Massage therapists, we worry about burning out our hands. In school, we are greeted with a barrage of horror stories: tendonitis, carpal tunnel, ganglian cysts. And sure enough, the first six months I was in practice, I had tingling from my elbows all the way down to my wrists and a sense of dread – now that I had found a job I loved with all my heart and soul, would I be able to keep at it?
The tingling subsided once I got some strength in my arms, my body, my hands. But it took a while for me to really learn how to avoid tiring my hands and forearms out. In my continuing education, at the San Francisco School of Massage, I had the immense privilege of studying deep tissue with the superlative master Art Riggs, someone who wrote the book on deep tissue. Literally.
Here’s what Art taught me to do with my hands: Sink in – and wait. That’s it. That simple instruction has changed everything about the way I work. And it’s beginning to influence the way I’d like to live.
Usually, in massage school, you learn a lot of strokes: patterns you are supposed to move your hands in, shapes you are trying to make in the body. Art didn’t teach many of these. Instead, he suggested that by sinking, gently but decisively into tissue with no agenda, and simply waiting, the tissues will tell you which way they need to go.
This way, a massage session is not something I’m telling the body, but a question I am asking, over and over.
This method can occasionally be scary. At least once, at the beginning of each massage, as I sink in, I have a little butterfly flutter of worry: what if this time, my hands get no answer, and they just don’t know where to go? What if I get stuck in silence with no plan?
It hasn’t happened yet. I’m not saying I hear voices, or have visions, or could even tell you why my hands are moving in the direction that they are, but somehow they always start moving, and so far, this technique seems to be working out just fine.
Yesterday was the last day of 2011. To celebrate the transition, I moved into a new massage office. I have been working in the same space for exactly eight years. It’s been a cozy (read: tiny) space, but it has served me well. It’s been a place of refuge, for both myself and my clients. It’s where we go when we need a quiet cave. Within this cave, the massage table itself seems to be something of a tunnel – it leads somewhere. I have had reports from clients that they go traveling a bit, or have visits, or visions. Sometimes, of course, they just go to sleep.
That portal will move with me. I’m ready for more space – a little more room to move and breathe. My new office has room for real chairs to sit and relax in, for example, room to do a yoga pose or two.
So yesterday, as twilight gathered, I finished vacuuming my empty old space until it looked as anonymous as it did on January 1st, 2004. I lay down smack dab in the middle of the room in corpse pose. I thought about how days are long, but eight years can seem very quick. Massage still seems new to me, although now I have been doing it (and teaching yoga) longer than I have done any other sort of job. But when you let go of what you think you know, and you let every day be a question, the job always feels new, it always seems fresh and unexpected.
That tiny room has seen all sorts of suffering, both my client’s and my own. I’m pretty sure 2011 is a year a lot of us are grateful to put to bed. This time, the beginning of a new year, feeds our hunger for a fresh start, even though it’s not particularly any more fresh than any day, any moment.
Human beings, we worry about burning out our hearts. When faced with suffering off the table, my own or others, my first instinct is to jump in and massage it, make it a known pattern, an understandable shape. Like my poor hands those first few months, the heart can buckle a bit under the load.
What if I could apply these lessons of the hands to the instincts of my heart? Rather than jumping in with a plan to fix, could I let my heart sink into the moment, and wait? Stop trying to have all the answers, and, as Rilke suggests, learn to “love the questions themselves?” I honestly don’t know, as I’ve yet to take this approach to one difficult moment of my life. But let this be the year, let this be the day, let it be now.