Unlock the Benefits of Bodywork

By Kathy Gruver

We know we are what we eat, but have you considered you are also what you think? Most people go to a massage therapist for stress reduction and relaxation. You want your pain to decrease, your tension to melt away, and your body to relax. But what if you can help the process along simply by changing your words and thoughts? 


reases heart rate and blood pressure, and even seems to speed aging. People with negative outlooks tend to have negative life outcomes, and it’s been shown that affirmations and creative visualization contribute to better health and quicker healing. Massage addresses so much of our physical bodies, but here are a few suggestions that you can bring to mind during your next massage to enhance lasting effects, decrease stress, and benefit your emotional body, too. 


The Stress Response

First, we need to examine the stress response and how it affects our bodies. The stress response is a very important evolutionary process that evolved as our alarm to danger. This fight-or-flight response creates a cascade of hormones that affects brain function, digestion, heart function, muscle tone, and more. The opposite of that reaction is the relaxation response, which calms the stress response and releases feel-good hormones. The stress response was very beneficial in warning us against immediate danger, like a saber-toothed tiger, but our modern-day stresses are not as dynamic. It’s not a saber-toothed tiger threatening our lives; it’s the economy, the Internal Revenue Service, job insecurities, family pressures, our boss, and other daily stresses that never seem to subside. 

When we don’t get a break from our reaction to that stress, it starts to manifest as a problem in the body. Studies have shown that increasing the relaxation response not only slows heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol, it also slows the genetic expression of aging. That’s right—relax more, age slower. 


The Relaxation Response

So, what types of things invoke the relaxation response? Getting a massage, of course, but affirmations, breath work, qigong, meditation, tai chi, yoga, and visualization are some other things we can do for ourselves. Let’s see how you can incorporate some of these techniques into your massage, starting with meditation. When we think of meditation, we picture someone sitting perfectly still on a cushion, eyes closed, hands on her lap, perhaps chanting. But there is a simple form of meditation called the “mini” that takes just a few minutes to do.

There have been several times that I’ve taken a minute or two before a bodywork session to do a mini with clients and help them relax. I say, “You seem a little stressed today. Would it be OK if we took a few minutes before the massage to help you relax?” You, as the client, can do the same thing. Let your therapist know that you are feeling particularly stressed and give it a shot. Sit comfortably in a chair and use one of the following scripts. 


Mini #1: Countdown

Count very slowly to yourself from 10 down to zero, one number on each out breath. Breathe in deeply, and on your first out breath say, “10” to yourself. Repeat, and with the next out breath, say “nine,” working your way down to zero. When you get to zero, notice how you feel.


Mini #2: Up and Down

As you breathe in, count slowly up to four; as you breathe out, count slowly back down to one. As you breathe in, say quietly to yourself, “One ... two ... three ... four,” and as you breathe out, say quietly to yourself, “Four ... three ... two ... one.” Do this several times.


Mini #3: Square Breathing

On the in breath, visualize a vertical line and then a horizontal line. On the out breath, visualize another vertical line and horizontal line, completing a square.

(These are just a few versions of minis that I’m providing here, compliments of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine; 

Taking this short preliminary step to prep you for the massage to follow will relax you even more. Of course, you can augment this so you do it during the first few minutes of the massage and it can be just as effective. For myself, I use this technique when in traffic, a few times a day when I feel like I need a little vacation, and sometimes even during a massage when the client is particularly quiet. I use that time to quiet my own mind by repeating, (inhale) “I am” (exhale) “pure health.”

If you think this is something you might want to incorporate into your massage time, let your therapist know that you’d like an extra minute or two to get ready in the treatment room before he enters, or that you’d like the first five minutes of the massage to be quiet time so that you can do your mini. Remember, the only time they don’t work is when you don’t do them. 


Visualize Relaxation

Another thing that can help you relax during your massage is visualization. If you can picture the muscle the therapist is working on and imagine it melting or softening, it can help with the treatment. If you’re having a relaxing Swedish massage, picture your body melting into the table or turning to jelly. If you want to visualize during your massage, let your therapist know that you’d like quiet time during the massage; perhaps she could even lead you through a visualization while you’re on the table. There are many stock scripts, or you could write your own to use for your treatment. 

The next time you have a massage, try a mini, work in some visualization, and make sure you share any injuries and needs with your therapist. Incorporating your mind during bodywork can create an even more enjoyable and relaxing experience. 


Kathy Gruver, PhD, is a massage therapist, Reiki Master, and public speaker. She’s been involved in healing since 1990. Contact her at


Finding Your Voice 

During your massage, finding your voice is incredibly important for relaxation. Have you tried to struggle through a massage where the aromatherapy was too strong, you were cold, or you had to use the bathroom? It's not a fun or relaxing experience. If you are cold, hot, uncomfortable, can’t stand the music, or the pressure is wrong, you need to communicate that to the therapist. Make sure you are very specific about any injuries or concerns you have. There is nothing worse than doing a foot massage on someone who forgot to mention she kicked the dining room table that morning. We need to know about injuries to protect you and give you the safest and most pleasurable experience we can. We, as therapists, are here for you. We will gladly adjust room temperature or music if it will make you feel more comfortable. Believe me, you won’t hurt our feelings. We want you to have the best experience possible so you’ll come back.