The Middleway Method Educational Experience

A good massage therapist is able to give their clients treatments that feel great. It is as simple as that, but that is not so simple. First of all, what is relaxing and feels great varies a lot from person to person. There is not one particular kind of massage that feels great to all people. Not only does a massage therapist have to learn many different styles of massage, they also have to learn how to figure out what style each client enjoys, and invent new things as they go. It’s not just a matter of asking clients, “What style of massage do you like?” To really give a great massage, the therapist has to ask the body what it likes, and then be able to understand the body’s response. If your massage therapist seems to have a “sixth sense” that enables them to know just what feels great, then that therapist is listening to the language of your body. Without this essential quality, massage therapy doesn’t work well at all.

The language of the body is not some kind of cosmic metaphor, and a good massage therapist doesn’t have a magical sixth sense. The body physically responds to touch, movement, and pressure in specific, predictable ways and massage therapists listen to those physical responses with their ordinary senses. What makes the art of massage therapy special is that a skilled massage  therapist’s senses are refined. In much the same way a musician can hear when an instrument is just a little bit off-pitch, or right in tune, a massage therapist can sense when someone is experiencing pleasure, and when they are not, just by paying attention to the physical responses of the body to touch. When massage feels great to a client, a massage therapist knows it because they have developed the ability to notice their clients’ body’s physical expression of pleasure and relaxation. They should also be able to notice when they are doing something that hurts, or feels dull and boring. In this way, a skillful massage therapist interacts with the body in a language of touch and response, always moving in the direction of relaxation and pleasure, always dissolving pain and discontentment.

There is also a strong social and emotional component to good massage therapy. We all have the ability to notice how someone is feeling. If a person is agitated, we notice. If a person is tired, we notice. A good massage therapist refines their ability to notice how people are feeling emotionally and energetically, and that informs their quality of touch and their approach to treatment. If a client is feeling sad, they may not like an intense massage. If a person is feeling exhausted, they may not enjoy an engaging, interactive massage. A sad, exhausted person will more likely enjoy a soothing, quiet treatment. A good massage therapist pays attention to the social, emotional and energetic qualities of their clients, and then uses techniques that are supportive, pleasant, and relaxing.

Similarly, clients have the ability to notice how a massage therapist is feeling. If the massage therapist is outwardly sad and tired, then the client is less likely to feel safe and supported, and is less likely to have a relaxing experience during their treatment. If a massage therapist doesn’t demonstrate genuine interest and care for their clients, then their clients are less likely to enjoy their treatments. A good massage therapist is a physically and emotionally healthy person who is capable of directing all of their attention to the needs and feelings of their clients. Just as good massage therapists refine their ability to pay attention to the physical, emotional and energetic states of their clients, they also refine their ability to cultivate their own physical, emotional and energetic health.

Very often, massage teachers and massage school students assume that teaching and learning massage therapy is a matter of the teacher showing the students how to perform massage strokes and routines. For example, Swedish Massage strokes have names and forms, such as effleurage and petrissage. Teachers tend to show beginning level massage school students how to perform effleurage and petrissage, and then give the students time to practice. The problem is that massage instructors are usually massage therapists with years of experience, and their experience informs their touch. Massage teachers make it look easy, and while on the outside they may be showing effleurage and petrissage, the other good qualities of massage therapy – listening to the language of the body and attending to the emotional and energetic state of their clients – are likely to be present in the teacher’s work. Even when the teacher explains the attention and sensitivity that they are using, still, the primary lesson is about the form and routine, and not specifically about the attention and sensitivity. The teacher’s attention and sensitivity developed with practice, and if the lesson is not specifically designed to provide the students with that practice, but rather for them to practice the strokes, then when it comes time for the students to practice what the teacher showed them, they discover that it isn’t easy. Thus, for their first and important developmental educational experiences, new students end up giving mediocre massages without the essential ingredients of attention to the language of the body. In this way, many massage therapy students develop their foundational skills without the qualities that really make massage therapy work, much like a musician learning to play without first learning to tune their instrument.

There is another way to teach massage therapy, where from the very beginning, the student receiving the massage during the practice sessions is having an enjoyable experience, and the student giving the massage is not practicing strokes and routines, but rather building a foundation of essential attention and sensitivity. Rather than being introduced to the basic strokes of Swedish Massage, which are relatively ineffective when not supported by a foundation of attention and sensitivity, students first practice several months of exercises that specifically develop their capacity to notice when what they are doing feels good for their clients, and when it doesn’t. These exercises do not look like Swedish Massage at all, and they are not ultimately what the student is going to do when they graduate from school. Rather, they are exercises that have been developed by a professional educator, with the specific intention to support the experiential learning process that is fundamental to developing the real skills that make massage therapy effective.

Very often, massage teachers are well-trained, experienced massage therapists, and have little or no training as teachers. Even if they have been teaching massage for years, it is most likely that they have been primarily teaching students how to perform the strokes and routines of various styles of massage, and only secondarily educating their students in the other qualities that are the real foundation for professional success. This is simply because most massage education in the United States follows a general format that starts with Swedish Massage and then moves into other techniques, and lacks classes that are focused on those qualities that don’t have names like effleurage and petrissage, but are none-the-less essential to good massage therapy. Also, there are very few educational programs for training massage therapists to become professional massage therapy educators. Lacking training, and relying upon the accidental and surprisingly ineffective educational format that has become the norm, massage therapy teachers often lack the resources and the training to teach massage therapy in such a way that students graduate from school as great massage therapists. More often, students graduate massage school as inexperienced, novice therapists with few of the skills that are essential for success in the profession. Then, just as their teachers did before them, they enter the workplace to learn the real art of massage therapy through a rough and unsupported process of trial and error.

Teaching massage therapy and doing massage therapy are two very different things. Rather than teaching students how to perform the strokes and routines of massage therapy, and then hoping that they will develop the other qualities that make massage effective, it is appropriate to start by supporting students as they develop the ability to listen to the language of the body, speak the language of the body, and interact with their clients as whole, feeling, living, thinking people with complex, sensitive minds and perspectives. Once a therapist can do that, then the traditional massage strokes make much more sense, and the therapist is able to apply them in a manner that is very pleasant and very relaxing. Starting with a foundation in refined sensitivity, and then moving from there into learning various techniques, a year of massage school becomes a year of practicing the essential skills for professional success. Students who enter into a training program that uses specific and well-planned teaching techniques graduate with the experience and the skills they need to enter directly into the work place as excellent therapists, rather than as inexperienced new practitioners.


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