Never Quit Growing

By Art Riggs
[Q & Art]


It is time to say goodbye to the Q & Art column. From the start, I have tried to answer questions about the broader philosophical and psychological steps to growing a successful practice. Now, it is time for me to move on. I will return with more blather in occasional longer articles that will focus on specific bodywork strategies. 

From discussions with countless therapists, I’ve learned that the obstacles preventing our growth and success in bodywork most often come from inside. Though education is crucial to growth, continuing to take more courses may give a false sense of safety when our success, more often, springs from exploration of ourselves. I’d like to summarize a few of the broader points I’ve covered in the last several years.

Touch is Everything! 

Although I’m a great believer in continuing to learn techniques, these are of minimal benefit if one doesn’t know how to deeply access the body with a great touch and contact the person behind the body. Proper touch is a complex blend of your unstrained biomechanics (allowing you the all-important skill of a soft touch that is comforting but deep) and your mental state that tries not to force things to happen, as well as countless other subtle things that establish a trusting connection between you and your client. 

Of course, techniques are important, but with the proliferation of knowledge, I see an implication that there is some magic trick (often exclusive and expensive) that enables success. The ability to just “find the holding” is the key, and then to patiently release tension with the realization that each client understands a different language of effective touch. Rather than spending precious time with specific diagnostic evaluations, much can be accomplished when we are actually working for release. Listening to our hands, rather than intellectualizing, is often the key. 

Speaking of techniques, most conditions we can help are a result of contracted fascia or muscles. The basic and simple principle of lengthening short tissue seems to me the key to implementing change in the body. I receive countless comments from therapists about how focusing on grabbing, stretching, and lengthening short tissue, rather than just kneading muscles, has changed how they work and drastically improved the success of their practices. 

Determining where tissue is short and how it is restricted is a large part of our work. The first skill is knowing where to work; the next is knowing where not to. 

The easiest way to find restrictions is listening to your hands and cultivating the skill of determining what combinations of osseous, ligamentous, tendinous, muscular, fascial, or neurological protective holding patterns are involved. 

To release tissue, the key is to challenge the restriction in the non-neutral position, both for evaluation to find resistance to range of motion, and to place those restrictions on a stretch to afford release and lengthening rather than just squeezing tissue.

Have an Open Mind for Growth

Much of our early training involves somewhat rigid rules that are necessary to safely train beginning students, but some therapists are so attached to unquestioned early commandments that new paradigms are rejected automatically. Sometimes growth requires letting go of old concepts and routines that are holding us back to make room for the new. Following are a few areas to focus on.

Rethink Over-Fastidious Draping

Of course draping is important for our clients’ comfort and modesty. However, we need to ask ourselves if we are shortchanging our clients’ needs by limiting positional options such as side-lying positions, which are incredibly effective in moving joints and stretching tissue for effective release. Isolating small, undraped areas is counterproductive to an integrated connection of the whole body. If draping is limiting you, consider having clients wear exercise clothing to free up your work and save precious time.

Avoid Using Too Much Lubrication

Most bodywork issues involve short tissue that we want to grab and stretch, instead of sliding over slippery, overlubricated surfaces or just squeezing/compressing.

Work in a Distal Direction

In addition to short muscles that need to be stretched away from their proximal origins, many of our joints are compressed. Working in a distal direction stretches short muscles, trains nerves to release holding patterns, and decompresses tight joints.

Avoid Cookie-Cutter Routines

Every client presents different issues requiring different strategies. The biggest complaint I receive from the public is that people feel dehumanized when therapists fail to communicate about what the client wants, and instead perform generic and robotic routines.

Express Your Individuality

Many therapists leave workshops excited about new techniques and philosophies, only to butt heads with a long-established and rigid image of massage and projections of what they think their clients expect. It is much easier to impress our clients with something new and different than to make guesses about their expectations. 

Self-Imposed Limitations

For me, the saddest thing to see is a lack of self-confidence in even the most established bodyworkers. I spent the first 10 years of my practice feeling self-critical and insecure, focusing on what I thought I didn’t know rather than the skills I was slowly building. So many people sell themselves short without realizing the great benefit they give and their potential for giving even more. Many people venerate the skill of others as beyond them, without realizing that everyone was a beginner at one time. Many stay with safe routines and seem to think that they lack the aptitude or don’t have the background for more sophisticated (and more fun!) work. 

In class, therapists frequently ask if they are performing some demonstrated technique “right.” This right/wrong dichotomy is terribly limiting, and the feeling we are doing something “wrong” can prevent us from trying something new. It is human nature to feel uncoordinated or inept when trying something new, but the only way to improve is to practice and learn to be comfortable with a temporary period of discomfort. Mastery is not all or nothing, and it entails a lot of practice and work. 

We all need to take the time to look inside and realize what mind-sets may be stifling our growth and the rewards that will come with that growth. If I may play cheerleader, I urge every practitioner, new or long established, to always aspire to growing excellence. My touch has improved more in the last year than any of the other 25 years I’ve been practicing.


I recently came across a quote from director Quentin Tarantino that I think would be an appropriate end for this column: “I want to risk hitting my head on the ceiling of my talent. I want to really test it out and say, ‘OK, you’re not that good. You just reached the level here.’ I don’t ever want to fail, but I want to risk failure every time out of the gate.”

Best of luck to all. May your bodywork always be a constant source of enlightenment and fulfillment. 

Art Riggs teaches at the San Francisco School of Massage and is the author of the textbook Deep Tissue Massage: A Visual Guide to Techniques (North Atlantic Books, 2007), which has been translated into seven languages, and the seven-volume DVD series Deep Tissue Massage and Myofascial Release: A Video Guide to Techniques. Visit his website at

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