Routines Done Right

Opening and Closing the Massage Session

By Anne Williams
[Classroom to Client]

Great massage routines are like a beautiful dance. The famous ballet choreographer George Balanchine often choreographed dance sequences in groups of three. He felt that the first time an audience saw a dance sequence, it captured their attention but they did not have time to really see the movement. 

When the sequence was repeated a second time, Balanchine believed the audience studied the movement and analyzed the technique of the dancer. By the third time, the audience could simply enjoy the beauty of the movement. While massage strokes are not delivered in strict groups of threes, the same philosophy applies. During a massage routine—defined here as a series of strokes that are planned in advance, delivered to body areas in a preset order, and practiced until they flow smoothly together—a client has time to be surprised by a sensation, analyze what is happening, and then settle into enjoying the series of strokes. 

creating consistency 

Some spas and massage clinics develop set routines that are delivered by all of the business’s therapists. These standardized wellness sessions often include enhancing extras like the use of aromatherapy, foot soaks, and warm packs to increase the sense of luxury and relaxation experienced by the client. The drawback to such routines is that clients may not get the specific work they need for their particular areas of muscular tension. The advantage is that clients can anticipate their massage experience and can count on receiving the same massage when they return for another session. When massage is used purely for relaxation, the predictable quality of a set routine can actually add to the client’s sense of safety and ability to unwind. 

Routines are probably best used for specific body areas in relaxation settings. For example, some therapists develop a very effective foot routine that helps them build a loyal clientele who especially like foot massage. In many spas, the face is massaged while the body is cocooned in a body wrap. If a therapist has taken the time to develop a face massage routine that incorporates a variety of strokes, it is likely to enhance the client’s experience.  

Contrasting Case Studies

Consider the following examples of how two different massage therapists open and close their sessions.

Steve pays attention to how he opens and closes his massages. He likes to use resting and holding strokes and a short breathing exercise (described in “The Beauty of Breathwork,” Massage & Bodywork, July/August 2012, page 100). To open the massage, he places his hands on the client with clear intent and allows the client to accept and orient to his touch. He asks the client to take three deep breaths and release all body tension with each exhalation. Steve’s touch is assured and firm. The client feels a therapist who is energetically balanced, focused, and who has a plan. The client relaxes before Steve even undrapes a body area, confident that Steve knows what he is doing. The opening is a simple moment, and yet it can affect the client’s trust level and willingness to allow his or her body to let go and relax. 

At the end of the session, Steve finishes the massage and places his hands in the same position as when he opened the massage, though this time the client is supine. Steve asks the client to breath deeply for three breaths and slowly wake up with each exhalation. The exhalation of each breath brings the client gently back to the real world and leaves the client feeling peaceful. 

In contrast, Jay doesn’t worry about how he starts and finishes his massage sessions. When he enters the treatment room he fusses with the drape while chatting about a recent movie he attended. He leaves the client as he looks around for the massage lubricant, and then struggles to place a bolster under the client’s knees. The client’s body tenses to ward off the irritating sensations of all this disjointed activity. Jay undrapes the client’s leg and starts massaging, but the client remains watchful for the first 20 minutes of the session. Once Jay settles into the massage, he has good massage techniques, and the client eventually relaxes deeply when Jay works on the posterior legs and back. The client is calmly drifting when Jay abruptly replaces the drape and says, “OK, time’s up. I’ll meet you in the reception area when you’re dressed.” He pulls out the bolster and leaves the room. The client gets up quickly from the massage table and gets dressed. The client has less muscle soreness, but feels irritated. 

Opening and
Closing Routines 

These case studies demonstrate that two important routines are the series of activities you perform to open the massage and the series of activities you perform to close the massage. These frame the entire massage experience because they are formal moments that recognize the importance of what is coming or what has happened. 

In many ways, a massage starts the minute a therapist enters the treatment room and approaches the client. Even if the client is in a prone position and cannot see the therapist, root hair receptors in the skin will recognize changes in air movement and heat. This may trigger instinctive survival responses that cause the client naturally to be tense during the initial contact. It is better to look at the client, offer a verbal greeting, and approach slowly with therapeutic intent. Have everything ready before the client enters the treatment room so your entrance can be calm and relaxed. You shouldn’t have to fumble around looking for bolsters or massage lubricant.

The closing of the massage is just as important and should leave a client feeling balanced, complete, and peaceful. You want the client to know the massage is ending before it actually ends and to start to return to normal waking consciousness without being jarred awake. Avoid abrupt closings that leave a client feeling rushed or disturbed. Therapists use a variety of techniques to formally open and close the massage, including aromatherapy, auditory cues, breathwork, and resting and holding strokes.

Massage is an opportunity for the body to change in a positive way, to release long-held tension, to rest, to recover, and to have a healthy experience of touch. Therapists who plan ahead and carefully orchestrate these moments honor this experience for their clients. 


  Anne Williams is the director of education for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals and author of Massage Mastery: from Student to Professional (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2012) and Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists  (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006). She can be reached at 


Use an
Auditory Cue 

An auditory cue, such as the ringing of a chime, can be used to signal the beginning and ending of the massage session. This opening can be paired with an aromatherapy inhalation, a breathing exercise, or resting and holding strokes. This form of massage opening and closing creates a sense of ritual and lends the session a more spiritual formality. Over time, an auditory cue may become linked in the client’s mind with relaxation, causing an instantaneous relaxation response. 


Routines done Wrong 

The use of routines is not advised for health-care-oriented massage or massage sessions in which the client and therapist have agreed on specific treatment goals. In these cases, the therapist must adapt the massage to the client’s specific needs, as well as moment-by-moment changes that occur in the client’s soft-tissue structures. The term routine should not be confused with a treatment protocol in which a series of techniques are used in a particular order. For example, in some approaches to trigger point work, the protocol is to warm the area with friction strokes or skin rolling before the trigger point is located and treated. Joint movement and flushing strokes are applied after the trigger point has been treated to help reset the muscle’s normal resting length. 


Aromatherapy Inhalation routine 

At the beginning of the session place 1 drop of an essential oil or blend of oils between your hands and rub them together to generate heat. 

Now, hold your hands close to the client’s nose while he takes a deep breath. Use sedative oils such as hyssop, lavender, or neroli at the beginning of the massage, and stimulating oils such as eucalyptus, peppermint, or rosemary at the end of the massage.