June 10, 2017

Six Things To Know Before We Start

1. Timing. The time we set is when I arrive, not when the massage starts. It takes me about ten minutes to set up. If it's our first appointment, you'll fill out a one-page intake form and we'll talk about what you're looking for and what I'll do. You can ask me questions and give me instructions. (You can ask me questions or give me instructions any time, of course -- please do! -- but this is time formally set aside for it.) The massage itself typically lasts about 90 minutes. Then it takes me another ten minutes to pack up and get out. This adds up to about two hours, for the first time, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes less, after that. It's a big chunk of time. If you're picturing me showing up at the door at 7:00 and being out the door at 8:00, then we need to plan for that, and you need to be okay with having just 45 minutes on the table.

2. You are not my host. Different relationship. You don't have to keep me entertained. You don't have to offer me coffee. If you feel like chatting, that's great; but you don't have to. I have clients who barely acknowledge me when I come in and set up: they keep working right up until I say "ready!" Then I go wash my hands while they get on the table.

The house doesn't need to be tidy. There can be dishes in the sink. Your four-year-old can wander in and out of the room, looking for his airplane.

I have one regular client just says "good night" and goes to bed, when I'm done: I lock up and drop their key back in through the mail slot. I've had a couple clients who have their own massage tables, so they can stay on the table when I leave. Some people like a hug and a chat and when I show up and when I go; some people prefer me to just appear and vanish. I'm happiest when people are doing what they're comfortable with. I'll follow your lead: I like the variety.

3. Undressing and getting on the table. When I'm all set up, I leave the room and wash my hands while you get undressed, get on the table, and get under the sheets and blanket. Some people like to already be in a robe when I get there. Doesn't matter to me, just as it doesn't matter how much you undress.

4. Music. I don't bring music, so if you want music, you'll need to set it up. The stuff people like to play runs from Enya to Tchaikovsky. The Beach Boys, 1940s swing, technopop, Navajo flute -- I like everything. But be aware that the tempo of the music will influence the tempo of your massage! The William Tell Overture gets you different bodywork than Arvo Pärt.

5. Your pets and I will get along fine. Dogs generally like massage to be going on. They seem to understand it right away: oh, this is chill time! They often curl up under the table, or nearby, and fall asleep. Cats are inquisitive, and need to check out my massage duffle, and sometimes get a little impatient that all this petting is going on and none of it involves them. Occasionally bold ones may jump up on the table, and I'll gently set them back down on the floor. I only recall one that insisted on jumping back up and staying there: I just worked around him.

6. Tweakability. The main value-added with in-home massage, besides that you get to stay home? -- it's that it's infinitely tweakable. You decide how long. You decide on the music, if you want any, and how loud it will be. You decide on the the lighting. You decide on the warmth of the room. (I bring a table-warmer, sort of like an electric blanket under the sheets: but you decide whether I turn on high, or at all.) I bring a stack of pillows for some people: some people like more than just a bolster under their knees. Make yourself comfortable, and ask for what you want! That's the whole idea. Some people have special oils they want me to use. I'm delighted to take the time and effort to make it comfortable: if I didn't like that sort of thing, I'd be working in an office.

June 4, 2017


"One of the things I love about massage," said a client yesterday, as I was packing up "is what it does to my vision. I feel like I can see so much more clearly."

I have the same experience: I step out of a massage room and the world seems much brighter, sharper, clearer. I would love to know if this is an objective, measurable effect. I suspect that it is. One day I worked my sister-in-law's neck and shoulders, because she had a headache, and after a few minutes, lifting her head and looking at the opposite wall, she said, "wow, I can read the print on that poster now. I couldn't, when you started."

Some of this effect -- if objectively real -- may not be very mysterious. The eyes are focused by tiny muscles that attach to the eyeball, and they're likely to be involved, willy-nilly, in the "hold still and make no sudden moves!" general orders that the brains sends down in response to pain or fear. With pain relief and a sense of security, the general orders should be rescinded, and the muscles should recover their nimbleness and do a better job. That's perfectly understandable.

The mysterious part is that my vision doesn't just seem as good as normal. It seems better than normal, better than it's been for weeks. And that sense that my whole body just works better -- in some difficult-to-describe way -- is the main reason I get massage. It's partly the relaxation, of course -- lying down in a comfortable place for an hour accounts for some of it. But the effect seems larger than that, and it lasts for several days.

There are explanations for this effect that, while widely believed, don't hold water. The effect of massage on stress hormones (cortisol and so forth) appears to be so minimal that it's not really worth mentioning. The supposed flushing of toxins has been thoroughly debunked. The energetic explanation seems to be circular, if not nonsensical ("I feel better because my energy has been rectified, and I know my energy has been rectified because I feel better.") True or false, it doesn't take us very far.

So here's my guess, for what it's worth. We live in conditions of high stress, minimal movement, and (in some ways) extraordinary physical comfort. Soft beds, silky fabrics, and well-padded seats are normal, for us. Our nervous systems are not designed to deal with this little input, and a couple bad things happen because of it. One is that we get phantom pain. Just as our brains produce tinnitus -- in the absence of sound perception in a certain range, it gets alarmed and makes up noise in that range,  apparently considering that any signal is better than none -- we get those weird, variable, hard-to-place pains that massage therapists often end up fruitlessly chasing. The pain is real enough, just as the ringing in the ears is real enough, but you're wasting your time looking for the bells.

The other thing that happens -- and this is what I'm driving at now -- is that sensory perception and motor responses may get blurred and muddy. There may not be enough day to day feedback to maintain clear and distinct brain maps of the body. There's a famous experiment in which a brain researcher taped two fingers of a monkey together for several weeks. By the end of that time, the two separate brain maps for the two fingers -- brain maps are actual physical regions of the brain used for analyzing sensation and directing movement -- had merged. The two fingers always did the same thing and felt the same way, so the brain, being thrifty, discarded the extra map. At that point, the monkey could no longer move the fingers separately, even when they were untaped: it would have to remake the separate maps before it would be able to feel and move the fingers separately again.

I speculate that something like that is going on in our excessively padded, sedentary lives. The range of movement and sensation and motor-feedback that most of us experience is extremely limited, especially compared to our ancestors on the savannah. This level of comfort was not in our design specs. It may not be accidental that the sort of massage we favor seems to have arisen in Turkey a couple of centuries ago. The comfort of the Turkish upper class then was routinely commented upon (disapprovingly) by European travelers: their soft sofas and cushions, their pillows and carpets, struck Europeans as dreadfully decadent. Now we all live like Turkish pashas: a bare wooden chair or bench has become a rarity, and sinking into an easy chair or a couch to watch TV strikes us as ordinary relaxation, not as self-indulgence.

It might do us good to be less comfortable, some of the time. It would certainly do us good to move more (but we all already knew that). In the meantime, we can jump start ourselves with massage: remind ourselves how good it feels to be able to bring the senses to a sharp focus, and for the body to be well-tuned and responsive. There's a more vivid life available.