The Mother Hand

A Touch of Kindness

By Ian Harvey
[The Massage Sloth]

How can you apply specific pressure without it seeming sharp? How can you lean into your techniques and stand up without overusing your back muscles? I’d like you to try a technique borrowed from shiatsu massage: the mother hand.

Shiatsu practitioners tend to use a two-handed strategy—one hand applies pressure to specific points, while the other hand hangs back and gives comfort by being broad and constant. This “mother hand” gives gentle context to the sharper application of pressure moving up the spine or leg, and it lends a sense of stability to both client and therapist.

On a psychological level, using a mother hand technique allows the client to tolerate (and enjoy) contact that might otherwise be too direct or stimulating. On a neurological level, it provides competing input that can inhibit nociception. In other words, by being both direct and broad at the same time, you can change the entire massage experience with the use of this second hand.

How to Use It

To give this a try, simply apply broad, palmar pressure to any part of your client’s body while you do work elsewhere. Allow some of your body weight to sink into that hand and let it gently mold to the shape of their body. This contact should feel big, confident, and kind.

Traditionally, the mother hand stays still while the working hand travels away from it. This static approach can be useful for giving a sense of stillness to an otherwise kinetic massage, and I find it useful for strokes that travel the length of an arm or leg. By keeping one hand on the ankle or wrist, I can stabilize the limb and keep it in an optimal orientation, while the other hand moves proximally.

Tip! Remember, the mother hand and working hand just refer to which is currently doing what task. You can switch these roles between your right and left hands as often as you like.

Less traditionally, I like to use what I think of as a “moving mother hand.” This broad contact travels along with my open fist or fingertips, acting like a steamroller that smooths out the groove I’m making. I’m still using the direct contact that gets results, but it’s wrapped in a comforting package.

Finally, you can allow your mother hand to wander. Let that broad contact drift away from your open fist as you apply myofascial techniques, and suddenly you’re changing the direction and intensity of fascial traction. You can allow the mother hand to move while the other hand stays still, making the soothing stimulus stand out. As you practice with this technique, you’ll find that creative new variations happen spontaneously as you work.

When to Use It

How can you integrate this with your style of massage? The easiest way for me is to look for places where I need stability. When I’m delivering a long stroke down the back, is there a part where I feel off- balance, or where I have to use my back muscles to control my pressure? If so, I can simply press a broad, palmar contact nearby and let it take some of my weight.

Next, think about any techniques you employ that could use a dose of kindness and comfort. Ischemic compression of the trapezius can be effective for shoulder pain and headache, but it risks feeling sharp and clinical. The same goes for stripping the vastus lateralis—great for addressing knee pain in runners, but it can cause clients to grit their teeth as they deal with direct contact with a tight muscle. The next time you use a move that could potentially provoke a sensitive nervous system, try letting one hand communicate a message of kindness and comfort while the other one takes care of business.

Tip! If you need both hands to apply pressure together (doubled thumbs, layered palms, etc.), you can always pause this technique while you do so. Listen to your body, trade out your working hand often, and experiment with what feels best for you.

Word to Your Mother Hand

Along with the quality-of-massage improvements this technique can offer, it can offer some quality-of-life improvements for you as the therapist. By dividing your weight between the two contacts, you can take some strain off your back as you move and reset. You might find you can lower your table as your center of mass floats over your client, allowing you to use gravity to do more of the work.

Think of the mother hand as a foundation that everything else can be built on: by consistently applying that firm and gentle contact with one hand or the other as you go about your routine, it can set the tone for your entire session, and even the entire therapeutic relationship.

It sends the message that this isn’t just about fixing what’s broken, but about supporting your client as a whole. It can help you find that happy medium between the clinical feel of medical massage and the warmth of a good spa day, and you didn’t even have to break out the hot stones.