When I started working as a Massage Therapist in 1999, I was very focused on doing the deep work. I had been instructed in very powerful techniques to increase my depth of pressure so that I could really “get in there” and break up those knots. I was most influenced by the teachers at my school who had studied Structural Integration as developed by Dr Ida Rolf. I even had the privilege to work with a man who taught with the good doctor. He really helped me hone my skills through coaching as well as, at times, demonstrating various approaches on me. Boy were those “intense.” We learned to use the word “intense” instead of painful – it just sounds better. If someone did slip up and use the term “painful,” we would quickly inform him or her that the work we are doing isn’t painful, the body we are working on is pain full and we are working to make it “pain empty.” It seemed to work in many cases. I was excited as I would dig into tissue that was bound and full of pain. The pressure that I was using created so much heat that the theory was it melted the connective tissue and then allowed that tissue to reform at a greater length, relieving pain and restoring mobility. This was big magic to me and I really loved watching the bodies change shape from the touch of my hand.
The deep work that I was doing had its drawbacks though. As I moved into the spa world, I had a lot of people come to me asking for deep tissue. At first, I was more than happy to oblige them without question. Client after client, year after year though, it wore on me. I wasn’t physically bothered by doing the deep work, I can still work just as deeply in 2019 as I could in 1999. What started to wear on me was what I observed in the people asking for the deep work. The words used to describe the pressure they wanted such as, “I can take a lot of pressure,” or “you can’t hurt me,” became difficult to hear. As a young therapist, these sounded like challenges to be met. But as the years went on, I heard the desperation of “Help me I don’t care what I have to endure in order to feel better.” I would also notice people tensing up their bodies, or holding their breath just so they could handle the pressure they thought would help. This is what has worn on me for many years now. I am a results-driven therapist. Often I find myself erring on the deeper side of pressure, but lighter touch is a key used to release the client’s guarding against pain (real or perceived). I also do not want to do any harm. How do I reconcile those things while providing top notch service? How do you convince someone who has been receiving deep pressure, with no lasting result, for her entire adult life to try something different?
My answer is this: We have to take ego out of the equation. Who’s ego? EVERYBODY’s ego. No more “You can’t hurt me” and the inevitable “Oh, yes I can.” We have to acknowledge that bodywork is a dance with two partners who are working together to improve quality of life. We must realize that allowing the body to open up and release tension is a viable option. After all, I really don’t want to hurt people. I am here to do the exact opposite. But I have to admit that it even took me more years than it should have to be able to wrap my head around the idea that lighter presser could work. I had to realize that the body is at times like a toddler or a teenager. You can use a lot of pressure (like yelling at them) and you may get the results you want, but you will often get a good deal of resistance. If you are able to talk to the body (or the toddler/teenager) in an inviting tone, with gentleness, you may get resistance but it is usually much less and you may even achieve compliance more quickly. There is a moment for each approach and knowing when to use which is essential.
How can we tell if lighter pressure is more appropriate than deep work? First off, there is a list of health conditions that your therapist should know that are contraindicated (meaning it should not be used) for deep tissue. I won’t go into the whole list here, that is for us to go through individually at the time of your appointment. I will, however tell you this, contrary to common belief, if you have a stress-related condition, deep pressure is probably not a good idea.
Deep tissue massage is often seen as a stress reliever though right? I know, we hear that all the time, but the truth of the matter is, when we are under stress our fight or flight instinct is triggered and we have an increase in the hormone called cortisol. Cortisol’s function is to give us the strength to fight or run away from an attacker. It is there to save our lives from an immediate danger. When this is increased, all of our energy is focused on survival. Picture if you will the starship, Enterprise, diverting all its energy to the shields or the warp drive in response to an attack, That is essentially what happens in our bodies. Our body says, “All hands on deck!” There is no energy left to heal the body while we are under the red alert of stress that triggers cortisol. This is a time for a lighter pressured massage. I am not saying you a need feather light tickling massage. Your body just needs comfort in order to cut off the fight or flight response and allow your cortisol levels to reduce. Once that has happened, your body can focus its energy on healing. This is the real big magic, triggering the healing response of the body.
We also hear the term, “sports massage” but different people think different things when they use this term. And they are right. When working with athletes, many different approaches need to be taken depending on where she or he is in the cycle of the sport. Is it pre-season, the competitive season, or post-season? Is the massage a part of rehabilitation from an injury? Is it half-time at the game, or between events at a swim or track meet? The answers to these questions help to determine what the goal and approach should be for each session. Sports massage is such a broad category of massage that it is a specialty all to itself. Perhaps another time I will write about that.
Finally, we can talk about Swedish massage. This term is often used to describe a light pressure massage that is nonspecific in nature. It is often seen as one of those massages that is pure luxury with no real benefit other than relaxation. But if you remember what we already covered regarding cortisol you know that “only relaxation” means that the healing process has been triggered so it can be just as beneficial as deep tissue or sports massage.
In the end, the best way to determine what kind of pressure you need is to talk it over with your therapist. Tell him or her about your health condition and your goal for the session. Open communication and trust are the keys to a potentially profound session. Finally, pressure in a massage is purely subjective. Feathering light for one person can be too deep for another person, but if you are fighting against what your therapist is doing by clenching your muscles, or holding your breath, the work is deeper than it needs to be. The more information you provide for your therapist the better (s)he can help you reach your goals.
Blessings to you
-Don Devine LMT, GA #MT012315
Devine Hands, divine massage!
For more information:
email Devinehandsbodywork@gmail.com or call/text 912-541-0589