To Relax or not to Relax? That is the question!

Get the Best Massage for You

By Allissa Haines

When we think of massage, most of us think of quiet music, a darkened room, and extreme relaxation. That said, relaxation is not required to enjoy a great massage.
We know relaxation is good for the body. But some massage is about treating pain or dysfunction, and the technique may require lots of feedback from you as the therapist works.
For example, in Active Isolated Stretching, a technique useful for relieving pain and treating many types of injuries, the client and therapist work together to target specific muscles and coordinate breathing with stretches. The client is actively involved in movement and stretching, and, without that collaboration, the technique would not be effective.
In Ashiatsu treatments, the therapist uses his or her feet and body weight (and bars attached to the ceiling) to provide very deep pressure. It’s important for the client to provide feedback about depth and sensation, so that the massage is both effective and safe.
There are plenty of benefits of massage that don’t require you to sink into a meditative state. Massage can be useful in reducing the thickness of scars and improving the elasticity of skin around them. Just 15 minutes of hand massage once a week may decrease pain and increase grip strength in people with arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. And massage is a great tool to increase range of motion, reduce spasms and cramping, and release endorphins—the body’s natural painkillers.
Even if you’re not addressing a specific condition or injury, perhaps your massage is a middle-of-the-day break and you don’t want to go back to work groggy. It’s perfectly OK to get a massage and not treat it like an ultimate relaxation session.

Determine Your Goals
Everyone seeks massage for different reasons. What are yours? Discussing your goals will help your therapist create the right massage for you. Perhaps that nagging hamstring is slowing down your softball game. The types of massage and stretching appropriate for this treatment may not be conducive to relaxation. In fact, a massage-induced catnap could make it harder for the therapist to isolate the offending muscle and treat it efficiently.
For many people, their massage appointment is the only time they can shut their phone off and truly disconnect from the world. In this situation, relaxation is appropriate.
It’s also possible that the type of massage you want will combine just the right amount of communication and still allow you to rest.
For example, the complexities of prenatal massage demand great communication to ensure positioning is comfortable and stays that way through the massage. Likewise for oncology massage, when frequent communication will ensure the client is at ease and feeling well during the session.
In situations like these, therapists with advanced training are great at providing safe and effective massage while maintaining an environment that allows a client to fully relax.

Determining the Length of Your Massage Treatment
Your goals, as well as your schedule and your budget, can help you and your therapist decide how long each session should be, and the duration of your treatment plan.
If you just want to keep that shoulder loose for golf with a massage during your lunch break, 30 minutes once a week through the season will likely do the trick.
If you have a chronic issue with migraines and know that stress and anxiety are contributing factors, you may find that a 60- or 90-minute massage every 2–4 weeks is most helpful. Your therapist can work with you to create the treatment plan that meets your needs.
You may find that over time your preferences change. After you recover from the issue that brought you to massage, you may decide to come back regularly for short touch-ups to keep you on track. Or perhaps you’ll prefer a maintenance plan of a regular, longer treatment that incorporates both relaxation and targeted work to your problem area.
Even if you think you don’t need to chill out, you’ll still benefit from the following tips that can help even the tensest client relax during a massage.

Tip #1
Be Patient with Yourself
Receiving massage is a skill. It takes practice. Being calm and quiet and letting someone else move your limbs or hold the weight of your head doesn’t come naturally to everyone. As you get more massage, you’ll find it easier to let the therapist do the work. And if you don’t? That’s fine, too.

Tip #2
Keep Your Clothes On, Or Take Them Off
One of the most common questions massage therapists hear is, “Do people take all their clothes off for massage?” The usual answer is something like, “Undress to your level of comfort.”
That can be confusing when you’re already feeling nervous about your first massage, or just your first treatment with any particular therapist. I’m not always sure what “my level of comfort” is, or what the therapist prefers.
If the therapist requests that you undress, you may be uncertain if you’re supposed to take your undergarments off or leave them on. If the therapist expects to do lots of low back, hip, and hamstring massage, he or she may suggest that you remove your underwear along with the rest of your clothes. That doesn’t mean you have to—it’s just a suggestion.
No matter what, you’ll always be covered (draped) with a sheet and a blanket. You’ll never be left feeling exposed or chilly. A specific area will be undraped while being massaged and re-draped when your therapist moves on to another area.
If the technique requires lots of movement, like Thai massage or Active Isolated Stretching, you may be instructed to come to the session in loose, comfortable clothing. If so, you know you’ll be leaving all your clothes on during the treatment.
Here’s a little secret: whatever you decide is just fine. Really. If you’re most comfortable with your underwear on, leave ’em on. If you wish to remain completely clothed, talk to your therapist about what techniques will work best for you.
A great therapist will work with you to help you feel comfortable and respect your preferences during a treatment.

Tip #3
Talk to Your Massage Therapist
Tell the therapist if you’re too cold or warm. Let the therapist know if your neck is getting achy and you would like to reposition the face cradle.
We love it when you speak up to tell us that the pressure is a bit too much or direct us to that one nagging spot in your shoulder. Hate the music? Say something. This is your time, and we want you to get a great massage.

Tip #4
Don’t Talk to Your Massage Therapist
Talking is a great way to fill silence, especially the awkward silence if you’re nervous at the start of your massage. But if you decide you want quiet, and your therapist is on a conversational roll, it’s fine to mention this. Wait for a pause, take a deep breath in and let it out purposefully. Say, “OK. I’m going to stop talking, so I can really relax now.” Your therapist will take your cue.

Tip #5
Relax Your Body
Sometimes during a massage you may tense up or flinch. If it’s because something hurts, let your therapist know right away so she can change the pressure or technique. If it’s just a reflex, know that it’s normal. Take a deep breath, let it out, and think about letting your whole body be heavy and sink into the massage table.
If you tense up again, do the same thing. It’s no big deal if you sneeze, pass gas, or your stomach grumbles. It’s OK to fidget. It’s fine to wiggle your toes, sniffle, or scratch your nose. Do what makes you comfortable and know you’ll get just as much benefit.

Tip #6
Relax Your Mind
Even if you find it easy to let your eyes close and your body sink into the massage table, you may find it tough to quiet the noise in your mind. You may catch yourself writing grocery lists or thinking about that big project at work. Again, this is perfectly normal, and it takes practice to be still.
If your mind starts to race or you’re just thinking too hard, take a moment to focus on your breathing. Notice how you breathe in and out. Feel your belly rise and fall with each breath.
When a thought comes into your mind, don’t fight it. Just acknowledge it and move on. “Yup. I need to pick up bread on the way home. I’ll remember that after my massage.” Then go back to noticing your breathing.
If you simply can’t quiet your mind, stop trying. Getting a massage stimulates creativity for many people. Let your mind go! Maybe you’ll get a great idea for dinner or work through that weird conversation you had with your colleague over lunch.

Tip #7
Try Some Variety
If you want to zone out during your massage, but are struggling to make it happen, change the massage. Schedule your next massage at a different time of day. If you’re used to getting deep-tissue massage, try a Thai massage. Ask your therapist about incorporating aromatherapy or hot stones.
Whatever your goals, with a little communication and some trial and error, you’ll get the best massage for you!

Allissa Haines is a massage therapist with a private practice in Massachusetts. She creates marketing resources for massage therapists at and teaches online marketing at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy and continuing education events through the United States.