Before starting my own practice, I worked in a spa.
A deep-tissue massage treatment was more expensive than a Swedish massage, not only because the spa knew they could charge more for them, but because the therapists hated to do them and the monetary incentive was an alluring perk. Most of the therapists at the spa were women who found performing deep-tissue massage exhausting.
I was a young and ambitious massage therapist, and a full-time student. I wanted to make as much money as I could in as little time as possible, so I eagerly took all the deep-tissue clients.
Doing six deep-tissue massages a day, I quickly learned the importance of developing a massage technique that could make me a sought-after massage therapist as well as protect me from injury and fatigue. Although athletic and young, no amount of strength could allow me to continue doing that much work and maintain balance and longevity. It was during this time I discovered some insights to performing deep-tissue massage with ease, as well as realizing a few limiting beliefs about deep-tissue massage.
Those limiting beliefs were: Deep-tissue massage can only be performed by therapists who are big and strong; deep-tissue massage is exhausting to perform; and deep-tissue massage is painful to receive.
All of these statements are false. With the right tools and techniques, deep-tissue massage can be comfortable for practitioners of any size to perform, as well as relaxing for clients to receive. I designed the Auth Method of Forearm Massage to help professional massage therapists enjoy longer, healthier careers. The Auth Method is a massage technique that takes the practitioner’s well-being into account, as well as that of the client. It feels effortless to perform and great to receive.
Below are eight Auth Method tips for cultivating a sustainable deep-tissue massage practice.
1. Use your body weight instead of muscular force to engage the tissue.
It isn’t necessary to push into tight tissue. Instead, just lean against the tissue. Use your body weight; tight tissue will melt under the pressure. Pushing is exhausting and runs the risk of working too deep. Any therapist, no matter how strong, will be fatigued by the end of a day spent pushing through tight tissue, whereas leaning against tissue takes no effort at all—it’s just like leaning against a table. It’s actually relaxing.
2. Work on a massage table low enough to drop your body weight onto your client.
In order to effectively use your body weight to engage the tissue, make sure your table is at the appropriate height. If you’re rounding through your back, the table is too low; if your shoulders are up around your ears, the table is too high.
When working the sides of the body, make sure you are standing slightly away from the table, so you lean forward onto your client’s body. When working the front or back of the body, make sure the table is low enough to allow you to drop your body weight down onto your client.
3. Use your forearms.
Use your forearms to perform the majority of the massage. Reserve your hands for long effleurage strokes, polishing off fingers and toes, and massaging the neck, face and head. Massage the back, hips, arms and legs with the forearms. There are many advantages to using the forearms; with practice they will become increasingly sensitive.
By using your body weight instead of muscular force, your forearms will naturally drop down to the first layer of tight tissue. As tissue releases, you will drop down to the next layer of tight tissue. If you work patiently layer by layer, your clients will not resist and will experience a pain-free yet deep massage. If your client resists your pressure, you are working too deep; ease up on your pressure to find and massage the most superficial layer of tight tissue first.
Likewise, if you aren’t feeling tissue releasing under your touch, you may be working too lightly. Don’t be afraid to drop your body weight onto your client. You may be surprised at just how much of your body weight your client can comfortably accept. If leaning into your client is new for you and you fear hurting them, practice with a partner who can give you good feedback.
5. Work the area of real tension and pain, not just the area where the symptom of pain is.
Where the client feels pain and the source of that pain can be different. At times, clients will ask you to pound away on an area of tension such as the lower back. These areas may be so locked up that you feel like you need a sledgehammer to soften them. I find that after I work the hips, the lower back will release. The client may not have been aware that her hips were even tight, because she was feeling the pain in her lower back.
Oftentimes, the client can’t take very much pressure at the true source of the pain. So, instead of spending a lot of energy pounding away at a symptomatic area, treat the source of the tension instead—this requires less energy from you and is more effective for your client.
6. Put a muscle on the stretch to work deeper without working harder.
By putting a tight muscle in a position that stretches it, the massage work you do on this area will be intensified—but not because you are working harder. By putting the muscle on a stretch, it becomes more taut and more sensitive to massage.
7. Good body mechanics means being grounded in the legs and relaxed in the upper body.
I attended acupuncture school shortly after finishing massage school. In acupuncture school I was introduced to a nonviolent form of martial arts called qi gong, which couples movement with breath. In qi gong, the body can be likened to a tree with imaginary roots coming out the soles of the feet, the legs strong like tree trunks, and the arms loose and bendable like tree branches blowing in the wind.
This is how you want to feel when performing massage: strong in the lower body, with the knees bent, and relaxed in your upper body. Keep your back straight, core engaged and chest open. If working in a bent-knee stance is new for you, you may need to lower your table a notch. In my workshops and on my DVD, A Guide to Using the Forearms, I teach simple qi gong exercises to encourage healthy body mechanics while massaging.
Body mechanics are the key to our career longevity. Good body mechanics make performing massage effortless and keep our bodies feeling good. With good body mechanics, performing massage can keep us in shape rather than be a constant source of pain.
8. Use the breath.
For most people, the breath is unconscious. Most don’t really think about their breath unless they are doing yoga, pranayama, or some other practice that involves breath awareness. So, we will often find our clients not breathing on the table.
Slow, deep breathing relaxes the mind and body and is therefore a crucial tool for bodyworkers. Encourage your client to breathe, even if it means breaking a relaxing silence. Ask your client to breathe under your hands or into an area you are working on. This increases circulation to that area and also relaxes your client. As your client focuses on his breath, he is, whether he realizes it or not, meditating. Use his breath as a helpful and effortless tool for deeper release of both mind and body.
There is much talk in the massage community about building a successful practice, but what does it matter if you are too tired, burned out—or even worse, injured? Learn to work smarter. Take your own body into consideration as well as that of your clients.
By using the forearms in addition to the hands, massage therapists gain another tool for doing massage. More tools mean more options and, hopefully, a longer career.
About the Author
Shari Auth, L.Acu., L.M.T., is a licensed massage therapist and acupuncturist, and is certified in the Rolf Method® of Structural Integration. She is the founder of the Auth Method and has a full-time practice in New York, New York. Auth is a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved provider, and has designed a 20-CE-hour home study course on forearm massage.