Along with how amazing a massage feels, the thing that may surprise massage newbies the most is how science-based this practice is. Even after putting to rest any misconceptions about “happy endings,” far too many people seem to think that a massage is only a lot of rubbing and kneading. Though that may in fact be the case with a relaxation or stress-relieving sort of massage, every legitimate massage therapist who works in a state that requires massage practitioners to be licensed will have had to complete coursework that not only teaches them how to do basic massage techniques but also gives a fairly thorough understanding of the human body. At its most basic, this knowledge allows the therapist to make informed choices about what techniques might work best for which muscles or muscle conditions and to avoid endangerment sites: areas where nerves, arteries, or veins lie close to the surface, theoretically exposing them to possible damage during, say, deep tissue work. (The actual danger involved in massaging these so-called endangerment sites have recently been called into question, however; I plan to investigate further and post my findings here.)
Especially for therapists doing any kind of therapeutic work, though, such knowledge of the human body is particularly critical. There are probably innumerable examples of why this is so, but as an example, let me address the concept of referred pain. It is a fairly well established fact that, while you may perceive a pain to originate in a particular muscle, the source of the pain can actually be in another muscle entirely. Experience and/or advanced studies teach, for example, that a client pointing to pain in his or her neck might actually have tight muscles in the upper back that need to be treated as well. There are charts that can be consulted (and committed to memory) that show common referral patterns so that a therapist will know immediately that when heel pain is the issue, the soleus muscle should also be examined. But even if such charts have not been committed to memory, just the fact that a licensed therapist knows that where the pain seems to be isn’t necessarily where it comes from gives him or her the foresight to address more than a single muscle for any given complaint.
Some massage therapists rely especially heavily on the training they received and “go by the book” when working with a client. That is, continuing with the example of referred pain, they know where the sore spots in a muscle should be and where they should refer, and they simply go to those spots. And for the most part, this should work. It certainly makes sense for a therapist new to the field to take this approach.
But the longer I practice, the more I find that my own experience as a massage therapist along with a newly discovered sense of intuition have lead me beyond the guidance of my teachers and the textbooks. The word “intuition” doesn’t quite get at what I mean to convey, though, since intuition often originates, at least in healthcare fields, in a deep understanding of the human body. I have no doubt that intuition bears on the work I do, too, leading me to a knot in a muscle, say, without me even thinking about it.
There are times, though, when the process seems nearly mystical, as though I have been led to a muscle by some power or knowledge outside myself. Perhaps it is only intuition that guides me or only past experience. That would certainly seem reasonable. Or perhaps it is a sort of telepathy between myself and the client that evolves as I put my hands on him or her, maybe even subtle cues of some sort that I pick up from the client. But I can’t tell you how many times clients have commented on the fact that my hands go directly to a knot like metal to a magnet—ergo, the Knot Whisperer! It isn’t even only that, though.
It is also the way that when I am applying pressure to a knot with my elbow I feel a vibration as the knot begins to release. At first, I thought I must be imagining this vibration or confusing a shaking in my own body with what I took to be the client’s muscle loosening. There are a couple of pieces of evidence, however, that led me to conclude that I was neither imagining the pulsing nor confusing it with some tremor in my own body. To begin with, I noted that, before I applied pressure, the muscle had a distinct area of tightness—maybe a tight strand like a piano wire running through it or a flat piece of rock—whereas afterward, the muscle felt pliable, with no hard spot in the area where I had been working. In addition, when I would return to a muscle that I felt had released a little but not entirely, clients would often report that the pain was less than when I had pressed the first time, indicating that the muscle was indeed less tight. And finally, clients who are particularly in tune with their bodies will sometimes comment that they feel the muscle releasing simultaneous with the vibration I feel.
This might raise the question: What the heck are these vibrations? Am I feeling the actual movement of the muscle fibers as they let go of each other? Is it the energy created by the fibers being set in motion that I feel? Perhaps it’s some sort of transcendental force that I am sensing? In short, it is a very good question—for which I have no answer.
If this all sounds a little Twilight Zone to you, you’re not alone—it feels that way to me, too. Since it seems to be working, though, whatever it is, I have learned just to go with the flow. Of course, after my magical mystery tour of knots and adhesions and sore spots, I can talk science with the best of them, explaining, for instance, how Epsom salts help remove muscle-tightening chemicals produced by the body through osmosis or how a knot might have formed. But during the massage itself, there is not only science at work but also something deeper, more spiritual that connects me to clients in that moment. If this is true, that would explain why the client isn’t the only one who feels physically and mentally revived by the massage, why I, too, feel a sense of peace and improved health.