The human body, as amazing as it is, can cause a world of issues when it is not honored during the hours of physical, mental or emotional labors. Massage therapists are informed many times that the muscles have memory, that pain, even though perceived, is a signal from the brain that something is out of order and the spine is an intricate piece of the posture puzzle. But even with the above words of wisdom, some don’t take one of these statements seriously.
For a massage therapist, body mechanics is key. As a teacher of many modalities, I stress to my students to overexaggerate their mechanics in school, so when they get into the working field and adjust to their comfortable standing and sitting postures, they are still within the realm of acceptable body mechanics. And what is considered acceptable? Relaxed shoulders with strong lines in the arms, relaxed wrist, straight and long backs, evenly distributed hips and legs balanced and bent at the knees and forward pointing toes. Due to the many changes in the depth of pressure required to meet the demands of clientele, the therapist has to consider the stress it puts on her own body and make correct alignment a personal journey.
Good body mechanics shouldn’t scare the student. It’s not a test of coordination, dance ability, athleticism or experience. But it does take desire and will to make adaptations and use the philosophy of trial and error to make improvements to something that can add a priceless benefit to someone’s practice. Each body is different and the basics of body mechanics mentioned above still needs to accommodate the physical structure of each individual. So step one to achieving a more in-tuned posture is to ‘know your own body.’
Begin by exploring with the fine areas of self-awareness. Pay attention to the way your shoulders feel while applying petrissage, or listen to the slightest ache in the low back when executing traction. While in the midst of the stroke, pull or stretch, make fine tune adjustments to your body until those pain signals diminish, then follow through with the next client by placing your body in that position from the start.
The next step is to stretch your body as much as possible. One doesn’t have to achieve the limber ability of an acrobat, gymnast or master yogi, but in all simplicity stay mobile. Rotate your neck while on a nutrition break in between classes, stretch the arms and legs while checking traffic on the television before leaving in the morning or flex and extend the wrist periodically before the next client arrives. Subtle and simple goes a long way.
To become a producer of control, the student should learn basic breathing techniques that assist with overall functioning, ability and endurance. As we breathe and inspire our air, allow the body to filter, warm and humidify the air we take in by breathing in through the nasal passageway (the nostrils). Then, exhale the air through the mouth (pierce lips) to keep the body cool. Keep the breath natural and even with a flowing rhythm as the strokes are transitioned and the body is readjusted. Don’t overextend the body and breath. Use the muscles of inspiration and expiration, not the muscles of rotation and circumduction. Meaning, draw attention to the diaphragm, abdominals and intercostals, not the shoulders. Breathing with the core in turn stabilizes the core and helps to ground the lower body, allowing it to be more connected and stable. (Knowledge of healthy breathing mechanics is valuable information to pass on to your clients when working into the deeper layers of the musculature to get around body-armoring issues or to enhance their personal stretching, relaxation or aerobic techniques).
As a student, there is so much to learning the basic fundamentals of giving a good, knowledgeable massage, but with all things practice sets the person on the right track. Whether engaged in a 500 hour, 720 hour or 1000 hour plus program, the student has to deeply understand a massage therapist’s tool is her whole body. We may isolate in some form utilizing our thumbs, elbows or feet, but just as soccer is a complete body workout, massage is a full body effort. And learning to honor this tool enhances the personal longevity and ability of the growing therapist, bodyworker or energy worker to lead a healthier practice. And as a therapist of therapeutic work, it’s easy to give out, but we must give back to ourselves by taking care of ourselves. So be a sponge and keep learning, be explorative and mold into your own identity. And be mindful in the process to your physical well-being with unwavering mechanics that unifies your breath with your client’s breath and delivers a more balanced, vibrant career.
Tamika J. Williams is a massage therapy instructor and administrative assistant at West Coast College in Victorville, California, with a secondary campus in Ontario, California. She is a Certified Massage Therapist and Certified Sports Yoga Instructor and provides private instruction of Floor Yoga-Thai techniques in the High Desert of California.