The intention of this article is to help massage therapists understand Mindfulness, and to encourage the cultivation of Mindfulness in order to improve their relationships to themselves, their clients, and subsequently enjoy more success in their massage therapy practice.
I recently shared “(more than) 100 Reasons to Ditch your Massage Therapist” and many massage therapists responded that I was implying that to be a successful massage therapist you must be as close to flawless in the delivery of the work as possible. That is EXACTLY what I was suggesting. The response to the article dictated the impulse for this one. Mindfulness and presence during your massage will naturally eliminate the lion’s share of the complaints on that list. Practicing proper hygiene will take care of the rest.
When introducing and discussing Mindfulness, we have to turn to the nature of the brain. This organ is essentially running your life, and many don’t realize that if you try, you can have limited control over the behavior of the mind, and by doing this improve every aspect of your life.
To gain the most from this article, I feel it is important that you understand my background. I am not a psychologist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or even a counselor. I have no university education in anything psychology based. I have been a practicing massage therapist for 23 years. I am the Founder and Director of the Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy, and curriculum designer. I also mentor a few hundred bodyworkers.
I have been deliberately paying attention to, and trying to change the nature of my own mind since I was 16 years old. I have dabbled in many different types of meditation sporadically, and with varying discipline and results. I’m not an expert on the deeply complex potentialities in the realm of mind-body medicine, mindfulness and meditation. At this point, 30+ years into my curiosity, I am positive I have very little control over my mind. I believe this is normal, and that all of us are at least a little bit crazy due to the unbridled nature of the brain at this stage in our evolution and how chemically unstable we are. I believe I have had very brief encounters with total Mindfulness or “empty mind”.
I have explored many different types of meditation including the 10 day/100 hours of sitting meditation Vipasanna Retreat. The only experiences in my life which topped that would be falling in love with my husband and having a baby. I also describe that retreat as Meditation Prison because it was extremely challenging, and forced me to stretch far beyond my limited beliefs and explore my perception of reality. I highly recommend it!
Another non-meditative experience that puts me in a position to have some deeper knowledge of my brain is the fact that I have been living with a traumatic brain injury since 1995. This experience has profoundly enriched my life and my understanding of the nature of my own mind, and my work as a massage therapist, entrepreneur and educator.
I now teach a form of deep tissue massage called Mindful Expressionism to my advanced students which is simply the cultivation of mindfulness, the use of fluid body mechanics, and fearless creative self-expression to produce the exquisite execution of whatever type of bodywork will best serve the client, from moment to moment, from the lightest to the deepest work.
The students and I observe the nature of the mind a lot through a meditation practice so we can understand that the chaos is there, and we work specifically with examining conditioned and limiting thought patterns that are holding us back from meeting our potential. We do exercises to try to break those patterns that are not serving our personal or professional goals. We do this by watching our mind, and exploring beyond our comfort zone in order to challenge the limited and conditioned beliefs we have about ourselves, the value of our work, and our technique. We examine how limited beliefs determine where growth stops for us as human beings, who happen to be Massage Therapists.
Meditation is, on a fundamental level, complete focus in the moment known as NOW, on any specific thing that holds your attention in the ever-moving NOW. I’ve been unintentionally meditating since I was 4 years old when I was placed on a piano bench to learn how to play classical music. If you believe you have never meditated before, I am here to challenge that belief and inform you that you have been dabbling in meditation for your entire life. When you played music, decorated a cookie, or built with logos’. With intentional redundancy, Meditation is, on a fundamental level, complete focus in the moment known as NOW on any specific thing that holds your attention in the ever-moving NOW. If my definition is spot-on, then it is my opinion that every massage can be a meditation for the therapist. Mindfulness is the result of successful meditation.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Any of these definitions work…pick the one you like best!
- Observing the nature of the mind
- Attempting to be conscious of the minds behavior
- Watching your thoughts and ultimately cultivating the ability to select your thoughts
- Being as vigilant as possible over the chaos of the mind.
I learned at Vipassa from Mr. S. N. Goenka that “the mind is like a herd of wild elephants”. I have also heard the nature of the mind described as “monkey mind” which a monk attributed to the mind being like a bunch of monkeys screeching and throwing poop at you. When you start to watch the nature of your mind, you will see that both of these analogies are frequently true. I have taught my students that if the mind was a super computer, it’s been downloading every moment of every day of your life since you were born for good and for bad. We download great knowledge, Information, and memories as well as “viruses” which plague the functionality of our lives, and effect our relationships to ourselves and our perception of the world outside of us. When I say “virus”, what I am alluding to is negative and limiting beliefs about oneself and the world around them.
We have negative beliefs in our mind which have an adverse impact on our quality of life, much like our musculoskeletal system has holding patterns in soft tissue, which result in holistic (mental-physical-emotional) pain and dysfunction. It is also clear, that if one is not practicing mindfulness, unconscious ways of thinking lead to unconscious ways of behaving which can have a negative impact on the way we are responding to life.
What does ANY of this have to do with Massage Therapy and your success? It’s rather simple. If you are giving a massage and thinking about the ingredients for the meatloaf you are going to make tonight, or how your boyfriend and you are not getting along, you will make mistakes. I don’t know why this is so, but your client CAN feel when you are not present. I know this because I have been that client more times than I want to count. I’m sure there are some research scientists who can help us out with some evidence to back this up.
WHY DO WE CHECK OUT?
Why are we not truly present?
- Trauma: History of emotional, mental or physical trauma can make it too painful to be present.
- Coping: Seeking to minimize or tolerate stress or conflict.
- Sensory Overload: One or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment.
- Normal Stress of life
- Compromised Health resulting in weakness, discomfort or pain
- Mental or Emotional Dis-Ease
- Dissatisfaction with the present situation, and fantasy about the future.
- Guilt or resentment from the past.
How can we cultivate Mindfulness and presence to improve the quality of our lives?
- Meditation – Here are some different ways to meditate that resonate with all different personality types.
- Walking meditation – use the experience of walking as your focus.
- Animal Husbandry
- Taking a Bath with candles and essential oils – quiet the mind and focus on your breath
- Getting a Massage – quiet the mind and focus on the touch.
- Creating Art – pottery, painting, drawing, candy making
- Being in Nature – go breathe and listen to the birds.
- Playing or listening intently to Music
- Quiet Meditations – sitting and breathing while dismissing the chatter of the mind.
- Guided Meditation – Listening to a guided visualization
- Chanting Meditation – the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds
There is an incredible amount of information available on the internet regarding meditation and the cultivation of mindfulness. Try some!
- The Basket – This basket is an imaginary basket that I use to teach my student. It sits outside of the massage room where the therapist dumps any and all of their problems, worry and drama before entering the treatment room.
- Centering, Focus and Grounding – Another method I teach my students. Before a therapist touches anyone they ground their body through visualization, check in on how they are feeling emotionally, and make sure their mental attention is ready for the work. The therapist should be in total alignment with the intention of the massage which is to successfully provide compassionate professional touch in whatever way will best serve the client’s needs.
- Examining Prejudices – This is an important exercise to do before you ever become a massage therapist. Do an inventory of your prejudices (we all have them), and do whatever is necessary to reconcile these, even if that requires professional help.
- Examining your relationship to your own body – This is an important journey you must go through before you become a massage therapist. Do a personal inventory regarding your feelings for your own physical body, and do whatever is necessary to get through and over any issues you have, even if that requires professional support.
- Reconciling Trauma – This is an important journey a person must go through before they become a massage therapist. Do a historical inventory of your life, and do whatever is necessary to reconcile yourself to your story of the trauma you have experienced, even if this requires professional assistance. We must not leave any stones unturned that could end up in projection or counter-transference with our clients.
A HEALTHY BRAIN LEADS TO A HAPPY LIFE!
Mindful thinking is but one way to improve your relationship to life through the brain.
Everything listed below (and more) will determine the healthy functioning of your brain, which will determine how you respond to life.
- Chemistry Management from the dietary perspective: Yeast, Sugar, Alcohol, Caffeine, Allergens, Preservatives, Pollutants and Pesticides built up or out of balance in your system can impact your chemistry and determine how you are reacting to life. If anyone has been around kids at Halloween, Christmas or a birthday party…you know what I’m talking about. See a nutritionist if you feel emotional/mental imbalances could be a result of your reaction to certain foods/substances.
- Hormone imbalance: See an expert.
- Exercise: People who exercise daily are happier, and sleep better.
- Breathe: Breathing oxygenates your blood and serves all organ function. Shallow breathing can have a very negative impact on a person’s overall well-being.
- Water: Hydration is critical to proper organ function. It has been estimated that 75% of adults living in the USA are chronically dehydrated. Drink Water Now.
- Life Balance: Being a workaholic and/or perfectionist takes its toll, and can lead to increased stress and exhaustion which can result in mental and emotional dysfunction and physical disease.
- Sleep: The brain needs to rest and the body needs to recharge.
MINDFULNESS AND YOUR MASSAGE THERAPY PRACTICE
How will the cultivation of mindfulness improve your massage therapy practice?
When you “show up” to do the work of massage therapy from a clear and present perspective, you can easily build strong rapport and tune into what the client wants, and regularly adjust your work to professionally meet the client’s needs from moment to moment.
- If you are going too deep, and the client has a wrinkled brow, tenses or begins to breathe more heavily, if you are present, you will be aware of this, and respond by checking in with them on depth.
- If you are aware of and work through your prejudices, you will be less likely to judge the client based on how they look, their body, or what culture or religion, sexual orientation they come from, and thus will not project your prejudices into your work which the client may sense.
- If you have reconciled your trauma from your past, you will not unconsciously project your trauma into your session with your client. e.g. working with a client who wears the same cologne as your mean alcoholic uncle which could unconsciously trigger you.
- If you are aware of any issues you have with your own body and have reconciled those, you will not avoid working on those areas with your clients. e.g. Avoiding working on the hips or the abdomen region because you don’t enjoy receiving work there. This is the projection of your preferences onto your client.
- If you are present and aware, you will not inadvertently do a sloppy drape, drag your hair across the clients back, and forget to use hand sanitizer after you sneeze.
- If you are being mindful during your massage, you can dismiss negative thoughts like “I’m not doing my best work right now”, “I’m nervous”, “I don’t have enough time” etc. which for whatever reason can be picked up by the client as lack of confidence or being rushed.
- If you leave your troubles of the past and the future out of the room, and are mindful of the massage, then you can focus intently on the work and pick up on more subtle deviations in texture of soft tissue and hone in on areas that can use more attention which will make the client very happy.
In the end, being present/mindful, and coming from a clear and healthy mental and emotional place can enhance and improve the quality of the work you are doing exponentially, resulting in happy clients who are loyal and return to you time and time again.
What could be better than that?