What Makes A Good Massage?

(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

As the owners of The Dragontree, an unusually challenging part of our job is deciding which massage therapists to hire.  Briana and I have always agreed that if the spa is to going to be known for anything, it should be that we have the best therapists.  When we tell someone that one of us is about to receive a massage from a prospective hire, they often will say something sarcastic, like, “Oh, what a difficult job you have!”

I’m not asking for sympathy, but the reality is, when you have high standards, doing a massage interview means more analysis than enjoyment.  We have both had extensive massage training, and the criteria we have developed for defining a good therapist are not necessarily the things that are emphasized in massage schools.  I thought it might be interesting for our clientele to know what we believe makes a great massage.  If you are an amateur or professional massage therapist, you might find something here to improve your skills.  If you just like receiving massage, these criteria may help you identify if a particular therapist is right for you or not.

1. Confident Touch – The first moment a massage therapist lays their hands on a client’s body, something is communicated.  When touch is confident (and this has nothing to do with the amount of pressure applied), the communication is, “I know what I am doing and I’m here for you.”  When the touch is not confident, it feels like, “Ah… hmmm… let’s see… err… maybe this way… no, wait…Oh, I have an idea…uh, wait, maybe not…”  It is difficult to relax and trust the therapist’s skills.  Confident touch encourages us to let go and open up.

2. Continuity of Touch – Every time the therapist removes their hands from the body, there is a disruption in the continuity of sensation.  Occasional disengagement from the body may be necessary.  But when it happens very frequently, and especially if the therapist’s hands are more off the body than on the body, there is a “choppy,” discontinuous feeling to the massage.  It impedes our ability to relax.  Conversely, therapists who maintain nearly continuous contact with the body help us stay in a deep state of peace.

3. Complete Strokes – When a therapist is working along a natural line on the body, it generally feels best to a client if this line is followed to its completion.  There are some techniques that are exceptions to this rule, but when doing long strokes, if a therapist stops short of the natural end point of a stroke, it feels incomplete to the recipient.  For instance, if a therapist is performing strokes down the back and they stop short of the base of the spine, or if they working along a limb and they stop before reaching a joint or the end of the limb, it doesn’t feel as satisfying as when a therapist continues the stroke to its completion.

4. Entering the Tissue at the Right Speed and Depth – Some therapists are gung-ho about doing deep massage, but they fail to perceive the body’s unwillingness to let them in.  When a therapist tries to go too deep too fast, we tense up and the whole thing becomes counterproductive.  When a therapist “listens” well to the body, they enter the tissue at a rate whereby it is able to accept increasing amounts of pressure without pushing back.  This doesn’t mean that good massage must be painless, but at no point should it feel like the therapist is fighting the body.

5. Sensitivity and Responsiveness – A sensitive therapist is able to perceive how their touch is being received by the client.  They also check in verbally to be sure the client is getting what they want out of the massage.  Then, a responsive therapist adjusts their technique to suit the client’s needs.

6. Devoted Presence – A devoted therapist conveys throughout the treatment that the client has their undivided attention.  The client never feels that the therapist’s needs are “in the room.”   Thus, a devoted therapist rarely starts conversation during a treatment.  Some clients like to talk a lot.  While there is nothing wrong with this, the therapist who is really devoted to their art recognizes that this diminishes the benefit of the treatment, and they gently guide the client back to relaxing and feeling what is going on in their body.

In the end, everyone likes something a little different, and there is no single massage therapist who is perfect for everyone.  If you ever have a massage experience at The Dragontree that doesn’t quite meet your expectations, please feel free to talk to us about it.  We’d love to hear your input and are eager to find ways for you to have the blissful experience you deserve.