When you start a massage practice, much of the first year of your career is spent repeating and learning how to develop your skills.
At a basic level, massage school is a technical training of sorts.
To become a professional massage therapist and start a massage practice, there is a space you must fill that requires you to repeat what you were trained to do, allowing it to turn into a touch experience for you and the client.
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Bridging the gap from massage school to a tailored touch experience takes effort and dedication. To help, first ask yourself this question: “What made me decide to go into the massage field?” The things that sparked the desire to begin this journey usually sound something like this:
• You were told you have “the touch” and you should do massage for a living;
• Massage has always come naturally to you and you enjoy seeing people get relief from applied healthy touch;
• You are a toucher; someone who touches people even with conversation;
• People are drawn to you for the natural ability to offer peace and healing even just from being around you;
• You are always giving to those who need help and you want to help more people in a more recognized way.
Even after you attend massage school, these expressions and abilities are still there — but now you must make a living at massage without losing these essential parts of yourself.
There exists for all of us a natural gap between taking who we are naturally and converting it into a professional massage therapist offering a touch experience — without losing our essence in the process. I call this gap and what it implies your own unique touch interpretation.
This gap contains a memory bank of touch experiences before you became a massage therapist and massage career knowledge comprising experiences such as:
• How you filter and have catalogued your touch experiences, in the past and present;
• Your ability to sense what you need to do for someone else;
• Your exploration and use of intuition using your hands as your interpretation tools;
• Your ability to read into what your client tells you about their needs and body;
• Your latest training and practice.
At the heart of this gap is your personal experience with touch and what that represents to you before you became a massage therapist. As students, we build upon our already existing experiences with touch, whether they be healthy, good or bad. As we become trained in skilled touch, our past experience blended with our newfound training tends to lend insight into understanding our clients, and having true empathy and compassion for those we serve.
As you become proficient with professional touch, you will find the greatest expression of your training occurs when your hands become comfortable enough to lead you through the touch experience, with your mind following close behind. It is this freedom and ability to express in that freedom that begins to bridge the gap between old and new touch experiences, technical understanding and providing the massage your clients are asking for.
Becoming a Massage Artist
How do you take who you are and blend it with your trained skills to create within yourself the professional you see yourself as?
The answer: It is about blending all your knowledge together into a touch experience by allowing and trusting your hands to tell you what to do. At a deeper level this is actually a form of art.
I believe massage is a unique art form, similar to painting. A painter takes colors and a picture in their mind, paints the imagery onto a canvas, and the art of that painting can convey an emotion with an image to the artist and others. That is the power behind the artistry, which requires the artist use their intuition and skill at the same time.
A massage therapist takes many components of touch and turns them into a form of communication with the body. This artistry is about how your touch leaves a certain feeling with your client. This is what I believe touch intuition represents.
Learning Touch Interpretation
I was in my second year of being a therapist before I started to comprehend this part of my job. Up to this point, all I had offered my clients was the same cookie-cutter massage sessions lasting exactly 58 minutes. I had become unhappy with myself and the massage experience I was offering. I felt like I had lost something — the something that made me want to begin this career in the first place. I also felt if I had to repeat that routine for the rest of my career, then my career was doomed to be short!
Out of sheer boredom, I started playing a mental game just to try to help myself make it through my sessions. (I had no idea I was naturally stepping into the next phase of my massage training.)
In that game, I would envision each massage as if it was a blank canvas. Using my hands and the 60 allotted minutes, I would see myself painting a masterpiece using massage as my medium. I started to allow my hands to experience more expression, follow more of what felt natural and flowing to apply with massage, and allow myself to be led through the massage experience instead of just applying a series of strokes I had been trained to do.
It was like creating an invisible piece of artwork that was totally comprised of feelings for the client. This concept of practicing massage this way also taught me to let go and allow myself to express through my hands.
Can you guess what happened? My clients felt so much more from basically the same massage. Their time with me became more of a touch experience instead of a massage, and what I was doing seemed to change their bodies at a much greater level.
Now I will ask you to pose a question to yourself: What is it that creates that kind of difference, for both me and the client, between using my skilled-touch interpretation and merely applying proficient skills?
When you are able to follow your intuition, the opportunity is presented to the client to be allowed to reconnect within themselves on a much deeper level. It is an awakening of senses all working together in harmony to create an intangible work of massage art, and it makes a difference in their life.
3 Landmarks of Touch Interpretation
I believe there are three landmarks, or goals, to reach to know if you are bridging the gap in your own touch education. Those are: refining your skills, developing your unique way of expressing, and practicing letting go. Each of these three areas helps you begin the next phase of touch intuition training.
1. Refine your Skills
This is about not only practice but the desire to reach for higher levels of interpretation and use each session as a way to practice feeling what massage is doing to the body you are working on. It is also about trusting that massage can do what it needs to do for that person and allowing it to do so.
As I learned in my second year, this requires you be mentally present with your client and aware of the experience. It is not just repeating strokes. Take the time to really “feel” with your hands and then interpret what your hands say as you go, always with an intent in mind (the goal for the session or desired outcome) to reach for.
2. Develop your unique way of expressing
First, let go of the need to be perfect. Then begin to explore and find the pathways that fit your expression and match your client’s needs and wants at the same time.
This is not about you. This is taking what you know and applying it to each new situation and creating the desired outcome to the best of your ability. “Pleasing” or “pleasant” are the words that comes to mind. This is what massage therapists call the feeling of balance.
3. Practice letting go
This is about letting go of what your mind says — the anatomy, the timing and sequencing you practiced at school. It is about truly giving over to what your hands tell you, feeling your part of the moment with the massage and the intuition of the touch experience.
Expressing through your hands in this way is where I believe you find the most joy in what you do. These are the days you find yourself loving your career and massage, feeling rewarded for the touch experiences you have the opportunity to provide for others.
Meet Your Client’s Expectations
There is a difference between performing massage with a certain technique (applying a skilled touch) and performing massage with a certain outcome in mind (meeting expectations through touch).
I am going to challenge you to start practicing your touch interpretation and massage artistry today.
The first thing I want you to do is to sit quietly and remember why you became a massage therapist. Think back to the feelings, hopes and dreams you experienced when you first started learning professional touch skills and how it felt to blend that new knowledge with your existing intuition. Then take a moment to appreciate all you have learned to prepare you for the next step.
Begin the process of letting your hand steer your mind, blending more seamlessly together what you know and what you feel when working with the body. When you begin a session, always have an intent in mind to work toward—a treatment goal you and your client have agreed upon together—and strive toward that goal at all times while allowing your hands to guide you.
And, importantly, always seek to find joy in what you do.
About the Author:
Amy Bradley Radford, LMT, BCTMB, has been a massage therapist and educator for more than 25 years. She is the owner of Massage Business Methods and the developer of PPS (Pain Patterns and Solutions) Seminars CE courses and a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved CE provider. Her articles for this publication include “The Client’s Body Does the Healing (The MT Provides the Opportunity” and “3 Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthy Workplace.”