Have you ever given a massage to a client who was so tight that you felt like you were working on concrete? Often the client doesn’t even realize how tightly wound they really are. Attempts at a passive range of motion of the head, arm, or other limbs are unintentionally aided or resisted by the client. In these situations, you may ask the client to take a deep breath and relax, only to have them respond that they ARE Relaxed! A statement clearly countered that the “relaxed” arm that was outstretched from their body is hanging in space where you left it! If the client were truly relaxed, the arm would fall back to the table! Working with these clients can be challenging; however, when you find a way to help them truly learn to let go, they can also be the most rewarding.
I often try to start with an awareness exercise, such as the example with the arm above. The client really thinks that they are relaxed. Showing them that this isn’t true can be more effective than telling them. Tell the client you will do a few “awareness building exercises” and move their limbs around. Ask the client to relax and let you do all the work. Have the client lay supine, and you attempt to move the arm passively around the clock motion. When you feel resistance or aid, let the client take over, potentially to the point where you are no longer touching them. If the client keeps making the motion or if the arm hangs in the air without assistance, point it out to the client to gain awareness. Repeat several times, having the client take deep breaths, and practice letting you carry the arm's weight.
These exercises may, in and of themselves, help the client learn to relax so you can provide the most effective therapy possible, but it may not always be enough. If you know you are working with a client who has difficulty letting go, there are several techniques you can use at the beginning of the session to increase relaxation.
Consider using a 10-minute thermal wrap to start your session. The massage table is set up regularly (fitted sheet, flat sheet, blanket), and then you add a thermal blanket, an additional sheet, and a large bath towel. The client undrapes and lays on top of the top sheet and under the towel. You wrap the client and while they are wrapped, do gentle rocking and compressions. The thermal wrap creates a swaddling effect, which has a deep relaxation effect in combination with the increased internal temperature. After the wrap, the client switches into the regular massage set up, and you go to work.
Start your session with 5 minutes of gentle rocking and deep compressions through the top sheet. Rock with a slow rhythmic pulse and occasionally rock into the tissue and hold for a count of 10. Then continue rocking. Do this across the full body with several longer holds on each limb. I typically start at the hips and move to the upper body, switch sides, then come back to the hips and down to the feet, switching sides returning to finish at the hips.
Some clients are claustrophobic, and others don’t like to be rocked, so a good alternative to either of the above is to start your session with 5 minutes of slow deep compression across the whole body. Each compression is held for 10 to 12 seconds with pressure applied slowly and only going as deep as the tissue will comfortably allow. The force of the pressure should come from gravity, not from the effort. Place your flat hand, forearm, or fist on the area you intend to compress and allow your body weight to sink in slowly. The client’s tissues will naturally resist the right pressure. DO NOT push harder at this point; just rest there for the duration and then slowly back out. The pattern is the same as above – hips to head, return to hips, down to feet, return to hips.
Each of these techniques will work for some clients and not others, but generally speaking, one will typically prove successful if you try them all! Don’t give up! By helping clients find deeper relaxation at the very beginning of the session, you are guaranteed to have more impact on the massage itself!
Please give us your feedback on what does and does not work with your clients.