I started to write this post several times. One version opened with me discussing how there is likely no one who doesn’t like to get a massage. Another was about how everyone has given informal massages to friends and family, and wouldn’t you like to have confidence that you were not making them cringe. In yet another opening paragraph I went so far as to philosophize about how, as Americans, we go through our days surrounded by people but we hardly ever touch. But all these openings seemed too serious for what I did this past Sunday, which was simply to put my bare, oily hands all over a friend’s back.
Molly Kerrigan is the blogger behind Wicked Cheap in Boston, as well as a licensed massage therapist. She works knots out of clients at Beacon Massage in Newbury Street and at Boston Mobile Massage at the Copley Marriott health club. On top of all that, she is incredibly generous and took the time to teach me how to give a real massage on a friend, who will go nameless in exchange for agreeing to go topless for this post (don’t bother scrolling down, this is not that type of blog).
I didn’t think too much about what giving a massage would be like before I arrived. I have had plenty of them and I’m pretty comfortable with strangers… albeit trained professional strangers…putting their hands on me. But when my victim, um, I mean my friend, was facedown on the table I realized how intimate it really is. We started our lesson with Molly walking me through how she begins a massage session. First she rubs a client’s back over the blanket as a way of introducing her touch. This was the first time I saw this process as an introduction. We can walk into a spa from a rough day at work, from a fight with a spouse, from dealing with a child’s tantrum – as a result, a massage therapist really needs to ease their clients into the treatment so that they feel comfortable and relax.
“The biggest difference between rubbing someone’s back and a massage,” Molly explained, “Is intention.” Molly demonstrated the five main strokes in Swedish massage (effleurage, petrissage, tapotement, friction and vibration) and explained that she uses the same strokes and techniques on all her clients, but how she executed them depends on what she feels in the person’s body – she is constantly listening with her hands. She could tell which side of her body my friend carried her purse on, and spent a good deal of time trying to work out one knock lodged near her shoulder-blade.
After walking thought the strokes and showing me how she uses her whole body (if she just used her hands and arms she would not be able to see clients all day) she let me try the techniques. I filled my palm with massage oil, and using the entire surface of my palm and all five fingers, started making long smooth strokes along my friend’s back. I have to admit; it felt really weird at first. Well, if I am being honest, it never stopped feeling weird. Maybe I was on to something when I said that we Americans are not used to touching one another.
I wasn’t sure how firm I should be gripping and I was worried I would hurt her. I found that even though I was just taught all the strokes, I was just making it up as I went along. I moved on from the long strokes because that felt way too awkward, so I started kneading her back. I worked my hands around her shoulders and down her spine. Then I pulled my hands off her quickly while pronouncing, “What’s next?” We moved on to her legs and then her neck. I was especially tentative (and my friend said she could feel the difference) when I was holding her head in my hands massaging her neck. But cut me some slack, I did have her head in my hands!
My afternoon of massaging made me realize not only does a massage therapist have to have the training and skill to physically do his or her job, but also there has to be intuition and a certain comfort level that no doubt comes with the year of training it takes to become a licensed (in Massachusetts) massage therapist. I clearly do not have that level of comfort, but thankfully there are trained professionals, like Molly, who do. They love helping people relax and unwind and they can listen with their hands. I will stick to listening with my ears.
Thanks to Molly Kerrigan who helped me think about massage a new way. I would also like my friend for allowing me to rub oil all over her back and take pictures of it. I owe you a drink at the very least! I was not compensated in any way for this post.