The Art of Holding Therapeutic Space in the Treatment Room

A successful massage session respects the dignity of human need: the need for pleasure, the need for relief, the need for hope, the need for connection, the need for therapeutic action, and, at times, the need for supported solitude.  Over the years I have became more focused on recognizing which needs the client is bringing to the table.  With varying degrees of success I have learned how to adapt the session to provide for these needs.  It has required me to continuously work on making my sessions more mindful and more intentional, beyond technique.

That’s probably why the phrase “holding space” resonates with me.  Basically it means being fully present with someone, without inserting our judgment.   So holding space for a client simply means we provide a space in which they can just be, able to feel and reveal what they need to without worrying about how they are being perceived or someone trying to “fix it”.   

My practice is primarily made up of outcome based massage – with a majority of clients in chronic pain or with sports induced injuries.  So people come to me because they believe I can “fix it”, right?  Years ago I remember taking a Medical Massage class with Ralph Stevens who explained how we are responsible for performing our massage sessions with intelligence and intention - if a problem is resolved, then that is a bonus.  We are not the healers; we don’t “fix” things. Jenny Ray, another of my favorite educator, says “We are witnesses to the healing”.  I have come to believe that this is true. 

It’s also true that we are often witnesses to the frustration, pain, fear, grief and loneliness of our clients.  Over the years there has been lots of discussion about scope of practice and professional boundaries when dealing with these human conditions.   I’m not here with a definitive answer, just some suggestions.

 Most of us instinctively act as a reassuring presence when confronted with a client’s vulnerability and complex emotions.  For some of us it’s not so easy to separate the need for concrete action (to do) and the need to seemingly do nothing by offering our supportive presence (to be).  So from the pages and pages of research, I wanted to share my cheat sheet on the Art of Holding Space.

First of all take care of you and make sure you:

  • Feel calm in your body. 
  • Practice Mindfulness
  • Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy
  • Know your boundaries and when to remove yourself from a situation


Then work on

  • Letting go of judgment  and focus on being a steady, gentle, and  supportive presence
  • Compassionate listening - not only with your ears but also your heart
  • Allowing the client to have whatever experience they're having, without trying to influence the situation or control the outcome
  • Giving your complete undivided attention to the client- calmly maintain trust, safety, and focus
  • Not taking the situation personal, taking on their pain, or imposing your opinion or your ego


Your work is important; just remember that in addition to the occupation of bodywork, often times it’s equally important to share our comforting and grounded presence. Holding space requires humility, conscientiousness, the ability to step out of the way, and to understand that this is not about us. This is my current challenge.  Wish me luck


Be well, Do good work, and share your experiences so we can get the dialog going