We often hear or read that massage is an art and a science.
Massage schools’ curricula generally cover the science needed to knowledgeably perform massage; however, that massage is also essentially an art is something the field has never clearly and fully articulated, tested for or taught.
“Symphony must be like the world—it must contain everything,” said composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. If a symphony must contain everything, how much more true is that for the compositions that are our massage sessions? Our medium, rather than just being notes, is the whole psychophysical human being.
Music uses volume, quality of tone, accuracy of tuning and technique, notes’ duration, rhythm and instrumentation. Just as music depends on the acoustical universe, we depend upon the wondrous structures and functions of anatomy and physiology.
The science-based art of massage uses pressure, quality of touch, accuracy of knowledge and technique, strokes’ duration, rhythm, choice of instrument—thumb, palm, fingers, handheld tool—and the harmonious use of two hands, as in a Johann Sebastian Bach two-part invention for piano.
I’ll share something I wrote in The Deep Massage Book: “The human hand, acting in concert with the heart, mind and spirit, is arguably the most sophisticated tool in the known physical universe. With its pressure and warmth, guided by intelligence, care and inspiration, we can work with muscles and fascia, literally remodeling the human form and dramatically altering each and every human function.”
Our manual art is applied to the unique themes and variations that constitute every human being. While the overall themes of human life are common—musculoskeletal structure, cerebral organization of sensation, movement, emotion and thought—the individual variations are infinite. Each person is a unique symphony of being. When we take a history, we hear a symphony.
The Art of Change
The great movement teacher Moshe Feldenkrais said, “A person cannot change unless they have a new experience.” Of all forms of health care, massage therapy is the most direct form of new experience because it takes place on and in the conscious body. Because of its directness, the new experiences evoked by massage give clients great opportunities, perhaps the greatest existential leverage they can have.
Massage therapists help people step out of the field of repeated, predictable experience into a new world. To paraphrase the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “One would say that touch, in its newness, opens a future to experience.”
What is astonishing is how often clients come to us having completely forgotten or never having known what miracles they are anatomically, physiologically and psychologically. They have often lost the sense it is an incredible gift to be alive.
The Role of Beauty, Goodness and Truth
When giving a massage, the therapist has the responsibility to help reawaken the client to his living beauty; to help him feel the presence of goodness; and to help him recognize important inner truths.
We respond to a client’s accumulations of past stresses and to his uniquely developed virtues. We work attentively in the present, the only time in which we act, and we facilitate a better future by helping clients remember and mobilize the incredible capacities they have in body, mind and spirit.
Restoring the important inner knowing that each being is a miracle is not difficult. All we need to do is work with respect and wonder, and have the knowledge of anatomy to reawaken the person to the marvel she is.
In touch, wonder is coupled with joy.
By simply touching with clarity, we restore the person to the experience of who she most deeply is. As the writer Jacques Rivière said, “This is indeed that unknown person I was—and so close to me!”
So often, people are preoccupied with outer beauty and appearances. But without the experience of inner beauty, of the beauty of life radiating from within, appearance means little. A good therapist will restore the person’s being, through touch, with being beautiful inside.
What divine creations we are. The Bible says humans are created in the image of God. This has to be more than just a figure of speech. Leonardo da Vinci took it seriously, and so did Michelangelo—and so should we.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” said Michelangelo of one of his sculptures.
We need to recognize and cultivate the wonderful role goodness plays in our work. The direct application of kindness is the essence of massage therapy. Whereas the application of paint to canvas or chisel to marble can have a loving quality, the application of touch to the living body and mind of the client calls upon a kind of kindness that itself we know to be healing.
As massage therapists, we get to do good. We get to put our clients in touch with the beauty that lives within them.We help them to experience more deeply the truth of their aliveness.
As Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet, said, “Nature is the art of God.” If that is true, then each person is part of this divine art made from life. Each person is a walking miracle. Each person is a masterpiece.
As is the case for all great art, a great massage will have a deep impact on our being. Like a wonderful poem, movie or piece of music, a great massage will re-inspire and empower us to be our creative selves. It will help us feel more in touch with what is beautiful and miraculous about the remarkable gift that is human life. It will help us receive the good—the gift of the caring touch of the creative therapist—with gratitude. It will remind us of deeper truths and important knowledge that reside within.
Andrew Taylor Still, M.D., D.O., the founder of osteopathic medicine, said the body contains all the healing substances it needs. This holds true for more than just body. Each person contains the healing resources in body, mind and spirit he needs.
The art of massage involves helping the client remember we are capable of creating ourselves anew. The capacity to self-evolve is unique to the human species. To practice this level of massage is our responsibility, our opportunity and our greatest honor. To receive this quality of touch, this quality of kindness, changes the world.
David Lauterstein is the author of The Deep Massage Book: How to Combine Structure and Energy in Bodywork (Redwing Book Company, 2012) and Putting the Soul Back in the Body (self-published, 1985). He is the co-founder of Lauterstein-Conway Massage School in Austin, Texas, and received the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2012 Jerome Perlinski Teacher of the Year Award. He wrote “Mindful Bodywork: Bring Awareness to Your Touch” for MASSAGE Magazine‘s July 2016 issue.