In the Media

How to look for the exceptional massage experience.

A guide for the massage therapy consumer.

By Tyler Watson

There are several things to consider about a massage experience that will help you shop smartly and increase your awareness so you can find the best possible massage.

What is massage? What is not massage?

Very simply put, massage is a type of bodywork, or body therapy. It is designed to relax the mind and body and also to enhance or aid various systems of the body to improve overall health and vitality. Traditional massage therapy can certainly address injury recovery as well. But it is usually an adjunct used with other modes of healing.

Other modalities (like Trager, Rolfing, or Reflexology to name a few), may use some aspects of massage therapy but they are different specializations. They may focus on specific health concerns or have goals that differ from the general definition mentioned above. Many of these other forms are blends of healing arts that include physical therapy, dance, yoga, movement therapy, psychotherapy, and various forms of energy healing.

Massage origins, East and West

There are two main branches of traditional massage therapy in wide use today. One branch, developed in the far East, is based on oriental concepts of holistic anatomy and medicine. Shiatsu, meaning "finger pressure" is the most well known Asian form of massage in the United States. Eastern healing is based on the premise that mental and physical ills begin with imbalances in the energy fields or zones around the body. In shiatsu, finger pressure is applied to specific points along the body that stimulate and balance the affected zones or "meridians," as they are called. The work is done on a futon or mat on the floor and clients wear loose fitting clothing during a treatment.

The other branch of massage is named "swedish" for the country that western style massage first became reestablished in. In the last few decades it has regained a respectable place in this culture. The growing demand is largely due to preventative and holistic health trends. Also, "sports" massage is a firmly established practice in professional athletic clubs. Many sports celebrities endorse the benefits of massage.

Swedish massage is known for long gliding strokes along the grain of the muscles, which enhances the body's circulation and immune systems. Also, the kneading or squeezing of the muscles and light thumping help reduce muscle tension and accompanying headaches. Light oils are often used to reduce the friction on the skin so deeper work can be enjoyed. The calming effect that skilled human touch has on the nervous system is another major benefit of this massage form.

What should I expect from a massage facility?

A good massage environment has a calming visual texture and is comfortably warm in temperature. The lighting in the room is dim-able so your eyes can relax as well. Outside noise should be at a minimum and you will hear pleasant music that you can choose to drift away to. Pleasing odors ought to be subtle as seasoning and not the dominant sensory input, whether you are an aroma therapy aficionado or not. There are some massage rooms that have such a build up of excess aroma, it can smell like a potpourri explosion. Easy access to bathroom and shower make the experience all the more comfortable.

How can I evaluate the quality of a massage?

Like learning to taste and distinguish between good and very good wines, it takes some experience and some guidelines to become a connoisseur. To begin with, your therapist's professional demeanor should meet the standards of any top notch service personality. Keep in mind that they are there to give you a unique and special service. You should be treated like an honored guest in their home. They will listen to your concerns and suggestions, and attend to your soreness or your desire to just relax more deeply with the skills they trained for. Conversation during a massage should be your option.

Beyond this, a truly gifted massage therapist will have the intuition, empathy, and natural skill to read and address your muscles like a seasoned sculptor examining material for an important masterpiece. They are people who are "born" kinesthetically sensitive and natural with their hands. Like the finished masterpiece beneath the block of marble, their skill is "brought out" in massage school--not bestowed. With experience, sensitivity and technique are refined and the work is thereby elevated to the level of art and science. Through their work a therapist will find and relieve stress that even you were not aware of. You won't notice the seamless transitions between strokes. When the massage is finished, you will have had the feeling that you attended (or participated in) a kind of dance performance that moves you to request an encore. Remember, as an art form, there are as many styles as there are individual therapists. If you are considering another massage therapist, be open to any gifts the new practitioner may have. Each has different influences and training. You need to sip a lot of different wines to know the range of quality and variety before you can truly know what you prefer.

Granted, it is hard to imagine a bad massage from anyone who is trying to give a good one. But it is also hard to find a really good massage, one that immediately shows you that all your past massages have been average. With the number of people changing careers and filling up massage schools these days, there is no reason to settle for an average massage anymore. It is time for the consumer to become more educated and expect a new standard of excellence from this profession.

Where do I look for a massage?

The quality of skill and service rests in the hands of each therapist, regardless of whether you try a well known spa, a gym, or a chiropractor's office. An establishment may draw customers with excellence in make-overs, personal training, or other specialty. Then, they might decide to add in massage therapy and hire therapists on the basis of personal contacts or appearance. The standards of excellence in massage therapy are not well known or articulated outside the industry. A well meaning proprietor may personally screen massage therapists based on what he or she personally likes in a massage. You are more likely to find a well rounded staff of massage therapists at an establishment that is run by massage professionals.

Word of mouth is still the best place to begin your search. It is important to ask the person who refers you what they liked best about the massage they received. Get as much information about the strengths and weaknesses of the massage practitioner and facility they used. Was it hard to relax with distracting noises outside the door? How long has your friend been getting massages? From how many different therapists? It may be the case that your friend has different goals or prefers a style that you would find too: light/deep, sterile/new age, or undesirable in some other way.

Learn to be a connoisseur of this art form, find a balance between your therapist's expertise in interpreting and providing, and your expertise in knowing what is right for you.

To discuss an on-site massage program or a stress management workshop for your company or organization, please give us a call at  215.765.8461 or email: