The Therapy in Massage Therapy

A couple of years ago, a client asked me whether I had ever considered training to be a counsellor, to which my instant retort was “then I’d really struggle to get you onto the table!” This flippant quip settled the conversation but a chord was struck. My gut reaction still stands, and I have no intention to train as a counsellor, but since then I’ve been reminded of this conversation again, and again, and again.

This article started out as something quite different, but as is often my way, I got side tracked during the writing, then distracted by another idea, did some reading and research along that path, had three more brain waves and finally, decided to start again. Because as good as these other ideas are, the concept behind this problem has been rumbling for quite some time in both my head and my heart. So now is the time to set it down.

I am passionate about what I do. That is to say, I am passionate about massage therapy, I am passionate about bodywork in general, and I am passionate about helping my clients to feel the best that they can in their bodies. But I’m also passionate about how I live, and want to feel the best I can in my body. So I regularly receive massage therapy, I also receive (less) regular bodywork in other forms including Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Structural Integration to name a few, I am conscious of what I eat and drink (but don’t ‘regulate’ or ‘dictate’ this too closely) and I am physically active.

In Attendance

Earlier this year I had cause to consider why I refer to myself as a ‘massage therapist’ (as opposed to massage practitioner, masseuse, or any other title you can think of for my profession) and exactly what that term meant to me. Part of this reflection was to look at the origin of the word therapist - most likely derived from the Greek word therapeia meaning ‘attendance’ - and to recognise the importance of the massage therapist’s interaction with the client.

Have you ever noticed that those listed on the minutes of a meeting are said to be ‘In Attendance’? The Oxford Compact English Dictionary defines attendance as “the act of attending or being present; the number of people present”.

“Hey, how are you? Listen …” Ever had a conversation that start like this? Or worse, realise you may as well not have been there for all the attention your thoughts, views and feelings were given? Urgh! Yet according to the OCED you were in attendance. Interestingly, the website suggests the origin of both attendance and attend to be:

“middle english (in the sense 'apply one's mind or energies to'): from Old French atendre ‘give one’s attention to’… ”

So this isn’t just about being ‘in the room’, but about being mentally and emotionally attentive. About being present.

From Couch to Table

I recently read an article in Massage Magazine (Issue 221) called ‘Nurturing Presence; Create a Healing Space for Clients’ by Diedrea Welch and Douglas Newton - rather interesting timing for me having just set up my new practice. One of the points I found most interesting was an explanation of the psychologist Carl Rogers’ principle of Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) …

“Unlike his contemporaries, Rogers believed we all have the internal resources necessary to provide our own growth. He also believed an environment could be created in counselling where those resources could be drawn upon for therapy to be effective … if we contrast Unconditional Positive Regard with the judgemental messages that are more popular in American culture, then the need for a nonjudgmental environment becomes more obvious for its ability to balance the unhelpful messages we receive.”

I really like this idea for a couple of reasons. Firstly, although I am not a counsellor, I always knew that the environment in which I work has a bearing on my clients and the way they react to my work; yet another reason to be thrilled to have my own space! Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Rogers’ belief that “we all have the internal resources necessary to provide our own growth”. We can do whatever we really set our heart and mind to. That means you, and I, can follow our dreams.

Hold up a second. If I haven’t got to where I dream of getting to, why not? Oh, that might just be down to me too (to a greater or lesser extent … a debate for another forum) and that’s an incredibly scary thing to realise.

So how the heck do I reckon massage can help? Well, although I am not a counsellor, nor qualified in any talking therapy whatsoever, I believe that there is an element of ‘Therapy’ in massage therapy. With a whopping great big caveat though … if the client wants there to be. I don’t believe that massage therapy can replace a constructive relationship with an experienced talking therapist, particularly when there are major issues, stumbling blocks, a history of repeat behaviours and the like. But if a client is struggling to figure out who they are, what they want to do, how to get off the treadmill of their current world, I do believe that the massage table can provide them with an opportunity to dock in with themselves.

The present of Presence

As a massage therapist, I ‘attend’ to my clients, am fully present with them during their appointments but I am also accompanying them as they experience their body. Okay that might sound a little new age-y and perhaps even a tad hippie, but if a client is spending their entire working life problem solving, thinking, and generally living ‘in their head’ it is surprisingly easy to be unaware of how their body is feeling, to perhaps even become slightly detached from their body. “I didn’t realise that was even sore” is a common phrase I hear. My job and my passion is to accompany my clients as they slowly unwind from their mind, and start listening to their body. Listening to themselves.

My role is not that of a counsellor or therapist. I will not ask my clients to stop talking to me, or to start talking to me, but as a massage therapist I will continue to invite people to listen to their bodies, listen to themselves, and thus help them to feel the best that they can in their body.


POST SCRIPT - having written this article at the start of November, and been musing on it for several months, I then came across an article from the New York Times called Less Talk, More Therapy. There must be something in the air!