Massage: Is more pressure better?
But I’ll go into a little more detail.
There’s a fairly pervasive idea that massage is about changing the length of muscle and fascial (connective) tissue by pressing on it. Out of this idea came the idea that more pressure is better. It’s not just the people receiving massage who came up with this thought, plenty of the folks practicing massage seem to believe it as well.
When you think about it, muscles go from soft to hard and back to soft constantly and rapidly. It’s what muscles do. What is it that makes them do that?
There’s no need to spend a lot of time and effort mashing hard muscles into a softer state, because they can do that on their own (and because it doesn’t work). Instead we need to talk to their boss–the nervous system.
Your nervous system is composed of your brain, brainstem and spinal cord, and coming out of those structures are all the nerves that run to every place in your body. If you picture the root system of a plant you’ve got a pretty good image of the nervous system.
Within that system there are nerves whose impulses travel toward the brain and spinal cord, bringing information about our external or internal environment. And there are nerves that travel from the brain or spinal cord causing actions to be carried out.
Generally speaking the farther a nerve impulse travels toward the brain, the greater the complexity involved in arriving at what impulse to send back toward the body.
Many of the tips, or ends, of those nerves are near the surface of the body.
When talking about massage the surface of the body is sometimes dismissed as being “superficial”, implying that it’s unimportant. (Superficial is an anatomical term meaning, “closer to the surface”.) Whereas deep, as in “deep tissue” is talked about like it’s more meaningful.
Even a light touch on the skin travels deep inside the brain.
The surface of our body is where we make contact with our environment. It’s where the collection of inner experience that is “us” interacts with everything around us. Our surface is an important and rich part of our experience.
When people think about massage they are often thinking that the body is sculpted through the use of pressure. As though the body were made of clay.
The difference is that a lump of clay doesn’t have a nervous system.
The body is alive. The body feels and interprets its environment and then responds accordingly.
When a lot of pressure is used in a massage session it can create the false impression that the work is deep, as in traveling deeply into the body. But, you can’t push the nervous system around. I know, I used to try back before I realized that the body was alive.
What’s actually happening when excessive pressure is applied, is that the nervous system resists the onslaught by making the muscles harder to keep the threat at bay and in the process a lot of sensation is generated. The therapist becomes a noxious stimulus that the body has to put up with until it goes away, but it takes energy and is not very relaxing or restorative.
If I show up to “work on” someone’s body with my own agenda, believing I know what’s best and trying to make all the hard spots soft, it just doesn’t work. It causes a little bit of much needed fluid movement, which makes someone feel better for a few hours or a few days, but there’s no real change.
For real change in the body(mind) I now acknowledge the living nervous system in that body, and I acknowledge that it knows far more about what that body needs than I do. I just try my best to listen and cooperate.
If the nervous system and I don’t spend our time battling each other and bombarding the owner of that nervous system with intense sensory information, then there is space to feel something new, find something new, and experiment with becoming something new.
I find that nervous systems want what I think a lot of us want deep down. They want safety and they want to be seen.
And perhaps like a lot of us, when they receive safety and are really seen, they open up, like flowers, and they explore and then they change in the way that’s best for them.
When you touch a living body with loving kindness and humility, and wait for rapport to develop, all those nerve endings respond and use the feedback your offering them to change muscle lengths, release fascial tissues, and a whole host of things we don’t even know the half of (like stimulating immune system hormones and decreasing our fight or flight response etc.)
So, more pressure works great if you’re shaping clay, but for sensitive living systems, respectful, loving–kindness is preferred.