Keep Calm and Massage On

By Allissa Haines

It’s common to hear massage therapists ask the question, “What should I do when my client just won’t relax?
She keeps her eyes open and her body stays stiff through the whole massage!”
My short answers, often delivered with a certain amount of impatience, are any combination of the following: “Get over it,” “Stop trying to get her to relax,” “Let it go. The massage is not about you,” “Why do you care if she relaxes or not?” or again ... “Get over it.” But massage isn’t black and white, and this topic is nothing to be impatient about. There are many factors to consider, and the answer will vary from client to client and therapist to therapist. This question demands we dive into the complexities of treatment goals, relaxation, and communication.
It’s important, first, to clarify what we’re talking about. Are you expecting the client to fall into an almost-sleeping state? This refers to the client’s mind and how/if it slows down (often bringing the body along with it).
Are you looking for the client to go limp when you are moving her arms and legs around, or perhaps not stiffen up her muscles while you work on them? This is about the client’s ability to relax her muscles.
These are very different expectations. And to make it even more confusing, who’s to say that what you think of as relaxed is what the client’s mind and body reads as relaxation? Every body and mind is different. Even though there’s considerable overlap in relaxation of the mind and the body, I’m going to tackle each separately.
When we consider a client’s mental state, and how he unwinds (or doesn’t) during a massage, the very first question we ask should be, “Is the client there to relax?”
What Kind of Massage Does Your Client Want (or need)?
Oftentimes, we make the incorrect assumption that a massage must be relaxing. This is not the truth. We wouldn’t want an athlete to fall into a droopy stupor 10 minutes before the big game. We don’t want to send a desk jockey back to a cubicle unable to function after a 15-minute chair massage. But not all standard, on-the-table massage needs to be relaxing, either.
Yes, some clients just want an hour to themselves, and a massage appointment provides an excuse to shut off the phone and ignore the world. But a client coming in for regular plantar fasciitis treatment or a nasty quadratus lumborum spasm has no interest in a nap. She wants the pain gone, and that trumps any other potential benefit of massage.
To answer the question—“Is the client there to relax?”—you’ll need to ask the client. This may seem a little awkward, especially if you’ve been treating her for a while and aren’t sure how to broach the topic. Here’s one of my favorite scripts to start that conversation, typically during the intake process before the treatment:
“I want to check in about the results you want from massage, and if we need to make some changes to your treatments. Do you feel like we’re making a difference with that plantar fasciitis? Is there anything else nagging you that we should address?”

Discuss the answers, and decide if you wish to add, “Are you finding the massage relaxing? It’s not necessary that you feel mellow when you leave here, but I want to be sure you’re getting the results you want.”
The way you phrase these questions may be different, but this script can serve as a starting point.
Bottom line: if the client is not interested in relaxation and is otherwise happy with the massage, there is no issue here. Stop harping on it and move along. If the client does want to experience a little more of the relaxation aspect, there are a variety of techniques and suggestions you can offer to get her there.

Guide the Client Toward Relaxation
What if the client isn’t there to relax, but you feel it would be beneficial to her progress?
First, let’s be sure that’s not your ego talking. Take a moment to be certain you are not imposing your idea of a massage or your idea of relaxation onto the client. Sure, it’s fair to say that physiological relaxation is generally good for the body. But that’s a big-picture concept. In reality, 30 minutes of semiconsciousness once a month isn’t going to make that much of an impact on the improvement of your client’s carpal tunnel syndrome. The soft-tissue work is what matters.
If you still feel strongly that zoning out will help the client achieve her goals, you’ll need to express that. Here’s a script:
“I want to make sure you’re getting the full benefit of massage, and some of that involves deep relaxation during your session. So I’m going to suggest we don’t talk at all today, and instead, you try to let your mind go blank, or maybe think of your happy place.”
This script may or may not work for you and your style of communication. Adjust it to fit your needs. If the client is on board, awesome. If the client is not interested, get over it. This is your issue, not the client’s. And your issues have no place in the treatment room.

Establish a Foundation for Relaxation
Now that you’ve decided to encourage a little more mental relaxation during the massage and the client is on board, how exactly do you accomplish it?
With new clients, it starts with what you do well before the client ever calls you or enters your treatment room.

Start with the Booking Process
Great professional relationships begin well before a client gets on your table. They begin the moment a potential client picks up your business card or lands on your website.
Be sure your website is simple and easy to navigate. Ditch the fancy music and animations. Many people are browsing the web while at work or in line at a store, and don’t appreciate surprise wind chimes and pan flutes, or videos that start on their own.

Tell Clients Who You Are
Have a great biography on your “About” page, and include a professional head shot. Remember to include bits about your activities in the community, and avoid using jargon and details about continuing education classes, credentials, and modalities clients won’t understand.
If you practice any specialized modalities, your blog is a great place to describe those techniques and why someone may want to try them. Frequently asked questions like, “Do I have to take all my clothes off for a massage?” are great topics for blog posts, too.
After a few minutes on your website, potential clients should feel like they know a little bit about you as a professional and know what to expect during a massage. If you’ve done your job well, they will schedule an appointment.

Clean Your Office
This sounds silly, but it’s something we often overlook. If a client is putting her rings on a dusty shelf or looking at oil stains on the carpet, she may find it hard to relax on the hopefully clean sheets. Turn all the lights on and clean your space well and often.

Shut Out Noise
This is also a no-brainer. Run a fan or an air cleaner for white noise and place near the source of the noise (usually a door or window). That’s it. A little goes a long way here.

Provide a Safe Space
There are a variety of ways to help clients feel comfortable with the massage experience. Providing a welcoming environment, from the first contact throughout the entire experience, will only increase your clients’ ability to relax on your table.

Establish Rapport from the Start
As soon as you book the appointment, send a confirmation email with directions to your office and any information your client might need.
You could also include links to your site’s “Frequently Asked Questions,” other blog posts, your cancellation policy, or just a short and simple explanation of what to expect at their first visit.

Ask About the Music
It could be that the client cannot stand your Mozart for Massage or your chime-filled nature noises, but is too shy to say anything. Have a few options on hand and start asking clients what they want.
Try saying, “I’ve got some new music on the iPod; are you feeling like mellow piano or oceans and chimes today?” Let the client choose and see if that changes the tone of the session. Better yet, encourage clients to bring in their own CD or playlist for massage music.

Provide Guidance
Clients may need some instruction on what to do and what to think about during the massage. If you have any training in breathing or meditation techniques, now is the time to show off your smarts. If you don’t have any training and this is important to you, get some.
What not to say: “Relax,” “Calm down,” or “Breathe.”
Personally, I think telling someone to breathe is all sorts of pretentious and self-righteous. My friend Tracy says, “I don’t instruct people to breathe. I’m not against it entirely; I just don’t like when I’m told how to breathe. I’m alive. I think I breathe OK.” I agree with Tracy.
These sentiments can be expressed much better in a full sentence that buffers the direct order. Be creative, gentle, and avoid sounding bossy.

Recognize When Relaxation is Important (and when it’s not)
With all these tips and tricks, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that you can help every client relax on your table. This is just not so. And, more importantly, overemphasizing the "need" to relax may leave a client frustrated and feeling like a failure.
After the mental aspects of relaxation, we must consider how the physical body reacts during a massage.
Some people naturally tense their arm (or neck, or toe) when you start to massage that area. It’s often tough to know if the client is feeling pain, is ticklish, or if this is just his natural reaction to touch on that particular area of the body. If this is interfering with the efficacy of the massage, it needs to be addressed. If it’s not interfering, leave it alone.
When this happens, ask the client what’s up. You know his body tensed up. He knows it. Just ask, “Is this too much pressure? Or does it tickle?” Move forward according to his answer.
My friend Megan pointed out, “We tend not to think of receiving massage as a skill, but with practice, it does get so much easier to just be heavy on the table.”
If clients just need to learn how to not tense up, I usually say, “It takes some practice to learn how to let go. Try this: take a deep breath in, and when you exhale, think about letting your whole body sink into the table and be floppy.” And maybe I’ll shake or rock the area a little to help them loosen up.
Some people will automatically help you move a limb, or lift their head as you massage. Once again, we need to determine if a situation even demands a change. Does it matter if the client is helping to lift her leg? No, really: I’m asking. We’re taught to take the weight of the limb, or head, etc. But that doesn’t mean we have to, every single time.
If the client helps you move his leg, but once he’s adjusted, the muscles stop contracting, that’s just fine. Nothing to see here, move along. This is your issue, not the client’s, and his helping is not influencing the benefits of massage either way. If it truly matters and you must address it, try saying, “You can let your whole leg stay floppy, and I’ll do all the work.”
Sometimes it does matter. If we’re trying to do some passive motion with the shoulder and the client is bracing the whole arm, the benefits of the technique are negated.
In this situation, there are all sorts of cues to encourage a client to relax the body and let you bear the weight of a limb. My favorite is a gentle shake while saying, “Let your whole arm drop. I’ve got you.” If he can’t seem to let it go, do what you can and move on. As massage therapists, it’s our job to adapt and adjust to each of our clients and their individual needs.
So, what should you do when your client doesn’t relax? Explore the client’s goals, consider your options, and maybe (or maybe not) try some of the tricks of the trade above. Then, give yourself permission to relax about this topic.

Allissa Haines is a massage therapist with a private practice in Massachusetts. She teaches online marketing at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy and continuing education events throughout the United States, and can be found giving marketing resources to massage therapists at