Self-care for massage therapists, part 2 (what works for me)

In part 1, I listed various self-care methods that massage therapists use for their own aches and pains from giving massage. In part 2, I want to share what I’ve tried (so far) that works.

First, I want to say that my strength and endurance have increased with practice. I used to be in pain after giving 3 hour-long massages in a row several days in a row. Now I can do 4 hours 5 days a week with just a few twinges and aches afterwards. For several weeks, though, I was hurting and feeling some despair about having upended my life to get trained and start working in this new profession and the possibility of not being physically able to do it.

Key learnings from a newbie:

  • I no longer attempt deep tissue work, sticking to Swedish and reflexology. My Swedish massages are good and getting better. I incorporate some of David Lauterstein’s deep massage strokes into every Swedish massage, and I use pressure points, stretching, techniques from sports massage, body mobilization techniques, and reflexology, depending on the client’s issues and the amount of time I have. I cannot deliver the pressure that some clients (well-informed or not about what “deep tissue” means) seem to want. If I work within my limitations, it’s win-win for everyone.
  • I trained in Ashiatsu Oriental Bar Therapy so that I can deliver deeper pressure using my feet and body weight, controlled by holding onto overhead bars. It’s so much easier on my body and a lot of fun, too.
  • I rock with my feet and leverage my body weight strategically as I deliver Swedish massage so my arms and shoulders do less work.
  • Hydrotherapy totally rocks after a long shift. I fill my double kitchen sinks with hot water (my water heater is set to 130 degrees F. for sanitizing laundry) and cold water that I dump a quart or two of ice into. I immerse my aching forearms and hands in the water, alternating cold-hot-cold-hot-cold, for one minute each. I can barely stand it, and yet it makes a huge difference in just 5 minutes. Seems to flush toxins and swelling and pain right out.
  • I stretch my fingers and wrists, holding each stretch for 15 seconds. Good to do when driving, at red lights.
  • I press into the trigger points for the elbow and wrist (see part 1 for links).
  • I apply magnesium gel with seaweed extract topically. According to Wikipedia, symptoms of magnesium deficiency include muscle cramps, weakness, and fatigue, and fifty-seven percent of the US population does not get enough magnesium from food.
  • I love epsom salts in a bath. (Guess what? They contain magnesium!) When I was feeling a lot of pain all over, I would dump a cup or two of epsom salts into a fairly hot bath and add a few drops of lavender oil, then soak for 15-20 minutes. I felt like a new woman when I came out! I learned this years ago from dancers.
  • I use Young Living’s OrthoEase oil on clients’ painful muscles, and I use it on mine as well. Contains wintergreen, peppermint, eucalyptus, lemongrass, and more that are analgesic and anti-inflammatory.
  • I keep hydrated and have been avoiding nightshades lately. I’m already gluten-free and eat fairly healthily. I’m interested in following an anti-inflammatory diet but haven’t done the research yet.
  • I take at least a couple of days off per week, not always together, though. I’m still finding my ideal schedule.
  • I do 10-15 minutes of yoga every morning. Sun salutations stretch and strengthen my body. Plus, it’s a great check-in to do something that starts the same every day. I start slowly and really let my hamstrings lengthen in forward bend before I move on to the next pose. I add standing poses, balance poses, and pigeon as I feel the need and to keep it interesting.
  • I get at least a chair massage every week. I’m interested in setting up a weekly trade for a full-body massage with someone, too.
  • I use a foam roller on back when needed, and a tennis ball to my gluteus.
  • I have two tennis balls tied into a sock that I use when driving to massage my back. I’ve also learned to “pop” my own back while giving massage!

Here’s something that just doesn’t fit into any of the categories I’ve seen so far about self-care for MTs. It’s about how you use your attention. I’ve learned to keep some of my attention on my body most of the time.

When I focused exclusively on the client’s body, delivering what I thought they wanted, I hurt and fatigued myself. I listen more to my body now and check in verbally with the client if I am not noticing nonverbal feedback.

If I notice that I feel rigid anywhere in my body, I say to myself, “Soften,” and my body softens.

Sometimes I put my attention on the soles of my feet and their connection to the floor/earth (I massage with bare feet always for Ashiatsu and as much as possible for Swedish), making the movements of giving massage into a soft, fluid dance.

Sometimes I attend to my breath, letting it become easy and relaxing (and audible to the client, as a nonverbal suggestion that they relax too).

All of these techniques activate the inner body, subtle body, energy body, whatever you want to call it. It feels better to give massage with this “soft present alive expanded body” than not. There is definitely an aspect of being “in the flow” that seems somehow related to doing Reiki, but I don’t know how to put it into words (yet).

Another bonus: the sensations of pain and fatigue become distant as peace and love fill my awareness.

I don’t know if clients perceive the difference, but I don’t think it could hurt. I do it for me because I “in-joy” it!

It’s been four months since I got licensed and began working. I look forward to learning even more new things about self-care and sharing them here.

How to get grounded: the first energy

Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a training program for professionals assisting individuals in trauma recovery that was developed from the work Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger and many more books on trauma recovery. You can learn more about Somatic Experiencing here.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that reading Waking the Tiger was instrumental in my trauma recovery, that I spontaneously released blocked energy from a major childhood trauma while reading the book decades later, which not only was amazing but initiated a huge paradigm shift toward health and well-being for me.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend several trainings and workshops with Brian D. Mahan, who’s a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP). Brian teaches SE to help people learn to help others with trauma recovery. Check out his website here: Brian Mahan, Body Centered Therapist.

(I particularly love his blog post When Is Prayer, Yoga, and Meditation No Different Than Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll? Because you and I know people who are addicted to prayer, yoga, and meditation, trying to bliss out while avoiding feeling what they’re actually feeling!  I think I may have been one of them….)

Back to Brian’s workshop. It had the longest title of any workshop I’ve ever attended, and the title conveys the content: Imagine feeling present, grounded, centered, boundaried, embodied, empowered, in the moment, safe and joyful!  It was so much fun! I recommend this if you ever get the chance!

Also, schedule an SE session with him next time he’s in Austin or remotely via Skype. (You can email him at and view his Facebook page. Here’s a link to his YouTube videos. Here’s an offer for a 5-minute meditation video. To set up a session, his phone number is 323-459-1845, and he’s on Skype as SomaticExperience.)

I’m going to write about what attending that workshop brought up for me about some of these energies, with Brian’s artful facilitation in directing our attention to the body and using the “felt” sense. This content is universal (we all have bodies and awareness) and I’m running it  through my personal filters (writing, yoga, NLP, massage).

This felt sense is available to everyone with a nervous system. My NLP training is that we represent the world through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic channels, often favoring one at the expense of another. Therefore many people do not develop the felt sense (kinesthetic awareness for you NLPers), and they don’t know they don’t know—until someone starts talking about something they’re unfamiliar with, like boundaries, energy flowing in a certain direction, internal sensations/emotions (both kinesthetic).

I had a doctor once who had never heard of chakras. You get the idea.

Using and developing this felt sense is actually very significant to your overall well-being, and if you don’t experience much kinesthetic awareness, you can benefit from learning about it and experiencing it. I’ve been there. I know.

Many forces conspire to get us to numb out, to go to sleep, to not know who we really are. Think of TV, food,  alcohol, drugs, work, sex, busy-ness, perfectionism, emotional drama—the things people get addicted to serve the purpose of distracting us from experiencing our real, essential selves and all those feelings.

You know what? You don’t have to give any of those things up, right now or ever. Follow along if you’d like to add a new dimension to your aliveness, to wake up a little more, to put a little more life in your life.

If you are someone who wonders what the heck people are talking about when they say things like “I’m not feeling very grounded right now,” “He’s not his body,” or “Wow, that really threw me off center,” this is for you. If you’ve felt grounded before but feel ungrounded now, this is for you.

Being grounded refers to your body’s energetic connection to the planet, to the earth, to the ground. This energy always flows in the same direction in your body:

To experience this, do an exercise (and you may want to have someone read this to you):

Right where you are, without doing anything else, check in with your body. Scan it from head to toe and notice the sensations and lack of sensations.

Now take your shoes and socks off and stand up. Put your attention on the sensation of your feet against the floor. Take your time and really feel.

Feel the entire weight of your body squishing the skin cells on the soles of your feet into the floor.

Feel your heaviness. Just walk around and feel your weight.

Now stop and feel as if your feet have suction cups on them holding you in place.

Feel as if each leg is a tree, sending roots down deep into the earth. 

Now roll more of your weight onto one foot and feel the strength in that leg. Now lift the other heel ever so slightly. Switch sides and repeat. Now lift each foot higher. You’re rocking from foot to foot!

Do you feel a sticky sensation on the sole of the lifted foot? Can you sense its desire to return to the floor? Can you imagine invisible elastic between each foot and the floor?

Now stand still, evenly on both feet. Imagine the earth’s energy field embracing you, pulling you toward it with a gentle hug. Imagine mother Earth, Terra, Gaia, Pachamama holding you closely like a mother holds her baby. You can even prostrate yourself and surrender to it, hugging the earth back if you like. (If not, that’s okay too.)

Stand back up and imagine there’s an opening in the top of your head that opens to the sky/spirit/God/the cosmos. Imagine this energy flowing into your head and going down through the center of your body and down each leg and out your feet and into the earth.

This is you, fully grounded. Check in again, fully.

End of exercise.

Notice that our language has many ways of describing this energy: being grounded, feeling ungrounded, holding your ground, standing your ground, standing on your own two feet, without a leg to stand on, being sure-footed, steady on your feet, sticking a foot in the door, getting in on the ground floor.

Being grounded gives you a position on this planet, a space, a place that belongs to you and no one else, and it also connects you to this planet. You belong to the earth.

What does it feel like to be grounded? Remember what you felt like before the exercise, and compare that to feeling grounded. How would you describe the difference?

More importantly, when could feeling grounded be useful in your life? When might you particularly want to feel grounded? What ungrounded you?

Just for this moment, bring your attention back to your feet. Notice if you feel any shift of energy in your body.

Realize you can play with this, enjoy this, practice this as often as you like until it comes effortlessly (because the body is attracted to joy and pleasure, even the subtle ones). Then you can forget about it, knowing that whenever you need it, the resource of being grounded belongs to you.

Next: how to get centered.