Massage Etiquette: What to Expect During Massage and How to Communicate With Your Therapist
Massage therapy is an incredible way to care for yourself. It provides physical relief from pain, promotes relaxation and stress relief, facilitates the quieting of the mind and reawakens your awareness of the mind-body connection. However, stepping into a massage studio for the first time can be intimidating if you're unsure what to expect or how to communicate your needs. Even seasoned bodywork recipients can feel uncertain when working with a new provider. Understanding massage etiquette and how to communicate effectively during a session can turn a good experience into a blissful experience and help you get the most healing benefit out of your massage.
Setting the Stage: What to Expect Before the Session
1. Arrive on time or a little early: Plan your schedule carefully to ensure you arrive to your appointment on time. Massage is appointment-based and time sensitive. If you arrive late, be prepared to have the amount of time you're on the table shaved down accordingly and don't expect a discount for the time taken off. Remember that you are paying for a block of the therapist's time. It's unfair to expect your therapist to provide the full hands-on time when you arrive ten or fifteen minutes late. Doing so strains the therapist, is unfair to the client scheduled after you and violates the therapist's boundaries in a way that fosters a poor client - therapist relationship.
If needed, Arrive a few minutes early to your appointment to allow time to fill out paperwork, use the restroom and consult with your therapist before the session begins. A new client might want to arrive no more than ten minutes early, whereas a regular client might not need as much time.
2. Consultation: Most therapists will conduct a brief consultation before the session. Use this time to discuss your goals for the massage, any areas of concern, areas you prefer to avoid and any medical conditions or injuries you have. Be open and honest to help the therapist tailor the session to your needs. Every client is unique and fluctuating in their needs; a therapist who isn't checking in with you about your needs for that particular session might not deliver the service you were really hoping for. If your therapist doesn't ask these kinds of questions before telling you to get on the table, by all means - let them know. You always have a right to request a focus area, an area you prefer not to have touched and pressure preference.
3. Privacy and Comfort: The massage therapist will give you privacy to undress and get on the massage table. There will be something to cover yourself with, usually a sheet and blanket. The therapist will only uncover a body area when it is being worked on. During a standard Swedish or Deep Tissue Massage you can undress to your level of comfort; some people prefer to be completely undressed, while others keep their underwear on.
If you're not sure about something, ask. There are many different bodywork modalities, so if you're trying something new and the therapist doesn't specify whether or not to undress, ask what the disrobing protocol is for the service you're receiving.
Every massage therapist has a story about a client who has never had a massage before and didn't realize they were supposed to get under the sheet. That's a good illustration that nothing is inherently obvious. If something like that does happen to you, try not to feel embarrassed. Your confusion should serve as a lesson to the therapist that they need to work on their communication skills.
During the Session: Effective Communication is Key
1. Pressure and Sensation: A good therapist will likely have checked in with you before the session about your pressure preferences, but let's be honest: "I like deep pressure" is a good starting point but also subjective. There's also a wide range of "deep pressures" and techniques to apply deep pressure. You might love broad, deep pressure applied with hands or forearms but dislike pointed, deep work like an elbow on a trigger point. Most people also tend to prefer a variety of pressures, and these preferences can shift throughout a session or from session to session depending on area of the body, hormones, activity levels, mood and life stressors.
If the pressure is too intense or not deep enough, say something. Your therapist can adjust their technique to ensure your comfort and satisfaction. And we truly don't mind. I prefer a client ask me to change pressure ten times back and forth during a session if it means they get what they need out of the massage. Knowing a client left my table unsatisfied because the pressure didn't hit the mark without having told me so during the session is a bit deflating.
2. Feedback: Though many therapists are intuitive by nature, we aren't mind readers. Feedback during a session can help ensure the session meets your needs. Feel free to let your therapist know if something feels particularly good or you experience discomfort. Some other things you may find yourself wishing to have adjusted are room temperature, music volume, bolster or pillow placement, or even a limb moved out of an uncomfortable position. It is always ok to make these requests. Remember, the therapist's goal is to make the experience enjoyable and effective for you. Many massage therapists who have been practicing for the long haul tend to be naturally inclined caretakers who truly delight in crafting a session during which you feel completely taken care of. A happy client is a repeat client, so we appreciate knowing the small and easy things we can adjust to make the session perfect for you.
3. Areas of Focus: Hopefully, your therapist took the time to ask you about any specific areas you'd like to address during the session and has made you feel heard by spending a little extra focused time there. But sometimes, as you're receiving bodywork, you realize you'd like extra work in a spot you didn't mention. Or, the therapist barely spent any time on the area you wanted focus on (so annoying!) It's perfectly reasonable to let your therapist know. Assuming you're not asking five minutes before the end of the session time, your therapist should be more than happy to accommodate you. If you're not sure what to say or feel uncomfortable asking, try these phrases:
You know, as you're working on my lower back I'm realizing how tight my hamstrings feel - would you mind setting aside some time to spend a few more minutes on them?
Wow - I didn't realize how tight my pecs are. What you're doing feels great there I'd love a little extra attention in that area now that I'm feeling it.
Before the session ends, would you set aside a few minutes to return to my neck. I'd love to have a little extra time spent there since it's really been bothering me lately.
The work you're doing on my back feels so good and is exactly what I needed. I'd actually love it if you kept working there for longer and skipped my legs entirely.
Respecting Boundaries: Etiquette for Both You and the Therapist
1. Hygiene: Prior to the session, ensure that you're reasonably clean. You don't need to arrive fresh out of the shower, but you should bathe regularly, done so recently and have no offensive body odors. If you have open wounds, rashes, toenail fungus, or communicable viruses like warts, let your therapist know so they can avoid those areas.
2. Communication: If you're uncomfortable with any aspect of the massage - the pressure, music, temperature, or anything else - speak up. The therapist's aim is to provide the best possible experience for you.
3. Personal safety: If, at any point, you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, you should absolutely speak up! Your massage experience can range from mediocre (unfortunately) to bliss inducing, but one thing you should always experience is the feeling of personal safety and comfort. If, at any point, you don't feel safe, you should express your concerns or ask to end the session early.
Prioritizing safety goes both ways. If, at any point, your actions, words, or general demeanor cause your therapist to feel uncomfortable or unsafe you can expect the session to end immediately. And yes, you'lll still be expected to pay in full.
4. What to do with your body: Some people who are new to massage have asked - what do I do with my body?The answer is nothing. Or whatever you need to feel comfortable. Your therapist will move around limbs while working to access certain body areas or to provide a stretch. You don't need to help them. Just keep your body relaxed and let the therapist do the work. On the other hand, if you need to shift your body to make yourself more comfortable, go right ahead.
5. To talk or not to talk: The old therapist directive goes that if a client talks during session, you should encourage them to stop and focus on their body. It's good advice - when you focus on what you are experiencing while getting a massage, you gain a deeper level of healing and can really tune in to the mind-body connection. But in my twenty years of experience as a massage therapist, I've noticed that people seek out massage for many reasons. And one of them, is companionship. I find this to be especially true of my elderly or lonely clients who receive benefit not only from the healing touch of the session but also in the light conversation with another person. Additionally, when someone is having difficulties, vaguely talking about it while getting massaged can aide their body in releasing the stored stress. And some people need a little chit-chat before they can relax into the work.
To be clear - your massage therapist is not your therapist. Don't trauma dump onto them. And don't expect their opinion, advice or personal information. That's not within the scope of our practice and can really drain the energy out of the therapist and sour a potentially healing relationship. But in general, while some people need and prefer total silence to relax and enjoy their massage, some truly enjoy the conversation. In my opinion, silence is more conducive to a blissful, mind altering massage experience, but who am I to tell someone how to receive my work?
I have a personal rule with clients: I never initiate conversation during a session (unless it's related to the work) but will engage if the client leads it. And I always leave them with the last word so that if they're ready to end the conversation, I don't continue the thread after they've stopped wanting to talk.
If you're the type of client who tends to feel obligated to make small talk when you'd really prefer to zone out, let the therapist know your preference, and they will follow your lead. Something to try saying: I tend to feel compelled to make small talk, but I get so much more out of massage when I can zone out, so I'd prefer to avoid conversation.
6. Appreciation: If you loved your massage session, please say so. Massage therapists put a lot of physical and energetic effort into creating a nurturing and healing experience for you, and it means so much to hear straightforwardly that you really enjoyed the work. You can take a step further and leave a positive review online. Doing so tells your therapist they're doing something right and helps them continue to grow their practice by providing potential customers insight into the quality service provided.
7. Negative feedback: Before you blast your therapist for a disappointing experience, take a moment to think about what made the session less than satisfying for you and if you could have communicated more effectively before or during your session. Wishing silently for more pressure for a whole hour and not saying anything, then leaving a negative review online that says pressure not as deep as I wanted, is frustrating and unfair to your therapist.
Most of the time, a sub par experience is due to a vague misfitting of client and therapist. It happens. You try a new modality, and it just wasn't your thing. You meet a new therapist, and your "energies" seem off. You couldn't relax during the session, but you're unsure why. These are all good reasons not to return to a particular provider without there being fault on the provider themselves. Your failure to rebook will be plenty of feedback on its own.
However, if you communicated clearly and the provider continued to work in a way that created a negative experience for you, a personal, specific, and respectful call or email to that therapist explaining why you weren't satisfied is usually the best way for that uncomfortable kind of feedback to be given and received.
Closing Thoughts: Benefits of Proper Etiquette and the Power of Effective Communication
Practicing good massage etiquette and effectively communicating during a session can turn a good experience into a great one. By openly expressing your preferences, areas of concern, and comfort levels, you equip your therapist to meet your specific and fluctuating needs, leading to a more satisfying and effective massage session and, hopefully, a mutually beneficial long term client - therapist relationship.
Remember, massage therapists are an intuitive bunch, skilled at reading bodies. But they aren't mind readers. Your therapist will pay attention to your body's responses and adjust their techniques accordingly, but not all of your preferences will be obvious to them. If you communicate your needs, your therapist will respond. This collaborative approach ensures you receive the maximum healing benefit from the massage.
A successful massage experience relies on mutual respect, clear communication, and a willingness to listen to your body's signals. By maintaining good massage etiquette and effectively communicating during a session, you're setting the stage for a deeply relaxing and rewarding experience that promotes physical and mental well-being.