Reflections on Returning to Practice

Massage therapist wearing face mask putting an Open sign on her door.

By David M. Lobenstine

I am writing this on September 11, 2021. I have just started massaging again, for the first time since March 13, 2020. I am sitting in my office in the Flower District of New York City, staring at the painfully blue sky. Twenty years ago today, the sky was also a stunning shade of blue.

It was just a coincidence of the calendar that I planned the reopening of my private practice for this same weekend. So, I am enmeshed in two anniversaries. The 20th anniversary of 9/11, and a year and a half since COVID shut down my practice, my city, and much of the world.

As a result, my reopening feels like it is teetering between the mundane and the surreal. On the one hand, I am ensconced in all the banal details of our profession that I have forgotten after so much time away. Is it time to replace this face cradle cover? How do I do that stretch for the pecs? On the other hand, I feel saturated by death and disruption, by sickness and uncertainty.

Getting Back to the Body

It feels trite to say that giving a massage is like riding a bike, and once you learn you don’t forget. But the cliché is important to acknowledge: This work resides deep within us. This work is a foundational part of who we are.

When that first client got back on my table after the COVID shutdown, I froze for a second. I couldn’t figure out where I should place my hands to begin compressing her back. At the top of her shoulders? Between her scapulae and spine? Shouldn’t I know this without thinking about it? What do I usually do?! But after a breath, I just put my hands on her (I don’t remember where, to be honest), and everything was fine. Then, a minute later, I undraped the first limb, her right leg. I pumped the oil bottle too hard and got a glug of oil rather than the trace amount I usually work with. A rookie mistake; a product of my overeager brain.

But these moments—of freezing and fluttering, of overexertion and uncertainty—were just that, merely momentary bits of self-doubt. They only reinforced the more important lesson: that we work best when we allow for these inevitable moments of self-doubt, acknowledging them without being overwhelmed by them, and then allowing ourselves to return to the deep knowledge that resides within us. All I needed in those moments, to create that shift from doubt to certainty, was to allow myself to pause . . . to follow my exhale all the way down to empty and feel the inviolable richness of this particular moment: the simple reality of two bodies, present and receptive, and the need for nothing more than that.

What I have noticed again and again, in all of these initial massages I’ve given, is that my deep knowledge of this work is matched by my clients’ deep need for this work. In an article I wrote for Massage & Bodywork earlier this year, “Reflections on Touch in a Distanced World,” I conveyed my belief that COVID’s shutdown demonstrated how resilient we humans are, and how our clients can survive even without getting their regular massages. I still believe this to be true.

But what I now see is that, even if our clients can survive without our touch, my oh my, how they long for our touch. They crave our contact. They are so eager to get back on the table. It reminded me of the way a cat will curl its head against your shin when it wants to be petted. You can feel the delicate weight of its head, and then neck, and then rib cage, burrowing against the side of you; sometimes through your leg you can even feel the vibration of its purring as it announces its need to you.

My clients are high achieving, exceedingly competent humans, and yet when they returned to my office, I felt that sense of unbridled want, an unapologetic need to get onto the table and inhabit their bodies in a way they hadn’t in so long.

Yes, we are resilient. Yes, we as humans can endure shocking disruptions and vast tragedy; we can have many of the foundational pieces of our daily lives upset, and still go on living. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for more. We need to do more than just get by. We should still strive for delight, and strive for joy, and strive for a fully inhabited body and soul.

Cal Cates offered a beautiful perspective early in the pandemic, saying massage therapists should stop working because we are not essential workers in the way that doctors and others are. No person will die without their weekly massage. I fully agree, and that was why I have stayed away from this work for so long. And though it will break my heart, I will shut down again if the science dictates that is what is necessary.

But for that same logic, now that we know more about the virus and know that we can mitigate many of its risks, I think we should embrace a different role. We are not essential workers. But we are wellness workers. We are a part of a vast realm of health care that enables humanity to thrive rather than merely survive. And the tragedies of this era have shown us how important this effort is. 

We Should Strive to Thrive

September 11 was the first time I truly understood how life can be turned upside down in an instant. My now-wife and I were walking down Bergen Street in Brooklyn, on our way to vote in the city primaries. A man got out of his car and pointed at the smoke coming from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. My wife and I stood and watched, confused. And then a plane made its way across the sky, and then, soundless, that plane simply disappeared into the South Tower. And then, everything was different.

It took a little while for us to realize that our lives had been fundamentally altered. (Indeed, we were so unsure of what had just happened that we actually continued down the street and went to vote.) But soon enough our new reality swept over us. Life is far more fragile than we ever realized. All our certainties can be exploded without warning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought those same lessons to bear on the globe once again. The blooming of this awareness was slower, of course, as the virus seeped from one continent to the next. And the circumstances are radically different. Yet, in the pit of my stomach, these two events both evoke the terrifying uncertainty of life.

And so, it is a particular shock to be returning to work, for the first time in 18 months, as the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. I do not know what exactly to say about this overlap, except that, once again, life feels especially fragile, and at the mercy of whims that we do not fully understand. In response, it is easy to feel hopeless, or furious, or both.

But I do not think that life’s fragility is a cause for nihilism, or for fury. Rather, I think it is a call for us to embrace that fragility . . . to accept that we have little control over what will happen tomorrow, and that all our expectations may be dashed overnight. Amid this uncertainty, what we do know—and what we do now—becomes all the more precious. We know that we have this moment, this client who is on the table right now, this next exhalation. We can help each client appreciate the body they are in, and the moment they are in. And we, in turn, can acknowledge the perpetual possibility of rupture, of life’s undoing, but we can continue to work to render this moment more bearable, for our clients and for ourselves. The pain and uncertainty all around us can spur us to reside more fully in each marvelous moment that we create.

As I look at the impossibly blue sky, this is what comes to mind: Let us heal. Let us help. Let us hope. Let us heal as a people and as a planet. Let us help everyone that we can, in whatever ways we can. Let us hope that a more just and equitable future is possible. The great gift of our profession is that help, healing, and hope can bloom again and again, with each client that gets on our table.

author bio

David M. Lobenstine has been a massage therapist, teacher, and writer for more than 15 years. He is a coauthor of Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy. Find him at bodybrainbreath.com.

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