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Warm It Up!
Heat Techniques Nurture Clients

By Leslie Bruder

Once winter sets in, massage by itself becomes only part of the formula that you can offer your clients. Adding heat to your massage in creative, simple and inexpensive ways can take your touch to a deeper dimension and transport your clients to another level of relaxation.

Heat opens the muscles and relaxes the joints, which helps you to penetrate the tissue more easily and leaves clients less sore from deep work. Meanwhile, by providing warmth in your massage sessions, your clients will feel more nurtured and leave your care with a lasting glow to shield them from the cold outside.

Nan DeGrove, of Boulder, Colorado, says that after experiencing heated massage, she will never go back to a regular massage session.

"From the minute I stepped foot in [the massage therapist’s] office, I felt safe," says DeGrove. "The fire was crackling; the warmth in the room held me like a child. When I lay down on her warm, cushy table and felt the heat penetrate my back from the large hot-water bottle beneath me, I felt as if I needed nothing more."

"Then the warm stones were placed upon my belly, in my hands and on my feet, and I felt as if I would cry. I had never felt so taken care of in my life. I was taken to a place of relaxation never yet known to my body," DeGrove says. "It was divine bliss."

Warming the room
Before you even lay a hand upon your client’s body, heat can begin the relaxation process. Warm rooms are lovely to be massaged in; the body rests and relaxes much better in a warm environment.

It’s important to remember that what might feel like a comfortable temperature to you might not be satisfactory for your client, who is naked, still and lying down where there is less heat. Many clients will not tell you that they wish the room were warmer; they will tough it out and just not return. I have learned this from the many accounts of new clients who, upon entering my very toasty room, tell me how cold they have been in previous massages.

A note of warning here: It is worth your while to dress light so that you do not overheat in order to give your clients the luxury of warm air. Also, if you work in a room that is cool and are tempted to use blankets, you risk your clients’ comfort by the sheer weight and by causing them to tense their muscles when you expose their body parts to the cool air.

Instead, portable heaters are available in a variety of sizes and costs for rooms that just do not heat up enough on their own. A fireplace or a wood-burning stove, although not always practical or affordable, offers the most penetrating and enjoyable form of heat, not to mention the soothing crackle of the fire. Placing a pot of water atop a stove provides warm moisture to the room. For a similar effect, heated humidifiers can be used. Aromatherapy burners can add a trickle of warm moisture to the air while providing healing and fragrant smells that warm from the inside out.

Heat from down under
The table itself can be warmed in a variety of ways, the most common of which is by an electric cover. Made of cotton or fleece, covers have the advantage of being able to hold heat throughout the entire massage. A possible drawback to this heating method may be electrical currents, which can bother sensitive people. Preheating the table and then turning the cover off before the client lies down will still provide warmth upon initial contact, but reduce any possible negative effects.

One can also heat up the table more naturally. Using a sheepskin rug or a fleece table cover along with flannel sheets makes for a warm, cozy table. A fleece face-cradle cover used underneath a flannel one offers the client a cushy place to rest her face. Kapok bolsters, available from Golden Ratio, are much warmer and cozier than hard, vinyl foam ones, and when covered with flannel they feel like clouds under the knees and feet.

Other heating options, which offer pre-massage warmth and prepare the client’s body by loosening the muscles, include:

• A large hot-water bottle placed under the client’s back to create penetrating heat and a slight floating sensation for the client by providing gentle movement while you work.
• Flat, hot stones placed under a towel or even left uncovered, placed to meet specific points on the client’s body.
• Dry hot packs made from gel or foam and heated in a microwave, placed under the client’s back.
• Moist hot packs, such as hydrocollators, or thermal soft-moist packs, that are either boiled in an hydrocollator unit (or cheaper substitute) or plugged in, placed under the client’s back and neck. These require adequate layers of protection between them and the body because the moisture creates a deeper heat.
• Grain or herb bags made of rice, flax seeds, corn, buckwheat or a variety of herbs, heated in a microwave or on a radiator and placed under the neck or back.

The direct approach
In addition to what you place beneath the client, putting warm objects on top of the body begins the process of melting muscles before you start the massage. For example, a small down throw feels delightful on a cold night; it not only provides warmth, it is lighter than most blankets.

An electric blanket placed over a client will keep her warm throughout the massage session, yet again may be unpleasant to some because of the electric currents. If you do choose to use an electric blanket, the wireless ones powered by remote control are preferable so you don’t have to worry about tripping over wires.

Large, warm, dry towels heated on a towel rack, in a towel oven or thrown over a radiator are an easy and cozy heat source to place directly on the skin or over a sheet. Large, hot, wet towels that have been heated in a crock-pot - and well wrung out - feel exquisite on the back or chest before or during a massage. Small, warmed towels, either wet or dry, anointed with an essential oil and placed over the face, are a divine touch.

Eye masks made of gel, foam or grain that have been heated in a microwave or on a radiator, and round, flat cotton circles moistened with warm water provide gentle heat and soothe the eyes. Bags of tannin-rich black tea, dunked in warm water and placed over each eyelid, have the added benefit of reducing inflammation.

Small hot-water bottles, placed on the belly, chest or back, are easy to move, hold heat longer than towels and have a grounding effect on the client. The same for hot packs, warmed grain bags and hot stones, which can even be strapped to the client’s feet with wrappers.

Booties made of grain that are warmed in a microwave oven are a treat for the feet - they hold heat longer than stones and cover the entire foot.

Whether you choose all-over warmth or add touches here or there, heat will bring your clients deeper relaxation and allow you, in this quiet, cozy sanctuary, to work your magic on their pre-warmed muscles.

Warm those mitts!
There’s nothing worse than being touched by someone with cold hands on a cold day, causing a chill to run straight through the client’s body as all of his muscles jump to attention. A lotion warmer, or a less expensive baby-bottle warmer, will make sure that your clients never feel the deep freeze on your table.

Another way to get heat going fast is by using warming liniments, such as tiger balm. Many arthritis liniments contain capsican, which is especially warming to the muscles. But be careful when using these products that you don’t inadvertently create a cooling effect. Liniments that contain menthol and mint have the dual effect of creating heat or coolness. To get the warming effect, you must keep that body part covered with a warm towel, stone or water bottle.

Some essential oils, such as cinnamon, oregano, thyme, marjoram, ginger, black pepper, patchouli and mint, are also considered "warming" and are excellent choices to add to your massage oil in the cold weather.

Warm paraffin wax is also a wonderful way to heat parts of the body during a massage, and in my experience it helps dramatically with arthritis. You simply have the client dip a hand, foot or elbow into a paraffin bath and then cover with a mitt, bootie or towel while you massage the rest of the body. After the wax cools, peel it off.

Foot spas are super for warming the feet or hands and are relaxing for the entire body. And, of course, if you have the luxury of having a hot tub, it is helpful to have clients soak before or after the massage.

Along the spa theme, another way to introduce heat into your massage session is by using a steam canopy. Canopies hang from the ceiling and are pulled over a water-resistant table for a pre-massage steam, opening the client’s pores and relaxing her muscles. At around $1,300, this is certainly a more expensive option, but is pure luxury for the client.

Stone cold? Never
Hot-stone therapy has become much more popular over the last few years, and it’s little wonder. In addition to placing warmed stones on or under the body, you can actually use them to massage the tissue. Smooth basalt river stones, when used with skill and proper technique, can open a muscle twice as fast as hands alone, and soothe a muscle that has been worked deeply, helping to eliminate soreness that can sometimes result from intense bodywork.

"Being massaged with hot stones is out of this world," says Nancy Cebulla, who also receives massage in Boulder. "As soon as the hot stones began, I dropped like I never have before. I lost all desire to talk or think, and my muscles just began to soften like clay. It is like having three hours of massage in one."

Once you have either purchased a set of stones ($50-100 for a set of 50 stones) or collected your own, you need a way to heat them. One of the most effective ways to heat the stones is to place them in water in an electric skillet. The skillet is superior to a crock-pot or an electric wok in that it is flat; thus, you can easily see and pick out the rocks you want to use. The skillet also has the advantage of a temperature gauge, which allows you to control how hot the stones get, which is essential for effective use.

It is important to take a class or practice handling the stones before using them professionally, so that you do not burn or injure yourself or your clients. But stone massage is fast and easy to learn. Plus, using hot stones will protect your hands because they do so much of the work for you.

Good for the client, good for you
Adding heat to your practice will not only benefit your clients but can be a considerable boon to your business. It is common to add an additional $10-15 to your fee when you add hot stones, for example. The same is true for the paraffin wax treatment and the steam canopy.

While the use of warmed herbal flax bags or flannel sheets shouldn’t increase your fees, they could increase your clientele. Many clients have told me that part of the reason they chose me over another therapist is precisely because of the heat elements I add to sessions.

Heat treatments are also a great marketing tool. Come winter, sending out a mailing or placing an ad in the local newspaper announcing your warm massage is certain to draw a few clients in from the cold!


Leslie Bruder, a massage therapist for more than 25 years, holds a master’s degree in psychology and a certificate in integrated body psychology. She has taught in numerous massage schools and spas, and holds workshops in the art of touch throughout the United States and Mexico.

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