Putting Self-Care into Practice

Taking care of yourself is imperative to you performing quality massage day after day, year after year for as long as you choose to practice.

By Mary Beth Braun, September 14, 2010

Empty winding trail with trees all around

As a professional massage therapist, you know it's imperative to take care of yourself in order to perform quality massage sessions day after day, year after year, for the length of your career. Essentially, you are a massage athlete who is continually preparing for a marathon, not a sprint.

A marathon requires endurance that must be created with practice and time. The critical question is what type and quality of self-care do you incorporate into your life and practice? The objective is to help you claim or reclaim your power to care for and preserve your body.

When you draw from your own, unique power you will not only preserve your body, you will be able to protect the vitality and longevity of your massage career.

The Power of Presence

“Presence is at the heart of all effective self-care,” says Eric Stephenson, massage therapy educator. “When we pay attention to our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual self, we attain balance and health.” In our supercharged, 24/7 state of connectivity and overloaded nervous systems, paying attention is the key to remaining connected to yourself.

If you don’t have any focus, chances are you’ll lose your rhythm and life will grab a hold of you in whatever way it chooses. Practically speaking, being present helps you deliver quality massage sessions. Obviously, scattered and poor quality massage sessions can result ?when you don’t concentrate on being present. So, cultivate the power of presence.

The Power of Breathing

The fastest way to connect to yourself and be present is to close your eyes and take a full, deep breath or two. Breathing is one of the quickest ways to change your physical and emotional state.

In massage, using your breath is important for balancing and centering your body, as well as for ease and fluidity of movement during each session. Here are a few ways you can bring yourself back to center before or during a session:

  • Close your eyes
  • Focus on your breath
  • Take a few deep breaths—inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth
  • Focus on feeling your feet fi rmly on the ground and visualizing roots growing from your feet into the floor
  • Breathe throughout the massage session
  • Anytime you feel tension or pain in your body, take a deep breath and adjust your position 

The Power of Managing Stress

We live in a world where the expectation is to be connected and available 24/7. With this in mind, your nervous system is overwhelmed and challenged to not only keep up but also integrate the never-ending stream of information into your experience.

As the demands of life and stress increase, coupled with the simple fact that, as a massage therapist, you’re expected to give and perform quality sessions, learning how to manage this input and stress is imperative.

Developing a stress reduction routine, as well as setting aside time everyday where you purposely “disconnect” from the demands, can help.

Some call this maintaining a work-life balance, but I call it learning how to live in the “eye of the storm.” The “storm” is the pace of life and the “eye” is where and what keeps you calm and centered. Here are some tips to help you find your own space to cultivate your calm:

Spending time in nature. Go to a park, take a walk in the woods or hike in the mountains. Sometimes, simply stepping outside of your massage environment and taking in the sun and breathing in the fresh air helps us re-energize, even when we only have a few minutes to spare.

Slow down and be still. Take five or 10 minutes every few hours and just stop what you’re doing. Sit or lie down on the floor, on a yoga mat or on your massage table and just be for awhile.

Do an electronic and news fast. Turn off your computer, television, radio and don’t read the newspaper or any news media. Most importantly, put your PDA, cell phone, or whatever device you use most consistently away for a day. If you’re worried about the challenge of not being connected for an entire day, start slowly, say an hour one morning. Then, try to extend the time to a full morning and work up to turning your devices off for an entire day. You’ll be surprised at how good you’ll feel and how recharged you’ll find yourself the next day.

The Power of Finding Your Unique Rhythm

In your quest to develop and sustain your unique self-care regimen, you might find understanding the concept of vitality and maintaining your optimal energy levels helpful. Energy is the core component of achieving and sustaining vitality in your life and your massage practice.

Deciding how to spend your energy each day and over time is the most fundamental testament to the quality of your life. Equally, the quality of your life depends upon how you establish your unique rhythm, which is a combination of the amount of activity in your life, the pace at which you live and the amount of rest you get each day.

How do you find your own rhythm? Simply, get to know yourself. Without taking the time to really get to know yourself, you will be challenged to maintain the continual self-awareness required to sustain your energy and rhythm.

Life, if you allow it, will drag you into its own chaotic and ever-increasing frantic pace. Find your rhythm and then do everything you can do within your power to maintain it. This is no easy task, but your energy and quality of life depend upon it.

The Power of Good Body Mechanics and Injury Prevention

According to a web-based study documented in Save Your Hands, by Lauriann Greene and Richard W. Goggins, 77 percent of massage therapists experience pain and/or musculoskeletal symptoms related to their work.

Further, applying pressure is the most common cause of work-related symptoms. “Being aware that injury risk exists, what the risk factors are for injury and, above all, treating symptoms early and effectively will make a difference in your body’s health and career,” says Greene.

Barb Frye, massage therapist and author of Body Mechanics and Self-Care for the Manual Therapist, advocates for a “no thumbs” approach, and encourages massage therapists to be aware of awkward postures and using massage tables that are the appropriate height.

Since applying pressure is the common cause of injury, learning to utilize your knuckles, fists, forearm, elbow and/or hand-held tools such as stones or an electric, percussive massage tool not only encourages you to expand your application of techniques, but can also go a long way in saving your fi ngers and thumbs from injury.

“Being aware of awkward postures when you are working alerts you that the body is out of good alignment,” Frye explains. For example, bending from the back instead of the hip joints takes your spine out of neutral and may cause low and/or mid-back discomfort or pain. Additionally, looking down or shifting your head forward may increase the tension, discomfort or pain in the neck extensor muscles. Over time, the ligaments in the neck may become irritated or the cervical discs may bulge. Frye adds, “If you feel pain or discomfort while working, shift yours or the client’s position or change your technique.”

Good workspace design is another element of your holistic approach. Space around your table is the first consideration. Having a 3-foot space around all sides of your table is ideal. If you have to work in a smaller space, try increasing your body awareness and adjust your postures accordingly to protect your hands and body.

Second, appropriate table height is important to maintain good posture and mechanics throughout your session. Generally, your knuckles should sweep your midthigh and lightly skim the table. Frye advises massage therapists to “always take the client’s body into consideration as well.” Adjust your table to ensure your hands or knuckles skim the top of the client without elevating your shoulders or having to reach too far across their body to perform your technique.

Listening to your body, taking breaks between massage sessions, and avoiding fatigue and exhaustion are equally paramount in mitigating the risk of injury. If you fail to listen, your body will eventually respond by tightening up or worse yet, developing an injury. Scheduling appropriate breaks between massages allows your body to rest and rejuvenate. You can also take time to stretch your own body, hydrate and mentally prepare for the next massage. If you are scheduled too tightly or have too many massages scheduled in a day, fatigue and exhaustion will eventually result.

Related: Exercises for Maintaining Flexibility

The Power of Lifestyle

“We all make choices everyday that affect our lives,” says Sanjay Guptha, MD. “The sum of those decisions equals about 70 percent of the factors determining your life span.” The body care components of lifestyle are not only fundamental to your energy, but to your health and vitality as well.

Sleep and rest, nutrition and hydration, and movement and exercise are at the core of a healthy lifestyle. Each area is interdependent on the others in your overall body care. If you neglect one area, the others have to work harder to achieve balance within your body and ultimately, this affects your energy level.

Sleep and Rest

Sleep and rest are your body’s vehicles for regenerating and recharging itself. The amount and quality of sleep and rest you get in any given day or period of time will affect your health, productivity and performance in any activity. Often, disruptions in sleep are caused by stress and/or your nervous system being “stuck” in sympathetic or aroused mode. Being stuck may be the result of day-to-day life, situational stress or physiological happenings.

No matter what the cause, without sleep and rest, vitality is unachievable.  Sleep is regulated by your body’s circadian rhythm—an internal clock that cycles every 24 hours. The best way to get optimal sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Most people have a morning or night circadian profile. Morning people generally go to bed between 9 and 11 p.m. and wake up between 5 and 7 a.m. Conversely, night people go to bed between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. and wake up between 9 and 11 a.m.

Practically speaking, knowing your profile will help you schedule clients within your optimal energy times. Of course, you know that scheduling clients often depends upon their availability. The key is to know your body’s rhythm and not schedule someone too early or too late in accordance with your own optimal energy level.

Taking brief periods of rest, between 10 and 20 minutes, enhances your alertness and energy. You can take a nap, lie down on your massage table, fl oor or yoga mat, or take a walk. Just slow your mind and stop your activity for a few minutes and recharge.

Nutrition and Hydration

The core principles of nutrition and hydration are fuel, energy production and optimal body functioning. If you put good fuel and water into your body, your energy level and body have the best chance of functioning optimally. Conversely, if you put bad fuel in your body, your energy level and body may not perform at peak condition.

What constitutes good fuel is a matter of common sense. Whole foods and quality protein are good fuel for the body and highly processed foods and drink with excessive sugar, fat and caffeine are poor fuel. Compliance to one extreme or the other isn’t critical, but you need to find what works for your body in order to sustain the energy and endurance required to perform, oftentimes consecutive, massage sessions.

Every 24 hours, the body recycles 170 liters of water to maintain the normal physiological functions required for efficient brain and body tissue function, as well as for transmission of information within the body. How important is water? Your body can go without food for about a month, however it cannot go without water for more than eight to 14 days, depending upon the person— later is essential for sustaining life.

How often and how much depends upon your body’s unique needs. A good indicator of hydration is the color of your urine. If the color is light and clear, your body is effectively clearing the waste from your body. If the color is dark yellow or orange, you probably need to increase your water intake.

Movement and Exercise

Movement has myriad positive effects on your physical, mental and spiritual health, including:

  • Cardiovascular fitness and healing
  • Circulation and blood flow
  • Muscle strength and joint mobility
  • Bone density

Exercise and movement include anything ranging from flexibility work such as yoga to resistance training to cardiovascular activity such as walking or biking to a combination of two or more these activities. From a practical standpoint, massage involves repetitive movements that increase the likelihood of injury. So, move and exercise for health and longevity in your massage career.

The Power of Community and Support

Life and business are about relationships. Relationships thrive under one condition—quality, carefree time. Spending time with those you love and those who support you personally and professionally is critical to your success. As massage therapists, no matter what the work environment, we’re often isolated in a room with one other person to whom we are giving an enormous amount of our energy and time. Connecting with close friends and family is important for our personal and professional support.

Connecting with other massage therapists on a consistent basis to share challenges, general client treatment and business related issues can invigorate you and may go a long way to prevent burnout. So join the local chapter of your professional association or start a weekly or monthly gathering of a few local therapists. Further, fi nd a mentor—someone who has been practicing longer than you and/or is trained in the technique that you are or would like to learn and establish a regular time to connect.

Taking care of your body will go a long way in promoting your health, your ability to be present and maintain your own rhythm. After all, your life and the longevity of your career depend upon it.