One of the questions I get asked roughly forty thousand times a week (besides if I know all my blue hair dye has rubbed off on my neck making me look like a zombie) is:
The more painful my massage, the better, right?
After which I take a deep breath. And count to ten. And try not to punch the full length mirror in my studio. (Breaking mirrors is bad for the karma, or so they say.)
In the more than a decade that I’ve been a professional posture magician, the thing that consistently drives me onto my proverbial soap box is our culture’s addiction to extremity in every circumstance. It’s downright pathological.
We’re programmed to assume that anything not at the very edge of uncomfortable, practically unbearable, can’t possibly be effective.
This is reflected in everything we do.
Lose 10 pounds in ten days.
Five minutes to flatter abs.
80 hour workweeks.
Sleeping in conference rooms to roll out projects that meet arbitrary deadlines (that a decade from now, nobody will remember).
Bragging about not having had a vacation in ten years and getting by on twenty minutes of sleep a night.
Zero carbs. Not even wine. (Sob.)
Waist training (With corsets…did you know there are actually modern women who wear steel-boned straitjackets in an effort to choke their waists into a size four jean?! I’m not over it yet either. We can start a support group.)
Whatever happened to dialing back the junk food a little bit and going for a walk at lunch?
This never-ceasing drive for more, deeper, faster, harder, stronger, bigger, better and badder turns your body into your enemy, out to get you with its tight muscles and inflamed joints. And if you just beat it up enough, then finally, it’ll submit to you, its eternal master, and be forever skinny (or Forever 21?).
Really? Come the fuck on.
Your body isn’t against you. In fact, it IS you, so maybe you should just fucking cooperate with it for once in your life.
(I did mention a soap box, didn’t I?)
You wouldn’t beat a puppy senseless if he didn’t sit when you told him to. You’d be patient. You wouldn’t yell at him. You’d ask nicely and if he gave you the first inclination toward sitting, you’d lavish praise on him in the form of cookies and pets and loves.
So why are you beating your body, screaming at it and locking it in a cage when it doesn’t behave the way you want it to?
Listen, if you want your body to change, you have to give it space (and patience) to learn something new.
It’s not a machine; it’s a living, breathing, feeling, sensing organism. In fact, it’s not so very different than that puppy. Yes, there’s the modern, thinking you, but the vast majority of your functioning exists well below conscious awareness.
Basically, your body is still living in the jungle. If you’re not nice to it, it’s not gonna come out from behind the tree.
With that in mind, here are five specific reasons painful massage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
1. Deeper work doesn’t always mean pressing harder.
For years in my private practice, several times a week I would hear the refrain, “I know this is gonna hurt, and that’s okay, whatever you gotta do to make this better is fine. I’ll put up with it.”
Because, let’s face it, most people think that deep tissue massage is best, and really, really, REALLY deep tissue massage is the pinnacle of effectiveness.
To be honest, I really can’t stand bodywork of any kind that feels like inattentive petting. When someone just sort of rubs oil on my skin, I feel like I leave the session more tense from trying to swell my muscles and push into their elbow a little harder.
So, yeah, pressure is really important. Too light and it’s irritating. But too deep? And you’re not necessarily getting more bang for your buck.
The body is organized in layers, and all of those layers are interconnected. Sometimes, work on a muscle that is readily available can affect deep change in the body.
What that means is, you don’t necessarily have to lean your whole body weight into someone’s shoulder to make changes to posture and movement at deep levels in the body. Sometimes, lighter pressure gets you more gain.
A good practitioner will contact tissue where it’s tight. Sometimes this takes a good amount of pressure. Sometimes, hardly any at all, but it always feels productive and like something you can hang with, i.e. stay relaxed throughout, even if maybe it’s a little uncomfortable.
The bottom line is that if more pressure were all it took to get people to feel better, we’d all have bought steamrollers years ago.
2. Your nervous system hates anything that feels threatening.
It’s easy to forget that your body isn’t a machine; it’s an information system. The tension in all your muscles is controlled by a big ol’ super computer – your brain.
And that sophisticated system is constantly taking in data about your position in the world, adjusting and tuning your posture and movement.
What this means is that the archaic notion that bodyworkers are “stretching” your tissue is pretty inaccurate. Yes, there’s some stretch going on, but the bigger impact comes from stimulating your nervous system to make a change.
When you alert the brain to a movement inefficiency, i.e. stored tension, it adapts, relaxes the tissue and allows for a new muscle firing pattern to take shape, one that utilizes less effort and causes less pain.
BUT. If you’re grinding away at tight muscles for all you’re worth, the brain senses a threat. It’s being attacked. This is like hovering over a puppy and shouting at the top of your voice for it to come to you. The puppy doesn’t know what’s going on, but you sure don’t seem like a safe base.
And so your muscle tightens. This shows up as you gritting your teeth, clenching your thighs and curling your toes. At this point, you and your therapist are basically two brick walls pressing against each other, and not much is actually getting done.
That’s why you feel good after a painful massage (endorphin rush) and then tight the next morning (your brain never had a chance to relax and find a new way to move).
3. You have to open up the superficial tissue before diving deep.
You know that big, green and yellow-turning-purple bruise you sport on your hip after a really deep massage, the one you brag about to your friends? As in, “My therapist really dug her elbow in there, hurt so good, I know it was tight but she really went after it.”
That bruise isn’t such a good thing.* I will say that sometimes bruising occurs with bodywork. I’ve certainly had a few cases of it. And yes, it’s usually in areas that are very tight, but also usually not in a muscle belly but rather in an area close to the bone where the soft tissue is not very thick. And notice I said “sometimes.” As in, rarely.
This is because when the therapist digs that elbow in so hard and you’re gripping your molars together practicing your Lamaze breathing, curling your toes until she lets go, the tissue is actually getting injured. Bruises are the result of tiny blood vessels being damaged and broken.
Listen, you went in for a massage to get better, not to tear your body apart even more.
Here’s a little secret: if the therapist moves slowly, releasing first the outer “sleeve” layers of your tissue before proceeding more deeply into your “core,” or what you might refer to as deep tissue, the muscles slowly melt.
Seriously. It feels like they open and spread and ooze out of the way. Clients often start to feel sleepy or even a bit woozy because the body is opening up, relaxing and feeling zero threat. And, no damage is happening. Working this way, slowly and methodically, a good therapist can often palpate all the way to the bone (feeling it through the tissue) with a client totally relaxed and experiencing minimal discomfort.
Now, that’s deep work. Tissue prep is uber-important. I once had a guy try to attack my quads with a rolling pin super aggressively. If that ever happens to you, throw him a raw steak and back away slowly until it’s safe to turn and run the hell out of there!
*Bruises from cupping are a different story and shouldn’t be lumped into the same category.
4. Excuse me, sir, I think you’ve found a bone.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard massage therapists tell me that there are lots of knots in my back. Usually in my right shoulder. I know, I’m right hand dominant.
They then proceed to dig away at those knots as though they were excavating a hidden source of uranium. And me? I’m left with inflamed nerves and swollen tissue. This is why massage therapists will sometimes tell you cheerfully to “ice that area” when you get home.
Because you know what? Most of those “knots” in your back are ribs that are twisted, maybe slightly out of place or popped out of the joint completely, or warped by spinal dysfunction.
I don’t mean your spine is messed up and needs surgery or anything, but ribs connect directly into your vertebra. It’s like one big suspension system. The spine is like a slinky – it can lengthen and spread, open on one side while closing on the other, twist, bend. And your ribs kind of move like Venetian blinds connected to that spinal slinky.
If your spine is stuck in some areas (and most people have a few sticky vertebra if not many), the ribs will have to contort themselves to move around the column in your back. That means they’ll pop out of place a bit.
And when you dig away at them? Well, one, they’re not very far beneath the surface of your skin. The layers of muscle on your back are strong, but usually long and flat. And two, all that pressure directly on a sensitive bone like a rib really inflames it, so you wind up all swollen.
Which makes you think something got done because you can really feel where that therapist worked, right? I hear you.
But the reality is, that pressure on the bone won’t help reorganize the spine and rib complex, helping the bone move back into place. Gently releasing the tissue around the rib is an excellent start and doesn’t involve the kind of nervy, nauseating pain that comes from leaning your elbow into it full force.
5. Pain isn’t necessarily productive (but sometimes it is).
Okay, so you know I’m against mindless digging into tight muscles and leaning on poor, defenseless bones. But is pain ever useful?
Have you ever heard that Eskimos have something like fifty words for snow? They have snow that falls in big flakes and wet snow, powdery snow, thick snow, I don’t even know really what kinds of words they have. But to anyone who lives in Florida, snow is snow, right?
Well, with regard to pain, we’re all living in Florida. In the western culture, we’ve got one word for pain, but that word actually encompasses a vast array of sensations.
There’s the pain that comes from being smacked by a 2×4 or punched with brass knuckles. There’s pain in your gut when you eat something that disagrees with you. There’s hot, inflamed pain when you sprain your ankle, and stiff, achy pain from arthritis.
The two kinds of pain I want to differentiate are inflicted pain and stored pain. The first is felt when stimulus is applied to you, as in I punch you in the shoulder. Ow! Why did I do that? To prove a point.
But stored pain, that’s stuff we usually carry around but have no idea we’re living with on a daily basis. If I poke you in a tight muscle, it will hurt. But, I’m not the one causing the pain. If the muscle were loose and I applied the same amount of pressure, it wouldn’t hurt at all.
The pain is in your tissue, I’m just making you aware of it. And in this sense, pain can be productive, informative and generally useful. They key is to never let the pain during a bodywork session exceed what could be described as “intense.”
Intensity is what you have with a good stretch in yoga. You can still stay there, hanging with it, relaxing into it and breathing, but yeah, it’s not exactly the most comfortable thing in the world.
So, if you find yourself clenching your butt and grinding your molars during a massage, maybe just ask your therapist to back off a teensy bit so your poor nervous system can have a chance to work with you instead of against you.
It bears mentioning that there are terrific massage therapists out there – I mean, really dedicated, well-educated, accomplished practitioners who have made it their life’s study to practice a very therapeutic healing art. They are sheer gold, those people, and this guide is in no way meant to denigrate their powerful work (who knows where I’d be in life without my army of healing practitioners?). Most of them are deeply aware of all the above and will take it upon themselves to educate you, the client.
But many, many, many therapists find themselves enslaved to the more aggressive, harder, deeper model instead of the more intelligent, more specific, slower approach simply because that’s what’s demanded by clients (who haven’t gone to massage school…). These five principles of intelligent bodywork are meant to help you as the owner of your body communicate better with your therapist to get the best results from your sessions in whatever form you might choose and to shift your perspective on your body from a mechanized model to viewing your anatomy as more of a high-functioning information system engaged in a constant process of change and adaptation.
Phew. Those were some big words. I might need wine now.