“… Some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.” Mark 7:32-33 (NIV)
I was called to be a massage therapist. My first-ever “practice stroke” at massage school was on dear Francis’s face, a fellow student. I will never forget the image we were given to help us move through the stroke: “praying hands” start at the hairline and sweep around to the chin. I tried it. As dramatic as it sounds, at that moment I was filled with the glory of the Lord. There is no other way to describe it. I was like Eric Liddell, running, in Chariots of Fire, feeling God’s pleasure. It was a distinct moment of “becoming” for me, a sure beginning in the work God called me to do.
Working as a massage therapist feels to me like holy, sacred work. I am more aware now of the preciousness of bodies, and how our bodies have the capacity to be, mysteriously so, temples of the Holy Spirit. I very often feel like a priest tending to the temple (1 Cor 6:19). That is, I work on temples of the Holy Spirit, the place where the God of Heaven has chosen to make His home (John 14:23).
At work, I am witness to wondrous, profound transformations taking place in these bodies. It’s hard to put this in words, but I’ll try: Each “body” that comes into my work room becomes a “being” in the room. I have a distinct sense of this “body” being an integral part of the person who comes for a massage. The body is the person, and the person, the body. We are bodies, just as surely as we are souls. That’s how we were designed.
Our bodies need care. When I can sense a body finding release and moving towards rest, the muscles begin to “remember” their original, intended state. The body longs to speak of the pain it has held, sometimes for a lifetime. There is a theory that memories may be stored in fascia, meaning that our tissues — the very cells that constitute our bodily forms — also house our life experiences. This means that the “stuff” of our bodies also experiences every thought, action, place, and touch that has taken place. I actually feel this experience, this truth, in my work sessions. I’ll get a “sense” while massaging these tissues — a deep inner knowing — about a person’s feelings and life that I couldn’t know otherwise. Again, it feels like what I imagine to be a kind of priestly role when I am in such intimate contact with a person.
Our bodies also need touch and to be apprehended through touch. Usually, in the course of our day-to-day lives, we rely on our senses of sight and hearing, and we tend do so at a distance removed. We listen to others’ words. We see their facial expressions and body movements, and through these two sensory lenses we quickly perceive, analyze, judge, critique, and evaluate them. But on my table the sense I predominantly use is touch. I do not apprehend them from an isolated, distant position. I am in actual contact with them, and reliably, their body “speaks” to me. It opens its secrets to me, which is sometimes painful, but often grateful, as if saying, “Thank you. I have so longed to communicate how I am feeling, what all I am holding of this person, how hard I am working, what pleasure I take in this soul.”
Naturally, I promote body awareness. It’s sad to observe, but especially among Christian women, it seems a basic–and I would argue, utterly false–presupposition that our bodies are simply our slaves. More often than not, we see our bodies as an obstacle to overcome. We tell it where to go, what to do, what it should look like, how it should feel, and are constantly disappointed when it “fails” us. Ugh. Sick again. Broken again. Looks fat. Feels sore.
People mainly come to see me once their body hurts. We hardly experience it otherwise. But when a person cares for their body by, for instance, getting a massage, the body responds to that care, just as a heart responds to a kind word. We can be aware of and grateful for the bodies that God has given each of us, bodies that he has called “good.”
I find that massage is good for me too. Massage is my art, a creative expression that allows me to give to others and be blessed in return. Massage gets me outside of myself and able to create a piece of work for an individual person. I get to create intimate portraits through my strokes, enabling a subject to see themselves better, even “feel” themselves anew, and appreciate who they are in a fresh way. Through touch, I help a person understand themselves better.
Like a painter with brushes and canvas, or a sculptor with clay, I connect my hands with layers of their connective tissue, especially fascia, the connective tissue fibers, primarily collagen, that form sheets or bands beneath the skin to attach, stabilize, enclose, and separate muscles and other internal organs. I sense slight patterns beneath the skin whether in the superficial fascia, the deep fascia, or the heart of the muscle. The feel is different depending on the length of time a muscle has been knotted (acute or chronic) and what type of knot it is, like an adhesion or trigger. Responding to such varieties of tissue and knots requires different strokes and techniques, and a good deal of creative discovery and even skilled improvisation. About a year and a half into my career, I pulled a supported arm out with one long gliding stroke and gently started rocking it in a figure eight while holding the elbow and wrist. The technique just flowed out of me. I could see the tissues gliding, softening, and could sense how the rocking and vibration loosened the connective tissue. New strokes and patterns and techniques emerge on my body canvas all the time.
Each body’s tissues have their own texture, affected by one’s workout schedule, nutrition, stress, attitude, genetics, and a host of other factors. Often, though not always, I find I know a lot about a person by how their body responds to massage, what their tissues feel like, how they breathe, and how they generally receive a massage. There are people whose bodies have a very hard time letting go; bodies that instinctively and involuntarily “lift” body parts as I attend to them. Often, they are the “helpers” of the world. They have a hard time releasing the full weight of their body to someone else’s care because they themselves are so accustomed to jumping in to help and fix. Their muscles take on this attribute. Over time, with regular massages, this kind of person, and their kind of body, learns how to “let go” to the touch, and hopefully this translates into their lives off the table.
I was called to be a massage therapist. My skills are used by God to bless others — to bless bodies. Each day that I come to work, I am transported from the busyness of life and the craziness of kids — I’m a mother of three young sons — to a quiet room filled with beautiful music. A person has come to me for healing and help, and I am honored to be part of their healing and their journey towards wholeness. What beautiful trust and vulnerability the client gives to me as they bring their whole selves, including their bodies in all their glory and humility, so that I may offer them compassionate, soulful touch.
Photo: Luis Solis