Beyond Body Mechanics

By Mary Ann Foster and Mary Kathleen Rose
[Talk About Touch]

Table height is important for good body mechanics, but alignment and flow are also important for the skillful application of bodywork technique.

Mary Ann Foster: A massage therapist came to me for help with her body mechanics. She is short and works in a clinic where she moves from room to room, seeing different clients each hour. Unfortunately, the table heights are usually preset for taller therapists; with sheet changes, client notes, and washing up, she doesn’t have time to adjust the table height. She tries not to hike her shoulders to compensate, but still feels tension and pain in her upper back after each shift.

Mary Kathleen Rose: Sounds like a difficult situation. What did you suggest?  

MAF: I suggested a couple of possibilities. She could wear shoes with substantial soles to lift her an inch or two. She could also keep a step stool under the table, so when she needs leverage she can put one foot on the stool and her other knee on the table to get up and over the client.

MKR: Good suggestions. Therapists have to be versatile and creative to adapt to the demands of their work environment. It is important to be comfortable as a bodyworker, not only to take care of yourself, but because your comfort affects the quality of your touch.

MAF: Working with the right table is certainly key to therapist comfort. There are rules for table height, but body proportions and working styles vary. Here’s my favorite guideline to help massage therapists figure out a personalized table height. Stand in a natural, upright posture, like you would when you’re working in the kitchen. Then practice “air massage,” and imagine a client’s back underneath your hands. Stop and estimate the height of the palms of your hands. A good table height is about six to eight inches lower than that.

MKR: Table height is important for good body mechanics, but alignment and flow are also important for the skillful application of bodywork technique. If a person has poor posture, no ergonomic adjustment will solve his or her body mechanic issues. I’m grateful that my initial massage training integrated Aston-Patterning into the program. You’ve studied and taught many methods of patterning. How do you use it to help massage therapists with their body mechanics?

MAF: I help them develop body-use awareness through movement exercises designed to improve overall posture and efficiency of movement. I draw on the kinesiology principles of muscle and joint function and gait mechanics as a basis for how we use our bodies when giving massage. Most people work and walk in an upright stance, which is a practical posture for massage. However, many massage therapists learn to work in a wide, low position, which causes a number of body problems.

MKR: In a recent massage class, I noticed a student in this low, broad stance. He seemed to be working too hard, and his partner/client was complaining that something wasn’t feeling right. I suggested that the student try a more natural posture. He balked at my advice, saying, “But I’m used to this. It’s comfortable for me.” It looked like he was straining to hold that position. I could see the torque it exerted on his hips, knees, and ankles.

MAF: When I see massage therapists working too low, I suggest this experiment: Stand up and place your feet under your body. Massage from here by stepping forward and leaning into your hands; let your whole body move with each stroke, feeling the connection between your hands and your feet through your core. Then ask the person receiving massage if this feels any different. Typically, the client says, “Ah, that feels so much better. The pressure seems deeper and more connected, yet broader and more relaxing.” The therapist often says, “I can’t believe I’m working. This feels too easy.”

MKR: Sometimes bodyworkers get in awkward positions as they work, but don’t think they should take the time to correct their body patterning. Taking the time to get more comfortable is actually a benefit to your clients. When you feel awkward or uncomfortable, pause and ask yourself, “What do I need to do to adjust?” After you make the change, remember to ask your clients for occasional feedback. Their perceptions are invaluable in helping you improve your body patterning and quality of touch.

 Mary Ann Foster, BA, CMT, is the author of Somatic Patterning: How to Improve Posture and Movement and Ease Pain (Educational Movement Systems, 2004), and the “Body Mechanics” section in Teaching Massage (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009).

  Mary Kathleen Rose, BA, CMT, helps massage therapists adapt to the challenges of working in medical settings. She is the author of Comfort Touch: Massage for the Elderly and the Ill (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009).