You’d hope this sort of thing would be rare, but it’s not. Readers regularly tell me about massage therapists who do not ask them what they want, who dismiss their patients’ concerns about pressure, and who ignore signs that their clients are in pain. They display a “doctor knows best” arrogance — ironic for an alternative health care professional — imposing their own idea of the “right” intensity.
A typical reflexology session runs from thirty to sixty minutes. Shoes and socks are removed, and the client is made comfortable, usually by sitting or reclining. Some reflexologists offer a foot bath at the beginning of the session, however, no lotions or oils are used. Pressure is applied in thumb-and-finger “walking” patterns, resulting in gentle stretching and massaging of specific zones of the hands and feet that are thought to correspond to body organs. Simple self-care instructions may be discussed at the completion of the session.

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People do have clear pressure preferences: they often fire massage therapists who give treatments that are too painful or too fluffy. Pressure that’s fine for you may cause severe pain, emotional distress, “sensory injury” (sensitization) in others, or even physical injury, so pressure should be customized but often isn’t. Brutal massages might be appreciated or even helpful, but most people can’t tell the difference between the kind of pain that might be a necessary part of therapy, and ugly pain that is just abusive and dangerous.

Each type of sports massage uses different massage techniques. Effleurage is a light stroking that can be performed with the palms or the thumbs. The pressure and speed is varied depending on the muscle and the desired result. Effleurage increases blood flow to the muscle. Petrissage is a form of two-handed kneading in which both hands pick up the muscle and compress it. This technique loosens tight bunches of muscles. Percussive strokes are blows or strikes on the muscle, often performed with the little fingers. They are used to tone the muscles. Cupping involves percussing or striking the muscles with cupped hands. It stimulates the skin and causes muscle contractions that help tone the muscles. There are variations on all these strokes, such as deep cross-fiber friction to separate muscle fibers and break down scar tissue, and jostling to relieve muscle tension. A good sports massage therapist will combine techniques to achieve the maximum desired result. Sports massage sessions generally last 30-60 minutes.


In “bodywork,” as practiced at Haven, painful physical manipulations are just one part of a package of techniques explicitly designed to evoke and provoke emotional expression and vitality. While a participant lies on the ground breathing hard, two facilitators may be applying extremely painful pressures to key points in the body, deliberately pushing the participant well outside of his or her comfort zone. This may launch people out of emotional ruts (fairly dramatically), relieving intense emotional denial and suppression, and leading to vivid insights and profound new body awareness. BACK TO TEXT

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It’s just a theory: no one knows if this is actually effective.11 However, it may explain why so many massage patients report a “gets a bit worse before it gets much better” response to quite painful treatments: motor end plates are (painfully) destroyed by strong pressures, and then that tissue is quite sensitive and a bit weak as it heals over a day or two … and then you finally feel much better after that!

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