To answer that question, you must first ask yourself what will most help you to relax.
Most of the research we have regarding the known benefits of touch therapy – from healthier circulation and immune systems, to having less pain and more freedom of movement, to improved sleep patterns – all show that these benefits are a direct result of the therapy’s ability to help your nervous system relax and return to a balanced state.
In short, a good and beneficial bodywork session helps the body come out of the “flight-or-fight” mode and transition to the “rest-and-repair” mode, thus activating the self-healing mechanisms in the body. It helps return the body and mind to a state of homeostasis
What helps someone to relax varies from person to person.
Some prefer a lighter touch, and will easily relax with a soft and nurturing type of session. These people may be in a constant state of alarm if a therapists uses too much pressure, and will never be able to reach the rest and repair state. Generally healthy people with fewer aches and pains will most enjoy a lighter, rhythmic type of touch that soothes the nervous system and lulls them into a state of relaxed bliss.
There are many others, however, who can only relax with a firmer touch. They may also need more focused deep massage in certain highly tense areas. They crave a touch that reaches deeply into these tense spots to relieve aches and pains that simply cannot be accessed superficially.
To these folks, it is such a relief when the therapist is able to reach and soothe those deepest layers of tension that they will then easily fall into a relaxed and restful state. On the other hand, if these tensions are not addressed adequately, the client may be in a constant state of anxiety waiting for relief that never comes and won’t be able to relax at all.
I offer a customized bodywork session because I know everyone is different and has different needs. In fact, I have found that most clients need a little of both types of touch to fully relax — deeper focused techniques for their tense and sore spots, along with light, medium, or firm relaxing techniques elsewhere. All of these are good and therapeutic approaches, depending on the client’s needs.
Can a session be too deep?
As much as some may crave a very deep pressure, there is a point when it is so forceful that it may no longer be beneficial.
A deep touch that produces the sensation of relief in a “hurts so good” kind of way is generally known to be good and therapeutic. This type of touch will have a pleasurable intensity that the client can relax into, and feels like it is accomplishing something good. However, a touch that is outright painful to the client is probably not beneficial at all.
A person with lots of tension and/or pain has a nervous system that is on high alert. The last thing a therapeutic bodywork session should do is introduce more painful stimulus. We want to sooth the nervous system, not aggravate it.
The evidence also suggests that very aggressive and painful bodywork can damage tissues, leave bruises, and make you feel very bad the next day as your body attempts to heal from the assault. There is some evidence that this type of painful deep tissue therapy may actually be inducing a mild (not life threatening) form of Rhabdomyolysis in the body.
(If you don’t know what Rhabdomyolysis is, click the link or Google it. The full blown version is bad, very bad. I just don’t think bodywork ought to be causing even a mild version of this!)
So, what does a therapeutic deep tissue bodywork session look like?
I do not believe that “deep tissue” is a term that means “painful.” I thoughtfully assess the individual client’s body to determine where deeper tension lies, and then use careful techniques to sink into the tissues to help relieve it. I never substitute force for intelligence.
A good deep tissue session may feel very intense in a good way, but it should never cause you to say “ouch!” or want to shrink back from the therapist’s touch. I will not just dig in without thought, but will pay careful attention to the way your tissues feel and are responding to my touch. I may also ask for verbal feedback at certain times so that I can be sure I am actually providing relief and not pain.
Occasionally, I have found that some clients will ask for more pressure than the tissues of the body will tolerate without damage. I am trained to read the body with my hands. I may feel that the tissues are resisting the pressure being applied, and that adding more pressure will result in bruising or other damage. In these cases, I may decline to use more pressure and will tell you why. If this ever happens to you, please trust your therapist!! I am here to help you feel better, not worse.
I am so OVER the “no pain, no gain” mode of thinking!
There is a common misconception that the more painful the bodywork, the more beneficial it is. This is simply not true! Because of recent research in pain science we know that muscular and fascial tension is controlled by the nervous system, which responds to touch in a variety of ways. A nurturing, pleasurable touch creates relaxation. A painful touch will cause alarm (fight or flight), guarding, and further tension.
The therapist has access to your skin, which contains millions of nerve endings. These superficial nerves connect to deeper nerves below the surface, and those deeper nerves connect to the spine, and the spine connects to the brain. Put that in reverse, and the skin can be thought of as an extension of your brain! An access point for the mind/body connection.
Those sweet spots where you crave deeper pressure, like your shoulders, neck, hips, the base of your skull? Those are places where larger nerves are more accessible to the therapist, and that’s why it feels so good to have those places massaged more firmly. Too much pressure over these nerves, though, will NOT feel good!
The right kind of touch with just the right amount of pressure soothes and nurtures the entire nervous system.
A happy nervous system does all sorts of wonderful things for you. Things like melting your tension so that you have less pain, making you feel peaceful and happy, allowing all your body systems to function better, and helping you to sleep better.
So, next time you get bodywork pay careful attention to what you are feeling, and if it doesn’t feel good to YOU, tell your therapist right away. She wants you to enjoy your session as much as you do.