A few thoughts on receiving massage

Last month I was talking with a friend who had been given a gift certificate for an hour massage…the year before. My reaction was:

“Good God you’ve had that for a year and you haven’t used it? What are you thinking? Go book a massage, posthaste!”

And then he said:

“But I’ve never gotten a massage before! I don’t know what to expect! I’m kind of scared…”

Eventually I bullied him into getting his massage (I just booked him an appointment, and said “show up on Wednesday at 4:00, for a tub and massage”), and he loved it. He’s now a borderline massage addict.

It occurs to me that there are probably a lot of people in the world who haven’t gotten massage, and that some of them might start going if they knew what to expect. Fear of the unknown can be a powerful motivator, so I’d like to talk with you today about what to expect during a massage, and then add some recommendations for getting the most out of your massage/spa experience. I will also briefly go over the concept of outcall massage as well.

What to expect

Most spas have a check in/arrival desk. Usually this is the first thing you will see when entering the spa, and most spas also separate the check in desk from the treatment areas for sanity reasons. (It’s really hard to get a body treatment when you can hear a credit card machine in the background, gossip in the foyer, and what have you.) Some spas do take walk-ins, but reservations are a good idea (more on this later).

The desk staff will intake you (take your money), and will usually tell you what to do next (wait for your therapist, go down the hall to point x, and so forth). Many spas also have an “intake form” that’s about one page long–there’s a quick medical checklist to fill out so that the therapist will know what’s going on with your body. Most intake forms also have a comments area, which is a good place to put additional information or requests (i.e. most forms ask if you have had surgery, and the comments area is where you would want to add “knee surgery December 2000” or “caesarian section this summer.”) The comments section is also a good place to put information such as “please don’t touch my belly” or “I hold a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders and would appreciate more work there.” There’s usually a disclaimer at the bottom followed by a space for your signature.

Depending of the organization of the spa, you may be dealing with multiple spa staff before seeing your therapist–for example, a receptionist and then a spa assistant. If you have questions or needs (“where is the bathroom?” “could I get some water?”) any member of the staff should be able to assist you, and don’t be shy. Remember, this is an experience you are undertaking for your wellbeing, so don’t be afraid to be needy.

Your therapist usually comes to get you and bring you to your room. He or she will probably ask you if you need the bathroom (and if you do, say yes, by all means! massage is not so comfy if you need to pee the whole time!) They will lead you into the room, show you your table, and direct you to undress and lie down under the top sheet–then they will step out of the room. The room will probably be under low light, music will be playing, and some spas may have fountains or other sorts of room decorations.

A few notes are in order here–the first is that you should undress to your level of comfort. If you would prefer to wear loose, comfortable clothing, that’s ok. If you want to undress but leave your underwear on, that also works. You need to do what makes you feel secure, and therapists understand that some clients may feel nervous. No reputable therapist is going to say “you really need to take all your clothing off for me to give you a good massage.” Furthermore, all therapists are trained to drape their clients properly–the sheet stays on you at all times, and the therapist will drape as needed to expose the area they are working on. You shouldn’t have any “bits hanging out,” and if you do, don’t be afraid to tell your therapist that you feel exposed. In California, a series of arcane laws govern massage, but in general it’s good to know that the breast and genital areas cannot be handled by anyone except a medical professional. Most therapists also stay away from the upper thighs, buttocks, and stomach, unless you specifically request work on those areas.

The therapist will knock on the door and ask if you are ready–after being assured that you are, he or she will enter the room and begin your session. Most therapists use a Swedish Esalen style of massage, incorporating oil or creme and long, flowing strokes which vary from gentle to firm. Most therapists also incorporate tapotment (percussion), friction, petrissage (kneading), and moves from other massage styles they may be familiar with. Most massage session begin with the client on his or her stomach, and end with the client facing up. When your session is over, the therapist will step out again to allow you to relax, dress, and re-enter the outside world.


Research. Don’t be afraid to contact several spas about their offerings and available therapists. Every spa should have a book with information about the therapists–read through it to learn about the education therapists have received, what sort of techniques they specialize in, and their personal philosophy. You should be aware that there are many different styles of massage–if Swedish doesn’t sound like it would meet your needs, you might be interested in Shiatsu or Thai massage. Massage is often expensive, and you should be comfortable spending your money on it–don’t run down the that spa down the street and get a massage, take the time to get to know the space you would be in. Many spas also offer tours, to give you an idea of what the spa is like and where the room you would be in would be. Take advantage of that to get to know your spa. Get recommendations from friends, and when you are ready…

Make reservations. Most spas have rotating staff schedules, and if you would like to work with a particular therapist, especially a popular one, it’s a good idea to book ahead. If you don’t have a therapist in mind, when making reservations, it’s a good idea to specify if you have a sex preference–if you feel more comfortable working with a male therapist, alert the staff to that. If you would prefer a female, likewise. Appointment times range, but generally start in the late morning and end around eight or nine at night. Most spas also have an optimal set of appointment times, to keep booking smooth, so don’t be put off if the desk staff say “well, we don’t have a 4:00, but we do have a 4:15…” Be aware that most spas have a 24-48 hour cancellation policy, and try to think ahead. If you do need to cancel at the last minute, by all means go ahead, but be aware that the spa will charge you for that session anyway. Often a spa will allow you to send someone else in your stead (i.e. “I can’t get a massage right now because X, but my friend Sally is willing to go in my place.) If the spa thinks they can fill the appointment, they will try to, but be aware that therapists are compensated for no-shows, and last minute cancellations are a hardship for the therapist and the spa. If there is a genuine emergency, the staff may be understanding and waive the rules for you, but don’t expect it.

Eat lightly an hour to an hour and a half before your appointment (unless you have specific dietary needs or blood sugar issues). The therapist doesn’t want you to be distracted and hungry, but eating a large or heavy meal and not allowing time to digest may interfere with your massage. Massage loosens and relaxes the body–something which may not be ideal if your intestines are loaded with a heavy meal.

Arrive early for your appointment. Allow yourself time to relax, especially if you normally lead a busy life. In addition, most spas will have an intake form, and you wouldn’t want to cut into your massage session by arriving late. Many spas also consider late arrivals to be no shows, so it’s really, really, really important to show up early. Provide accurate health information on your form or to the therapist if the spa doesn’t have an intake form. For some conditions, massage is contraindicated and therefore it’s a very good idea to let the therapist know about any medical conditions. Particularly if you are pregnant (in which case you should alert the desk staff at the time you make your appointment, to request a pregnancy massage). There are special massage techniques to facilitate a healthy pregnancy, help you sleep, relieve pain, and soothe tension–massage can be highly beneficial during pregnancy. However, many spas will not massage women who are in their first trimester. It’s also a good idea to check with your doctor before receiving any bodywork during pregnancy, especially if you are experiencing any complications.

I recommend a tub and/or sauna before your appointment. It’s another step in the relaxation process, but it also loosens your muscles, allowing the therapist to benefit you even more. Most spas have tub and sauna suites, and you should ask about those when making your reservation. If the spa doesn’t, or you don’t feel like using their facilities, take a tub at home. In any case, you should shower before your appointment–the therapist will be working with your body in an intimate way, and being clean is polite.

Communicate. This is probably my most important tip. If you don’t like the music playing, tell the therapist. If you want the therapist working more on one part of your body than another, say so. Give your therapist feedback about the amount of pressure being used, pace of movement, temperature, whatever. This is a session for you and you should not be uncomfortable or distracted at any point. I’ve had a number of people tell me “I’m just not that into massage,” or “I had a really bad massage from X,” and I say “did you talk with your therapist about your needs? Did you communicate during the session?” And the person says “well know I didn’t but he/she should have known.” Therapists are not psychic! They may sense an area in your body of particular tension or stress and address it well, or they may not realize that they are working a bone instead of a cramped muscle, so tell them. Especially if a therapist is hurting you, communicate–massage should not be painful. Create an environment which is comfortable for you–perhaps you prefer silence, or perhaps you prefer to talk through your appointment–your therapist will accommodate you.

If you really feel that a therapist is not meeting your needs, or you are uncomfortable, do not be afraid to terminate your session. It happens, and it’s ok. Usually the spa will be understanding and will reschedule you with a different therapist–if another one is available at the time, he or she can come in and work on you. Sometimes bad energy arises during a massage, and it’s better to end it than to seethe through an hour and a half.

Breathe. It’s key to massage.

Massage often releases emotion. You may fall asleep–you may laugh or cry. Therapists have dealt with a wide range of behaviour and will not be surprised or offended. Let it out.

When the appointment is over, thank your therapist. If you would like to tip, there is usually a tray in the room to do so with. Let your therapist know if you really enjoyed your massage. If you didn’t specifically request that therapist but you liked their work, ask if they have a card, or if they have a regular schedule at the spa. If you thought it was a lukewarm massage, it’s ok to just say “thank you.”

Drink lots of water after your appointment. Stay hydrated and flush those toxins out. Drink lots of water all the time, actually. Rest after your appointment. Most spas have a tea room or lounge where you can relax before going outside, and you should take advantage of it to allow yourself to acclimate to real life.

Regular massage has been shown to be beneficial when received at least once a month. Hopefully you will enjoy your massage experience enough to make it a regular part of your life. If you didn’t, give it another chance with a different therapist or spa. I’ve flitted about between a number of therapists before finding ones I like. I’ve also explored different sorts of massage, like deep tissue. Swedish from one therapist may not be a fit for you, but you might really like it from another, or you might really enjoy deep tissue (especially if you felt like the pressure was too light). I really enjoy warm stones, but I don’t recommend them for first timers because a warm stone is an unusual massage. As a more experienced massage client, you might benefit greatly from a warm stone, and it’s something to consider further into your massage journey. If you really like the spa you are using, explore their other offerings as well. Many spas do exfoliation, masks, manicures, and so forth, and you might well enjoy the varied treatments a spa offers. Depending on how much you’d like to spoil yourself, you might want to take a tub, get a body scrub, and then a massage to round the experience off. And yes, masks and scrubs are for boys too! Get that skin silky smooth and the ladies will flock.

Outcall massage

Many therapists have their own tables and offer outcall massage, where they go to your house or hotel room with all the tools of their trade. I recommend beginning in a spa, and asking a therapist you like if he or she does outcall. I also enjoy the action of going to a different environment for massage–your home can be distracting, with pets, children (I’m sorry), spouses, noises, and what have you. A spa is a place engineered for serenity and peace, and I think that facilitates great massage. If you do decide to go the outcall route, be aware that it is often much more expensive.

So get out there and book yourself a massage, if you haven’t before, or if it’s been awhile (which for me is anything over two weeks). Go forth and take care of your body!