The Six Keys to a Good Massage


From the beginning, Briana and I agreed that if The Dragontree could be well known for anything, we wanted it to be that our therapists are absolutely top notch. We’ve felt especially qualified in guiding The Dragontree’s massage program, since we have both worked professionally at performing and teaching massage.

Our friends often tease us when one of us has a massage interview planned. “Oh, it must be so hard,” they chide, “having to get massages all the time.” But I assure them, when I’m receiving a massage as a means of evaluating whether to hire someone to represent my business, it’s not usually a relaxing experience. I am constantly evaluating their technique, and I am pretty picky.

We try to check out other spas and get treatments whenever we travel, and, for better or worse, it can be hard to turn off my inner critic (especially when they only give me 50 minutes for my “one hour” massage). When you know how good a massage can be, you’re always hoping that every massage will be that. One year, on my birthday, I was receiving the worst massage of my life, and I actually ended it after fifteen minutes – something I had never done before. The therapist was clearly taken aback when I sat up and said it wasn’t working for me. When he defensively responded that he had plenty of clients who love his work, I realized, most people don’t know what to look for in a good massage. And that’s what I’m going to teach you.

It’s always worth remembering when you have an unsatisfying massage – or any other kind of service – that not every two people are compatible. It could be that the professional – whether a graphic designer, massage therapist, or hair stylist – is skilled at what they do but they just don’t do it to your liking. So, I hope to provide you with some criteria that will make the evaluation process a bit more objective.

I realize that by writing this, I am setting up The Dragontree to meet some very high standards, but I believe I’m also setting up our practitioners for some very big tips. And, I hope that I’m arming you with ways to be constructive about a massage that falls short of your expectations.

Ideally, you can communicate to your therapist during the massage if it isn’t to your liking, and it can be improved on the spot.

If you just like receiving massage, these criteria may help you identify if a particular therapist is right for you or not.  If you are an amateur or professional massage therapist, you might find something here to improve your skills. These are, in my opinion, the six most important factors in a good massage.

1. Confident Touch – The first moment a massage therapist lays their hands on a client’s body, something is communicated. When the touch is not confident, the communication is something like, “Hmmm… let’s see… err… maybe this way… no, wait. Oh, I have an idea… uh, maybe not.” As the client, it is difficult to relax and trust the therapist’s skills. When touch is confident (and I don’t mean firm, but something less tangible), the communication is, “I know what I am doing, and I’m here for you.” Confident touch makes us feel like the therapist has a plan. Every touch feels purposeful. This encourages us to relax and open ourselves to the therapist’s therapeutic intention.

2. Continuity of Touch – Every time the therapist removes their hands from the body, there is a disruption in the continuity of sensation and connection. Occasional disengagement from the body is sometimes necessary. But when it happens very frequently, and especially if the therapist’s hands are more off the body than on the body, there is a choppy or jumpy, discontinuous feeling to the massage. It impedes our ability to relax. Conversely, therapists who maintain nearly continuous contact with the body help us stay in a relaxed state.

3. Complete Strokes – When a therapist is working along a natural line on the body, it generally feels best to a client if this line is followed to its completion. There are some techniques that are exceptions to this rule, but when doing long strokes, if a therapist stops short of the natural end point of a stroke, it feels incomplete to the recipient. For instance, if a therapist is performing a stroke down the spine, and they stop a few inches above the base of the spine, or if they working along a limb and they stop before reaching the joint or the end of the limb, it usually doesn’t feel as satisfying as when a therapist continues the stroke to its natural end.

4. Entering the Tissue at the Right Speed and Depth – Some therapists are enthusiastic about getting hard and deep into people’s muscles, but they fail to perceive the body’s unwillingness to let them in. When a therapist tries to go too deep too fast, we tense up and the whole thing becomes counterproductive. When a therapist “listens” well to the body, they enter the tissue at a rate whereby it is able to accept increasing amounts of pressure and depth without tightening up and pushing back. If the body does tighten up, the therapist feels this, backs off, and re-enters more slowly or in another way. If the area continues to be excessively reactive, the good therapist may leave it alone entirely, and work complementary areas instead. This doesn’t mean that good massage must be painless, but at no point should it feel like the therapist is fighting with the client’s body.

5. Sensitivity and Responsiveness – As I alluded to in the previous section, a sensitive therapist is able to perceive how their touch is being received by the client. They also check in verbally from time to time to be sure the client is getting what they want out of the massage. Then, a responsive therapist adjusts their technique to suit the client’s needs. Some therapists with good sensitivity do minimal verbal checking in and still succeed at making appropriate adjustments throughout the massage, but even a seasoned therapist should know that they can fail to read a client’s feelings, so they should always be humble enough to ask.

6. Devoted Presence – A devoted therapist conveys throughout the treatment that the client has their undivided attention. The client never feels that the therapist’s needs are “in the room.”  Thus, a devoted therapist rarely starts conversation during a treatment. Some clients like to talk a lot. While there is nothing wrong with this, the therapist who is really devoted to their art recognizes that this may diminish the benefit of the treatment, and they will often gently guide the client back to relaxing and feeling what is going on in their body. Another mark of a devoted therapist is that they are open to receiving criticism, because they want the client to have the best possible experience. That said, when we’re clients, if we really want the best outcome, we’re likely to get it by offering any criticism in a kind way.

In the end, everyone likes something a little different, and there is no single massage therapist who is perfect for everyone. If you ever have a massage experience here at the Dragontree that doesn’t quite meet your expectations, please feel free to talk to us about it.  We’d love to hear your input and are eager to find ways for you to have the blissful experience you deserve.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

All rights reserved © 2015 Peter Borten

3 thoughts on “The Six Keys to a Good Massage

  1. These are key points but sometimes forgotten
    Thanks for reminding us!

  2. Can you please guide or advise why someone would get a migraine after a massage . My 34 year old daughter hates massages. Every time she gets a massage she gets a migraine right after lasting for days. It’s hell on earth suffering with bad migraines. She would not take over the counter medicines because she’s a vegan,only eats organic and is trying to do everything holistic. Even though she communicates to the therapist about her migraines they still insist on doing heavy massaging which is not relaxing to my daughter but torture.. She’s a member of Massage Envy but will not continue her membership because massages cause her migraines. Is there any reason for the migraines? And why do they last for days and sometimes a whole week?
    My email address is kgordon49 my name is Karen, my daughter is Alana. Thank you for reading my message and hopefully I will hear from you. Thank you very much.

  3. Great article Peter. I can’t tell you how many times I got a message and I could feel that she wasn’t present (at the moment). That is one of the vital components. Thanks for sharing it!

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