Who doesn’t love when a massage client emerges from the treatment room and says, a little dazed, “I can’t believe you knew where all my tension was.”

Who doesn’t love when a massage client emerges from the treatment room and says, a little dazed, “I can’t believe you knew where all my tension was.”

In these moments, we might feel like mind-readers, as the client exclaims, “You found places I didn’t even know were tight.” The client’s wonder is palpable, as if our hands contain some kind of powerful, tension-detecting magic.

Some days, indeed, I do feel like a magician. My intuition feels like a secret resource I can tap at will. I know exactly what my client needs; with my thumbs and forearms, I can push the solution straight into his body. I might even know his body better than he does.

But it is precisely at this moment, amidst this delicious, ego-inflating sense of my own ability, that I lose my effectiveness as a therapist.

A Skill by Any Name

As massage therapists, we work hard to try to perceive what our clients need. Our work requires us to see without seeing inside the body of another human being. We call this skill by different names. For some of us, it is common sense; others call it intuition. For others, this skill involves an alternate realm—seeing auras, or calling upon a spirit world—abilities I am alternately dubious of and moved by. For a growing number of us, in our wish to sound strictly scientific, we don’t call this skill anything at all.

Nevertheless, despite the diversity of our routes, we are all trying to get to the same result: We are all trying to perceive what the body on our table is telling us.

Perception is arguably our subtlest skill. It is a skill that is difficult to cultivate, as we try to keep track of muscle actions and attachment sites, to keep all the contraindications straight; and it is a skill easy to lose, as we struggle to retain our focus through session after session. It is also a key to a long and engaged career, one that both satisfies you and your clients.

But perception carries with it a danger: It can too easily become embroiled with our egos. Unless we’re careful, our desire to help our clients can morph into something crass: A desire to collect those dazed compliments at session’s end. A belief in our ability to help can change into a belief we know how best to help.

[Read “5 Exercises to Practice Grounding in Perception,” by David M. Lobenstine]

Don’t Know

One beautiful aspect of teaching beginning students is witnessing their care as they start a practice session. They place their hands delicately on their fellow student’s back, nervous but delighted, eager to feel all there is to feel in the flesh beneath them. These students are wonderfully—sometimes painfully—aware of how much they do not know.

Fast forward to graduation, and then to years of full-time practice. Many of us now just plop our hands on the client. We assume we know what we are going to find in the body beneath us. We already have strategies for how to fix that body. We anticipate the cross-fiber friction that will help the erectors, or perhaps we’ll throw in some mobilization of the scapula, then some lateral neck-stretch once we turn the client over. What we will deliver for the next 60 minutes unfurls before us. In other words, we are far more aware of how much we do know than we are of all we do not know.

Our expertise is, of course, invaluable. After hundreds of sessions, our accumulated knowledge should help us execute smart, efficient sessions. But again, there is a danger here. The more we believe we know what a client needs—the more we believe in our intuitive abilities—the less likely we are to actually sense what that unique body is telling us in the moment. Our ego pushes past our perception.

It is at these tempting moments, as our self-confidence surges, that we must attend to our perception. We need to ensure our ability to perceive a client’s needs depends not on our preconceptions, but on what the client is telling us—verbally and, as important, nonverbally. Acknowledging the risk of working from our ego is as vital for us as it is for our clients. It is no coincidence that knowing what our client needs comes hand-in-hand with boredom, with the sense that each session is the same as the next.

Do Less

When we seek to grow as a therapist—or just seek to avoid burning out—we usually think the solution is to do more: To work harder, take more continuing education or get certified in something with an exciting name. But when it comes to our perception, the key is the opposite: Instead of learning more, we must unlearn. Instead of working harder, we must work less. Instead of pushing, we must remember how to pour.

First, we must remember our greatest source of power—both our perceptive capacity and our physical strength—lies not in the smarts of our brain and not in the muscles of our upper back, arms and thumbs, but rather in our core. When it comes to instincts, you trust your gut, right? What if we did the same for our bodywork? What if we acknowledged the center of our body as the source of our strength and the root of our perceptions?

When we are centered—literally, when we work from our center—all we need to do is transfer our body weight back and forth from our body to our client’s body. We perceive by pouring: pouring the weight of our body from our legs and hips, through our core, and out of our arms. When we pour, rather than push, our ego does not get in the way and we are able to hear what the client tells us.

Your Core Pitcher

Try this: Stand at one side of your massage table, a foot away from the table’s edge. Feel how your feet and legs support your entire body weight. Now think of sharing that responsibility with your other two limbs. Tip your body forward so that your palms or soft fists contact the table. Do nothing with your arms—no muscle contraction, no pushing. Just notice how part of your weight is now absorbed by your upper body instead of your lower body.

Shift your core backward again and feel your body weight return to your legs. With a slow exhalation, repeat, tipping forward again, and feel your weight pour back into your arms. Lean to the left and feel the weight pour more specifically into the left arm. Lean in a slow-moving circle. Feel your body weight pour from the left arm to the right, now from the right arm backward to the right leg, from your right leg to left leg, and then back to the left arm.

Imagine your insides filled with water. See the core of your body as a pitcher. Your arms and legs are four different glasses. By tipping your pitcher in one direction or another, you pour your body weight from one glass to another, adjusting the proportions based on what your client needs.

This pouring, from legs to arms, from left to right, from your body to the client’s body, is the heart of giving a perceptive massage. Yes, this does seem too simple. But precisely because it is so simple, pouring is a skill that is difficult to learn. When you begin, you’ll think you are not doing enough. Your instinct is to do more: to engage your muscles, to think more, to push harder. But increased effort is counterproductive. When we pour rather than push, when we sink rather than contract, that is when the client shares his needs with us.

Why is pouring more effective than pushing? Think of massage as a physiological conversation, a dialogue between muscles rather than mouths. In order to hear what the client’s body is telling us, we need to listen. In order to listen, we need to stop talking. When we use our muscles, when we contract them, they talk. But if they talk too much, they drown out the possibility for conversation. When we push, we become like that well-intentioned but frustrating friend who interrupts, who never lets you finish a thought because he has his own anecdote to relate, his own opinion to offer.

From a different angle: Massage works by easing tension. When we work too hard, when we tense our muscles unnecessarily, we add tension into the session.

Pouring enables us to work without tension, to sink into the client’s tissue as much or as little as he needs. By not adding tension of our own, the client doesn’t have to protect herself; our pouring encourages her to share her tension, which provides us with the information we need to help her. That perception allows us to sink with even greater specificity and subtlety, which encourages the client to share even more.

While pushing can stop the conversation before it even begins, pouring can create a feedback loop, back and forth, between client and therapist.

Listen Well

Ultimately, we can only be perceptive when we are first receptive. The key to our success as massage therapists is less about how much we know and more about how well we listen.

Perception requires no magic, but it does require a sense of wonder. Hopefully, your client won’t be the only one surprised by your powers of perception. Instead, because you are pouring without preconceptions, without ego, you will be surprised as well.

David M. Lobenstine

About the Author

David M. Lobenstine is a massage therapist, continuing education teacher and owner of Full Breath Massage in New York, New York.