on a balance beam. This squares your hips and eliminates torquing in the spine, which will save your back AND make your movements more efficient. Whaaaaat.
Power. Body mechanics. Strength. Kinesiology. I LOVE resistance training!! You can’t lift with bad form. You can’t (or shouldn’t) lift with a rounded back, or with locked joints.
Breaking your body down into a series of exercises that strengthens your body also forces you to tap into your knowledge of kinesiology. I know that my glutes and hamstrings are weak, so squats and deadlifts to the rescue! I love solving the mystery of a client by not only knowing where to lengthen the tissue with massage, but also give them information on which areas might be weak or out of balance. Added bonus: I totally feel like a beast when I lift, which makes me feel like I can take on any challenge a client can throw at me. (Please do not throw actual things at me- sports involving catching/throwing are my weakness!)
Music and Dance
Ok- if you know me, you know I have the soul of a dancer and my heart is an 808. Massage is inherently musical, and I don’t mean of the pan flute variety. Animals (humans included) respond well to predictable rhythms. It soothes our nerves, stimulating the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) portion of our nervous system. When we bring rhythm to our massage, that allows clients to fall into that space of relaxation.
Now, there’s a reason we don’t just have the sound of ticking clocks on our iPods: we also need texture, variety, and sometimes a mean dance break. Muscle tissue responds really well to a gradual crescendo of pressure, and is soothed by a decrescendo after deep work. Mixing up your tools (knuckles, palms, fingertips) is like adding different voices to your song. Sometimes percussion (tapotement) really is the answer! On a more literal level, sometimes Kenny Rogers gets involved, and you need to know when to fold ’em, and when to walk away to prevent overworking an area.
Going back to yoga, one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard in a class- that I have used in ALL of the above examples- is to relax into the pose. Often, when facing a challenge (be it physical or mental), our natural response is to resist it, to fight it, to struggle. But what happens when you just let go and breathe? Let the struggle wash over you? Maybe it’s not even as bad as you expected. Maybe you can find more ease or depth. Maybe you’ll discover something new.
There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t tweak my practice- I’m always trying to improve and change my approach if something isn’t working. What have your unlikely teachers been? What is the best thing anyone ever taught you, that rattles in your head to keep you going? Let me know in the comments!
Remember: work smarter, not harder! 😉