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Technique: How To Become A Better Therapist


To improve your overall skills as a professional, follow these suggestions.

By Elizabeth Cornell

Uproarious laughter, lots of talking and chatter: The noise always permeated the walls of the office where I used to have a massage and craniosacral therapy practice. “What’s going on in there?” my client would murmur.

“Oh, just another massage,” I’d answer, and turn up the soothing music on the stereo. Believe it or not, the therapist was doing most of the talking.

On the other hand, a silent massage can be equally disturbing. At a resort in St. John, Virgin Islands, I received a technically wonderful massage, but the therapist barely said “Hi” to me. He came into the room and began to work. To my few questions, he gave monosyllabic answers. During the massage, I could feel his hands, but I didn’t feel as though he felt my body at all. I could have been a mannequin from a store window for all the attention he seemed to give me.

When he finished, he took his hands off me without one word and left the room. I wasn’t sure if he had gone to get something, or if we were done. When I came outside, he had to untwist himself out of some impossibly advanced yoga pose in order for me to pay him.

The Ideal Massage

These scenarios beg the question: What constitutes the ideal massage?

First, you must be fully focused on the client. Whether your son brought home a report card full of A’s, or your cat has left fur all over the sheets you just washed—personal details should be left outside the door. Your client may not want to hear too much about you. They are paying you to take care of them, not for the privilege of listening to you. Imagine how I felt during another spa massage when the therapist spent the whole time complaining to me about the low commission she earned. She succeeded in distracting me from fully experiencing her otherwise well-done massage. Even if the client happens to be my best friend, Shari, I tend to keep quiet about myself and let her do the talking, if she chooses.

Consider the massage sessions you give. Are they chatty, as if you and your client were not engaging in a massage but rather having lunch? Are they perfectly quiet—so quiet, in fact, that you have to look at what you’re doing to remember you’re giving a treatment? Chattiness or muteness might indicate you are not completely “there” for you client. In other words, you’re physically in the room, but your brain isn’t. This state may cause your massage to suffer.

A good session will have a certain balance:

  • You have a deep sense of yourself. You are in the present.
  • You have a deep sense of your client’s physical and emotional state.
  • You have a deep sense of an unbroken connection between both of you during your time together.

In other words, develop your capacity to know what is happening inside of you, stay aware of the comfort and needs of the person before you, and maintain a sense of the immediate environment around you both. Trying to do this all at once might be difficult at first, but with practice it will feel natural and be an essential part of your massage.

One of the best massages I ever had took place in a room set above a roaring waterfall in Oregon. The therapist appeared quite happy to be working there, and listened to my needs. She worked deliberately and thoroughly. She answered my questions fully, but didn’t engage me in small talk. A few of her techniques were unusual, which made the massage, for myself as a massage therapist, more interesting. She succeeded in relaxing me, and made me feel well taken care of. For once, I truly felt I was the sole focus of someone else, rather than the other way around. Achieving balance takes practice. The more you practice, the better therapist you can become.


One way to begin any session consists of taking a few seconds to take inventory of your whole self. Note how you are breathing. Are you breathing past your neck? Breathe into your lungs fully, and remember they extend to about the level of the sixth rib anterior, the seventh rib laterally and the 10th rib posterior. The pleura (membranes) around the lung extend laterally to the ninth rib and posteriorly to the 12th rib.1 Breathe into your pleura, and feel it and your ribs move, as well as your vertebrae.

Take another breath and send this one through your body to the floor below your feet. Feel the floor supporting your whole body. This conscious breathing helps you “center.”

Author Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “We must go back to the present moment in order to be really alive. When we practice conscious breathing, we practice going back to the present moment where everything is happening.”2 If you can “be really alive” while giving a massage, imagine how great the experience will be not just for your client, but for yourself as well.

Make Your Space Safe

Take note of your massage room. Breathe into your space. How does it feel today? Imagine that the feelings of safety, trust and caring emanate from you and permeate the floors, walls—even your sheets and oils. Visualize ribbons of light streaming through the room, even though it may be the grayest, coldest day in January. The moment you put your hands on your client, feel your hands being confident caretakers for this person.

Concentrate On Your Work

When you find yourself in the middle of telling your client the details of the movie you saw last night, or find yourself distracted by the birds feeding outside, bring yourself back into your hands.

Check into the speed of your massage. It might be just right, but maybe you’re moving on cruise control: just one steady (yawn) speed. Perhaps you’re so fast the person may have trouble remembering which finger or foot you just sailed across.

Get a grip on your stroke speed while staying present and mindful at the same time. You will need someone to volunteer his or her back to you. It may be helpful to do this exercise with another therapist, who can give you knowledgeable feedback and more suggestions. The steps are as follows:

1) First, warm up the back normally and get a good sense of the skin’s warmth, texture and color.

2) Increase your speed to a much faster than usual pace. Massage as quickly as you can without making your volunteer uncomfortable.

3) Note how you feel and sense how the client must feel. Go through similar observations detailed in step one.

4) Slow down. Go so slow that you can barely see your hands move. Notice what is happening to the client’s experience. What is happening to the space around you? How do you feel?

5) Stop. Stop right where you are and feel the skin beneath your hands. Go deeper. Feel the muscle tissue, the bones and the viscera. Feel the blood moving and cells working to keep this body alive. Notice your fingers, palms and the oil between the two skin surfaces. What does stopping feel like?

6) Come to a point between normal and fast, between normal and slow. Notice how the skin feels. 

7) Return to your “normal” massage strokes, but this time experiment with different speeds. Surprise your client. Know the difference between too fast and too slow.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “When we are capable of stopping, we begin to see and, if we can see, we understand.”3 Once we master the ability to stop and notice, it will be possible to truly be with our clients and ourselves.

An easy way to add renewed presence to your massage techniques is to change your oil or lotion. I recently did this with a new massage balm I came across, and both my client (a weekly regular) and I became more aware of the massage and enjoyed it more because of the change.


Maintaining a sense of yourself, a sense of your client and a sense of both of you together may be difficult to do, but it is extremely important. “One of the most thoroughly neglected areas of body education is the awareness of what is happening inside—the dialogue between inner and outer experience in relation to the whole person. We spend much of our time involved in outer perception through the specialized sense organs of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. We are generally less involved in developing our capacities for inner sensing, which is the ability of the nervous system to monitor inner states of the body.”4 If we lack the ability to know what is happening inside of ourselves, how can we possibly understand what is going on with anyone else?

The following exercise will help you understand the differences between being distracted, overfocused and “just right” while giving a massage. You will need a volunteer. 

1) Warm up the back as usual.

2) As you massage, take a few moments for each of the following thoughts. Note how the quality of your massage changes with each thought:

  • Think about yourself;
  • Think about your shoes; 
  • Think about what you’ll eat next; 
  • Think about your next vacation; 
  • Think about someone you don’t get along with;
  • Think about someone you love.

3) As you massage, become intensely involved with what you are doing. Bring your head very close to your hands. Breathe deeply. How do you feel? How do you think your client feels? How does it feel to massage this way?

4) Pull way back so you barely touch your client. Focus on the furthest point away from you in the room. Don’t think about yourself or your client. Just think about that point. How does your massage feel now?

5) Begin to massage normally again. Things may feel different. Perhaps you notice a richer quality to the strokes now that you’ve experienced a spectrum of intensities.

The more you practice massaging in a present state, the easier it will become. And you may discover new things about yourself and creative, original ways for improving your massage.


“Mindfulness is a technique that teaches intent alertness. It means becoming fully aware of each moment and of your activity in that moment.”5

Developing your sensitivity to each element involved with your massage requires mindfulness, which means to recognize what is occurring as it unfolds in the present. To a massage therapist, it means knowing how you are while knowing how your client is doing as well. It means knowing how the two of you are together during a massage. Stephen Levine might have been writing about massage when he wrote: “It means entering the flow of constant change: the pulsations, the tingling, the heat, the cold, the hardness, the softness experienced as body. It is an investigation of the sensations themselves as they are generated at the point of inquwiry. ... Entering the moment with a choiceless, merciful awareness, an openhanded receptivity which seeks nothing except to experience life as is.”6

As you become more attuned to the quality of massages you give, every aspect of your massage technique will improve. The person on the table will pick up on the improvement, even if they don’t exactly know what the improvement is. You may find yourself less tired and more fulfilled after a long day. Learning these skills will deepen your understanding of yourself and may prove useful for other areas of your life, too.


Elizabeth Cornell is a graduate of the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has been a licensed massage therapist in New York City since 1993. Her practice primarily consists of craniosacral therapy. She can be reached via E-mail at: wisebody@yourwisebody.com.


1. Takahashi, T. (ed.). Atlas of the Human Body. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
2. Nhat Hanh, T. Peace Is Every Step. New York: Bantam, 1992.
3. Nhat Hanh. 
4. Olson, A. Body Stories. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1991.
5. Braza, J. Moment by Moment. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1997.

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