Getting Back Into the Groove

An MT Ponders Reopening

By Ian Harvey

When I think about reopening my massage practice, I worry. I’ve been in my pajamas for about six months at this point, and now it feels like all I’ve ever known. I vaguely remember being a massage therapist in the distant past, but it might have been a dream or something I read about in a book once.

As I ponder reopening, I start trying to think of everything I’ll need to do, including every technique for the whole body, how to communicate, and how to move. I think of all the big and little adjustments I need to make for client safety—and mine. I try to imagine that entire first day all at once, and I feel overwhelmed. But then I take a step back, and I’d like you to step back with me.

Trying to condense an entire day of massage into one moment of worry is a trap—a trap that sets up an insurmountable wall where there should only be a small hill to climb. When you find yourself staring at that wall of worry, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell myself: you don’t need to think of every little thing. Just make that first contact. That’s it. The rest will follow.

Whether you’re a longtime massage veteran or a student whose education was put on hold because of the pandemic, I invite you to think about what happens when you first place your hands on a client’s body. It’s a wide-open canvas, ready for paint. It’s that moment of weightlessness at the top of a swing set’s arc. Done conscientiously, that first touch is a massage technique in and of itself. Hold it for a few moments, and allow the body under your hands to start telling its story. Rather than worry about what to do next, allow the interplay of hand and body to guide you and show you how to move. Once you make that initial contact, you’re back.

An Exercise to Alleviate Stress

Whether you’re returning to work after a long absence or just feeling a little out of sorts, I have an exercise that may help alleviate your stress. To begin, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and then place your hands gently on your abdomen. Allow your palms to mold softly to the surface of your body. Now, just breathe. There’s nothing to force here, and no right way to proceed. See if you can let your abdominal muscles soften, and allow your belly to poke out slightly as you inhale and recede as you exhale. While breathing, I’d like you to consider two things.

First, if you’re like me, you might find yourself instantly and automatically judging the area under your hands. Instead of judging, ask yourself: What if I made this place a sanctuary—a sacred space where the outside world fades away? A sanctuary offers safety and unconditional acceptance, no matter who you are or where you’re from. See if you can extend that sense of nonjudgment and grace to yourself, and simply allow your body to be the way it is. In your sanctuary, your body is safe, and everything is exactly how it should be.

Second, as you cradle your abdomen, think of what your hands would like to do next. Is there tightness that could use some attention? Is there an abdominal stroke that you want to provide, maybe one you haven’t used since massage school? Or maybe stillness feels good, in which case you can stay there as long as you’d like. Whichever option you choose is correct.

Imagine offering a similar contact to your client at the beginning of a session. You might start between the shoulder blades or by cradling the cranium. Realize how little you need to do to make this technique “work.” All that is required is your presence—and your willingness to accept whatever you find. Think about that feeling when your trained hands meet a new body. The potential is like a drawn bow. As you sit with your hands placed on your client’s skin, the rest can just happen. Allow it to flow.

Creating Your Own Sanctuary

As you create a nonjudgmental space for your clients, I want you to do the same for yourself. Your massage office can represent a refuge from the outside world—from stress, anticipation, and demands. As you step through your office door, unburden yourself the same way that you want your clients to let go. You don’t need pressure or self-doubt. You don’t need the “perfect” technique or the right mental state. Come as you are. Expectations end up getting in the way.

Yes, keep an eye toward excellence, but also realize that striving for perfection can be self-defeating. Instead, place your hands, set your intention, and let the rest fall into place. You’ve got this, and I bet I do too.


Ian Harvey specializes in myofascial-inspired techniques that are kind to client and therapist. He produces free massage tutorials on YouTube under the name Massage Sloth, and his blog can be found at