Sunday, January 8, 2012


You can go harder
touching the skin feeling muscles
reaching for the bone

Something I ask all of my clients, a couple times through the course of a massage, is how is this pressure. And all too often, the answer is. "You can go harder, if you want." And I have to bit my tongue, a bit. Because, yes, I could go harder, apply more pressure, if I wanted too; but whether or not I can, and whether or not I want to, are not really the issue here.
It is true, as people look at me, and see a big (6'1") guy, and think that I must be able to give a good, deep massage. And i can, but not because I all that big and strong. The fact is, the best deep tissue massage I ever got was from a woman who is about five foot nothing, and basically pretty tiny. But, she knows her anatomy, and she knows how to apply the right pressure to the right places in the right ways. Fortunately for me, she was also one of my teachers.
Specifically, she was one of the people who taught the Deep Tissue classes I took. The emphasis, here, was not on finding a knot in the muscle, and trying to grind it out. It was in understanding what muscle (or, much more frequently, muscles) was having a problem, and using a variety of techniques to get that tension to release. 
Anatomy, in this case, means knowing what muscles are where, and how they all function.  In nearly everything we do, there are a lot of muscles working together to make it happen. Typing this, my hands are moving, but my shoulders are tense, keeping my arms in place on the desk, my neck is holding my head up high (and at a bit of an angle, my computers monitor is set a bit wrong, must see to that...), my ankles are crossed under my desk, which skews the way my lower back is held.... etc. If I go into a massage therapist, tomorrow, and tell her to work on my shoulders, and Only my shoulders,  I will be doing myself a grave disservice. 
If, on the other hand, I tell her that I am feeling it in my shoulders, but it stems from spending hours at a time in front of the computer, then I can trust her to know what that means, and take the appropriate steps. If nothing else, she will ask me the questions she needs to ask to be able to address all of the problems and all of the tensions that are contributing to the issues at hand. 
Likewise, how pressure is applied is as important as where it is applied. I was taught to use long, slow strokes, with a very broad hand. The idea of using our elbows, or (god forbid) our thumbs, was completely ruled out. By using the whole hand, preferably supported by the other hand, I get much more complete feedback. Not just from the muscle I am working on, but from the surrounding muscles and tissues as well. And by using slow strokes, the muscles have time to warm up, feel the heat from my hands, and be more able to relax as I apply the pressure through the whole fiber of the muscles. 
Or sometimes, it is not about touching the muscles directly at all. I use a variety of techniques, where I will pull on arms or legs, or reposition them, to better expose and stretch the muscles. Sometimes, all I want to do is stretch the arms out, and hold them in that stretch for a minute or two. Sometimes, once I have the legs repositioned, I can access muscles that are otherwise not accessible. And sometimes, I will ask you to resist the pressures I am applying. I will say I want you to shrug, while i am pressing your shoulders down, while you are breathing in. There are a lot of things going on, when doing that, but it boils down to being another way of getting your muscles to relax.
And then there is the issues of leverage. Getting at the knot, at the muscle, from a variety of different angles is as important as finding the muscle itself. When you are on the table, I will often walk around, or back and forth, to find the right place to put myself so I can access the muscle from where I want to apply the pressure, so I can get the tension to release.
There are a wide range of other factors, in addition to these, that make for a good deep tissue massage. Certainly, it is something I will revisit in later posts. The most important thing, though, is to remember that the thing that makes a deep tissue massage, any massage, effective is simply telling your therapist if there is anything I can do to make it better. More pressure or less, more heat, less music, anything I can do to make it better. Tell me and I will do my best. 
And remember, always drink water.