Parasitic movement is a problem for all of us.
So is its companion, parasitic tension. Parasitic movement is the excess contraction of muscles that you don’t actually need to complete an action.
Parasitic tension is what remains: the excess contraction that is held in the musculature, even after we’ve completed the action.
Once we become more aware of parasitic tension in ourselves, how do we help our massage clients become more aware of parasitic tension in their own lives?
Massage Clients’ Parasitic Tension
The bad news is that every person who gets on your table is just as prone to parasites as you are.
That excess of movement and that unnecessary muscle contraction can affect every action of every living human being, day after day, and even while we sleep, whether we are moving furniture or sending a text message, and everything in between.
There is no way around this instinct to do more than we need to. The good news is that as a massage therapist, you are particularly suited to help your massage clients recognize and reckon with that pattern of movement and the tension it creates.
You Are Already Helping
But first, at the risk of stating the obvious: you have already helped your clients deal with their parasitic tension in every massage you have ever given. While you probably haven’t thought about your massages in terms of discouraging parasitic movement and reducing parasitic tension, that is exactly what a massage does.
As we sink into the massage client’s tissue, we reveal to the client where and how he is holding excess tension, and we help the client to get rid of that tension.
After all, most of those muscle knots and trigger points that we spend so much time wondering about and working out are essentially just the body’s manifestation of a lot of parasitic tension, brought on by a lot of parasitic movement.
Now Help More
So, in addition to the wonderful work you are already doing, I have one other thought: Talk to your clients. I know that we never have enough time between our sessions; however, if the client is interested, I at least try to squeeze in a couple of minutes to explain what I felt while we were working, and to give some possible next steps.
Massage clients are so eager to get rid of their tension—or rather, have us get rid of it. But the result is that we can lose sight of its benefit.
Those places that we feel parasitic tension—where the muscles feel glued together or achy or tender—are exactly the places that we should be moving differently.
Those feelings of muscular tension and pain are our body’s way of telling us, day after day, that we are not moving in a way that our muscles like!
And except for obvious stuff—like major muscle tears, or recovering from surgery—I would guess that a huge portion of our clients’ tension and pain is precisely because they are moving parasitically.
I always begin talking with my clients by establishing that pain and tension are not the enemy. They are clues. And we must use those clues.
Then I try to give my clients suggestions that are as specific as possible to their own lives, to help them recognize their own patterns of parasitic movement and the tension that results, and then to help them shift those patterns.
Here is a simple concept that you can give to your massage client, as a way to help them become more self-aware and more willing to experiment about fulfilling their daily tasks with less effort:
feel the maximum
find the minimum
Feel the Maximum
Parasitic movement is difficult to detect. It is, after all, just how we move. Thus, it is hard to tell when we are doing something with more effort than is necessary, let alone how to change it.
That’s why “feel the maximum” can be helpful. You are simply encouraging your client to experience an exaggerated version of what she is already doing.
Let’s say a client comes in complaining of upper back and neck tension, as she takes off her purse, and her gym bag and her briefcase. During the session you feel that she is holding a lot of excess tension in her shoulders. Maybe she is contracting her upper traps and levator scapulae unnecessarily as she carries around all those bags.
After the session, you can help her to “feel the maximum.” Once she has hoisted all those bags back on, ask her to pull her shoulders as high as she can toward her ears. This is the exaggerated, cartoon version of what she is likely doing unconsciously throughout her day.
She is contracting those muscles to keep her bags from slipping off her shoulders—not to mention, to power her through her next meeting, and in anticipation of that awkward email she doesn’t want to answer, and all the other things in life that make our shoulders rise.
By encouraging her to feel the maximum—to experience the cartoon version of her parasitic movement—she then has a better chance of feeling the more subtle reality of her actual life (Not the cartoon version, but the far more minimal, and yet far more tension-inducing, habit that she has carried on for who knows how long.)
Find the Minimum
That self-awareness will, in turn, help her to find the minimum, the second half of our suggestion.
Once massage clients have felt this extreme position of maximum effort, help them to find its opposite: the position of minimum effort. With your client still in this neck-buried turtle position, instruct her to take a full, relaxed inhale, whenever she is ready, and then on the next exhale, to feel her shoulders melting down towards the ground.
As her shoulders begin to drop, encourage her to take another easy breath, and imagine more melting on her next exhalation as well.
Make clear that she does not need to pull her shoulders down; she does not need to force herself into some imagined position of what relaxed looks like. (Indeed, any such active effort would likely only be substituting another parasitic movement for her original parasitic movement.)
Now ask her how she feels.
Chances are, the bags are still perched on her shoulders, but she is not working nearly as hard. She is only using the minimum amount of effort needed to perform this action—to keep her bags from slipping off her shoulders—rather than the maximum.
Chances are, she feels a bit better. Point out that she is still doing what she needs to be doing, but with less effort. This is what we want.
You can then assure her that 5 minutes from now, when she is hustling to catch the bus, or thinking about her next meeting, her shoulders will begin to rise again.
Parasitic movement is a powerful habit—but as you have just shown her, we can develop an equally powerful habit: our self-awareness.
At any moment, even as she runs for the bus, she has the ability to follow her exhalation and allow her shoulders to sink. She has the ability to reduce that parasitic movement, and thus to reduce her parasitic tension as well.
This is one example. You will come up with many, many more, based on the particulars of each client’s tension.
Both the advantage and the difficulty of reckoning with parasitic tension is that our clients can literally start anywhere. Since parasitic movement is such a fundamental part of our busy lives, something that we do over and over again, throughout our day, there is no end to the places and times that we can start to reverse its course.
Therefore, encourage your clients to become aware of parasitic movement and tension in whatever aspect of their lives seems to be contributing to their aches and pains.
First, give your client a wonderful massage. Then, give each of them this way of thinking about their patterns of movement.
Growing our self-awareness can feel endless. Such is the nature of undoing old habits and instilling new ones; however, repetition—feel the maximum, find the minimum—can help. It is a tool that doesn’t cost a penny, and can be used anytime and anywhere, for virtually any part of the body.
We can do more than just make our clients relaxed for an hour; we can also make them more aware of how they are using their bodies after they get off our table, and we can help them move into the rest of their day with a greater ease.
About the Author
David M. Lobenstine, L.M.T., is a massage therapist, continuing education teacher and owner of Full Breath Massage in New York, New York. He wrote “Rock On! Soothe Clients with Satisfying Contact” (June 2017) and “A Potent Career-Enhancing Tool: Embrace the Parasites that Want to Rule Your Life” (October 2017).
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