Too many massage therapists suffer from injury and burnout.
A tough reality of our chosen profession is its demand on the body, mind and spirit. But what if there was a way to not only avoid consequences like strain, injury and exhaustion, but to take your practice and transform it into something that actually supports you and helps you stay healthy and happy?
There is a way to do this—and it’s not a secret you’ll have to climb the Himalayas or meditate for years at a temple to receive. The Principles of Longevity, also the name of a self-care class I teach, are steps to a massage career that lasts.
Safety, Balance, Creativity
These practices can be applied to any style of massage to make it safer, more effective and easier to perform. They are a way of looking at your existing massage practice in a new light, and bringing safety, balance and creativity to your work.
These principles begin with a solid foundation of body mechanics and ergonomics, two concepts that are often overlooked or confused with each other.
Body mechanics are how you work with your body; ergonomics are how your equipment works with you.
Pressing with the knuckles instead of a flat palm because your knuckles are tougher and can take more repetitive motion is an example of sound body mechanics.
Adjusting the height of your massage table to better suit your height and prevent you from overbending is an example of good ergonomics at work.
Remember, as you apply these principles, you’re now learning how to make your massage practice work with you and for you. Look at every aspect of your practice and ask, “Is this serving me?” and “How can it serve me better?” Allow your creativity and your new perspective on massage to provide you with answers.
Please Be Seated
In massage, we’re usually concerned about providing proper support to clients through our use of massage tables, chairs, benches and floor pads—but what about supporting ourselves as therapists? Have you given any thought to how you support your body during a massage?
One thing that makes a surprising difference is performing massage while seated. This stance offers a great way to relieve strain and protect your lower body, including the hips, low back, knees and sacroiliac joint.
You’ll want to choose a seat that offers you the stability and height you need to deliver effective pressure during a massage session. Test your chosen seat at home before using it during client work. This will allow you to work out any issues with your new system. You can also work in a seated position directly on the massage table itself.
While seated, you’ll avoid the hinging that happens in your lower back when you bend over a client who is on a massage table. With this new support for yourself, you’ll be able to offer a longer massage because you won’t be getting tired from standing during the whole session.
You’ll also find you can use your whole body to deliver the massage. It’s the next best thing to having an extra set of hands.
Floor Your Clients
Are you better at lifting weights or walking? Most people are better at walking. There’s a lot of strength in your lower body waiting to be unlocked in your massage sessions. When you work with the Principles of Longevity, your goal is to work with your body, not against it.
If your lower body is stronger than your upper body, there’s a way to work with that strength, and all it takes is a change in perspective on the massage. There are plenty of methods that involve getting onto the floor with your client—but what if you were to work on a client who is on the floor without being on the floor yourself?
This creates effortless use of your legs and feet. It allows you to take advantage of gravity and body weight to gain leverage and deliver the proper pressure for the massage. It also allows you to employ your foot as a tool.
To floor your clients, you need to be on a sturdy, comfortable seat, of a proper height for giving massage with your feet. I recommend a wide, well-balanced bench or stool, without wheels, that’s adjustable so you can change your height as needed for different clients and positions.
Flooring your clients allows for a great deal of versatility in positioning, too. You can work on a prone, side-lying, supine or seated client.
Rock Your Body
In a standard massage, most of the pressure is in the wrong place: It’s on the therapist and not the client. To deliver that pressure where it should go, work with physics and allow your movement to power the massage by rocking your body. Combined with proper ergonomics and postural alignment, you can deliver an excellent massage without straining your body.
For example, instead of standing still and pressing with your hands, what if you were to lock your arms and rock your entire body back and forth to apply pressure with the hands? Which movement would be more effective? Which one would be easier to perform? Don’t take my word for it; try it in your practice and see the difference for yourself.
Rocking allows you to use momentum instead of muscular strength to power your massage. It creates economy of motion, requiring less energy to be expended for a more effective massage. None of your joints get locked into place, and no muscle is contracted for any extended period of time, which allows your body to stay relaxed, fluid and calm as you deliver the massage.
As an additional benefit, rocking is a soothing motion that creates a biological relaxation response for you and your client, via your parasympathetic nervous system, adding to the therapeutic value of your massage.
Supersize Your Table
Have you ever wished for another hand while offering a massage? I know I have. Imagine this: Your client is on the table in the supine position, arm extended, and you’re trying to simultaneously support that arm and massage it, leaving only one hand free to give the massage. It turns you into a one-handed massage therapist. The body is in a position of static support, which takes a lot of strength. Your effectiveness is limited, because any pressure you generate with the hand giving the massage has to be counter-forced by the hand supporting the client’s limb.
You may not be able to grow another hand, but you can get a little help in the form of a table extension. Adding a table extension not only gives your client a place to rest an arm or a leg to free both of your hands to work, it also allows you to change your position to access different areas of the client’s body. Remember, the extension must be at the same height as your table so as not to put any unnecessary strain on your client’s body. It also needs to be padded for comfort, just as your massage table is.
Love the One You’re With
Most of us became massage therapists because we want to help people live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. We want to change the world by creating and facilitating healing for every client we touch. But did you know your practice can be healing for you too?
One of my first massage teachers once told me, “The massage is for you.” I know if I’m getting a lot out of the massage, my client will also receive a wonderful experience.
Many spiritual traditions speak to the importance of loving yourself. To bring that principle to your massage, you have to create a mindset that states you won’t hurt yourself offering massage. When you love and nurture yourself through your work, loving and healing energy is present for you and your client, and it benefits you both.
It’s important to ask yourself about your motivations for massage. Are you committed to healing others for a lifetime? Can you be complete, joyful and fulfilled in this work? When you bring loving kindness to yourself, your clients receive that too. Then they can go out into the world to fulfill their dreams, which in turn makes the world a better place.
Examine your practice and ask yourself, “If I continue to practice massage the way I’m practicing now, what will my future be?” You can choose to experience pain or injury that prevents you from doing the things you love, lose out on time for yourself because you’re offering massages at a break-neck pace that doesn’t allow you to live in balance, and scrape by on less income because your body can’t keep up with the massages you need to offer. Or, you can create structures for your massage career that will support your growth and development for the long term.
Only you can decide what your massage practice will be, now and in the future.
Your Most Important Asset
To paraphrase everyone’s favorite forest guardian, Smokey the Bear, only you can prevent massage injury. Self-care—proper diet, sleep, exercise, self-massage and receiving massage sessions regularly—is only part of the puzzle. Body mechanics, ergonomics and the Principles of Longevity are vital in creating a massage practice that supports your most important asset: you.
Bring these principles with you every time you pack up your massage table, lotion and linens, and you’ll build a massage career that lasts.
Patrick Ingrassia, L.M.T., is a massage therapist, teacher and innovator, as well as founder of the Nayada Institute of Massage. He earned a massage teacher certification from the Institute of Thai Massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He has been teaching massage throughout North America for more than 15 years.