A Guide To Your First Massage: What To Expect

Almost all of us are unprepared for our first massage. You don't see other people get massage, and most of the images in movies and TV of massage are played for humor or sex, and I've never seen one that was realistic. I can think of one massage scene in a popular book, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood*:

Torie began to lightly stroke Vivi's back, and to rock her ever so slightly. Her hands were warm against Vivi's skin, and as Torie stroked, Vivi could feel her own breathing start to steady. Sometimes she could not beileve that anyone could touch her body like this, with such acceptance, such loving detachment, asking for nothing in return.

and then later

Moments when she came home to her body in ways she never had before-- moments when she felt its aches, varicose veins, and wrinkles so intimately and gently that she groaned with a happiness she could never describe. Fleeting seconds when Vivi knew that her body, in all its imperfections, was her own lived-in work of art.


This scene paints a wonderful picture of what can be possible in a massage, the way a massage therapist can hold a safe space for change, but it doesn't have much detail filled in. How naked and exposed is the massage client? What does massage feel like to her, other than good? What kind of good is it? How did she become so comfortable with the woman touching her?

The first time I got a massage I was 19 and I had no idea what to expect. The therapist asked me something about how I wanted to feel, and I think I mumbled something about relaxing. She told me to get undressed and start face-down on the table, so I lay naked on top of the sheet. She asked me if I wanted to be under the top sheet, and I had no idea what was normal, so I assumed it was there for people who were shy or un-groovy, and I wanted to seem comfortable, so I said no, and later regretted it when the room got cold. She told me to let her know if the pressure felt like it was too much, but what is too much and how was I supposed to know? I held my limbs stiffly in position, thinking I was helping by not moving too much.

In spite of all of this, I got up off the table at the end of the hour feeling relaxed and lithe and strong, confident in new ways. Massage was profound and relaxing and healing, but also kind of stressful and alarming. It continued to be kind of stressful and alarming until I was in massage school, and I finally understood and could unpack all of the funny little massage etiquette and ritual, and knew why things were the way they were, what my options and rights were. Once I knew what the client could expect and what the therapist could expect, massage stopped being alarming and got even more profound. Now, with new clients, I try to convey as much as possible as we talk and during the intake process, but it's hard to fit everything into 5 minutes, so for anyone who really wants to sit down and read it, here it is, everything I can think of to tell you about your first massage.

One last note: different massage therapists and different businesses do things slightly differently. This is what I do, and what a lot of private practice massage therapists who graduated from the Muscular Therapy Institute sometime between 1990 and 2004 are likely to do. A massage at a Newbury St. spa is likely to be different, but a massage done by someone else in my building is likely to be similar.

It all starts with…

The Intake

Before you even show up to my office, you might find my intake form on my website. This form combines health history, contact information, and what you are looking to get from massage. You have to fill this out before your massage, so either show up a few minutes early to fill out a paper copy at my office, or print it out and bring it with you to save time, because it's sad to spend massage time on paperwork.

I'll check through it and then we'll talk. The talking is to establish what your massage should consist of. Here are some questions I might ask:

  • How would you like to feel different at the end of your massage?
  • What are you hoping I can help you with?
  • Do you have any massage pet peeves or favorite things? (if you've never gotten a professional massage, back rubs from friends or free chair massages might give you ideas)
  • Are you more interested in a full-body relaxation massage or a focussed treatment on the specific thing that's been hurting?

Part of the conversation might include some postural assessment, which is just you standing how you'd normally stand and me noticing how you do that. After we've been talking, I'll sum up what I think you're saying treatment should consist of, and we can fine tune it until it sounds good to you, at which point we're all ready to start. I'll put on some relaxing-type music* and leave the room.

* (if you don't find that particular music relaxing, speak up, because I can change it. Jazz, classical, whale sounds, new-agey guitar or Enya or whatever. I have a pretty wide selection.)

It's time for...

Getting On The Table

I'm out washing my hands, and you can take your time getting undressed and getting on the table. How undressed do you get? The short answer is to stay as dressed as you'd like to feel comfortable, while removing any clothes that get in the way of the massage you want. Here are some popular choices folks make:

  • Client A undresses to just-underpants for full-body relaxation massage. This allows for long, fluid relaxing massage strokes across the back.
  • Client B comes in to unwind some job-related shoulder and neck tension and also loosen up leg muscles from a weekend hike. She brings some stretchy athletic shorts to put on over her underwear to help her feel more comfortable, and she takes off everything else.
  • Client C leaves on her bra and underwear for a full-body relaxation massage. Work around her mid-back and shoulders is a little less fluid than it would be without the bra, but her comfort is more important.
  • Client D remains fully dressed for his massage. We use no-oil techniques, like range of motion, Zero Balancing, compression and tapotement to make a relaxing and energizing massage.

All of these choices are equally ok, and all these massages can be excellent. You can hang your clothes up on the hooks or fold them on the chair, or leave them in a little heap on the floor. Then, unless you're remaining fully-clothed, you can get under the top drape.

A lot of massages in movies, the kind of scene where a thin rich attractive person in California is laying on a table getting rubbed and then their cell-phone rings, the thin rich attractive person has a towel slung across their butt. This is Euro-style draping that movies and tv like to use to do a slow-pan shot across a naked body, and has nothing to do with a massage you are likely to get in Massachusetts or anywhere else in the US. During your massage, you will be covered by a sheet (we can add a blanket if you're cold), which will be folded around origami-style so that any part of you that I'm not working on is covered. Here are some very poorly hand-drawn visuals:

this is what leg draping looks like, when it is drawn in crayon at a coffeeshop. Note the coffee ring in the top right corner.

this is what leg draping looks like, when it is drawn in crayon at a coffeeshop. Note the coffee ring in the top right corner.

this is what back draping looks like drawn in crayon, excluding forearms and hands.

this is what back draping looks like drawn in crayon, excluding forearms and hands.

You get the idea. So now you're on the table, music with a name like Shamanic Dream or something is playing, I knock on the door to ask if you're ready, and I come in and now it's... 

Massage Time

A mini-rant to start: your massage is YOUR massage. Nothing should hurt, or feel uncomfortable, and if there are any questions you'd like to ask, things that would help you feel more at ease during your massage, speak up! If you're too hot or too cold or having trouble getting comfortable on the table, these things may be easy to fix, so please speak up and let me know! Also, sometimes certain massage techniques can feel ticklish or alarming or some other flavor of not-good. Any massage therapist worth their $100 hourly rate will have a variety of different techniques that all accomplish the same thing, so speaking up here with a "This isn't really working for me, can we try something else?" or "Can you work a little <insert desired adverb here>?" should make your massage better.

One specific thing that we can do to help you be more comfortable on the table is bolstering! Laying face-down on a flat surface isn't really comfortable (or possible) for a lot of people. Everybody has a unique build, but most of us aren't planar, and sometimes twisting our ankles, rounding our shoulders and flattening our backs to be flat on the table can exacerbate injury, or just prevent relaxing into the table.  If you can't get comfortable, let me know, because we can fix it. Holding an awkward pose is counter to our goals, and the best massage happens when you feel securely and comfortably nestled on the table. We can use pillows and towels and wedges to support your low back, your shoulders, your ankles or chest. 

(massage half-time)

There's a good chance that at some point during the massage, I'll ask you to flip. You don't need to worry about this or anything, I just want you to know it will happen. I may also use this time to check in with you, to make sure you're getting the massage you came in for. 

When the hands-on part of your massage is over, I will almost always say:

Take Your Time Getting Up Off The Table

Start getting up by rolling over onto your side, then use your arms to push up to sitting. Take a few breaths before you stand up. Sometimes people stand up too quickly and their newly-relaxed neck muscles make everything a little confused, and people end up lightheaded. Use the time while you get dressed to try some movements and stretch, do some swoopy dance moves to Bowed Guitar for Yoga. Give your body a little test-drive, and when you're all dressed and ready for me to come back in, open the door a crack so we can…

Wrap Up Talking

I want to know how your massage worked. What feels different? What felt helpful or non-helpful? You can ask me questions here, and I might offer you some self-care suggestions for things you can do on your own to prevent this problem from returning. If you want to book a follow-up massage we can do that now. If we are doing a series of treatments, now is when I will make some notes for things to focus on next time or things to do differently in the future. Insights that you have about how massage feels and what is different are always interesting to me, but some people don't feel super verbal or thinky post-massage, and that's fine too.

After Your Massage

You will likely want to drink a bunch of water. Sometimes people have a much easier time solving problems they've been stuck on. Sometimes clients need to leave the office a little bit slow-motion-style, especially walking down the 3 flights of stairs, so I recommend not scheduling anything you'll need to rush to if that's possible. You might be ready to go to bed, or you might be ready to write the rest of your thesis outline. Whatever it is, enjoy the ride!



*The whole scene, including a flashback, is pages 232-242 of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells.

Some Thoughts About Pressure & Depth

There are a lot of different ways to apply pressure to muscle, a lot of different qualities and intentions that it can have, and a lot of different things that can feel deep.

There's this famous story about Ida Rolf (founder of Rolfing). Towards the end of her life, she was in a wheelchair, and she was teaching. Watching a student, she kept telling them to go deeper! Get in there man! The student leaned in deeper, pushed as hard as he could, and while the client's back got red, nothing was happening. She got tired of watching him, so she wheeled over and shooed the student away from the practice client. From a sitting position, with no leverage, using 2 fingers, she relaxed a few fingers into the practice client's back. She visibly relaxed, and that's the story. Deeper isn't the same as harder.

Most first time clients who call up or email and want to know about my work ask me "Do you do deep-tissue massage?" This is an attempt to answer that question. The answer is both yes and no. 

The word pressure, when you apply it to human interaction, isn't really a very nice-sounding word. Interpersonal pressure is peer pressure, high-pressure sales,  political pressure. Somebody who pressures you is a person who is not taking the hint, a person who wants you to do something you don't want to do, and sometimes I've gotten massages that were like this. "Why is your low back so tense?" I've been asked while someone dug into it with their elbow, determined to exterminate tension from my body like it was termites and I was a wooden house. I left that massage with an inflamed, too-sensitive-to-touch low back, and a feeling that I was a broken-down mess, something that needed fixing.

Recovering from an injury, I received some work from a Dr. Lydia Knutson, a chiropractor I like because she turned the idea of eradicating tension to build balance and ease on its head. From her, I got the radical idea that tension isn't senseless, it forms in our bodies for a reason, and if we don't respect those reasons, the tension will just come right back, which is only reasonable. Our bodies use muscular tension to do a number of things: Tension can stabilize an injury or an imbalance (like scoliosis, or a big pregnant belly that de-centers your center of gravity), tension can be air-locked stay-fresh tupperware that holds emotions that we can't deal with in the moment that they happen (this is called armoring, and I'm planning to write about it another day), tension can oppose gravity and hold you up in weird postures (I'd like you to take a second and notice what your shoulder is doing to hold your hand over your mouse right now.)

So if tension forms for a reason, why do we end up with excess tension? Why does melting tension with massage make tension go away and not immediately return? The best answer I've come up with so far is that when we have a lot of tension in our body, when we are out of balance, under a lot of stress, our tension is really really bad at telling time, and also sometimes it needs a break from itself. A client of mine played ice hockey in college, she was a goalie and had injured her hip. Eventually she noticed that living with an injured hip her low back and her leg had gotten really tight to the point that more and more basic day-to-day physical activities were getting harder. Her hip was no longer seriously injured, but she still couldn't go up and down stairs without difficulty from her stiff leg, couldn't sleep comfortably in bed because her low back hurt. Her injury had healed, but the tension that had so helpfully splinted her injury to protect it hadn't gotten the memo. Massage therapy was the memo. In massage, we can use pressure on the muscle as a question. With my hands (or forearms or elbows) I can ask "Hey, it's 3:15 on Thursday March 3rd. Do you need a break, maybe some fresh blood flow, a little rest this hour? How do you feel about this splinting you've been doing? Do you want to try unwinding the splint a little to see if the hip is ready to support itself?" A lot of time, I swear, the tension looks around, its eyes get a little wider, and it says "Oh! What am I still doing here? Later, y'all." Sometimes the answer is "I don't know you, get off my porch." and sometimes it's, "I don't know who you are, but maybe after I trust you I'll think about it."

Sometimes we need outside perspective to notice that maybe we're ready for change. This is the place where I think pressure can be the most useful, as a petition to notice our bodies in space and time, in relation to our inner life and our physical reality and the larger world. This is some of the best of what I think massage can do, and it is what I hope for everyone who has tension they don't need.