Martial Arts, Massage, Personal, Psychology

Why I Became a Massage Therapist

This is another personal question I frequently got from my students. I understand why, since it appears that cognitive psychology and massage therapy aren’t that related … right?

I thought I’d left teaching behind after having my first child; they were my top priority. I worked from home in a self-employed/contractor capacity for many years. Much of it was personally satisfying, but didn’t pay well and offered no benefits. Once my children were old enough to be alone unsupervised at home, I started thinking about a new career chapter.

I’d started training with my oldest child in a traditional martial arts dojo around this time. One of the first blocks we were taught required cocking the elbow back with the fist at the side of the head; and I couldn’t do it with my right arm. I’d injured my shoulder via a weird repetitive movement, and that bloomed into a frozen shoulder. My sensei recommended that I see her massage therapist for it, so I set up an appointment.

My only contexts for massage therapy up to that point were spa indulgences (by others, not me), and seedy sexual interactions (ditto), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a little nervous at my first appointment, but that vanished when I entered the treatment room and saw an enticing stack of books. At the very top was Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork; I vowed to get a copy and read it as soon as possible. (Reader, I did so.)

And then the massage started. We’d talked about my injury, as well as other things going on with my body and boundaries I had regarding being touched, so I thought I was prepared. But the massage started with my feet and lower legs—not my shoulder, which I’d expected to be the focus. I remember being slightly alarmed, but the therapist’s touch was so competent and soothing that I quickly gave in to the relaxation.

My massage was a 60-minute full-body massage, which is quite standard in this country. The therapist didn’t focus overmuch on my shoulder; it was addressed much like my other joints. But when I got dressed, I noticed that my range of motion had improved significantly. More important, I felt more relaxed than I had in years. What kind of magic was this that could relax my perpetually tense body–mind and improve an injury after about 5 minutes of focused work??

It was massage therapy. It was the power of professional healing touch.

I left that session happy that it had helped my injury, and determined that I was going to be trained in this magic myself some day.

As I was a single parent to my children at this time, it took me a few years to start that training. The local community college started offering a night program in massage therapy, which made it doable for me. I worked during the day as a copyeditor and proofreader, and in the evenings Monday through Thursday, attended courses. I had to pay for tuition out of pocket and I started the massage therapy program not having enough savings to cover all three terms. (I got a scholarship that covered the last term of the program.) I could only train in karate one day a week … but I was happy.

I was learning about anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. I was learning how to touch people professionally and compassionately, so that I could make the kind of difference in others’ lives that my massage therapist had made in mine. I was learning how to get in touch with another’s body … to develop and trust my intuition when it came to how and where to touch them.

Massage therapy connected with a lot of what I’d learned in my psychology courses, but also took me far beyond them. I learned about the necessity and importance of healthy boundaries, both personal and professional. I learned new ways to perceive bodies, through touch and through their movement in space. My intuition was expanded and strengthened. And although the phrase was never mentioned in any massage class, I learned a lot about embodied psychology.

As a child, I grew up deprived of healthy, caring touch; and I was a person who had a strong need for it. When I began dating and being touched in caring ways, my eyes were opened to what I’d been lacking. Becoming a massage therapist helped fulfill my childhood dream of working in health care, and gave me a means of educating others about the importance of nonsexual touch.

Massage therapy is a challenging profession at the best of times, for reasons I won’t get into here. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging. I’ve retained my license even though I’ve not been a practicing massage therapist for a few years now. Even if all I’m able to do is offer my touch to friends and coworkers in the future, it will still be worth it.

Massage therapy affects both body and mind deeply, and can help heal an astonishing variety of conditions. It strengthened my critical thinking; it improved my teaching; and it has made me a better person.

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