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Is It Just Me, Or Did That Massage Completely Suck?

Dear MassageLady;

I'm a 60-something woman who's had a handful of massages over the years, and after my last one, I'm stumped. The friend who referred me said in hushed tones that this amazing massage therapist "Z" always knows what you want, so you don't even have to tell her!

It's maaaaaagic

Z's schedule is really busy, and her prices are good, so I went ahead and scheduled a 90-minute session. I filled out some health paperwork online before the session, but when I got there, "Z" just told me to get undressed and get on the table and cover up with the sheet. She didn't ask me any questions, but I figured she was a professional and I went along with it.

When she walked in, she just started, putting cold lotion right in the middle of my back! I let out a little yelp, and she laughed and said, "Yeah, sorry, the lotion is pretty cold." It went downhill from there.

There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how she worked on my body (skipped my right shoulder entirely, did one of my hands twice), and despite me asking twice, she kept up with a really deep pressure.


I have arthritis in my neck (which I included in my paperwork), and I take blood thinners (also in my papers), but I figured she's licensed, so I must have needed that kind of pressure.

Every time I started to say something, she talked over me -- I now know more about her ex-husband than I ever wanted to know -- and with all that chit-chat, I couldn't really relax.

What were they thinking?

Finally, at the end, she simply stopped massaging and stood up and left the room. I waited for several minutes, thinking she maybe had to go get something, but she didn't come back, so I got up and dressed and poked my head out of the room. "Z" was gone, and the receptionist smiled at me and gestured that I should come over and pay for the session.

MassageLady, am I just being picky, or was that awful? What makes a massage bad or good?


Unsatisfied but Polite

Dear Polite:

Heavens, that sounds dreadful to me.

However, in massage as in everything in the universe, Your Mileage May Vary. Some clients adore a therapist who won't stop talking (why they like it is a complete mystery, but there you are). Some people prefer the session to focus less on ambiance and flow and more on "here is my painful spot, make it go away." And still others have never had an incredible massage, and just don't know what's possible.

That said. (ahem -- my bias will show strongly in the following paragraphs)

A Great Massage (the kind you'd happily pay a good chunk of change for, and then rave to your friends, and buy them gift certificates because you love them) can be compared to a terrific piece of music.

The Prologue:

There's the welcome to the concert, with a beautiful atmosphere, well-planned physical amenities, and good program notes.

In massage terms, this would be a reminder text or email, good directions, clear signs, good parking, and timely welcome. The therapist should review your health history, discuss your current needs or goals (relaxation? tight spot? pain? stress relief?), and the options available (aromas, pressure, temperature, focus, add-ons such as hot stones). Then you should be clearly instructed on how to get on the table, which should be very comfortable.

The Main Event:

Then comes the "performance" itself. A truly great performance is interactive between audience and performers, never the same twice, and adapts to the circumstances of the day. So should a good massage. There should be a definitive beginning, middle, and end.

The Beginning:

Once the client is on the table, some form of welcoming, focusing, grounding ritual or observation is important, to establish the massage session and the space as special and removed from the cares of the day. All attention should be on the client. This Author rings a Tibetan Singing Bowl and says a kind of mantra that reminds the client and the therapist that this time and space is solely for relaxation and comfort.

The Theme: the Entire Body:

To allow the client to get accustomed to the therapist's touch and energy, it's best to "touch in" over the entire body. Once that trust has been established, the therapist can begin to focus on smaller areas.


Warm it up! Whether the therapist puts it in a warmer, or they warm their hands and then warm the lotion in their own hands, a client should never have to feel "chilly shock." Temperature is important to getting the client relaxed.


As the therapist works, every move should feel inevitable. The therapist should telegraph where they're going next with body language, never jumping to a new area without a gentle "introduction" of hands or arms. Repetition of strokes and predictability of movement from body part to body part is crucial to helping the client relax.


The therapist should ask about client preferences before they get on the table, and then check in a few times throughout the massage, even on regular clients. What a client may ask for may not be what their body actually can tolerate, and their tolerance may change throughout the session.

The Finale:

It's a good idea to "touch in" with the entire body a few times throughout to enrich the whole-body experience, but it's especially important at the end. This Author always spends several minutes doing deep, slow compressions from the shoulders down to the feet, mentally consolidating the feeling of relaxation and comfort and safety, and then ends with a few lighter full-body brushes from head to toe, saying "goodbye" to the client. A moment of restful silence is wonderful, while the client is poised between aware and asleep, and the therapist is able to float in that liminal space as well.

The Postlude:

Therapists should always, always tell the client that the massage is ended, and that the therapist will leave the room while they get dressed. This Author typically raises the head of the table and then asks the client to open the door a bit when they're ready. A person groggy from a massage needs clear, definite instructions.

The Afterword:

The experience isn't over until the client gets home. The therapist needs to come back to the office and ask how the client feels, take note of anything they might want to change for next time (or what they might want to do again!), and give the client a chance to just talk for a minute.

Being able to express their happiness and thanks is part of the experience. Payment needs to be handled quickly and efficiently, and the therapist should offer to re-book for the next time, without pressuring the client. Then the client should be escorted to the door with a cheerful smile, so they can go sit in their car and collect themselves before driving home.

Dear Polite, I hope that you find a great massage therapist who makes you feel cherished and listened-to. You deserve it.

Yours Most Sincerely;


This is what a great massage should feel like: beautiful, peaceful, immersive, moving.
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