What Your Massage Therapist Is Actually Thinking

The few times I’ve gotten a massage, I’ve experienced an (admittedly ironic) influx of anxiety as I spent the entire session wondering what’s going on inside the head of the kind stranger rubbing oil onto my naked body. Who are they? What are they thinking? Are their arms tired yet? Are they avoiding my shoulder because of the weird mole located there or because it’s all part of THE PLAN?

As such, I developed a hunch that massage therapy is one of most mysterious gigs this side of Neptune. To prove said hunch, I interviewed Lara Katsman, a massage therapist at Haven Spa in New York City. With over 20 years of experience (some of which involved rubbing oil on me personally), Lara was well-equipped to answer all my burning questions. Keep reading for her fascinating, as-told-to insight on what it’s like on the other side of the table.

Destined to be a masseuse

It would be impossible to find a better use of my personal qualities than treating people for their emotional and physical pain. I’m extremely social, I connect very easily with people and I have absolutely excellent communication skills — can’t you tell? I’m very empathetic, which is important in this field, I’m a great listener, I have very strong client focus and I’m always present. I never drift away. I also have superb physical stamina. I’m never tired! I can massage a person for hours and hours. I don’t go to the gym, though. I work six days a week and I’m on my feet all day, I never sit and I’m always busy with my hands. My job is basically constant exercise.

I’m originally from Russia, which is where I trained to be a professional masseuse. I’ve also traveled a lot and lived in different countries, and wherever I go I try to observe how massage therapists work and what techniques they use. I try to learn what they do that I don’t know. To get training in school is one thing, but to get training in life and combine various techniques to create your own practice — that’s another thing entirely. It’s kind of an art.

In America, each state has different requirements for getting your massage therapist license. New York’s are some of the most laborious. You must complete over 1,000 hours of schooling before you can even be considered, which is double the amount most states mandate. I think it makes perfect sense because New Yorkers want the most skilled massage therapists. New Yorkers are workaholics and have no time for nonsense. They want the best. That’s why I love working in New York as a massage therapist, because it’s hard to survive financially here but massage therapy is in such high demand. My phone is constantly ringing.

Massage training covers a lot of medical knowledge, a lot of anatomy and physiology, how everything works inside the body and what happens when you apply certain pressure. However, the ability to intuitively understand people’s complaints and ailments cannot be taught. That is something that comes with practice.

The hard part

The most challenging thing is being disciplined about my own physical and psychological well-being so that I can better treat those of my clients. The first five years of practice are the most difficult because you’re not used to the physical demands, and many massage therapists quit due to burnout. Acclimating to the emotional demands are difficult as well. Clients come to you with frustrations and complaints, often times breaking down and crying in the room. Facilitating and treating this kind of emotional release day in and day out can be overwhelming and mentally taxing for massage therapists.

At this point in my career, though, it’s actually become my favorite part of what I do. I love the constant mental exercise of meeting all different people with different psychological makeups and crafting a unique session that serves their individual needs.

I also can’t complain about the environment I work in. It’s a spa! What could be more relaxing? It’s all nice smells, pleasant music, aromatherapy oils and soft towels.

Strange encounters

I think that one day we have to do a livestream broadcast from my massage room to hear the stories clients bring to me, because I’m pretty sure we’d out-perform even the most popular reality TV shows. People wouldn’t go to work because they’d be watching what happens in my room.

Oftentimes clients come in with big groups to celebrate a birthday, or a bridal shower or whatever, but one time we had a few women come in for what they called a “depression party.” Only a New Yorker would come up with such an idea — having a depression party in a spa. Who else would do that? It’s amazing.

Anyways, they all sat in the spa waiting room with these sad faces, and when I came to call one of them for her session she asked me, “What kind of treatment would you recommend for a depressed woman?” I told her we have something called the Bitch Massage. (It’s on the menu and it’s actually my speciality — you can Google it). I told her I designed it specifically to treat anxiety, stress, insomnia, irritability and premenstrual symptoms by using specific massage strokes, pressure points, stretches, and oil aromas that sooth aches and pains by increasing blood circulation and lymph flow, decreasing fluid retention in muscles, tissues and joints and eliminating toxins to calm the nervous system.

And she just looked at me, with a sour expression, and she said, “You know what? That should work, baby. Let’s go.” I think that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Every session is different

I’ve worked with people who feel shame about their bodies and have a difficult time undressing in the room before a massage. I remember with one girl it took me almost 45 minutes to convince her that it wasn’t going to be a bad experience, and that she could trust me to treat her. In these cases, the obstacle is almost always psychological rather than physical — it’s the fear of being judged.

It goes to show why massage therapy extends so far beyond just the body. I’ve had clients book a two-hour session just to talk. I don’t even touch them. It happens! It happens very often.

Each session is unique because I have to listen to what the client says and read between the lines, because most people don’t know how to express themselves but, at the end of the day, everyone just wants to feel more relaxed. What the hell does that mean, though? What does “relaxed” feel like to YOU?

Using deep pressure works to relax the body on a physical level, but what about when someone comes in and just feels absolutely awful emotionally? Physical pressure wouldn’t be helpful, so I have to come up with alternative methods. I use a lot of traditional Chinese medicine in my practice, because it’s very effective for addressing emotional and mental issues. I use aromatherapy, heat therapy, cold therapy, sometimes even a combination to confuse the brain, pinches of different things like ingredients in a recipe to achieve a specific result for a specific person with a specific set of problems. My goal is for clients to leave my room feeling both physically and emotionally refreshed.

I love the saying “the devil is in the details” — it’s a very famous German proverb. Even before a client says why they came in for a massage, I observe them: the way they walk, the way they communicate, the way they shake my hand, the way they give me a hug, the way they present themselves, etc. All those things give me clues to what their needs are and how I should treat them. Even something as small as identifying what corner of the mouth they speak from can inform how I treat someone’s neck tension. It’s all about observation, especially because not everyone is good at communicating. Visual details tell me more than actual speech. I tune in with all my senses.

I’ve had people who call in and say, “I can’t bend over, can I see someone?” After 30 minutes with me, they can walk again. It happens on a regular basis. Haven Spa is less of a luxury spa and more of an alternative medical service. People are looking for alternative ways to treat pain and aches, but they don’t want to waste time spending half a day in a doctor’s office, so they come here. I crafted the massage menu based on specific complaints from clients. The “Geek Massage,” for example, is designed for people who spend most of their time in the office and targets pains and aches from sitting in a chair and typing on a computer.

The most efficient way for a massage therapist to achieve results in the short period of time is by focusing on the feet and hands, because they communicate with the entire body, like a map. If you have limited time, even 15 minutes, tell your therapist to focus on your feet and hands and you’ll leave happy, tuned up, energized and loving life.

A misconception

As a female massage therapist I hear this constantly: “You aren’t strong enough to treat a tough guy.” I remember I had a very athletic guy come in for a deep tissue massage once and he was using a gift certificate, and I could immediately tell he was skeptical. He gave me this look like, “I’m in the wrong place because I’m a dude and this is a spa and it’s for girls, and you’re a tiny woman, what can you possibly do for me?’ I didn’t like that, so I gave deep tissue massage so intense it actually made him sweat.

After I was done he turned over and asked in a totally shocked tone, “Can you tell me where you got your training?”

I looked him right in the eye and said, “In prison.”

He’s now one of my best clients.

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis. 

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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