How Does This All Work – Part 6: The Massage Itself

Posted on July 3, 2016 By

Can you believe there was this much to say before we got to the part where your therapist actually touches you?  Me either!  But then again, most folks don’t realize quite how much goes into becoming a massage therapist either. We’ll take that up another time. (If you’re new to the series, you can find the first entry here.)

Here we are.  You are lying under the sheet on the massage table.  Your face is nestled into the face cradle, and you have asked your therapist to adjust it so you are perfectly comfortable.  You’re warm enough, and well bolstered.  The music is playing in the background….

Finally, your therapist is ready to begin your massage!

No Two Massages are the Same

First off, let me tell you that no two therapists do exactly the same massage.  Even if they’re from the same school.  Even the same class.  Even if they actually choreographed the movements.

How can that be?  Part of it is because massage isn’t like a dance routine.  It’s an interactive art, in which both the therapist and the recipient play a role.  And that means that, since no two people are truly the same, the way any two massage therapists respond in a given movement will be slightly different.  Each therapist is an individual person with different sensibilities, awarenesses, motives, and abilities. We each have our own body structures, strengths, weaknesses, and our own personalities.  We will interpret massage differently.

Part of it is because no recipient is exactly the same.  People come in all shapes and sizes.  Even if they’re equipped with the same muscles, they’re not all the same length or strength and they hold their tension in different places.

You aren’t even the same person you were yesterday.  You have slightly different tensions today.  Your mood is different.  Your workload is different.  So, your body is different.  This, by the way, means that even if your massage therapist were able to provide a cookie cutter massage, doing exactly the same thing each time, it would feel slightly different to you.

So how can I possibly tell you exactly what will happen while you’re on the massage table??  I can’t.  But I can point out things that ought to be consistent.

The Table

As you got onto the table, you should have found that it is at least slightly cushiony, and has been dressed with clean sheets – top and bottom.  You may find that it also has a blanket over the sheet.  The face cradle should also be covered with a pillow case or specialized cover.  Some tables have table warmers.  This makes the table itself warm.  If it’s too warm, your therapist should turn it down or off for you.  When you’ve settled in under the covers, you should not feel hot or chilly.

The Ambience

While every therapist’s room is likely to be a little bit different, you are likely to find that most have music playing.  Typically, it’s relaxing music, often without discernible beats.  However, many therapists will play whatever you like if you have requests for the next session.  Some people enjoy listening to rock and roll, others prefer classical.  And some prefer silence.

Unless you’re in a physical therapist’s office, the lighting is likely to be fairly low in the treatment room.  It should be relaxing, not dark.

The Temperature

Clearly, the room temperature should be such that you are not chilled while receiving your massage.  However, the temperature should also be such that your therapist doesn’t over-heat while giving the massage.  There is a fine interplay, and sometimes that means that your therapist will have a small fan on to keep the air moving, or blowing on his or her feet to help keep cool without chilling you.  Sometimes, there will be a small heater in the room as well, so that the room can be warmed up for you when you arrive.

If you find the room too cold or too hot, please tell your therapist.  Adjustments can often be made, either to the room temperature, or to the table temperature.


In Illinois, and in most other states, there are actually laws about the ways in which your body must be covered during a massage.  Typically, if you are receiving a Swedish Massage, or any other type of massage in which you’re asked to disrobe, you will be covered by a sheet.  In some instances, you may be covered by a large towel.  Either way, your body will be covered.

draping1During the course of your massage, your therapist will remove the drape from whatever area he or she is working on, and recover that part of your body when he or she has finished working there.*

If you have abdominal work done, your therapist will add another drape to cover your chest, and then pull the regular drape down to expose your abdomen.

While your therapist may leave your back undraped while working on your arms, or drape you so that much of your back and one leg is exposed, typically, your back will be covered once your therapist is finished working on it.  If at any time you find that you are cold, you can ask to be covered more.

There really are laws about draping.  That means that if you find that you are too warm, there is only so much we can allow to be uncovered.

Pillows and Bolsters

While there are indeed some modalities in which you will lie on a table with no pillows or bolsters, your typical massage will include their use.  Since many massage therapists start their basic massages with the client lying on their stomachs, I’ll start with the face cradle.

prone using face cradleAs you can see, the person receiving the massage has her face in/on a special pillow with a hole in the center where your face should fit comfortably.  We use these so that your neck isn’t twisted during the massage, and so that we can work on your upper back and neck while they are in alignment without smashing your nose into the table.  If you see one on the table when you come in, you’re likely to start the massage face down, with your face in the cradle.

We also use a number of other bolsters to help make you more comfortable on the table.  ankle bolsterAmong these are bolsters that we slide under your ankles when you’re lying prone (face down) or under your knees when you’re lying supine (face up).*-  In both cases, they ease strain on your back, and generally make it more comfortable to be lying flat for a long time.

Sometimes, you may be asked to lie on your side.  In those cases, we use a number of pillows and bolsters to cradle and support you so that you can fully relax while we work.*4

sidelying bolsters (1)

The side lying position is commonly used for pre-natal massage, but can also be wonderful for helping to resolve a number of restrictions to movement.

Sometimes, we’ll use a pillow under you to make you more comfortable.

Oils and Lotions

Generally, if you are receiving a massage that involved you getting undressed, your therapist will be using an oil, gel or lotion to allow his or her hands to move smoothly over your skin. **

massage oilDepending on your therapist, you oils may be scrupulously scent free, or they may have essential oils blended in to enhance your session.  Some oils are thicker than others. Most absorb into your skin during the course of the massage, so unless your therapist is using a very thick oil, you should not feel slimy after your session.

If you have any allergies or aversions to scents, please be sure to tell your therapist.  You shouldn’t have to tell your therapist more than once or twice.

I, for example, have a client who really hates lavender.  I don’t recall without checking whether she is actually allergic to it, but that doesn’t really matter — she hates it.  Therefore, even if I’ve used lavender in other sessions that day, I make sure that the room doesn’t smell of lavender when she arrives, and I never use an oil that has lavender in it on her body.

What does “Full Body” mean?

Unless you’re going in for a therapeutic massage to address a specific issue, in which case your therapist may spend your entire session working just on muscles that address that issue, you’re likely to be receiving a full body massage.  Yes, that really does mean that your therapist will massage almost all of your body.  There are about 640 muscles in your body. I won’t be listing them all, but you’ll have a large fraction of them worked on during a full body massage.  In future issues, I’ll address why we work on certain areas of your body, and the benefits that doing so can have on the rest of your body.  For now, I’ll just address what we will and won’t touch during a typical session.

First off, if its is typically covered by a thong bikini (on men or women), we won’t be touching it.

You can expect to have your neck, shoulders, back, glutes (buttock muscles), thighs, calves, shins, ankles, feet, arms, hands and upper chest and often outer ears massaged.  You may also have your scalp, face, and/or abdomen massaged.

If you are uncomfortable with any of these, please speak up and ask your therapist not to work in those areas.  However, as you’ll see in future posts, each of those area is worked for a reason.  Ignoring your glutes when you have back pain can mean that your therapist can’t fully resolve the issues.

In almost all cases, the touch should be soothing, and relaxing, not painful.  And you should feel discomfort only when your therapist is working on a problem spot, and you’ve discussed how much discomfort is okay.

Talking During the Massage

Your therapist should let you take the lead in choosing whether or not to engage in conversation during your session.  Some people really like to talk during a massage.  Others really relish the silence, and the ease of not having to engage their minds with conversation.  While that’s true for everyone, in this situation, the therapist should accommodate your preferences.  You should feel no obligation to fill the empty space with conversation.

That being said, your therapist should ask you for feedback about pressure, intensity, and comfort from time to time.  If your back can take a lot of pressure, but your calves are tender, the only way to be sure your therapist knows is to tell them.

That’s more than enough for today.  Relax, sink into the table, and enjoy your massage.

Next time, we’ll be looking at what happens when you the massage is over.

Looking Back:  Part I: Booking an Appointment,
Part II: the Health History Form
Part III: Privacy, and What to Tell Your Therapist
Part IV: Getting on the Table
Part V: This is YOUR Massage


*  Image of draped leg from
**  Image of massage oil from
*-  image of feet on bolster from:
*4 image of sidelying person w/ bolsters from:

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