Do you need a good relationship with your body to be a good bodyworker?

By Kerry Jordan

It’s a perfect day for a run. The air is cool and crisp. The sun is shining and the leaves are turning red and gold and brown. The trail is mostly deserted. The few people I encounter smile broadly and return my greetings. It’s a perfect day for a run, except . . .
Except my chronic heel pain is back, and instead of warming up and abating, it’s getting worse as I run. And it’s causing me to roll to the lateral side of my foot, which is causing the tendons in my knee to complain, which are starting to create a grumble in my hip—and my breathing is heavier than it should be because I’m getting old. My foot never hurt before, and this will probably all get worse and worse.
I can’t believe all the massage and chiropractic and yoga and eating right and drinking water and meditating isn’t making this all go away. I’m a massage therapist, darn it, so why can’t I figure out why this keeps happening and make it stop? And if I can’t even fix my own body, how can I possibly do anything good for my clients and patients?
I have dedicated the last 20-plus years to fully inhabiting my body in a curious, humble, and friendly way—and to helping other people do the same. How is it possible that the flare of a pretty textbook case of a pretty run-of-the-mill condition sends me so quickly into a spiral of aggression and disappointment that separates me from that curiosity, humility, and friendliness? Why does impostor syndrome somehow feel like the natural conclusion at the nadir of this spiral?
And perhaps more importantly, am I the only one who feels this way? And perhaps most importantly, how can I be of service—curious, humble, and friendly—to other bodies when I’m not in that place with my own?
I set out to find some answers—or maybe just some company. I began interviewing other bodyworkers about the work of living in their own bodies and working with other people’s bodies. I wish I could tell you I found a profound yet simple set of answers. I didn’t. What I found was a deep and gorgeous ocean of humans working really hard to be present with themselves and with others. And I think I found even more questions.


Fix-It Mentality

Amanda spent 28 years—her entire adult life—in a secret and abusive relationship with her eating disorder. “I can honestly say my eating disorder has been my longest, deepest, and most all-consuming relationship.” When I ask Amanda to talk about her body she says, “Mad. I was just mad at it. All the time. I wanted to will it under my control—most importantly I wanted to control what it looked like. When everything else was changing, I wanted to look in the mirror and see that I could control this one thing. But of course, my body fought back and that made me even madder.”
When Amanda became a massage therapist, her relationship with her body didn’t improve—at least not right away. “It made me hyperaware of my hypocrisy. It was exhausting, all the subterfuge. I was always putting on a show. I was screaming, ‘I’m the healthy expert’—screaming it because I wasn’t either of those things. I was overplaying the role.”
Let me be clear: During this time, Amanda was a successful massage therapist with a thriving massage practice and devoted clients. She sought out the same sort of massage for her own body that she was giving to others. With her own body, and with the bodies of her clients, she was focused on anatomy. People as parts. Massage as a mechanical intervention. “I couldn’t fix them. I don’t think I really knew that. I could say it, but I still tried my damnedest to fix them. It was like, I have to fix other people to pay for the damage I’m doing to myself.”
Amanda also believed in the curative powers of pain. “If it hurt when I got massage, I knew I deserved that, and that’s what would work. If extreme hurting did it, only extreme treatment could fix it.”
Many things influenced Amanda’s decision to seek treatment, but her clients rank high on her list. “I was lying to my clients and to everyone else. It’s hard to lie to people once a week. My clients care about me, and I’m lucky they cared about me. I was worried about just getting through each day without eating anything. That takes up all your energy. I wasn’t even really in the room. I wasn’t there doing what I should have done—give them a massage.”
I ask Amanda if she thinks she ever hurt any of her clients and her voice cracks, “Of course, I do. I didn’t provide them the full care I could have. I provided a terrible example. I had clients who were young girls . . . that’s what makes me the saddest.”
As massage therapists, we don’t tend to think about the harm we might do with the things we say or think. We focus on what our hands do and how our hands can help. But Amanda’s story points to the very important dynamic of our internal dialogue.
A big part of recovery is kindness and, of course, letting go of control. “When I’m on my way to work, I’m not just trying to get through the day anymore. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Because I have had to let go of so much control, I have to just be in the moment.”
Amanda also remembers and appreciates the lessons she learned from other bodyworkers. “The client who doesn’t listen to his body feels like justice. He reminds me of all the bodyworkers who didn’t judge me, who just cared for me, and met me where I was. Because of them, I can’t be mad at him or tell him what to do. I can just be quiet and let him go through what he needs to go through.”
Amanda still specializes in neuromuscular and pain-management massage. She provides deep, targeted work and lots of anatomical knowledge to help address her clients’ injuries. But her work is not the same. “I have more grace . . . because I have that with myself. Now I can just say, ‘It is really hard to be kind to ourselves,’ and mean it—and just leave it there. And if people can hear that, maybe it will help them heal. I really listen now, and I do my best work because I don’t try to fix it.”
There is an epidemic of fixing in massage therapy, and my conversation with Amanda and with others led me to wonder how much of this work is an inside job. You don’t have to have an eating disorder to believe your body should bend to your will.
Many of my colleagues and clients describe their injuries and illnesses in terms of betrayal. I’m guilty of it too. This image of the body as a disobedient servant is dangerous. If we see our own body this way, how could we help but see our clients’ bodies this way? It makes for a slippery slope to the approach Amanda describes, “extreme treatment” as some sort of rough justice, or maybe just the magical thinking and foolish half-science we see so often in our profession. We all know we can’t manually lengthen a muscle, but does that stop us from trying?


Body Image Disconnect

Rebecca has a once-a-month regular client. “I guess you could say that her body is not conventionally acceptable, but she’s never mentioned it before. I hadn’t thought about it at all during our time working together, but then she came in one day not feeling well. The client apologized and said, ‘I’ve been working on this with my therapist. I know you see all kinds of bodies, but I need you to reassure me that it’s OK for me to be here.’ It broke my heart and made me realize how not fully prepared I am to give that to someone else because I haven’t really done it for myself. I think I was able to be present and reassure her enough that we went on to have a really good session. But it was a moment when I realized if I haven’t done this work myself, and someone comes in like that, I can’t create a safe space for them.”
As a result of her experience during a time of deep emotional upset, Rebecca’s body changed in profound ways in her early 40s. Among other things, she lost a lot of weight. It is possible that her physical form today would be unrecognizable to someone who knew her before this change. She says that she is sometimes still surprised when she looks in the mirror. Her own face seems like it’s not the one she knew. “I have no idea how other people perceive me, physically, anymore. When people say I’m ‘slender,’ I think, ‘What? That’s not me.’ ”
As Rebecca works to learn and be at home in this new body, she says that only now, years later, is she beginning to understand the relationship she’d had with her body before and how that relationship affects her work. “As my body changed, I became more aware of how I’d abused it and allowed others to abuse it. Making a safe space for others became a way of making a safe space for myself. Clients aren’t here for me to advance my own healing, but that is what happens.”
A significant number of the people Rebecca serves in her practice are women who have just received plastic surgery. She knows there is something about these clients that is triggering for her. “Something about fat and being fat and having fat. Fat is a cell we have naturally in our bodies and yet has become something we’ve started a war against.”
I ask Rebecca if she thinks this a female thing or a “wellness issue.” She replies, “This is a whole society thing, and I think it’s a ‘the way massage is taught’ thing. We don’t really understand that the body is not separate. We think we have a thinking, theorizing mind and our body just drives it around, so we approach the body like a car. If you do that with yourself, of course you do that with clients.
“Now, if you understand that your body, mind, and spirit are not separate, that the way you are in the world is a direct result of what you do and what you think, it means you develop an understanding that you take up space and that’s OK. You also understand that your body does stuff like belch and fart and make fat and that’s OK. The way that we’re taught massage—we go to work out stuff about our own body—I would love to see massage schools open to that and really do something with that.”
Rebecca feels that the most important thing we can give our clients is attention—real and fully present attention. When she is more present to the sensations of her own body, she is more able to spot the discomforts people don’t even know they have. Those discomforts inform the treatment plan. “It doesn’t have to be something we discuss out loud, but my job is to help people feel their bodies, to have an awareness of when something needs attention—when something is broken, about to be broken, tender—and doing something about that.”
Having taught anatomy and physiology to both yoga and massage students, I can say with some confidence that it is necessary to break the body down to teach its parts and functions. What we’re really bad at doing in bodywork education is putting it all back together. Your body is not the dumb car your brain drives around. It’s you! You are not a collection of organs and individual muscles, of fat cells and neurons. You are a single amazing, complicated, and unique organism. And so is each and every single person who ends up on your massage table.
It would be easy to write this entire article about Amanda and Rebecca. Eighty-one percent of ABMP members identify as female. The average American woman has been conditioned to have an antagonistic relationship with her body, especially around weight. But I think Amanda’s and Rebecca’s stories are illustrative of something deeper than gaining or losing weight. It’s about being a human in a body that never quite matches the catalog specs.


Bodywork and Personal Health

Tim has been a massage therapist for 30 years. He has lived with chronic illness for at least that long. “My prior work had been all over the place, but a good deal of it was hard physical labor. So, as a young adult I was unusually strong, but then a health crisis caused me to change career paths. I landed in massage school. There, I discovered many holistic, complementary, alternative, integrative therapies that heightened my care, appreciation, and awareness of my body. I also recaptured some of my previous strength and health, and worked long but happy hours as a massage therapist.”
Tim has an interesting perspective about his relationship with his body and his work. “I would say that the overwhelming feeling attending illness is being tired, and tiredness can be distracting. In tiredness, it can be harder to connect with another person. And feeling worried about my health can affect my ability to be fully present for others. Worry is a more powerful hindrance than tiredness, I think.” Yet, he says if he can let go of worry and really allow that what he feels is “just” uncomfortable and tired, he can keep working with clients. “And oddly enough, after what I thought were some of my worst sessions—feeling so deeply fatigued—clients have raved especially loudly about how effective they were. It’s almost as if because I was so tired that I was too tired to get in my own way. With defenses down, some kind of surrender enters in. Perhaps in this state I might be more intuitive, or more fully present with a client?”
I believe Tim may be right about this. I also think Tim’s experience with illness has served him well. He told me that for his whole career he has been approached by people, especially other massage therapists, who are all too happy to offer unsolicited advice, diagnoses, and analysis. Having spent a lifetime bombarded by other people’s opinions of what’s wrong with him and what he should do about it, Tim is particularly sensitive and open to the possibility that his clients don’t need him to have all the answers. They need him to be present and kind.
When I asked the people I interviewed for this article, “What is embodiment?”, they all had different shades of ideas, but Tim highlights something that may be key: awareness. He is not able to bring wisdom and presence to his clients simply because he has his own health challenges. It is his awareness of how those challenges have affected his relationship with his body and with the way others relate to his body that has allowed him to be a more embodied practitioner. It’s like anything. Being a runner doesn’t make you a good massage therapist to runners unless you have really gone inside yourself to understand what being a runner feels like in your body and in how you think about your body.


Body Betrayal

Cal is gender-fluid/non-binary. They are a former elite athlete and describe their relationship with their body like this: “As a thing that helps me do stuff, my body has always done what I wanted it to do—be fast and adroit, ski, jump, lift heavy weights, etc.—but the outward presentation doesn’t match how I envision it or wish it was. The way my body is perceived by others doesn’t match what I feel. In my 20s, that just made me unsatisfied. I wouldn’t say I ever disliked my body, but I just felt like it didn’t match.” However, Cal went on to use a word that suggested more to me than dissatisfaction: “It was a particular betrayal when I wanted to wear clothes made for men, but men’s clothes didn’t fit, so I’d buy man-ish women’s clothes or men’s clothes that didn’t fit.” It may sound crazy, but having clothes tailored or custom-made changed everything for Cal. “I was wearing clothes that looked like I wanted to look—not men’s clothes, not women’s clothes—my clothes. Finally, I didn’t feel like an impostor.”
Today Cal is fond of saying, “I’m not in the wrong body; I’m in the wrong society.” I ask them if this sensibility, this new relationship with their body and their past dissatisfaction, affects the way they work with clients. “Yes,” they answer. “Because I believe that’s where we all live for the most part. In this place of ‘never quite what I want.’ It makes me more compassionate, and it makes me able to hear what people aren’t saying with their mouths.”
And of course, it’s a two-way street. Cal’s massage therapy clients are mostly people who are sick and dying. “Because of them, I think I struggle less with the natural progression . . . with the truth that this body isn’t always going to do what I want it to do.” Working with this population makes Cal kinder to their body, even now. “Being a bodyworker is the thing that showed me the way I used to exercise wasn’t about loving my body. It was about changing my body. Now, from the outside, the exercise I do may look the same, but inside it’s a different experience. I’m aware of and able to integrate the messages from my body and really feel like a team with my body. A big part of it is kindness—like with any team, not everyone is killing it every day. Now when my body says, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ I say, ‘OK, body.’ I can be with the way it’s going to be different every day.”
Clients do this all the time, don’t they? They report that “last time” whatever you did “made it better,” but now it’s back. Maybe you become impatient and mutter in your head, “It didn’t get this way in an hour; I’m not gonna fix it in an hour.”
Or maybe you just “try harder” or use a different technique. Whatever you do, chances are good that your default is not a small, kind, internal voice that acknowledges the troublesome nature of these bodies we inhabit and then sets about providing a centered, embodied session.


Mindful Eating/Living

Andy also feels that their relationship with their body was changed as a result of their work as a massage therapist. “What started as striving to maximize my ability to see clients and recover, turned into a mindful eating/living practice. The thoughtful nourishment of my body allows me to be of service to life and others. It is not a destination, but a practice. My clients and I do not have a static destination to arrive at, including the state or condition of our bodies. My clients and I have goals. How do our bodies help serve these goals? Seeing all the various stages of the human condition and aging, I am humbled by the blessing of my health and capacity, and strive to not take it for granted.”
Andy also has a pragmatic view of the value of being present in their body for this work. “Embodiment improves my listening to my client through my attitude, hands, and body. Lack of embodiment can lead to overtaxing or injuring myself and trying to force change on the client.” Like several of the other MTs I interviewed, Andy was quick to add this caveat: “Embodiment is a continuously renewing practice. I will get tired, lose my focus, and find myself in new circumstances, and so will my clients. Life is a verb, not a noun.”
This theme of embodiment as ongoing practice came up in my discussions with massage therapists a lot. It is tempting to imagine that body awareness/acceptance is a thing that can just happen. We have these aha moments—an unexpected illness or injury, a brilliant yoga retreat, massage school—and they feel life changing. They are life changing, but life continues and—as Andy pointed out—we get tired and distracted.

Embodiment Takes Practice: It’s Not a “One and Done”

I’m doing really well and feeling good about my body and then this nagging injury interrupts my smooth ride, and I’m pulled out again. Paying attention is hard. Being in one’s body when it’s not all good is hard. It would be lovely if this mess of truly inhabiting one’s body was “one and done.” Sadly, just like a single massage, a single aha moment is just that.
Relationships need to be tended and paid attention to. They change. They require work. The relationship with our body is no different. Rebecca said, “This is a lifelong process—we create ceremonies and rituals and we think that’s it. But we haven’t done the work. You’re creating a pantomime—there’s a reason it’s a verb—being is a never-ending process.”
The bodyworkers I spoke with are all very different people with different types of practices in different locations. Not trying to fix and openness to change, kindness, and commitment to a lifelong practice were the themes that surfaced in all the conversations I had. Does that mean they are obvious? Universal? True?
If everyone is thinking about embodiment, why do we see so much burnout and repetitive stress injuries in massage therapy? What about therapists working outside their scope of practice? It is work to be humble, friendly, and curious with my body and with the bodies of others. And I am humbled and curious about the ways other bodyworkers tackle this inner and outer work. Please tell me what you think about all this—how does your relationship with your own body affect the work you do with other bodies? Can you really be in your body? I’ll leave you with one last question that I asked of all the bodyworkers who so generously shared their time and thoughts with me: Do you need to be “embodied” or have a “good” relationship with your body to do this work?

• Amanda: You can fake it for a while. There are plenty of ways to do this work that are mechanical. And there are people who think they want that, but I don’t think you’re giving people the full dosage of what massage could be if you’re just working like a mechanic. You’re not giving them the full amazing thing that massage can be.
• Rebecca: To do it well and safely and ethically, yes. Any fool can touch somebody. Any fool can also hurt somebody.
• Tim: I can say that no matter how well or ill I feel, it is important to feel care for my body and to honor its needs. Sometimes you have to override those needs because you have to pay the rent, right? But soothing it, feeding it well, and letting it recover are important.
• Cal: Anybody can rub. It depends what you think being “good at this” means. I think doing this work means showing up to the person in front of me. If I can’t show up to myself, it’s going to be hard to show up to someone else.
• Andy: Yes! The more I can be present and embodied with myself, the more I can be present and embodied with my client. I cannot force my client to relax or change any more than I can force myself to relax or change. All I can do is be present and attentive, and cultivate compassion for what is. I can strive to view my client and myself with openness and potential and be curious at what will happen next.

Kerry Jordan is honored to work at Healwell, providing massage therapy and education in hospitals around the Washington, DC, metro area and around the world. Her work as a massage therapist focuses on serving adults and children living with medically complex conditions, both in and out of the hospital. Please reach out and connect with her at info@healwell.org.