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?



Last week an ice storm and wet snow swept through where I live. Snow plows shoved the ice into piles, where it re-froze. The plows did a ratty job because the snow was so wet and heavy. Making my way from apartment to car has been a dangerous negotiation through frozen boulders and icy patches. 

We’re only a couple weeks into winter, but here we are, frozen solid. Forecasters predicted that we’d have a warmer, drier winter, which makes me all the more ornery about this bout of weather. But you promised, a voice inside me whines. 

During the winter of my fifth grade year, a friend and I spent our recesses chipping away at the ice peninsulas on the school playground’s blacktop by smashing our heels onto the icy borders. On warmer days we were able to break off large chunks as the blacktop was heated by the sun. 

We had our hecklers, sure. “Stupid girls,” they’d taunt. “You think you can end winter?” We’d pause to make a face at them, then doggedly continue our mission. There was much work to be done. 

Were we simply enamored with the satisfaction that came when a large chunk of ice broke free under our youthful heels? Or was there something else, something deeper, keeping us occupied each recess? 

Back then I didn’t know or care why we were so driven, but today I have a hunch it was about control. Winter around here is unpredictable and seemingly endless. We were antsy not knowing if winter would drag on into March or even April, which it’s been known to do. I guess our rationale was that if we could clear the whole playground of ice, the powers that be would have no choice but to reward our hard work with an early spring. 

I wonder how many other futile rituals I’ve adopted to trick myself into thinking I have more control than I do….

The spa where I work, a newer franchise operation, is entering its third winter. After the holidays come and go and after the gift cards have been redeemed, business has historically come to a screeching halt. This year could be the exception. Our spa has been purchased by a man who knows business and marketing. He has tricks up his sleeve that are keeping us hopping even when we’ve crashed in the past. It looks like our busy December has given way to an equally busy January. This is wonderful news, of course. But one never can tell how it will actually play out. 

The massage industry itself is a rich web of unpredictability. When I think one of my regular clients is coming to see me, she cancels at the last minute. When I look forward to a scheduled break after my session, the schedule changes and I have to give another massage. Sorry, rumbly belly…you have to wait. When a walk-in arrives just as I’m preparing to walk out. When I think I missed the mark but the client loves what I did…or vice-versa. When tips are large, small or not at all. When a client arrives late and causes a chain reaction throughout the day. When the schedule predicts a busy day and then it isn’t…when it predicts a slow day and then it isn’t…in other words, I never know how my day is going to be until my shift is over.  

Of course, in life there are no sure things, so it’s only natural that this is also true of business. Nobody can make a guaranteed promise when profits are concerned. And we humble workers are at the mercy of the almighty dollar and the greed-driven decisions that often accompany it. 

Thriving amidst uncertainty is a valuable life-skill to have, so we LMT’s are fortunate to have this kind of training. Still, I notice some superstitious behavior among my coworkers and myself. We try to call the shots, an exercise ultimately leading to frustration and disappointment. But we just can’t help ourselves. 

Yesterday I took the day off to rest my body, run some errands and come back to normalcy after the holidays. I headed toward the icy parking lot. Something came over me as I walked past a narrowing of sidewalk pavement. Without thinking, my heel crashed down on the peninsula of ice. It shattered. I stooped down, tossed it into the white sea that was once a yard. 


The Strangest Job I’ve Ever Loved

 Business is picking up at the spa where I work. Don’t get me wrong; it all still feels fragile, as though one powerful sneeze will blow clients away again. But our regular clients are starting to resurface from the hubbub that is summer. 

Lately I’ve been feeling stale, overplayed. Maybe most of those clients really do need similar treatment (back/neck/shoulders, etc.). Or maybe I need to be the one to break the pattern somehow. 

The humdrum of tired mediocrity took a detour today. One client’s needs gave me the license to change my entire progression. It became a myofascial trigger-point session, which meant in this case that I was focused on one shoulder for most of the 50 minutes. (Trigger point work is fascinating to me. So, you think you have carpal tunnel syndrome? Maybe not! Maybe it’s a trigger point buried under your shoulder blade in the subscapularis muscle. Who would have thunk it?!) I felt something in me light up as I searched for the source of the client’s pain, which happened to be about four inches from where he felt the pain itself. Not every client is begging for clinical work. This one was. Lucky me! 

Another client today, a tough-looking professional mover, didn’t look so tough as I finished the session. I massaged his temples and marveled (silently, of course!) at how peaceful he looked, like a sleeping child. 

It struck me then. Somewhere along the way, I forgot. I forgot how beautiful each person is when I regard their faces from my perch at the top of their heads. They seem to regress in age right in front of me. Maybe it’s because their eyes are closed. Maybe it’s the vantage point from which I peer at them. Maybe something mystic or spiritual happens. It doesn’t matter. Back when I was fresh, new, inspired, a starry-eyed part of me would exclaim (to myself), “She could be a movie star!” But along the way, unbridled wonder and inspiration have been replaced with good intentions, genuine attempts and, ultimately, the dull acceptance of feeling little more than relief that the session is over.

You could say I’m a little burned out, I guess. A tough spring, slow work, piling-up debt and some work drama may be taking a bit of a toll. 

As usual, talking myself through the situation calms me down. I’ve felt burned out before, and I’ve overcome it. I’ll overcome it this time, too, I’m sure. It may be as simple as learning new techniques and remembering and appreciating how delightfully strange my job can be. Where else could I say that I hold people’s snoring heads in my hands as part of my job? Snoring, for cry-eye! It’s surreal when I give it some thought. One can’t do that in an office setting without some bewildered looks, I’ll tell you what. My desk-bound former self would never believe current me if I told her that I massage people for a living. She’d tell me I’m too scared, too awkward for a field like that. But there was a string of unlikely events…

And here I am. I’m broke, sure, but far from poor. I’ve met and worked on hundreds of people who appreciate any help I can provide. When I push myself to take the lessons presented to me, I learn every day. And hey. When all else fails I can remind myself that I knock out complete strangers for a living (so to speak, of course). And they come to, say they feel amazing and come back for more. How weird and wonderful is that?

Massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there techniques you use to break out of a rut? I’d love to hear from you! 

13 Lifesavers Massage Therapists Keep Handy

  I’m horrified to report that last night I discovered three tiny warts on my hand. Gah, it’s an occupational hazard I was hoping never to experience! As I dabbed a liquid bandage onto the spots after freezing them dead with this frightening spray I bought at the drugstore, I thought about the many products that help me get through the day. Mind you, I’m not getting a kickback for any product mentions, and I’m not even sure it’s all right to list brand names here. So if I’m in the wrong, please feel free to educate me….

Toothbrush, toothpaste, breath strips and gum In massage school, my foundations instructor mentioned that the day before or the day that we massage, we shouldn’t eat strong-tasting foods. Considering that I work five days a week and lurve my garlic and onions, that’s just not an option. So all of the above-listed items are key. Breath strips are my most recent find. They’re small but mighty and spare me from sounding like I’m chewing my cud. Gum is reserved for times I really need to brush but can’t. I buy a softer-smelling, pleasing flavor and only chew a half stick at a time to reduce obnoxiousness by half. 

Barrettes, hair ties I’m sorry. Show me a spa with coiffed massage therapists, and I’ll show you the harrowing behind-the-scenes that is required to give a great massage while still looking pretty. It’s an endless battle for them. I simply can’t do it. In my world, makeup is minimal, bangs are often clipped back, and hair MUST be off my neck, or I exit the therapist’s room with makeup melted down to my knees and wet hair, much resembling a dirty puddle. 

Mini fan this relates to the hair ties. It’s teeny and doesn’t pack much of a punch, but that wee machine keeps me sane each session. I’m a sweat-er, plain and simple, and I’ve taught myself how and when to position that sucker on me (and not my client) without the client knowing. 

Traveler’s manicure kit From nipping surprise hangnails to trimming and filing nails, I use at least one item from my kit daily. (Have I ever mentioned that I often have to file my fingertips in this profession? Strange, but true!)

Burt’s Bees Hand Salve If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “How can your skin be dry and cracking? You’re rubbing oil onto your hands all day,” I’d have a good dollar or two by now. We have to lather up all the way past our elbows twice as many times as we massage, before and after each session. This salve is as sleek as satin, and smells like a field of lavender. Don’t be discouraged by the price; a tin should last you at least one winter. 

Coconut oil This all-natural product was a big help for my forearms last winter. Again, we’re scrubbing up quite often throughout the day, and during the cold months I was alarmed to discover that the skin on my arms felt a lot like tweed. It took two weeks during my back-mending hiatus to get that skin feeling like…well, skin. While it doesn’t do much for cracked fingertips, coconut oil aborbs quickly, smells warm and comforting and, best of all, doesn’t sting chapped skin like a mother-trucker. *Ahem!* 

New Skin liquid bandage I learned this just today. Fellow MT’s would tell me to dab some New Skin on the cracks in my thumbs, and I ignored them…because it peels right off and feels scratchy to the client, doesn’t it? Well, that may be true for the generic brand I bought last winter, but the New Skin I just got today actually feels like skin, so much so that I dabbed on some extra to make sure it was there. 

Non-latex gloves These made today’s three massages possible. Not pleasant, mind you, but possible. (The liquid bandage purchase happened after my shift.) Therapists and clients are pleasantly surprised that a massage with surgical gloves feels almost like the gloves are not even there. But they come with a caveat for sweat-ers like me. You’d be amazed by how much sweat one hand generates in a 50-minute session! It made for some embarrassing squeaks during one of my appointments today when some trapped air escaped the glove all deflating-balloon-like. 

Good shoes I can’t emphasize this one enough. I need steady, supportive shoes to do good work. We’re not just on our feet all day, we’re lunging…All. Day. If my shoes don’t fit properly, I’ll know within the first five minutes of my first session. It makes for a long session when you’re uncomfortable on your feet….

Zinc lozenges Surprise! Here’s a fourteenth item that I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention. Yes, they make food and beverages taste weird. Yes, there’s controversy as to whether they even work. But placebo effect be damned, they work for me. And considering all of the colds a massage therapist is trapped in a room with for 50+ minutes at a time, she or he needs a trusty line of defense. Good-quality vitamins in general are critical for the various ickies that float around, year ’round. 

This list covers the basics. The above items keep me as calm and collected as possible to get me through the day with at least some grace (which says a lot since I’m naturally ungraceful). Fellow massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there any must-haves that you rely on? 

Getting a Massage? Speak up! 

Yipes! I’m a week behind my goal of posting once every other Wednesday-ish. In the beginning of May, I took a short but significant trip to La Jolla, CA for a wedding. One day, I hope to write more about that solo trip…still processing! And this month is flying by at breakneck speed. But tonight I want to write a quick post. And I’m breaking my usual standard of editing the post to death before and after posting it…I think/hope. Let’s take a leap off the cuff for a moment, shall we?

About a year before the notion of becoming a massage therapist even crossed my mind, I took a mini-trip with a friend and got a massage.

It was, hands-down, the worst massage I’ve ever received.

I was still fairly new to the whole massage experience and booked a couple’s session with my friend. My therapist asked me what was experiencing tension, and I said my shoulders (especially my right one) were bothering me.

We got on the tables, and our therapists got started. Soon, I dearly wished I were alone in the room with my therapist; having my friend present made me too embarrassed to state that what my therapist was doing was causing me searing pain. His idea of addressing my shoulders was to deliver the most pressure possible to the area and to crank on my shoulder blades so they “winged,” then to dig around under them. Sometimes “winging” the shoulder blade is what is called for, but he didn’t do much else during the session. Never once did he ask how his pressure felt, and never once did he adjust his technique as I flinched and cringed. It was 90 minutes of hell.

I came out of there red and bruised. That night, I felt flu-like symptoms…nausea, chills, a low-grade fever. He hadn’t advised me to drink plenty of water, so being the newbie that I was, I didn’t. And I felt awful. I didn’t know what to do to alleviate the pain, so I took a hot shower. That only made me more miserable. (Ice is soothing after invasive, deeper work, I now know.)

Writing this, I feel anger toward him for obvious reasons, but also anger toward myself. Why didn’t I feel comfortable enough to speak up? My friend probably wouldn’t have judged me, and my therapist probably would have lightened up. I’m sure he’d heard from other clients that he was heavy-handed.

Consider my lesson as your cautionary tale. If you’re getting a massage and something doesn’t feel right, please, please speak up! Here’s a little laundry list for you to assess throughout the session:

  • Is the temperature in the room and on the table ok?
  • Do your face and neck feel comfortable in the face cradle?
  • Is your massage therapist communicating with you?
  • Is the pressure ok?
  • Is the technique comfortable for you, or is he or she stretching you past your comfort level (literally and figuratively)?
  • Do you feel yourself flinching, guarding or holding your breath?
  • Do you feel fear?
  • Do you know what to expect and do after the session?
  • Do you know how to stretch or strengthen the areas that are bothering you?

If something feels wrong or unclear, your massage therapist will want to know so he or she can make it right. Don’t be shy or awkward like me, and don’t be overwhelmed by the “authority” of the person working on you. You have the power to help make your massage a pleasant and positive experience.

Body Language


This is what I recommend: When you talk about a symptom, make it the pain instead of my pain–the pain in my head, the pain in my stomach, or the pain in my back. At the same time, you should own your body parts–that is, my head, my stomach, or my back. But don’t say my arthritis, my multiple sclerosis, or my Parkinson’s disease. When you do, you’re just solidifying dysfunction as being a part of you. 

–Dr. Darren Weissman,
The Infinite Power of Love & Gratitude

The other day I winced during physical therapy, not so much because my PT was rolling a hard stick (cleverly deemed The Stick) down my IT band like a rolling pin on cold dough, but because of what she said to another patient: You’ll want to bend toward your bad leg.

“Your bad leg,” eh? After all this time, I’m still mentally editing other people’s words. How about that.

I have the tendency of being overly cautious when phrasing certain things. Stuck between two religions as a young girl, I balked at both and became superstitious for a spell, careful to form my wishes as air-tight as I possibly could. No way was I going to be the fool who accidentally conjured up a frog instead of a cute boy to kiss. (I got neither.) Since that time, I learned about cause and effect in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism; we make causes with every thought, word and action we create, and every cause has an effect. Between that former practice and my current one, I sometimes get tongue-tied trying to word certain things in the best possible way.

A big chunk of my life was spent dissecting words for a living. Being a cookbook editor meant I had to read recipes from a couple of perspectives: the chef who wrote the recipe into words and the home cook who would be turning those words back into food. I had a strict mentor who invited me to delve deeper, taking nothing for granted. If we used “whisk,” for example, would that lead the cook to pick up an actual whisk to do the deed? I believed so until we brought a few office workers into the test kitchen to prepare some recipes. Sure enough, we had a spoon-whisker in our crowd, to the smug satisfaction of my boss.

Words divorced themselves from me a couple of years ago. When I lost that position, it was the beginning of a strange time for cookbooks and publishing in general. Books started to compete against the many forms of web recipes. Language in general seems to have taken a hit over the past few years, hasn’t it? More and more I found myself putting away my editing eyes, tolerating the lol’s and lack of punctuation that we see in status updates and text messages. Similar to the result of some bad breakups, I ran into the arms of something else, leading me to the tangible power of massage therapy.

But my estranged words found me anyway. As I dug into my anatomy books, I was led to books such as Dr. Darren Weissman’s The Power of Infinite Love & Gratitude. In it, he writes about neural-linguistic programming, or NLP, which asserts that the language we use has great impact on our nervous system. Owning pain, my arthritis or my bad back sends a message to the body. It correlates with the law of cause and effect, too. What are we putting out there? Who or what is listening? How can we be sure the result will be as innocuous as we assume? Circling back to my PT and how she so casually phrased her directive, I’m wondering if I should try to catch and correct her the next time I hear something like that. The physical therapy facility is a healing environment, after all.

The other week I wrote a bit on pain and how some people deal with it so bravely. It may not always be that simple, though. In comparing notes with my sister about back pain (notice I didn’t write our back pain), I realized that she’s lived with it for so long, she’s almost taken pride in it. I worried that pain has become part of her identity. And maybe it has; that seems only natural when it’s been such a big part of her life for so many years. But then she said something that gave me hope. I see this pain as a guest that’s overstayed its welcome. I laughed. Maybe it’s finally time for it to go. And maybe she’s ready for what happens after that departure. As for me, I’m slowly getting to the bottom of why my healing, resilient back happens to hurt me right now. One carefully selected word, one PT exercise at a time, I will get there.

The Secret World of Pain

I should spare you the boring details and simply write “Ugh,” or better yet, not post at all. As this blog takes shape, it seems to be more about what goes wrong for a massage therapist than what goes well. I’m looking to change that as I grow into this role, but in the meantime…about a month ago I became a statistic and cautionary tale, joining the ranks of so many injured massage therapists. Apparently it’s not shocking that this happened to me just over a year into my practice. It’s been found that 80% of massage therapists and bodyworkers drop out after their first two years due to injury. So from that perspective I guess I’m tracking right on time….

When it happened in early February (while putting on my pants! Sheesh!), I lightened my workload for a few days, kept pushing forward and worried. Things stabilized somewhat, but pain persisted. Certain strenuous techniques came out of my massage toolbox. Compensating took place when pain would flare. Crash landings onto chairs became expected. Standing during breaks provided marginal relief.

Last Friday, it happened again. My back spasmed violently at the beginning of a massage session. I limped through the hour and was amazed that the client didn’t demand his money back. After the session I waved the white flag. Money, shmoney; staying the course was a disservice to my clients, the spa and my own body.

Two years ago, before I started massage school, I had a sobering talk with a financial counselor. He took down my history, chewed on his pen for a bit and told me that what I was about to embark on was a very bad idea, fiscally and otherwise.

But stubborn me, I went and did it anyway. And obtuse me, I ignored my body’s whispered signals. And complacent me, I kept going and going without seriously pursuing a career path that I could sustain. Now crumpled on a couch, unable to do my job, I’m buried under palpable shame.

Considering my environment, maybe it’s natural to feel so guilty about hurting. My sister has experienced severe, chronic back pain for at least 15 years. It’s limited her daily activities and changed her life. A dear friend suffers frequent migraines, yet she still manages to show up at her job and work through the pain. Both of these strong women have been compassionate as I’ve shared my recent struggle with back pain, but I know I can be tougher. I’m the whiny little sister, acting like I’m the first person ever to have gone through this.

Is it a sign of weakness to disclose exactly how bad we feel? Is it ego or survivalism that’s taught us to keep the bulk of our suffering secret? Maybe it’s more of a socially driven thing; we’ve all encountered the unfiltered acquaintance who taught us why true honesty is a no-no. And then I think about my clients. How often do they downplay their symptoms? Many come in with herniated discs, scars from back surgery and other obvious signs that they’ve been through traumatic events. I consider the times I’ve given self-care tips like “Soak in Epsom salt” or “Forward bends are great for stretching the low back and hamstrings.” Now that I have trouble getting into and out of the tub and can’t lean forward without a frightening twang of pain, I’ve vowed to be more sensitive to my clients, to read them more carefully for the unspoken.

As a matter of fact, as frustrating as this experience has been, I aim to take all of this as a lesson. I saw a doctor, took this week off and went to physical therapy as prescribed. After all, the only way to shake the shame I’m experiencing is to right my personal wrongs, right? Buddhism teaches that no effort is ever wasted, that every cause has an effect, and that effects can become causes toward victory or defeat depending on what we do next. It’s our choice. I’ve decided that this experience will make/is making me stronger, wiser, more compassionate and more effective in helping others, and I’m backing it up with appropriate action. To view it any other way and backslide might make me part of that dreaded 80% within the next year.

I can’t give up.

“What kinds of causes am I making right now?” “What actions am I taking?” The answers to these questions are what will determine our future.

-Daisaku Ikeda