What makes you a great massage therapist? You are only as great as the experience you create for your clients.
In addition to the all-important massage table, massage oil and massage skills, my 35 faculty members and I agreed on the 10 items (and four runners-up) that will elevate a good massage therapist to excellence.
1. Full round bolster (5-inch or 6-inch diameter) with hand straps
Cotton-filled bolsters keep their shape best because of their natural material. Typically, the bolster will also contain environmentally friendly foam; just make sure it also contains cotton. Hand straps at both ends allow for easy positioning of the bolster. The full round size is perfect for supporting knees and ankles, allowing clients to sink their bodies fully into the table.
2. Signature linens and blanket
Humans, by nature, associate soft, comfortable things with safety and security. Colored or designed linens and blankets create a theme and ambiance for your massage space. Use them to extend your brand to the treatment room and transport your clients, through color and texture, to forests, oceans and anywhere else you envision. In buying linens and blankets, factor in luxuriousness, comfort and durability.
3. Four (or more) essential oil choices
At least one variation of flowery, citrus, earthy and mint essential oils (perhaps lavender, grapefruit, peppermint and eucalyptus) will provide a good foundation. Even if aromatherapy isn’t one of your treatment options, making custom blends of massage oils and diffusing various scents in your treatment space can create instant ambiance to relax, invigorate or simply provide therapeutic relief. Most essential oils should be diluted in carrier oil before applying them to clients’ skin (and your hands) to prevent skin irritation.
4. Massage table warmer
This device quickly warms clients in any season, and provides temperature control without heating the entire room. Most table warmers provide 1-inch of fleece or cotton padding on top for client comfort and to protect the table. Some clients prefer to not lay on the electrical currents; however, this can be avoided by preheating the table warmer, then turning it off before a client’s session begins.
5. Memory foam face rest or adjustable face cradle
A high-quality face rest provides ample padding to conform to a client’s face shape, avoiding face creases and preventing sinus congestion. Many face rests are thermosensitive, made from memory foam or cotton, and return to their shape with ease. Adjustable face cradles change the angle and height of the face rest and even have flexible platforms to support the cheeks and forehead with more buoyancy. Another great option is padding for your massage table, with memory foam or fleece providing the best support. Egg crates are the least preferred padding, providing uneven support and synthetic texture.
6. Towel warmer
Towel warmers are ideal for warming hot stones, eye pillows, herbal compress balls, hand towels and washcloths for a variety of treatments. The moist heat created by the towel warmer mimics the moist heat of muscle tissue, loosening muscles, allowing deeper relaxation and restoring range of motion back into joints. Try adding moist heat at the beginning or end of your treatment (perhaps on your client’s face or back) to provide a pampering touch and take your session quality to the next level.
7. Pathology and medications reference book
Intake forms for your clients become substantially more valuable when you are able to look up conditions and contraindications at a moment’s notice. Some suggestioing include The Drug Handbook for Massage Therapists by Jean Wible, Quick Reference Dictionary for Massage Therapy & Bodywork by Ed Denning and Pathology A to Z, A Handbook for Massage Therapists by Dr. Kalyani Premkumar.
8. At least three different music playlist options
Three music playlist themes are recommended for a massage session: soundscapes, ambient and classical/chill.
A soundscapes theme combines nature and music. Be sure to avoid babbling brooks and thunder noises, which can upset clients’ minds … and bladders.
An ambient theme is atmospheric, encouraging the mind to drift in and out of consciousness with some songs space-like and tribal.
A classical or chill theme relaxes the soul with more refined rhythms and complex melodies than ambient or soundscapes themes. Some clients prefer this type of music, while some find it distracting if their mind is following along with the Mozart track rather than concentrating on openness and stillness.
As a general rule, your playlists should avoid songs with words in the client’s native language so as not to stimulate the left hemisphere of the brain during massage. Also important is the ability to control music volume quickly and easily during the session.
9. Massage tools
Thumb-saver tools, Guasha tools, thermal balls, lumbar rolls and other massage-tool variations are great for working tough tension areas on clients and yourself.
10. Topical pain-relieving ointment
Acute and maintenance care pain-relieving sprays, creams and oils can be applied at the end of a client’s session. Be leery, however, of strong scents that may not please all palettes. Have clients smell the ointment and approve before you apply it, or simply recommend it for home use. Many essential oils (such as peppermint, grapefruit and eucalyptus) support pain relief and tend to create a better olfactory experience.
The runners-up include:
1. Portable seated massage system
A portable massage chair or desktop attachment provides a great mobile service and easily sets up anywhere to give a great seated massage. It is also an effective way to bring your clients back to awareness after their massage treatment—having them move from massage table to massage chair for a few minutes of clothed wake-up massage.
2. Standard size bed pillow
Bed pillows provide lift similar to a half-round bolster, but are more cost-effective, supportive and versatile. Buy four (two for head support, one for between the knees and one for abdomen support) and you are set to do pregnancy and side-lying massages. Queen-size bed pillows or “side sleeper” pillows are wider, providing even more support, but can be harder to maneuver than the standard size.
3. Eye pillow
Most eye pillows can be heated, chilled and used at room temperature and provide a nice weight on tired eyes. Those filled with buckwheat or other small filler are best. Try to avoid eye pillows filled with rice or other large grains that can poke through the delicate fabric and compromise your client’s relaxation. Since eye pillows are placed right on a client’s face, scented versions aren’t recommended, since aroma preferences differ. Instead, try applying essential oil to two or three acupoints on the face and head.
4. Massage bench
Most clients have tension in the upper third of their body frame and will benefit from your leverage when using a massage seat. A stool or bench provides comfort to your body and to your client, who will sense you are truly “settling in” to work on their head, neck and shoulders. This seat can also be used by clients during intake, before they get on the massage table.
As massage therapists, we are responsible for taking our clients on a sensory journey. The above items will create that precious space and heighten the quality and perceived value of your massage therapy practice. Whatever tools you use in your space, factor in Wayne Gretsky’s words about his own “work equipment,” “I think it’s essentially a matter of taking care of what takes care of you.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts. What makes you great?
Michelle Hocking is a massage therapist, instructor of career development and director of bodywork programs at Mueller College of Holistic Studies in San Diego, California (www.mueller.edu). She has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from San Diego State University and seven years of massage therapy experience, working in a day spa and owning an urban spa business (www.justoneyoumassage.com).