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Massage for the 21st Century: Working With the Hands the Head and the Heart


Jing Advanced Massage Training

“One who works with the hands is a labourer, one who works with the hands and the head is a craftsperson, one who works with the hands, the head and the heart is an artist”

This beautiful quote neatly encapsulates everything that I feel about massage. We all know that there is a world of difference between a quick rub up and down from an amateur and the exquisite bespoke healing that you can receive from a master therapist.

A true massage therapist is without doubt a great artist - as one of my students put it “With these advanced techniques I feel like now I have a huge palette of colours with which I can create whatever beautiful picture I desire”.

Yet as the 21st century advances we are in grave danger of losing the artistry of bodywork. Increasingly, courses emphasize theory and research at the expense of teaching great touch. Powerpoints are more in vogue than palpation skills. The drive towards evidence based research, although vital for our profession, is triumphing over the skills of connection, intuition and mindfulness. On a course I was teaching recently, an osteopathic teacher of 40 years remarked ruefully “these days we are turning out osteopaths who are great at writing dissertations but are not so good at touching people”.

But it was not always so. When I first trained as a massage therapist in the early nineties, bodywork was still in the “post hippy” era. Massage was heavily influenced by the countercultural milieu of the sixties that advocated inner growth and outer social change. We were urged to “turn in, tune in, drop out”, find our true potential and inner selves. Massage was seen as a key element in bringing the beauty of transcendence and connection to others. Massage schools were founded by therapists who were passionate about their craft and incorporated notions of tai chi, healing, energy and psychotherapy into the basic training. Massage was about connection, flow, dance, meditation, growth and love. As a spiritual seeker in my late twenties I remember being entranced and delighted by the amazing magical world that was unfolding before me.

Yet somewhere along the way that all changed. In my home country of the UK, elements of massage became inextricably linked with the beauty industry and further education colleges started churning through high volumes of students, often taught by teachers who had never had a massage practice themselves. Tai chi, mindfulness and energy work were abandoned in favour of health and safety, white trolleys and poor body mechanics. In the USA, as the founders of the sixties reached their own retirement years, their cherished “mom and pop” schools were bought out by big business. Inevitably, experienced teachers left in disillusionment and schools closed in the dozens as profits failed to match expectations.

In the drive towards evidence based research for the bodywork professions, gifted teachers and healers started to lose ground if they were unable to back up their experience of a lifetime with a fistful of double blind randomized controlled trials.

I remember walking into the treatment room of an osteopathic colleague and seeing her shaking her head over a scientific article on bodywork muttering “how do they manage to make something so interesting so boring?”

The burning question is - in our drive to become more professionalized- have we thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? So allow me to ignite you with a rallying cry to bring back into our profession the very qualities that have made massage great throughout the ages. Let’s keep the advances of the past few decades – increased professionalism, voluntary regulation of the industry, minimum standards for practice, an appreciation of research and being able to dialogue with medics. But let us reclaim as a valued and necessary part of our profession the true artistry of bodywork. Let’s bring back to centre stage the skills of listening touch, mindfulness, great body mechanics, flow, intuition and listening with the heart. Let’s repossess as our guiding mantra “working with the hands, the head and the heart.”

Working with the hands

“Approach touching the client with the utmost respect for her sanctity-that is with reverence. This form of touch allows for transformational change to occur at a level of being that might take years to reach in non-touching therapies” Hugh Milne, cranial osteopath. (Milne, 1998)

Technique alone is not enough to obtain good results with clients. A more important element is the art of touch; the ability to literally develop “fingers with brain cells in their tips, fingers capable of feeling, thinking, seeing” (Sutherland 1914). The key to true transformation lies not in learning technique but in our ability to connect with the client, really listen to the tissues and be directed by the body, rather than our intellect. This skill is beyond science, beyond textbooks. This is the quintessential art of bodywork, the sweet place where we are able to let go of our ego, our fear of not knowing, and enter a place where we can just simply be. The place where there is just you, your hands, the body, the breath, the interface. In that state lies the key to genuine change.

Tips for Developing a Listening Touch You should constantly be working on developing your sense of touch. This will enable you to feel not only physical restrictions such as tight muscles and trigger points but also more subtle energies such as the flow of Qi in the meridians or the cranial rhythm.

Here are a few tips for developing your listening touch: Good body mechanics: This lies at the heart of everything we do including developing good listening touch. You need to be fully grounded and comfortable in your body to be able to develop the necessary sensitivity in your hands.

Keep your hands, arms and shoulders soft: Develop the habit of checking into your body especially your shoulders, arms and hands to make sure you are not holding them in a state of tension. Tense muscles affect your ability to really feel; your body should be relaxed but not floppy.

Focus: You need to develop a relaxed curiosity about the body so that your attention is totally focused on what is going on in the tissues. If your mind is somewhere else such as when your next client is arriving, how uncomfortable your body is, what you need to do later that evening or even what technique you should be executing next, you are losing a unique opportunity to truly listen to your client’s mind-body. Clear your mind as much as possible; good massage is based on principles of mindfulness, of truly being in the present moment. As we know this is a difficult skill to develop so just keep bringing your mind back to the body and your hands when you feel it has wandered.

Stay grounded: Really make sure you are connected to the earth through your feet at all times.

Slow down! Most massage therapists are working far too fast. When you go slowly you can feel more and give the client a much more relaxing experience. Relaxation is an extremely important part of the process of reducing chronic pain so never underestimate the power of slowing down your work. Always think to yourself ‘how slow can I go!’

Less is more: When touching the body, avoid the temptation to push, prod, poke and generally engage in a lot of busy work. Instead carry an inner sense of stillness, even when you are doing strokes that require movement. When you palpate, have a sense of letting the structures come to you rather than straining to find them. Do less techniques with more focus to achieve the best results.

Still work: Don’t be afraid to be still during treatment. Find places on the body where you can just connect with your hands and simply be rather than do.

Practise practise practise: Developing this ability to connect and really listen to the story of the tissues doesn’t come overnight. As Michelangelo famously said ‘If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all’. Developing your listening touch takes practise. For a massage therapist, practise amounts to time spent with your hands on bodies. The more bodies you tune into with focus, mindfulness and reverence, the better results you will get. There are no shortcuts. There are no tricks. There is no such thing as innate genius. No one is special, no one develops these skills without putting in the time.

The head Let us now ponder on our second quality of artistry – that of working with the head. The quote suggests that combining the quality of thought to the process of working with the hands adds an important extra dimension – raising the quality of work to that of a “craftsperson”. How does this translate to our art of massage? If you amalgamate the magical qualities of great touch with the power of analytical reasoning and an enquiring mind, then you have a truly dynamic combination. Great bodyworkers and teachers have a hunger for learning more about their art, for reading articles, books and attending training. It has never been easier to keep up with latest trends in bodywork and massage. The wonder of the worldwide web means that we can easily access (and even directly interact with) bodywork experts from all over the world at the click of a keypad.

Here is a brief run down of some of the major resources I have found useful over the years:

Journals and magazines Subscribing to an online or print journal is a wonderful way of keeping up with the latest trends and research in massage. I advocate that your reading material comes not just from your home country but from worldwide sources.

Try these great publications for starters: - a great UK resource pioneered by the lovely physio turned publisher Tor Davies. For a mere £9 a month you can get access to over 800 massage articles and other great content to give to your clients. Check out the website for a months free trial. Highly recommended. - this easy to use website is invaluable for keeping abreast of bodywork research. Download the free software onto your computer so you can effectively organize content – the interface is like ‘itunes’ and extremely user friendly. Once you are signed up you can choose to receive weekly emails to keep you up to date with your specific areas of interest. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies: ( - definitely the best journal around for new research into massage and related disciplines. Choose from an online subscription only or, if you love the power of print, get the shiny new journal delivered through your door quarterly.

Books We are fortunate in the UK to be home to 2 wonderful publishers of bodywork related books – the fabulous Handspring publishing ( and Lotus publishing ( Both these companies are founded and run by beautiful, passionate individuals who epitomize working with the “hands, the head and the heart”. Check out their wide range of manual therapy, anatomy and movement books to broaden your mind and enrich your soul.

The heart “I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness.” Walt Whitman The hands and the head are nothing without the heart. For me working with the heart is the magical “X factor” that is integral to true massage artistry. We all subconsciously yearn for the connection of a loving heart and holding a space of compassion can work miracles.

In Western society it is all too easy to limit feelings of love to our families or romantic partners. However, Eastern practices such as Buddhism teach us that our capacity for love is far far greater.

The compassion and universal loving-kindness concept of Metta is a central concept of Buddhism and the cultivation of this quality is a popular form of meditation (metta bhavana). Cultivating loving kindness for our clients not only enriches their experience but also our own. Small sample studies on the potential of loving-kindness meditation suggest many potential benefits for individual health and wellbeing.

The traditional Buddhist metta bhavana practice consists of dwelling on the ancient phrases:

  • May you be well

  • May you be happy

  • May you be free from suffering

  • May you reach your highest potential

I am in the habit of beginning and ending all my treatments with a few minutes of still work – hands on the body, grounding myself and focussing on the breath. It can be a lovely practice to mentally repeat the above words in your mind, dwelling on each phrase and really allowing yourself to feel the very real human connection with your client.

In a nutshell The most important thing is to work with your “hands, head and heart” and go forth and perfect your own unique art of massage – as Seth Godin, famous inspirational blogger and speaker puts it in his book “Are you Indispensable?”

“Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator. Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.” Godin and Hagy, 2010

Go forth, brave bodyworkers and make a difference with our beloved art of massage. As former President Obama famously said “We are the people that we’ve been waiting for.”


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