Very early in my career as a massage therapist, I read The Rarest of the Rare by Diane Ackerman, a remarkable collection of essays about endangered species. I was struck by Ms. Ackerman's description of the flight of the albatross, a bird generally thought to be clumsy and unremarkable. What resonated with me most was the idea that an albatross, suspended between earth and heaven, finds a balance within an environment of constantly shifting variables -- a dynamic balance with the forces of nature that allows it to soar while conserving it's energy over long distances.
We live in an environment of shifting variables--stress at work, stress at home, activity/inactivity, the amount stuff we end up carrying on one or both of our shoulders. Our bodies are often caught in the flux leading to chronic pain, acute pain, overuse injuries and tramautic injuries.
In light of this situation, a worthwhile goal might be to find a dynamic balance which allows us to function effectively and painlessly-- to soar through our daily lives.
I believe that regular massage in combination with a healthy lifestyle can facilitate that process in two ways: by providing a vital awareness of our own physicality and by addressing problems that may arise as a result of these variables. First, and foremost, massage can introduce us to our body. It provides an awareness that may help us effectively manage the physical vicissitudes of our day-to-day life; which, in turn, may help support the emotional and spiritual components of our existence. This awareness can relate to how our body is affected by the stresses placed on it. It can also pertain to our sense of space and how we move within it.
How many times have we said during a massage, “Wow, I didn't know I was hurting there until you touched it.”? Since our conscious mind cannot pay attention to everything at once, it tends to prioritize by blocking out the minor aches and pains in order to focus on more important things. We often do not feel muscle pain until it reaches a crisis mode, when we “throw our back out” and can't get out of bed for a week. Just knowing that certain areas in our body are sensitive, gives us the ability to create strategies to address those areas before they become debilitating.
The other aspect of this awareness lies in the ability it gives us to know where our body is in space and how we might adjust it to find a better place. For example, once we know what a relaxed body feels like, we can sense when our body is becoming less relaxed, identify the stressors involved, and make adjustments, if possible. If immediate adjustments are not possible, we, at least, know where we would like to return.
A more pragmatic example might relate to our shoulders. Once we know what it feels like to have our shoulders hang comfortably on top of our torso as they should, we are more likely to recognize when they begin to creep up toward our ears during computer time, travel, exercise, or getting the kids to take a nap. If we are able to acknowledge the tension, we can, then, consciously allow those muscles to relax. It is something that we can do whenever we begin to feel the tension building in our specific areas of complaint. This way we can take an active role in preventing chronic tension which can lead to injury or other pain patterns.
Awareness is the first step toward a healthy body. Once we know what is going on in our body, we can address it. I believe that the role of the massage therapist is to listen to what the needs of each person are and to specialize the work in order to resolve those needs. Some people may need very deep, intense work to areas of complaint, while other people just need to relax and to let go of stress. The same person will have different needs on different days. The key to a successful therapeutic relationship is for both parties -- massage therapist and client -- to listen and to communicate. Together they can decide on proper treatment; they can develop strategies for the time in-between massages; and they can determine the most effective pattern of frequency.
As our culture continues to maintain, even celebrate, a high-stress environment where rest is the exception not the rule, it becomes more and more critical for us to find ways to create a dynamic balance among these forces that could potentially drag us down. Finding a way to ride the wind, like the albatross, and to conserve our energy at the same time will only serve us better in the end.