By Lisa Bakewell
Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” is “deeply valuable” to Boulder, Colorado, massage therapist Rivkah Bacharach. And she feels it should be to other massage therapists as well. “It reminds us that massage therapy still fights for its right to be respected as a health modality equal to others,” she says.
Bacharach knows of what she speaks. As an MT for over 15 years, Bacharach has worked in a variety of environments and struggles to choose a favorite. “Thinking about what areas I have enjoyed working in,” she says, “leads my thoughts to this: Having consistent work as a massage therapist—where you are valued and paid what you are worth—is a problem in our industry and leads to a lot of burnout.” Having strong boundaries around one’s physical limits and self-value is crucial, according to Bacharach, no matter which modality one chooses to work in.
Bacharach currently practices trauma-informed massage, prioritizing communication between the MT and the client, which she considers the “Goldilocks approach to bodywork.” Like Goldilocks, “You want to know if something is too hot, too cold, or just right,” she explains. “I talk with the client at the beginning of the session and throughout the session, and truly welcome feedback. Working with trauma is like cheffing in a kitchen; you have to be completely present to the work you are doing, or it is unsafe.”
According to Bacharach, a foundation for trauma-informed massage is presence, permission, and peace. “Because a client is coming in dysregulated, you have to track them throughout the whole session,” she says.
“The goal of a trauma-informed massage session is one moment of peace. One moment of a calming breath, one moment of feeling grounded, remembering what it feels like in the body to feel OK. It is about starting small and building safety. Honoring where people are in their emotional and physical state. This creates a connection that leads to healing and transformation. We are in crisis in America, in our health-care system, specifically our mental health care, [which is] a combination of lack of access to treatment and how our health-care system functions as a whole.
“Providing trauma-informed bodywork, at no cost to the community, is a miracle out of a tragedy. The ability for people to receive nurturing touch [and] a compassionate ear, on a weekly basis, is healing for the clients. I believe it shows the transformative nature of connection and compassion for everyone regardless of background and . . . story. This is a model of health care that privileges preventive treatment for physical and mental health, utilizing modalities that have been considered ‘alternative’ but should really be considered preventive medicine. Utilizing this model of health care—which has been out of financial reach for most—alongside Western medicine would change our communities and country. We teach by example, by our behavior and being.”
Bacharach says boundaries is her word for this new year. “More often, the answer to the problem is boundaries. Boundaries enable us to create a healthy distinction between ‘self and other,’ to have equilibrium and health in relationships. In each of our micro-communities, we are creating an environment and small society. Behavior many times is a question of, ‘Is this OK here?’ and the answer is whatever boundaries are appropriate for you.
“As massage therapists we touch people, which is a vulnerable act. This is most often the only place [outside] of an intimate relationship that people are touched, [which] can lead to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around appropriate touch.
“I don’t think sexuality needs to be shamed, but boundaries are crucial. We have to practice using our words and saying what we need as therapists. This creates a safe container for [us] and our clients to know what is appropriate.”
Bacharach intends to continue working at the Boulder Strong Resource Center (#WEAREBOULDERSTRONG) to create educational tools to help other massage therapists understand and work with trauma. “On the horizon,” she says, “I would love to create a nonprofit healing retreat center where time could be taken for people to really focus on self-transformation. We each have unique gifts to offer the world—many times because of what we have endured. Each of our stories of healing are revolutions affecting change, waiting to be heard.”