On a normal day, I would greet my massage clients with a warm smile—but now we were all veiled behind our masks

My A-ha Moment

There I was, elbows deep into my client’s left rhomboid muscle. I had been working around her scapula for a solid 20 minutes to no avail; it would not budge. Losing patience, I stood up, made a dramatic flourish over her back with my hand (like a disgruntled magician), and silently commanded it to release!

It did not obey me. I’m not that good.

But that was it. That was my “A-ha” moment. It dawned on me just how ridiculous I must have looked. COVID-19 was not only affecting my personal life (like everyone else on the planet), but it was beginning to seep into my professional life as well. I usually had no problem separating the two. I knew it was time to step back, take a deep breath and reflect. 

On a normal day, I would greet my clients with a warm smile and open, welcoming energy. I could gauge their mood in an instant, assess their needs, and proceed accordingly. But now we were all veiled behind our masks.

Naturally, the masks were worn as a barrier for our protection, but underneath that visible layer, I was sensing an undercurrent of emotional, psychological and energetic barriers as well. That little piece of cloth was changing the entire client-therapist dynamic. 

And with good reason. These people were so stressed, they were willing to literally risk their lives to receive bodywork. And I was willing to do the same in order to work on them. 

Yin & Yang Clients

When the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy officially gave the green light for massage businesses to reopen, most remained closed in my area. At the time, the vaccine was still weeks away for non-essential workers. My boss, a fellow LMBT, needed to stay in business. I also needed to work. Not only was my unemployment insurance about to run out, but my partner, an independent contractor himself, was unemployed as well. Our studio was one of the only massage therapy practices open in our city.

Fortunately, we had long-established trust with our regular clients, but many new clients were showing up. We were both booked solid.  Communication was difficult through the mask with peoples’ glasses fogging up as they spoke. I would seetheir eyes darting around the office, no doubt wondering just how diligent we were with our disinfecting protocols. Even the energy level of our regular clients seemed cautious and more layered.

I noticed two types of clients.

The first were those whose energy was all over the place. As soon as they walked in the door, they began letting go as if a dam had burst, allowing all their troubles to flow out of their mouths like a waterfall. Once they were on the table, their muscles released relatively easily, so in order to provide some grounding, I performed acupressure point work on their hands and feet. I called these my yang clients, and what they seemed to require was “rewinding”. 

The yin clients were harder to decipher and more difficult to work on because they were so tight-lipped. Their muscles were extremely hypertonic, so much so that they didn’t feel like muscles at all, but armor. It was as if the body was an amp turned up to 11. I proceeded with nonjudgment, offering compassionate energy as I normally would, and focused on ways to open up their muscles. What the yin clients seemed to need was unwinding.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t 100% sure I was actually helping these clients. In the wake of this worldwide pandemic, my role as a massage therapist was expanding before my eyes. So much more was required of me on an energetic level than ever before.

What had worked in the past wasn’t working now.

The layers of energy were just too charged. Clients needed more than just manual manipulation—they needed a type of energetic healing that I wasn’t sure I could give.

In addition, I was coming home more depleted than ever. My partner was home all day so I didn’t have the space I needed to decompress fully. We were at odds, like so many couples over the past year. I was definitely on the road to burnout. In fact, I was perilously close to breaking down altogether.

While I was in the woods one day taking a meditative walk, I decided to cast an intention out to the universe. Eventually, I came up with a three-fold plan. 

Back to the Basics

I dusted off my notes from 20 years ago when I was a student at The Swedish Institute in New York City and began to re-learn some basic tenets regarding massage and bodywork:

1. Tuning in to Mind and Body

My mind was as scattered as everyone else’s and that was okay. I acknowledged that. But I needed some kind of system to consciously refocus and recenter myself. I recalled a practice introduced to me at school that came in handy—Qigong. These coordinated poses helped quiet my mind, increased positive energy flow throughout my body, and brought awareness to my core. Even if I could spare only ten minutes, Qigong became my morning go-to ritual.

2. Grounding Myself in Earth Energy

I realized I was unwittingly bringing the domestic malaise from my own household into my workspace and this was interfering with my ability to be totally present and connect with my clients. So every day before work, I ventured into the woods behind my home for some “forest bathing”. Absorbing nature was exactly what I needed to prepare myself to interact with my clients. I began feeling a symbiosis with nature, allowing its healing properties to transform my negative energy into positive energy.

3. Leading with My Heart

I remembered a moment during clinic one day when a fellow student was unsure about how to proceed in a certain situation. My instructor’s advice was: “Lead with your heart, the rest will follow.” I allowed these sage words to sink in. They seemed appropriate to my current situation as well.  I needed to have confidence and believe in myself and my work. The rest would come naturally. 

4. Gaining New Knowledge

Next, I needed to upgrade my skills. I found an online continuing education course at the Institute for Integrative Health Care called “Psychology of the Body” that delved into the neuroscience behind the mind-body connection. I learned about body armoring, emotional release, and how to work effectively with clients experiencing difficult emotional and psychological conditions. It was as if the universe was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Here you go!” 

It was so well-timed. As I worked through the text, I couldn’t get enough of it. It was as if my brain was coming back online and my bandwidth was expanding. I realized this information sparked joy in me, which was one aspect of my life that was sorely lacking.

I understood better what my clients were experiencing and now I knew how to help them, and on another level, how to help myself.  

The Soul’s Journey

I experienced another universal tap while perusing articles about self-discovery in times of difficulty. I came across the phrase: Cura te ipsum (Physician, heal thyself). I knew I needed emotional and energetic healing in my own life before I could pass it on to my clients, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I had a lot of creative energy that wasn’t being expressed and I needed to tap into that somehow. I felt like that was the key. 

So one day while decluttering some branches from the small pasture behind our house, I stumbled upon the idea of building a labyrinth. I’ve always been fascinated by them, so I printed out a picture of a simple, three-circuit labyrinth and set about my task by gathering larger branches and stones to formulate the pattern.

Around the same time, I began going through old family photos and memorabilia. I decided to start writing down some stories. One story led to another. And then another. And it was effortless writing, the best kind. Eventually, I started tweaking them and sending them out to magazines on a whim. 

Meanwhile, the labyrinth was coming along nicely. I began to see the pattern, not only in what I was building out there in the pasture but also in what I was building on the inside with my writing. The pattern began to expand into my work, each one merging with the others. I would spend the mornings building the labyrinth, the afternoons writing stories and doing my coursework, and the evenings working on clients. In essence, I became a living manifestation of the three-circuit labyrinth.

Slowly, I began to feel more at ease with my clients and felt the trust building between us. I was using the techniques I learned in my course while curtailing the physical exertion I had relied on before. Best of all, I was able to let go and trust my intuition to guide me. I had finally found balance.

Preseverance & Triumph

Reflecting back over my career, I see how far I’ve come. Twenty years ago, our country was reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some of my teachers from The Swedish Institute had volunteered at the site and returned to the classroom with their stories of perseverance and triumph. I was so moved by their courage and compassion—I couldn’t imagine being that person.

Who knew that someday I would face a similar challenge.

But now I am that person. All the knowledge and experience I’ve gained throughout the years prepared me for this moment. By remembering what I learned back then and listening to the universe when it tapped me on the shoulder, I have been able to triumph in my own life.

About the Author:

Robin C. Duffy has been a full-time LMBT for 20 years. She graduated from The Swedish Institute in New York City in 2001 and spent the next 12 years working in a multitude of settings, eventually setting up a private practice on the Upper West Side. In 2012, she moved back to her native North Carolina and joined a practice in Chapel Hill. She holds a bachelor’s in writing from East Carolina University and a master’s in International Education from New York University. Her work has also appeared in Reminisce Magazine (Feb/March 2021) and  Good Old Days Magazine (May/June 2021).