Ep 134 – Find Your Floppy: Eliminate Excess Tension While Working with David Lobenstine

Female massage therapist performing calf massage with her elbow

Can reducing excess tension during bodywork sessions promote career longevity? Author and educator David Lobenstine thinks so. David is a proponent of efficient practitioner performance, and during this podcast we talk about his recent article in Massage & Bodywork magazine: “Find Your Floppy.” David breaks down the myth that massage therapists must work as hard as possible to be good practitioners, and he provides guidance for observing your technique and reacting while working. Take the floppy pledge and learn how to work as a dyad with your clients.

Author Images: 
David Lobenstine, co-author of Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy
Author Bio: 

David Lobenstine has been massaging, teaching, writing, and editing for over 15 years. He is an authorized instructor of Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy workshops and coauthor of the book Pre-and Perinatal Massage Therapy. He also designs and teaches his own continuing education workshops, both across the US and online. For more information about David, visit bodybrainbreath.com.


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Handspring Publishing specializes in professional-level books for massage therapists, osteopaths, yoga and Pilates teachers, physiotherapists, and other professionals who use touch or movement to help patients achieve wellness.

Handspring Publishing’s books are written and produced to serve the professional and educational needs of health and medical professionals, musculoskeletal therapists, and movement teachers. Its list includes bestsellers like The Accidental Business Owner: A Friendly Guide to Success for Health and Wellness Practitioners by Kelly Bowers, Fascial Stretch Therapy by Chris and Ann Frederick, Fascia: What It Is and Why It Matters by David Lesondak, and the just-published third edition of Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy by Carole Osborne, Michele Kolakowski, and David M. Lobenstine. Handspring’s books combine attractive and accessible presentations with an evidence-based approach to writing, including referencing the latest research findings. Authors are drawn from the ranks of highly respected teachers and experts in their area of specialization including Til Luchau, Robert Schleip, Graham Scarr, Gayle MacDonald, and Carolyn Tague among others. ABMP members save 20% off regular list prices. Visit handspringpublishing.com and use discount code abmp20 to order. Shipping is free to all addresses in the United States and the United Kingdom.

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Full Transcript: 

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0:01:24.0 Darren Bufford: Welcome to The ABMP Podcast. My name is Darren Buford, and I'm Editor-in-Chief of Massage & Bodywork magazine and Senior Director of Communications for ABMP.

0:01:33.2 Kristin Coverly: And I'm Kristin Coverly, licensed massage therapist and ABMP's Director of Professional Education.

0:01:38.0 DB: Our guest today is David Lobenstine. David has been massaging, teaching, writing, editing for over 15 years. He is the authorized instructor of Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy workshops, and co-author of the book, Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy. He also designs and teaches his own continuing education workshops, both across the US and online. In addition, David is a frequent contributor to Massage & Bodywork magazine and has written many seminal pieces over the past decade, including Under Pressure for More Pressure, The Client who Demands Deeper, Less is More, A More Effective Way to Use Lubricant, and the focus of our chat today, Find your Floppy. Get Rid of Your Own Tension while You Work. Find those articles online at massageandbodyworkdigital.com, and for more information about David, visit bodybrainbreath.com. Hello, David. Hello, Kristin.

0:02:29.2 David Lobenstine: Hello.

0:02:30.2 KC: Hi, David, welcome back to The ABMP Podcast. We're excited to have you here today, and we're excited to discover what find your floppy really means, to get to the bottom of that. David, your teaching and writing over the years has centred on improving therapists' career longevity, improved functionality and efficient performance, and as a practising MT, I say yes please, to all of those, all three of them. I'm curious though, how did your passion for these subjects start?

0:03:00.9 DL: So I think it's always a tricky question, figuring out our origin stories as it were but... So I have two that I consistently point to again and again, the first, I guess, portion of my interest in the way we work and the way that we work harder than we need to comes from the very first massage that I gave. Straight out of massage school, found this wonderful chiropractor's office. I went in for my first day, my first session wasn't for five hours, it was a slow Saturday. So I just sat in the room, reading, watching the clock, waiting, waiting, waiting, so excited. And also more and more anticipation stirring in me. Client got on the table, all good. I am gonna give the best massage ever. I started with my initial Effleurage strokes down the back, crippling pain in my mid-back, in my rib cage, it was like as if someone, that whole think about like a vice being wrapped around you, right?

0:04:07.2 DL: And so I was astonished and horrified, and I literally thought like I am going to be an actual one-hit wonder where I literally give one massage and then I have to retire 'cause I don't know what's happening to my body. So I limped my way through the massage, went home and licked my wounds, and then eventually I realized there was nothing actually wrong, it was just that I was over-thinking my way out of it, and I was so determined to give such a good massage that I was actually working so much harder than I needed to. So I really do believe that this sort of career-long interest of mine really does stem from that very first massage and wanting to do such a good job and shooting myself in the foot, which I think is something that we do a lot.

0:04:51.8 DL: The other place this all comes from is that when I first started teaching, I had all of these exciting ideas about all these different techniques I was gonna teach, different methods of working on clients, and I realized class after class that I taught, the client... Sorry, the therapist really wanted to learn new fun techniques, but what we always ended up talking about was how we ached, how we were tired, how we were bored, all of those underlying issues that none of us want to acknowledge, and yet when we do let ourselves acknowledge them, that's where the real learning comes from, and that's where the real healing comes from, from us as therapists, which then of course allows us to be better therapists to our clients.

0:05:37.0 DB: David, what are some of the ways that MTs overwork? What are some of the things that you see when you're teaching?

0:05:44.1 DL: So there are so many, but I think they're all ultimately manifestations of the same thing, which is what I call an excess effort. So I think, massage therapists, as you're listening think about your own sessions that you give, chances are the places that you ache at the end of the session are the places where you're overworking. So I think there's probably like a top three... I don't know, maybe a top 10. But it's our thumbs, a lot of actual movement of our thumbs, which gets us into a lot of trouble, and then it's our upper arms and our shoulders, we all know about how our clients spend all that time with their shoulders hiked up towards their ears, but I think too often, actually, therapists end up doing that same thing in a session. And then I'd say rounding out the top three is the thoracic to lumbar spine, where we often, again, with our really good intentions to do really good work, we as the therapist end up bending more and more in our spine to get towards our clients, 'cause we have this idea that proximity equals power or there is something about being close to the client that makes us better therapists or makes us able to "see our clients problems better."

0:07:15.8 DL: But ultimately, it just means we have this excessive curvature in our thoracic spine, and so it causes a lot of mid and lower back pain. So these are the what I see as the top three ways that our pain or our attention shows up in our bodies as the massage therapist, but all of those come from the same root cause, this excess effort, this feeling like we need to work as hard as we can in order to be a good therapist.

0:07:47.4 DB: David, before we dive in deeper, I do have... I'm just curious, I have a question. Do you see this more in students and younger practitioners or more in experienced and tenured practitioners?

0:07:56.5 DL: Oh, that is a great question. So to all of the lifers out there who've been practising for a long time, you know, just like I do, I've been at this for a little more than 15 years now, "I think that I've got it all solved, I've figured out all my problems, where every massage is beautiful." Clearly, we all know once we get past our own egos, that's not true, and I would say one of the things that is so fascinating about this, Darren, is that I think it's just as prevalent in older therapists, in more experienced therapists than it is in students or brand new therapists, it's just the manifestations are slightly different, but the underlying problem, I think, is the same. It unites us all.


0:08:43.0 KC: I love that. And I think a lot of it's subconscious. I know we're gonna talk about some of that as we go a little bit deeper in the pod, but like you said, we just instinctively get closer. The proximity you were saying, I think that's just... It happens naturally as we're trying to do our best to help the clients.

0:09:00.2 DL: Absolutely.

0:09:01.3 DB: Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsors.

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0:09:41.5 DB: Now, let's get back to the podcast.

0:09:42.2 KC: David, one of the quotes I love from your article is, "Our client's relaxation should not require the opposite of us." Can you tell us more about the challenge practitioners have of using their physical body to give a massage that relaxes the client, while simultaneously can have the effect of increasing tension in the practitioner's own body during the session?

0:10:05.9 DL: Indeed, I think this is one of the foundational issues of our profession and is a really tricky one. When you're in massage school and you're super enthusiastic and you're ready to go, you are naturally delivering more muscular effort than is needed, it's just... It's part of what happens when we're really excited about doing something, it happens in all avenues of our life, it's why we shovel our sidewalk and then are sore the next day, or all of the things that we do that cause problems oftentimes it is this overworking or this over-efforting. But I think the tricky part is that we as therapists, oftentimes we don't see it as a problem, we see this kind of pain and strain and tension and even burnout as a normal part of our career, and in some ways, even as an honourable part of our career, that that is proof that we're a really good therapist if we can barely turn the door handle after a session because our wrists or our fingers or our forearms are so tired.

0:11:23.5 DL: And so one of the trickiest parts about the work that I do is just to give space for therapists to acknowledge that this isn't actually an ideal, and that there's a real contradiction at the heart of the way we approach our clients, that we think it should be this way, that we should hurt. And I don't believe that that's true.

0:11:44.5 DB: But David, the artist has to suffer.


0:11:47.9 DL: That's right, that's right. And without going too deep, I think there are real ancient elements of this. I mean we do live in this Protestant Puritan culture, and I think there is this kind of no pain, no gain mentality that shows up in all kinds of ways in our world, and unfortunately, we as massage therapists have jumped on that bandwagon as well.

0:12:15.4 KC: Yeah, and another quote from the article that I love is, "Do the minimum amount needed to create the maximum benefit for the client," and that is counter-intuitive, I think, for a lot of massage therapists because we wanna give everything, we wanna give everything we can, and sometimes it's relearning what that means.

0:12:34.2 DL: Yeah, indeed, indeed, it's relearning and I think deeper than that, which I think we'll talk about in a little bit, it's also acknowledging that actually the client doesn't benefit when we just dump everything that we have onto them. And in some ways, it's almost like it doesn't give full respect to the client's own capacity to be a part of this process, we kind of think when we're digging as deep as we can to get that knot out of the traps or whatever we're doing, it's almost as if we believe we have to like drag that client across the finish line, like almost against their will, when in reality, we know that life works a lot better when we let our bodies participate in that healing rather than just being forced to heal.

0:13:22.1 DB: Okay, listeners we're at that point, we wanna hear from David. David, tell us about finding our floppy.

0:13:30.2 DL: Alright, so this is a concept that I have been teaching for a long time now. And it is essentially the idea that the things we're talking about are very kind of ethereal and abstract, we can talk about working less and doing the minimum and all of that as much as we want, but then you get back into the room and you start a session, and it's very easy to fall back on your own habits, it's hard to know what it means to give the minimum effort necessary. So finding your floppy is my attempt to try to make this concept more concrete and more palpable in our own bodies.

0:14:11.4 DL: So what it means is, it's a way of observing the point of contact of whatever stroke you are giving, whether the point of contact is the heel of your hand or your soft fist, or your forearm or your fingers, and so the idea is that any of the... Any part of your body that is beyond that point of contact should have no muscle tension in it at all. So if you're giving a nice long Effleurage stroke with your forearm, then all of the parts, all of the joints beyond that, so that would be your wrist and all of your finger joints and all of your thumb joints, they should just be slack and floppy. We don't want them literally dragging against the client's skin 'cause that would feel awkward and not be therapeutic, but we want them to be just hanging.

0:15:04.1 DL: And so the idea is that if you can get into the habit of noticing all of those joints beyond the point of contact as you're working, just checking in periodically, it's basically like a warning light, it's like the canary in the coal mine. So as you see that tension as you see your fingers or your wrist or your thumb creeping up towards the ceiling or pointing or otherwise being rigid, when you're not using those, they don't need to be doing any work at all. And so as soon as you see that muscular tension or that muscular contraction, you can remind yourself, typically, I couch on your next exhale, you just think of exhaling your body all the way down to empty and then letting those joints flop. So as soon as you do that, the more you do that, the more the rest of your body is going to be in that optimal position where it's doing the minimum amount of work necessary.

0:16:06.6 KC: David, what do you say to a massage therapist who's thinking... Who's listening right now and thinking, well, a little bit of tension, if I'm doing a forearm stroke a little bit of tension in my wrist or any of my finger joints, how big of a deal can that really be?

0:16:21.0 DL: That's a great question, and it's what is asked in every continuing education class that I teach. We all want to sort of deny that the little things add up, but I really firmly believe that the little bits of tension contribute to bigger and more systemic tensions, so I'm really glad that you pointed this out, because the reason why I spend so much time bothering my students in the classes that I teach about looking for that sense of floppiness in their fingers or in their hand, is because it's... Remember, it's a clue, it's an alarm that tells you about the tension in the rest of your body. Because when we think about our body as just, as a series of kinetic chains, so let's say from the tip of the fingers to the shoulder, and then from the shoulders all the way down the spine to the hips, none of those muscles are working in isolation from one another. So if there is excess tension in your fingertips or your thumb or your wrist, there's going to be excess tension further up the kinetic chain.

0:17:36.8 DL: So once we start to identify and become familiar with the moments when we're efforting more than we need to, when we're contracting those muscles of the hand or of the wrist more than we need to, it reminds us to then check in with the rest of our body. And then the same principle applies following that exhale, noticing the tension in the upper arm, in the shoulder, in the neck, in the mid-back, and on that next exhale, thinking of allowing those muscles to soften, allowing those muscles to melt.

0:18:13.7 KC: David, you give a great example that listeners, you can actually follow along with right now as we are listening to the pod, but David, your example is about holding a magazine. Can you tell us about that or walk us through that?

0:18:24.0 DL: Sure, sure. So if you have something handy doesn't have to be a magazine, something that's non-breakable, preferably, and I'd say under a couple of pounds, so all you do is hold it in your hand between your fingers and between your fingers and your thumb, and then just bring your arm straight in your arm, and then bring it up to 90 degrees so that it's... Your arm is level with the floor as you're holding this object, as you hold it for more than a few seconds, you'll notice that the larger muscles will start to grip more and more, so the muscles in your shoulders, you're del toads, your biceps, they'll work to hold that magazine or whatever other object you have, now, this is essentially what's repeated over and over again in a massage, those bigger muscles start to work harder and harder and harder as our sessions go on, especially when we have a really annoying client or we're having a bad day. It's a guaranteed result.

0:19:30.9 DL: When we're having a hard time, our muscles work even harder than they need to, so the key here is just to notice the possibility for achieving the same thing, that is, holding that magazine while doing less. So now what I want you to do with that magazine out in front of you at that 90-degree angle, I want you to think of taking a nice easy inhalation in and then on your next exhalation, just think about loosening your muscular grip ever so slightly on that magazine. Chances are, you can loosen your fingers ever so slightly without the magazine falling, you can loosen the muscles of your arm and your shoulder while still keeping that 90-degree angle. So the idea is, and this is just a tiny example, but the idea is that in almost every situation, we can achieve the same outcome while working a little bit less.

0:20:29.5 DB: And listeners, of course, that magazine is Massage & Bodywork magazine.


0:20:32.5 DL: [0:20:32.5] ____.

0:20:34.6 DB: But David, I have a question, if you're asking MTs to be more self-aware as they massage, how do they do so and be there for their clients at the same time?

0:20:44.3 DL: So another great question, and I would say with all the love in my heart to my fellow massage therapists, that this is the biggest excuse that we offer, that we tell ourselves, "Well, I can't pay more attention to myself because I've gotta be there for my client." But I want to make it clear that our work only grows in its effectiveness when we work as a dyad with our clients. So a dyad, most profound example is of a mother and baby, nurtured in the womb and then cared for, but these diets exist in all meaningful relationships in our lives. There is a certain kind of symbiosis that happens where we are working together towards a common goal.

0:21:40.1 DL: And so I think too often we get into the sort of the healer mentality, which is that we have these magic hands and we're just going to work our magic and then we're going to make... And I emphasize the 'make' here, we're going to make our clients better. I think that's bogus. I think that what actually happens in meaningful therapeutic work is that we submit ourselves to this relationship to being a part of this pair, of this dyad, and together we provide some of the tools, maybe some of the techniques, but all we're doing is we're bringing out our clients' inner capacity to heal. So the only way that that dyad relationship works is if we're also paying attention to ourselves, to put it bluntly, we're giving ourselves a little bit of love too.

0:22:34.3 KC: I love that. All the love. I was just gonna say, I love that, giving ourselves love too. That's a lot of love.


0:22:41.6 DL: We need a lot of love.

0:22:45.2 KC: So David, I'm on board, I wanna find my floppy. I'm sure there are listeners who are also jumping on the find your floppy bandwagon. How do we get started? What can we do?

0:22:54.4 DL: So I think the first step that I recommend is in your very next massage, just choose one part of the client's body and pledge to yourself, whether it's while you're working the back or working the posterior legs, or working the feet, it doesn't matter which one. But while you're doing that, seven minutes or 10 minutes or 15 minutes of work, to just pay attention to that part of the body that is beyond the point of contact, fingers, thumbs, risk, whatever those joints are beyond, distal to the contact that you're making. And just check in with yourself once every few breaths, once every minute, however works for you, and notice when there's excess tension in those digits, in those joints. And then each time you notice it, here's the key, don't judge yourself, don't... You haven't done anything wrong, it doesn't mean you're a bad therapist, it just means you're human, but then each time you notice it, notice it non-judgementally, feel the next inhalation filling your body, and then on that next exhalation, feel your ability to let those joints go limp.

0:24:16.6 DL: It's a tiny thing, but each time you're able to do that, it means you have a better chance that your next stroke will be done with less tension. Your next stroke will be easier on your body, and will be more effective on your client's body, and then the more you do that, the more you'll also start to realize the tension in those bigger muscles, shoulders, back, neck, etcetera. And you can apply the same principle of following that exhalation, imagining those larger muscles just melting or sinking, or what I say, coming back to neutral. So we wanna practice that idea of letting those muscles come back to neutral, it's not that they're not contracting, it's not that they're not working, it's just we want them to work just as little as they need to in order to accomplish the beautiful work that you're doing.

0:25:12.7 DB: Even as we come to a close here, I wanted to ask one more question specifically about clients, you write that excess effort from practitioners have effects on clients. Can you describe that a little bit?

0:25:23.1 DL: Indeed, indeed, and I think this is another one of the myths of our work, that we can work really, really deep, and we can really cause a lot of damage to our own bodies, and yet somehow that only has benefits to our clients. And frankly, that's just not true. What happens is, when we are tense in our own bodies, I believe we're actually creating tension in our client's bodies, or at the very least, we're certainly not alleviating their tension. It's where it comes down to the nervous system. We like to think in terms of muscles, but the longer I'm a massage therapist and a teacher, the more I think that our work is really about engaging with our client's nervous system. So when... We have the autonomic nervous system, we have the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch, we all remember this vaguely? So the sympathetic branch is that fight or flight or freeze branch, the parasympathetic branch is that rest and digest branch. So when we are working too hard, when we are trying to force our client to be better, we are activating our own sympathetic nervous system. We are working from that place, literally of fighting our client.

0:26:47.0 DL: We have all had that experience. It feels like we're literally pounding on our clients muscles, and as you guys all know, more often than not, we don't actually change much, and the reason why is not that there's anything wrong with our clients, it's that we are in such a state of sympathetic activation that we're prompting that same response in the client's own body. We're actually prompting a guarding response, if we are fighting, then the client is freezing or fleeing. It's the same nervous system mechanism where they're thinking in... Or their muscles are thinking, I should say, "Oh god, what is he gonna do next? I better tighten up and make sure that I'm not hurt," because above all else, our bodies are self-protective mechanisms. So if our unconscious nervous system senses this problem, it's going to freeze to flee further.

0:27:47.0 DL: So we need to break that cycle and actually do the opposite thing, we need to work from a state of parasympathetic activation as much as possible, and I know it sounds like a contradiction, but we need to be resting as we massage. And the way we do that is by using just the minimum amount of effort, and then that is the kind of communication that we are then offering to our clients, that they too can move into that parasympathetic activation. And that's where the real magic happens, when we can really create significant change with our clients, but it's because we're not forcing anything on them, we're just working with their own body.

0:28:31.8 DB: I wanna thank our guest today, David Lobenstine for joining us. Find out more information about David at bodybrainbreath.com. The ABMP Podcast is produced by a team at ABMP, Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals, a professional membership organization supporting massage therapists and bodyworkers. Membership includes liability insurance, free continuing education, helpful resource apps like Five-Minute Muscles and the award-winning Massage & Bodywork magazine. Go to abmp.com to learn more about becoming a member. Thanks, David. Thanks, Kristin.

0:29:04.8 DL: Thank you guys so much.

0:29:06.7 KC: David, thank you so much for all that great content. I'm so excited to bring this awareness into the next session that I give, I'm really looking forward to trying some of these concepts.

0:29:15.0 DL: Excellent, I'm glad to hear that. And for what it's worth, I do really like to hear people's feedback from reading articles and also from now listening here, so I welcome you to just go to my website, bodybrainbreath.com, and you can email me directly from there and let me know thoughts or questions or things that don't make sense. I do try to get back to everyone individually.

0:29:37.6 DB: Thank you, David.

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