Neck, shoulder, back, wrist, and hand pain are common complaints among massage therapists. Self-care advice abounds, ranging from exercise and stretching to practicing good body mechanics. Another option is to use a somatic practice to create more awareness and ease within your body.
These practices help you identify habits and patterns of tension and movement that don't serve you and then help you change them. Many somatic practices exist. Let's look at three: Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and Hanna Somatic Education.
Actors and musicians know the Alexander Technique as a way to improve how they perform. It can do the same for massage therapists. "Massage therapists can move with less muscular tension, less effort, more joint mobility, and a lengthened spine," explains Sharon Jakubecy, an Alexander Technique teacher in Los Angeles.
Alexander Technique teachers work with students individually and in group classes. On an individual level the teacher watches how you move, including how you walk, sit down and stand up, and do a massage. Using their hands, teachers gently guide you to movements that release tension. You also receive instructions on how to consciously change movement patterns in daily life with thoughts such as "consider your head is leading the spine up."
Jakubecy offer three specific suggestions massage therapists can put into practice. First, don't bend from your waist but from your hips. Second, don't let your head dip forward of your spine while you work. Third, pay attention to your movement and body as you work.
The Feldenkrais Method
"Self-use is perhaps a more detailed and sophisticated concept than body mechanics," says Helen Pelton, a former massage therapist who is now a Feldenkrais Practitioner in Port Townsend and Seattle, Washington. "Rather than having a prescribed template for 'correct body mechanics,' you become aware of your body's experience. You find a responsive and spontaneous way to work with the greatest ease and pleasure with each client."
Feldenkrais practitioners help you develop that awareness in two ways. In Awareness Through Movement (ATM) group classes, the practitioner verbally leads you through movements that let you explore how you move and find pathways of ease. In Functional Integration one-on-one sessions, the practitioner provides hands-on movement guidance for increasing ease in your body. The Feldenkrais Method develops your awareness and reprograms your nervous system to create better movement habits.
Hanna Somatic Education
Hanna Somatics uses slow, gentle movements called somatic exercises to change your muscular system by changing your central nervous system. "The key to effectively using the exercises is to do the movement, undo it as slowly as possible, and then stop and rest," says Edward Barrera, a Hanna Somatic Educator in Port Orchard, Washington. "Use the least amount of effort and feel as much as you can."
Hanna Somatic Educators teach people how to self-regulate tension and become aware of their own proprioception using both hands-on sessions and group somatics classes. Some educators will work with you by web cam, watching you move and then verbally guiding you into movement patterns.
Barrera's tips for massage therapists? Move from your center. Take short somatic movement breaks during the day to readjust your body.
Developing more ease in how you do massage benefits both you and your clients. Clients feel how well you move, and their bodies pick up on your tension. Your attention to creating more ease in your body will transfer to your client. Consider exploring a somatic practice (or several) to find how it can help you make healthier choices in how you work.
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