Confession time: I refused to work on the man before even meeting him and partially for selfish reasons. I’d just gotten over a cold that made me miss a day of work, and I heard him hacking up a lung in the bathroom before we introduced ourselves.

To be thorough I did a brief intake in the treatment room and confirmed that his cold was just a couple days old. As standard procedure, I let him know that giving him a massage at this stage of his cold would make him feel worse, not better. Too many clients, not seeming to care about the person who’d be spending at least an hour with contagious them in close quarters, often challenge me on this: But I want it worked out of my body. This client, however, was very polite and understanding about my refusal. He rescheduled with someone else a week later, and I forgot about the whole thing for months.

Seeing his name on my schedule the other week felt good, a chance to redeem that first non-appointment. The session went smoothly. He fell asleep, and the tension in his muscles melted away. He was one of those rare clients who simply needs to “shut down” in order to release tension.

After the session ended, I returned to my computer to write SOAP notes. And this was when I saw the alert on his profile: HIV-positive. On anti-viral medication.

An icy-cold chill rippled over me. Remember when all there was to worry about was a cold? Yeah, those were the good ol’ days.

Let me interrupt myself to mention that I wasn’t worried about getting infected. I remember learning that HIV is a bloodborne pathogen. His and my skin were unbroken, and no blood was spilled, so there were no worries there. But what about him? A coworker said that I should have worn gloves and a mask to protect his immune system. I felt retroactively terrible about my oversight until I was informed that the profile alert was just made visible to me during my session. There was no way I would have known to take these measures.

I read a few articles about the role of the MT to the client with HIV. It turns out that massage, since it boosts the immune system, is proven to help people with the disease. But precautions should be taken if the MT has some sort of infection, his or herself. And if the client is ill, he or she really shouldn’t receive massage. (As for the gloves and mask, they would likely be distracting and even disturbing to the client. But maybe they could be worn if the MT was getting over a cold or healing from a cut…)

After my first encounter with this client, I felt guilty for pushing him away, and I remembered feeling surprised and relieved that he was so cool about it. In retrospect, he probably thought I knew about his infection. I was looking out for him even though I didn’t know exactly what I was protecting him from. And I’m actually glad I didn’t know at the time. Refusing the session in itself was stressful; I’m not one for confrontations or disappointing people. Adding the layer of HIV to the conversation would have made me sound wobbly and awkward. And what if I could have performed the session, knew about his condition and came in wearing gloves and a mask? I probably would have made him feel worse.

I may have mentioned the Buddhist term shoten-zenjin, the protection of the forces in the universe. I’m usually most aware of shoten-zenjin after the potentially dangerous event occurs, sometimes months after. Maybe that’s the very nature of it…we’re protected in a far more vast and profound way than our minds can fathom in the moment. The details need to unfold at the perfect times for the greatest appreciation. There’s no doubt about it; I was protected that day, and as a result, so was my client.

I got to work on him again today, this time fully aware of what I was working with. There was a soft glow of peace within me as my client fell asleep, his muscle tension drifting away…



Hostile Takeover

Sometimes it’s stealthy, insidious, a thief in the dead of night. But not always. Sometimes it’s a seemingly polite, yet – let’s face it – gritty and downright disgusting battle. It’s turning your head away, grimacing, holding your breath and attempting to protect something, anything that is generally and rightfully understood as yours. It’s nuanced kindnesses that are forced into the space of ugly, strong statements. It’s giving, as you’ve been trained to do, and simultaneously restraining, struggling, inwardly gasping and gulping for your own air, pushing her out and helplessly feeling her pour back in like a flood. 

It’s the long drive home with the windows down, music promisingly loud yet mocking, meaningless, the cool air lashing at your arms and cheeks like a punishment. It’s washing, scrubbing, scouring away the traces of her but still reeking of her sweet perfume. It’s even wishing you could retch to cleanse yourself from the inside. (Kind of.) 

It’s gratitude for one thing, and one thing only: that at least you can write about it. It’s wishing you could skip past the discomfort to your default defense mechanism, humor, as you discover and appreciate the thousand points of irony. 

She’s everywhere, and she saw to that the instant she laid her dark eyes upon you. And you knew all about her, and you prepared yourself to the best of your current ability, and you remained professional and professionally assertive at all times, but she still overpowered you. 

You didn’t have a chance, did you. You still haven’t completely transformed that part of you that people like her relish in toying with. Some small victories were noted, but overall you conceded defeat. This time. 

Light as a Feather

During intake I expected to hear about the tension in her neck but instead received directives to go light there…no, make that everywhere. “Be gentle,” she said, and paused for emphasis. “Gen-tle.” There was a flash in her eyes that told me that she’d been wronged before on a massage table…or maybe elsewhere in her life. 

On one hand, light-pressure Swedish massages are easy. I barely break a sweat, which for me is incredibly rare. On the other hand, they pose a different set of challenges. At the franchise where I worked at the time, I was conditioned by most of the clients to use firm pressure and basically to go digging for those mysterious “knots” I heard so much about. So when a client deviated from those requests, I needed to be hyper aware. 

Of course, we were taught in school that each client has different needs, pain tolerances, life experiences and emotional associations that affect what kind of massage they prefer. It’s just that light-pressure requests were incredibly rare there….

I washed my hands, glanced into the mirror, mimicked that same stern look that had flickered across my client’s face. Light. Light. Gen-tle. 

My hands on the client, I quickly noticed that my breathing was shallow, guarded. I wasn’t trusting my own self, so why should she trust me? I took a slow, deep breath. Slow. Light. Gentle. 

I’m going to mix metaphors here, but massage therapists spend the bulk of their time warming up and remodeling living clay during a typical massage for tangible results. 

Light-pressure Swedish strokes, in contrast, fade…impermanent, sumi-e strokes of water on pavement. Loose fists become wingtips. No, feathers. The finishing part of each stroke is paramount. The client’s body pays close attention, bracing against potential discomfort, perhaps awaiting disappointment. 

Light. Light. Easy, now. Lighter pressure awakened me to the “noise” I often needed to gloss over to warm the tissues quickly during a 50-minute session. In her tissues was a buoyant quality that I would normally have had to sink right past. Just under the surface of her skin was the faintest crackle of dehydrated fascia around her traps. Fascinating. But I forced myself to move on before I focused too long, sank in too deeply. 

The client sighed, a good sign of release. Oh, wow, her legs needed work. I resisted, focused harder, lightened up, breathed deeply again. IT bands are often sensitive on even the hardiest of clients. There was no way I was going to resolve anything here in the time allotted. Resolution didn’t seem to be my client’s objective, anyway. 

The session eventually ended. The focus and willpower I needed not to go too deep made the time go surprisingly quickly. The client emerged out of the room a bit starry-eyed. She thanked me three times, said it was excellent. 

And it was only then that I allowed myself to relax. 

The Long, Slow Journey of Growth

Longest. Session. Ever. She’s the type of massage client I get once every blue moon who has absolutely no tension anywhere but books a 90-minute session for fun. I glance at the clock and mentally smack my forehead. 3:14. We’re only nine minutes in. Oh, boy. The mind starts to drift. Muscle memory is a massage therapist’s best friend during relaxation massages with no areas to focus on.

You were a wreck in massage school, a 10-month-long episode of performance anxiety. Remember when you panicked during a hands-on class while working on a fellow student? You sat down so hard on your stool that it startled the whole class.

Getting to school (two trains carrying an overnight bag stuffed full of sheets and textbooks) was uncomfortable and taxing. You were forever apologizing for knocking into people. (Maybe the added difficulty was part of your massage training, readying you for potential out-call sessions and all of the gear that comes with them.)

It wasn’t until school clinic that you caught the narrowest glimpse of the massage therapist you’d turn out to be. Paradoxically, you felt more relaxed when there was just one other person in the room, even if that person was a paying client who was a stranger to you. It beat performing in front of a classroom of people, no doubt. 

It’s 3:31. I smile wanly. Hey, remember when it was 3:14? The weak smile extends into a brief grin as I transition to the other side of her back.

School was a flurry of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, musculoskeletal conditions and so much hands-on training. You used to have to feel around for bony landmarks, searching, searching…now they almost seem to glow through the drape or their skin. Your hands just…know. You may take that for granted, but there was a time when that skill seemed like an impossibility for you.

Then there was that elderly clinic client, with a novella of heart failure and diabetes in his health history, who poured all of his sadness and resignation directly into your heart. You came home that night and wept for him. And then you learned a little something about the importance of grounding yourself before entering into a session.

Your first 90-minute session on the very first day of your first massage job was booked on the fly…remember? Working under the thoughtless directive of 45 minutes on her posterior side and 45 minutes on her anterior side, you realized that you didn’t have enough material to use up 45 minutes on her legs, arms and neck while she was face up. You learned to “vamp,” so to speak…improvise, repeat and hope for the best. (And you learned how to balance the progression for future sessions.)

I’ve moved on to my client’s legs. This woman has absolutely no areas to focus on…ugh! Vamp, improvise, repeat…it’s only 3:57, but remember when it was 3:14?

When you were a brand-new massage therapist, two people dear to you got the early version of what you thought a deep-tissue massage should be. You started by performing skin rolling on their backs. Effective for warming the tissues? Certainly! Pleasant, relaxing and client-friendly? Hardly. The other day, you apologized to each of them. “I’m not that girl anymore,” you wanted to say. And you’re not. You’re a lot more confident and skilled now than those early days.

You’ll never forget the first time you had four clients in one shift. You came home, crawled directly into a tub with Epsom salt and stayed there for a good chunk of the night. Strength and stamina just weren’t there. Mental stamina hadn’t been developed yet, either; instead, there was only incredulity that a person could sustain her career doing this many (or more) massages, five days a week. And just this year after a slow period of rebuilding from injury, you’ve started to notice the strength that massage veterans promised you’d develop.

Not too long ago, the clients who would boast that they’d had tons of massages done would strike fear in your heart. You were so darn intimidated by every little thing! Now, when you hear that they’re no strangers to massage and bodywork, you think, “And now you’ll experience what I can offer you.”

4:10. The client is face-up, relaxed. I look forward to working on her neck so I can sit for a few minutes. It’s been a long session. But remember when it was 3:14?

Now, 2 1/2 years into your career as a massage therapist, begins the slow process of honing, perfecting, building upon what you’ve established here. To think that you’re “done” in any aspect of your practice spells arrogance and laziness. In truth, you’re just beginning. You’ve definitely made progress, though, progress that seems so minute that you didn’t even realize improvements were being made.

Some compare human growth to the growth of a tree. Things don’t seem to change from day to day, but a cross-section of the tree would reveal growth rings. Some rings are narrow, while others indicate periods of robust growth. So, keep going; keep growing.

Remember when it was 3:14?

Talk Is NOT Cheap

“How’s the picnic basket coming along?” I asked Georgine,* a spirited crafter who sees me weekly at the spa. Week by week, she’s shared progress reports with me about this homemade wedding gift. What should the handles read if I woodburned them? she once asked. (She loved my suggestion of the bride and groom’s names and the wedding date.) One week she told me about the picnic quilt’s pattern: ants!

This is the same woman who came back to the spa to give me some frozen salmon she’d just bought. That was a first for me and a direct result of her knowledge of the gut-balance diet I’m on.

I remember regarding with amusement some of the items other therapists have received as gifts or tips: freshly prepared venison, homemade cloudy-looking cocktail mixers in mason jars, tickets to various events. I was always fine with cash tips but wondered what it was that kept my clients on the straight and narrow.  Continue reading

You’re Grounded!

Deep breath. No, not good enough; take another one. Better? Yeah, that’s better. Now shake off that anxiety and pent-up energy. Shake out your wrists – (Ooh, there was a small pop in there!) Focus, girl. Release. Not quite feeling it yet? Heck, shake out your legs, too. Wind your legs around each other. Wrap your forearms together. (This is a yoga pose, isn’t it?) Quiet, monkey mind. Quiet. Are you still breathing deeply? Unwind. Close your eyes. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Exhale. Lean toward the door, listen and knock…

Without this funny-looking grounding technique or some variation of it before my massage sessions I’m anxious, scattered and overly receptive of whatever my client is exuding. The session lacks focus, and I feel I can never fully relax, which means the client is probably feeling similarly.

I have a “grounding” ritual to get my day going, too: my Buddhist prayers, the practice of gongyo and daimoku. Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo centers me, makes me feel more positive and alert, and seems to snap me into the rhythm of the universe. I feel connected, joyful, confident and more complete.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’m just now starting to return to a stronger version of myself after a couple years of practicing this Buddhism at a lower intensity. It’s a relief to know that strength and wisdom are still in there, still accessible. But some days are better than others. Some days still knock the wind out of me.

I’m not just talking about massage here. The other day I was at an event, feeling pretty good, secure. But a woman, a stranger to me, seemed to change all of that. When we were introduced, something…happened. Her words flattered me, but meanwhile her eyes scanned mine, searching for and then confirming something. She’s lonely, I thought. She’s stalling, trying to keep the conversation going. I felt something being taken away from me and left the encounter feeling thoroughly depleted.

That feeling followed me home. All afternoon and deep into the night, I felt anxious, exhausted, and something else. I eventually identified it as a sense of dread.
The term energy vampire comes to mind, and also the lesser known term esho-funi, or the Buddhist concept of the oneness of one’s life and the environment. Put simply, whatever we’re experiencing is a reflection of our own life-state. The notion of energy vampires, while intriguing, makes me feel like a mere victim, but esho-funi is an empowering (albeit far less easy or passive) concept. If we don’t like what we see in our environment, we make causes to change (better) ourselves. Through that process, we change our environment.

The concept of esho-funi is strongly tied to our life condition. When my life condition isn’t high – that is, when I’m not grounded through my daily Buddhist practice – I find myself easily taken for a ride by people whose life forces are stronger than mine. Someone I practice Buddhism with playfully turns esho-funi into a verb. “Don’t let them esho-funi you,” she says. “Your life condition has to be high enough to esho-funi them.”

To clarify, this isn’t about mind control or using force to make others be or act a certain way. Rather, when I’m feeling grounded in my Buddhist practice, I exude joy, compassion, wisdom and courage, or the qualities of the Buddha. And when that happens, others around me can’t help but feel those same wonderful qualities. We’re all lifted up, and nobody feels taken advantage of or depleted.

This is what I strive to give my clients during each of my massage sessions. I want them to walk out of the treatment room feeling happy and secure, serene (and physically better, of course!). Do I succeed? Often I do. Sometimes I don’t. 

As for that woman…the next time we meet, the outcome will be a joy for both of us, rather than a drain to one of us.

I’ve got work to do….

My Mission

It was September 2012, and I was lost in the Florida Everglades. Wild adventure? In a sense it could be considered one. I was in the process of changing careers from publishing to massage therapy, but at that moment my future seemed impossibly hazy. For starters, I was having trouble deciding on a massage school. One claimed to be accredited but cost almost twice as much as another local option…I had no idea how important accreditation was, and money was seriously tight. Plus, there was the fear that I’d be sinking thousands of dollars (regardless of school) into a field that I might completely bomb at. So, there I sat, lost, on the big borrowed bed.

A bed in the Everglades?! Oh, right. I was at the SGI-USA Florida Nature and Culture Center, a lovely site where we Buddhists go on spiritual retreats. A friend listened as I rattled off the pros and cons…school hours in each program, the vibe I got from each school, and then my laundry list of worries. She encouraged me to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is the primary practice of this Buddhism. Then she said something I’ll never forget:

“In Buddhism, no effort is ever wasted, right? Each piece of admission paperwork you complete, each step toward becoming a massage therapist will be helpful to someone else. You’ll see.”

She was right, as she often is. But recent events have unveiled other levels of right-ness we couldn’t have fathomed.

As you may have read from a past blog post, I injured my back almost exactly a year ago, benching me from massage for a month. What transpired from that event took me on a journey of conventional and alternative medicine, physical therapy, assertiveness training and so much more.

My back tried to pull the same stunt a few months ago, but I was wiser this time: before the problem became dire I got my ouchy butt back into PT and have been there ever since to reinforce strengthening my core, to stretch and work out tight areas and, as an important byproduct, to learn.

Just today at work, a client walked in and said her left glutes were severely tight and painful. My (new and improved!) manager kindly gave me the option to turn down this session because my own back was bothering me today. But when I heard my client’s predicament, there was no refusing her. As weird as it sounds, my elbow in her glutes, nay, anyone’s glutes, is part of my mission.

Every stretch I do, every massage technique that is performed on me, every word of caution I learn in PT as I heal, all of it is passed down more quickly than I can shake a stick at…or something. What I mean is that whether I plan it or not, what I learn becomes immediately helpful to someone else. A coworker strained his back the other day and came to work with symptoms that sounded similar to my own. I flooded him with so many self-care tips, I probably overwhelmed him. But I know what my manic mouth was doing. I’ve become a conduit of healing advice and massage techniques; it’s now second nature to me. 

A year ago (similar to when I started my massage journey), my future was once again fuzzy, and I felt hopelessly lost in space. Between the worker’s comp hubbub and pain that left me loopy (Major Tom and I had a few lengthy dialogues…oh, if only I could remember them!), I couldn’t picture the outcome. Now I can see that I’m a more compassionate and more knowledgeable massage therapist as a result of the struggle. We might call it the most painful and expensive continuing education class ever offered, I guess. It was a grueling but immensely valuable experience, and I grew as a result of having experienced it. In a perhaps odd but definitely Buddhist sense, it’s been one of my life’s biggest treasures to date.

Oh, and that Major Tom pendant pictured above? It came in the mail today, a gift to commemorate the year’s anniversary of a difficult time and a reminder of my mission. Pendant or no pendant, I will never forget.