Growing up in my Mexican-American household, there were times when my grandmother would rub our bellies with warmed olive oil to heal what is known as empacho.

Empacho refers to issues in the gastrointestinal area like gassiness, constipation and diarrhea. My grandmother would gently but firmly rub our bellies and abdominal areas to help us feel better.

I recall how soothing it was to feel my grandmother’s worn hands methodically and lovingly massaging my tummy — but I did not know it was massaging until I actually went to massage school many years later.

In my family, services like massage were considered a luxury. If you had a stiff neck or pain in your back, you dealt with it as best you could and kept on going. Unwittingly, I adopted these behaviors and beliefs from my family and did not get a full-body massage until I attended massage school in my 40s. What a revelation that experience was!

I also had to unlearn some of the inherited behaviors and beliefs I had when it came to taking care of me.

When I first told family about my goal of becoming a licensed massage therapist, the feedback I received was not at all inspiring.

The news reports of illegal sexual activity in massage parlors were repeated reminders of the illicitness of the profession. Negative statements about how people do not pay for massage were also made with confidence. Allowing myself to be “touched by strangers” was considered a very big no-no in my family. The general consensus was only rich people or people looking for sex get massages. To them, massage was not something normal people allowed to occur outside of the home.

Still, I continued on my path and obtained my license in massage therapy.

One of the first people I ever massaged was my mother-in-law. My sweet mother-in-law raised three children working in the accounting and clerical field. At work, most of her time was spent hunched over ledgers and statements, and then, when they made their appearance, she spent a lot of time on the computer.

Now in her 70s, she was receiving her first massage ever. She had a lot of questions before she ever climbed onto my massage table. Did she have to take off all her clothes? Would I avoid touching certain areas? Would it hurt? All of her questions reminded me of the stigma massage carries in my culture.

If massage isn’t sexual, then it is going to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, it is going to be awkward having to undress and allow someone to touch parts of your body usually covered.

Still, with much patience on both our parts, I successfully provided the first 60-minute back rub my mother-in-law had ever experienced. Though she kept certain articles of clothes on for her comfort, I was able to gently relieve her pain much like my grandmother used to do to me. It was a beautiful moment in time for the both of us and now my mother-in-law raves about massage to everyone.

Since I became licensed in 2016, I have compiled resources to educate the community in which I live on the many benefits of massage therapy. I attend community events to offer demonstrations on my portable massage chair to change the mindset some people have about massage. To show massage is affordable, I compiled a list of student massage clinics closest to the event areas. My intention is to hopefully gain new clients, but, most importantly, I want to break the barriers erected regarding self-care and dispose of the stigma surrounding massage therapy.

Over the last three years, I’ve seen people who have never received a professional massage before absolutely melt into the massage chair or table when they’ve had their first session. I have witnessed the light bulb of understanding turn on for a person who has gone most of their lives without knowing what professional massage can do for their wellness. From young children (with parental consent, of course) to mature adults, I am doing my part to enlighten my community about massage therapy.

With time and focused effort, the massage industry has the potential to grow in beautiful ways. If we as professional massage therapists continue to practice ethical massage, we can serve so many who misunderstand our profession.

Let us continue to break barriers and legitimize our profession to build upon the inherent traditional values people have of caring for their loved ones. If our ancestors believed in massage to cure ailments like empacho, then we can all believe in massage therapy today and tomorrow.

About the Author:

Lisa Martinez, LMT, is a Houston, Texas-based massage therapist.