This is an important one and often what differentiates a fledgeling massage therapist from a seasoned pro. Any force you're using shouldn't be coming from your hands and arms, but rather from your centre - take a tai chi class to appreciate this difference. One of the benefits is that you'll be able to feel more - it's impossible to feel subtle tissue differences whilst your hands are in a zombie death-grip. Another is that it just feels so much better to receive. A helpful way of achieving this is by the method of reinforcement - don't just use one thumb, use the palm of your other hand on top of it to add pressure, leaving your thumb soft and relaxed. This is far less tiring for you and much more pleasant to receive, so make a habit of it.
RULE TWO - The deeper you work, the slower you should go
Think what would happen if, for some reason, you were preparing for someone to punch you in the stomach. You would tense up your abdominals, right? And by tensing up, you would be very effectively shutting their fist out from doing any lasting damage. Same goes for a massage that goes too deep, too fast. Your body tenses up (automatically and completely outside of your conscious control) in order to protect against a potentially damaging threat, such as a punch, or a particularly enthusiastic massage therapist. If you want to work deeply, you're going to have to prove to the nervous system that you're not a threat - and that means taking your time. Think what you'd do if you were trying to get a car rolling - would you body slam into it with all your force and hope for the best? Or use gradual, sustained pressure to get it moving?
RULE THREE - Respect the arc
Just like a good story, a massage should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Don't start by hammering away with your elbows at a tender spot, but rather ease them in gently with some lighter work first. I always start my massages with broad, flat strokes using the whole of my palm and covering a large surface area - it just feels comforting to receive, and helps the reciever get familiar with your touch. Likewise, at the end I'll finish with some very soft stroking movements followed by a few seconds of just keeping my hands still on my clients shoulders, to let them know I've finished. If you spend some time working a painful spot, play nice afterwards and give them some soothing strokes - a massage is supposed to be a treat after all.
RULE FOUR - You are not a mind reader
Despite what you might think, even the best massage therapists do not instinctively 'know' how much pressure is good for their clients. Instead, they ask. They are also constantly aware of their clients body language - is the client flinching? Are their shoulders hunched or hands clenched, even if they are saying that they are fine? Are they frowning? Visual clues can be far more telling that verbal ones, so pay attention to them. And if you're unsure, ask. (Not incessantly, mind. As a client, nothing is more irritating than having to confirm your well-being every thirty seconds or so).
RULE FIVE - Forget about routines
This is a tough one for a beginner, I know. Every massage therapist learns their initial massage as a set routine, and it can be a useful guideline to get you going in the beginning. However there is nothing worse than getting a massage where the therapist gives you three strokes of this and three strokes of that, without ever taking into account the tissue beneath their fingers. Do you feel a lumpy, grisly bit? Ask your client how it feels to have it pressed, and work longer there if that's what they want. Found an area that's particularly tense? Think how you'd feel if you had an aching spot that was crying to be worked on and your therapist just skimmed over it.
RULE SIX - Saying that, do have some sort of guideline
A template CAN be useful, as long as you treat it like a template, and not the main event. Learn some stock massage techniques, such as effleurage (broad, flat strokes with the palms of the hands), petrissage (kneading and wringing motions) and percussion (the old 'chopping with the side of the hand' technique) and know where to use them. For example, it is widely accepted that you start with some generalised effleurage work in order to warm up the tissue before working more specific techniques (petrissage), and finishing off with some stimulating percussion if it's needed. Get the sequence and the techniques right, and you're pretty much good to go.
RULE SEVEN - Mix it up
I get asked all the time how I'm able to keep massaging for hours on end without getting tired. The truth is that if you keep using your fingers and thumbs constantly you will eventually start to feel it. Instead, try using different parts. The knuckles or flats of your palm are great on broad surfaces like the lower back. Or try your foream on large surfaces such as the hamstrings or the tops of the shoulders in a seated massage. An elbow is great for specific, targeted work on tight spots (but remember that you can use different pressures - it's easy to overdo it with an over-enthusiastic elbow). What about the tips of your straightened fingers? Play around with it.
RULE EIGHT - Avoid bone
You may think of bone as being hard and insensitive, but the truth is that living bone is very different to the dried up stuff we're used to seeing, and is covered with a layer of highly innervated connective tissue known as periosteum. Just think of the agony of hitting your 'funny bone' and you'll appreciate that any overly firm pressure on bone is never much fun. Go right up to the bone if you like, particularly around the spine - working the muscles either side of it feels lovely. But leave the bones themselves to the osteopaths. The exception to this is the skull - firm circling movements covering the whole of the head feels quite frankly amazing, and is a simple way to turn a client into a melting puddle of happiness.
RULE NINE - Never, EVER say 'oops'
There is never an 'oops' in massage. Open heart surgery, maybe, but not massage. If an actual 'oops' has happened, your client will be letting you know about it very quickly, and you will be apologising profusely for your own stupid incompetence. Massage is one of the safest therapies around, and if you forget what you're meant to be doing, oopsing will just worry a client who would otherwise be absolutely none the wiser.
RULE TEN - Your client knows you better than you realise
Its amazing how much you can tell from a person just by having them touch you. If you're massaging someone and you're bored or distracted, they can tell. Ditto for if you're angry, or tired or stressed out, or not sure what the hell you're meant to be doing. Aim to only give massages when you're feeling good in yourself, coming from a caring place and are focused on the task in hand - and you're already doing better than many professional therapists taking money for their services. And if you're not sure what the hell you're meant to doing - make it up, and do it confidently! The only rule is that it should feel good to receive - and this will be far more likely if it feels good to give.
These are the ten steps I feel are most important for giving a massage to remember - regardless of whether you're a professional therapist or just like to give a backrub to your friends and family now and again. Massage is always a treat so experiment, practise - and most of all enjoy it.
What do you think makes an awesome massage? Have your say in the comments section below.