The Stress of Relaxing

The Stress of Relaxing

By Amber Mills.

Before embarking on a career as a massage therapist (and later as a massage teacher) I thought massage therapists all behaved a certain way. I imagined they were all meditative, sandal-wearing, chilled out, wheat grass drinking, mindful, Ghandi-quoting Chia seed enthusiasts who sat around discussing their favorite chanting monk CDs.

In reality we’re often some of the most crazily stressed out people I know. Life doesn’t stop attacking you just because you do nice things for people. I’m often woke in the middle of the night by a terrible nails-on-a-chalkboard sound only to realize it is my teeth grinding together and that I had been dreaming about a problem student, or a new lesson plan, or even just a test I have to give the following day.

So could I use a massage? Yes, I absolutely could.

But do I ever get massages? No, I do not.

I asked some colleagues if they ever received massages. The answers ranged from never to maybe two or three times per year.

“I need to make time for this,” one of them wrote. “Teacher needs to practice what he preaches.”

We all know we should be receiving massages as part of a healthy self-care regimen, but making time for massage is difficult. If we did everything we’re supposed to do to stay healthy the day would have to be at least 50 hours long. I’ve done the math. Put aside eight hours for work and say an extra hour (at least) for commuting. Half hour of exercise, showering, six small meals made from only organic produce and grass-fed open-range non-fish-farmed animals, a few minutes of direct sunlight for vitamin D but not too much sunlight or you’ll get cancer, brush your teeth after every meal and don’t forget to floss, do the laundry because you work out for a half hour every day and there’s always laundry, do the dishes because you’re making six meals a day and there are always dishes, read a book so everyone doesn’t think you’re dumb, watch TV so everyone doesn’t think you’re a snob, and hey, and if you have kids, multiply all that by the number of kids you have. Floors, windows and bathrooms all need to be cleaned. Do you have friends? Do you want to see them? More time. Do you play sports or have hobbies? More time. Do you have a doctor’s appointment or a dentist’s appointment or do you need to go to Whole Foods to pick up the organic food and coconut water to get you through your six meals and half hour of exercise every day? More time! Sleep for at least eight hours, rinse and repeat.

I know that as a massage teacher the last thing I want to do on my days off is even broach the topic of massage (my trigger point laden wife will attest to that), so making time to receive a massage is next to impossible. I could just pay to get a massage but that seems silly since I know so many people that do massage for a living. I also don’t want to give a massage in exchange for a massage, as doing work before or after a massage kind of takes the point out of the whole relaxation experience. The only real option is the multi-day exchange, where one Saturday I massage someone, and then the following Saturday she massages me. But that requires scheduling and a two day commitment. None of these options are perfect for me, and I think many massage therapists are in the same stress-tossed boat.

How do the relaxers relax?

One way is I always carry a femur around with me when I’m teaching (at a massage school we have random bones strewn about the premises). I use it like a Theracane. I should probably just bring my Theracane to school, but I’ve gotten pretty good at using a femur. The head of the femur I can work into my upper traps and levator scapula, if I can back against a wall I’ll put the condyles on either side of my spinous processes and lean into them, and if I’m seated I can use the shaft on my IT Band or take the head and shove it into my psoas major (at the lesser trochanter). I can even work it around my sacrum if nobody’s looking. But this is at best a stop gap measure and will never replace a hands-on experience.

Whenever I can I remind myself to breathe deep down into my belly, which is good advice for daily living, but again, not a massage.

Hot bath? Same. Nice, but not a massage.

Many of my coworkers answered that they do yoga to relax. I’ve been known to unroll a mat, kick some Ashtangas and take Namastes, and afterwards I always feel relaxed. Would I say yoga is a massage replacement? I would not and you can’t make me. Yoga can stretch and strengthen muscles, but it cannot flush out and relax muscles. Yoga can’t tear apart specific adhesions or reinvigorate the healing process, and it can’t release a cascade of feel-good hormones in my brain like massage can. And as relaxing as it is the practitioner is totally engaged the entire time, whereas with a massage one can just check out and let it happen to them.

No, at the end of the day, there isn’t a replacement for a really good, therapeutic massage. I know that, and I teach that, but like many others I do not habitually practice that. All I can do is try to make my relaxation a priority in my life, and I think the key is to plan around relaxing. Put it on the calendar and write it down in ink. Don’t just wait for relaxation to happen: make it happen. Make yourself relax.

Nobody can be relaxed 50 hours a day, but the more we relax (and specifically get massage) during the small windows of time where we’re not dealing with stressors, the better equipped we will be to deal with those stressors, and hopefully not let them distress us. “You can either fight the waves or you can learn how to surf” is something I read on a bumper sticker once, and if you can get past the corniness of it it’s actually really good advice. It always struck me as something an imaginary massage therapist would say to another massage therapist while meditating at the beach, staring the sky and pointing out the clouds that most resembled their Chakras.

More about Amber Mills

Amber MillsAmber Mills – Curriculum Director

“It is my hope that our students walk away from Soma with confidence in their clinical massage skills and their ability to naturally help the body heal.”

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