Where Do We Get Touch?

{A World of Touch}Skin stimulation (touch) is essential to the development and maintenance of health and well being in every human. Why then has it been so neglected as a subject for legitimate inquiry except perhaps by poets?  The other four senses have garnered reams of research, had university  departments dedicated to them and whole occupations given over to the cause of hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling. But where is the profession dedicated to touching? Touch is truly the “orphan sense.”

Fortunately, that is changing. In the past 20 years, particularly with the rise of neuro-psychology, the primary sense of touch is finally beginning to get its due. As it does there is an increasing need to organize our thinking about touch. One useful tool would be a taxonomy of where touching occurs.

This first effort only includes sources of positive touch where whole person health and well being is enhanced, rather than inhibited. It is also not a catalog of touching intentions. Check here for that list. Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comment area below to make this version as comprehensive as possible.

A Taxonomy of Touching Contexts

This taxonomy has four top level categories:

  1. Human to Human
  2. Animal to Human
  3. Machine to Human
  4. Environment Skin Stimulation

The bulk of the detail below delineates the first category. In later iterations of this taxonomy the other three categories could be fleshed out more thoroughly.

Human to Human

Occupational Touching–Primary

  • Massage and bodywork Practitioners
  • Personal Care (Grooming) Services
    Hair Dressers, Stylists, Cosmetologists
    Skin Care Specialists
    Manicurist, Pedicurist

I have separated these two categories as virtually all states regulate them with separate legislation. However, there is little question that the bulk of massage services currently being provided fall into the personal care category while only a minority of massage services are actual health care services in the traditional treatment sense of the term.

Occupational Touching–Adjunctive

In these occupations touch is inevitable but not primary.

  • Health Care Professionals
    Physicians Assistants
    Physical Therapist
  • Allied Health Care Workers
    Respiratory Therapists
    Radiologic Technicians
    Psychiatric Aides/Technicians
    All other Aides and Assistants
    Occupational Therapist
    Recreational Workers
    Recreational Therapists
    Rehabilitation Workers
    Hospice Workers
    Home Health and Personal Care Aides
  • Athletic and Fitness Trainers
  • Pre-school Childcare Workers
  • Social Workers
  • Professional Dancers
  • K-12 Educators
  • Special Education Teachers

Social touching

  • Family and Friends
    Hugs and kisses
    Comfort for the ill and dying
  • Structured touching groups
    Massage Exchange groups
    Snuggle/Cuddle/Hugging groups
  • Teammate touching in sports
  • Dancing
  • Workplace touching


  • Unconscious
    Rubbing or holding for pain relief
  • Intentional

Erotic touch

  • Personal
  • Social
  • Professional

Human to Animal

Physical contact with animals has many of the same psycho-social benefits as human to human contact because it stimulates the release of the same stress reducing and bonding hormones. In addition, according to Science Daily, a “growing body of research now documents the [therapeutic] value of the human-animal bond in child development, elderly care, mental illness, physical impairment, dementia, abuse and trauma recovery, and the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth and adults.”

Machine to Human

Machines have long been used to stimulate our skin under the guise of a wide range of massage devices. Everything from electric massage chairs to vibrators to non-electric massage tools are included in this category.

Environmental Skin Stimulation

Our skin is being continuously being stimulated by the environment surrounding the body. That includes the air, our clothes, water that flows across our skin or that we immerse in. There are also small but growing movements promoting the awareness and value of direct skin stimulation with the earth (http://www.barefooters.org/). How ironic that we now have to have organization to remind us how good it feels to walk on the beach or in the grass.

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Cuddle Clubs Monetize Touch

{Animal Cuddle}Professional massage practitioners are not the only ones who make money touching. A growing movement gaining traction in our disembodied world brings groups of unrelated people together for non-erotic touch interaction.

Variously called cuddle clubs, cuddle parties or snuggle parties this phenomenon now has its books, YouTube videos, Meetup.com groups (75 and counting), and commercial ventures that are monetizing physical affection. The latter include Cuddle Party (already in 17 states and provinces), Cuddle Up to Me (a retail store in Portland, OR), and The Snuggle Buddies (a registry of independent snuggles).

An early version of social touch clubs were massage trade evenings pioneered by Gay men over two decades ago as one response to the AIDS crisis. As the world become increasingly touch-phobic, in typical fashion, the LGBT community responded with a safe, creative, pro-touch solution to the the prevailing fears. More recently, erotic touch clubs have also emerged out of various subcultures in the USA (think Burning Man) and more blatantly in some European cities such as London. Caveat emptor: if you see the word “Tantric” in any advertising it is euphemism for erotic touch and cuddlers beware.

The beauty of all of these groups is that they are very explicit about touch boundaries as they begin to parse the fine line between sensuality and sexuality. Contemporary culture will never overcome the touch negativity of the past centuries until non-sexual touching can be made safe. Strictly enforced policies address what to wear, alcohol and drugs, scents and hygiene, conversation, and, most importantly, how to initiate, ask for, accept and refuse touch.

Self-organized cuddle and massage clubs generally charge a nominal fee for the evening or for joining, while the commercial clubs and group parties might run $25 for 90-minutes. Individual one-to-one services are priced $60 and hour on up, depending on location.

Many of the group facilitators and professional snugglers are also massage practitioners. This is an great example of how the massage community is slowly beginning to embrace their role as touch educators and advocates. If there is not a cuddle community in your area, start one through MeetUp.com or join one of the commercial services expanding nationally. The more educated that people are about the joy of non-erotic touch, the more likely they are to appreciate the value of a professional massage.


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From Chair to Table: How to Convert Your Chair Massage Clients

This article first appeared in the June 2015 of MASSAGE Magazine.

onsite massage copyChair massage often turns out to be just the right introduction people need to experience the joys and benefits of all varieties of structured touch. While not all chair massage clients will turn into table clients, often conversion success is simply a matter of not missing the opportunities presented by clients during the course of a chair massage encounter.

Here are three ways you can take advantage of such opportunities—and possibly win new table massage clients because of it.

Give massage away

Massage therapist Russ Borner can trace 80 percent of the $9,000 per month he typically grosses doing table massage to one specific chair massage he gave 30 years ago—for free—at a charity golf event in Westchester County, New York. His team had set up on the ninth hole to give each foursome of players a massage as they reached the halfway mark of the course.

After working a full day, they gathered in the lobby with all the players, who were getting ready for cocktails and dinner. Russ noticed a group of seven dedicated but very tired volunteers across the room, who looked like they also might appreciate a chair massage, so the team decided to offer their services.

One particular woman Russ worked on, Betsy, turned around in the chair after the massage was over and asked, “Do you make house calls?” She lived 40 miles away and was not wealthy enough to cover his travel expenses but, with a little negotiation, Russ agreed that if she could get two or three other friends to commit to a massage, he would be happy to make the trip. By the time Russ got home that night his answering machine was filled with requests from people saying, “Betsy told me you will be in our area next week. Can I book a massage with you?”

Betsy and her friends, and eventually their friends’ friends, kept making one positive word-of-mouth referral after another, until Russ had as much table massage work as he could handle. He and his wife Candice now run three spas, along with his thriving outcall practice of loyal table clients who pay $150 to $175 per massage. And, yes, Russ still gives Betsy her weekly massage—at half-price, with every fourth massage free in appreciation of her amazing networking skills.

Explain how you can help

Another typical scenario is people seeking a chair massage complaining of pain in their head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands or back. That is a perfect opportunity to educate clients about at least two levels of massage: systemic massage and focused work. Here is a sample script for moving those clients to your table:

“Chair massage is a systemic massage designed to help your body heal itself. So, although I won’t be addressing your specific problem, whether or not your complaint disappears by the end of this 10-minute session, I can guarantee you will feel better. If you prefer that I focus on your specific issue, I can make an appointment for you in my table practice, where we will have the time to thoroughly evaluate your issue and find the most effective solution.”

Make chair massage an appetizer

At one-time chair massage events, where you never expect to see the client again, you can often position chair massage as a sample of your regular table work. In these situations, at the end of each massage, Russ Borner will ask clients if they have ever had a table massage before. If not, he hands them a business card and invites them to experience one. People are much more likely to book their second massage with the practitioner who gave them their first massage, as long as the first experience was positive.

If his chair massage clients have previously had table massage, Russ makes this offer: “If you are willing to try a table massage from me and it is not one of the top three massages you have ever had in your life, then you don’t have to pay me.” In this case, clients have just had a sample of how good he can make them feel, and the guarantee makes the table massage virtually risk-free.

Massage marketing is ultimately about education, and the best way to educate someone about the value of your massage is to give them a sample. Chair massage is the perfect appetizer.

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Touch Education in the Workplace

(This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine,)

The hand of GodOver the past three decades American culture has become increasingly touch averse. While few question the importance of touch for the healthy development of newborns, infants and young children, something unfortunate begins to happen about the time kids get ready for school. They learn to fear touch.

Some of this learning comes from parental cautions about not allowing strangers to touch you. But, mostly, children learn by example. What they see is that no neighbor, teacher, minister, adult friend or, sometimes, even relatives are allowed to offer them affectionate touch.

Then it is on to adolescence where, just as the hormonal storm whips up our need for touch to hurricane force, the “don’t touch” messages take on a new level of urgency. We learn the terrors of touch that results in pregnancy, STDs, date rape, or being called Gay.

Finally, after entering the workforce, we encounter institutional policies about sexual harassment that tend to frown on, if not outright ban, all touching.

What a world we have created. We are taught not to hit, but not how to caress. The media bombards us with images of abusive touch and sexualized touch, but not affectionate or sacred touch. In a society where touch is pathologized so early and so often, it is virtually impossible to grow up without accruing a wide array of unconscious negative and defensive responses to touch.

The marketing conundrum

This makes marketing massage particularly challenging. The massage profession has been swimming upstream against a torrent of cultural and institutional touch phobia for decades. It is unquestionably the biggest marketing barrier faced by our industry and yet, curiously, we barely acknowledge its existence.

Fortunately, there has never been a better moment in history to tackle this marketing problem head on. The emergence of a robust technology for delivering safe touch to the marketplace, i.e. chair massage, has recently converged with a strong scientific foundation validating the importance of positive touch.

To carry this pro-touch banner we need to redefine ourselves as the “touch educators” of our culture. No other profession has taken on this crucially important job of advocating for a touch-positive society and the massage profession is uniquely positioned to assume this responsibility. It is time for the massage profession to embrace touch and become true touch educators.

The reframing of chair massage

Chair massage is far and away the most accessible option we have for delivering skilled touch services to dozens of market sectors, such as the workplace, that have not be served by traditional table massage. However, because of its typically short time frame, chair massage has never sat comfortably as a health care profession. Without question, the vast number of practitioners providing chair massage in the workplace, at events, or in retail settings are offering a personal care service for simple relaxation, not a health care service for treatment.

Fortunately, recent science has established the fact that touch is good for us. While that may come as no surprise to the massage profession, research that describes the underlying physiology of touch is a tremendous marketing breakthrough. We can now tell our customers exactly why massage makes them feel good.

Within seconds of receiving positive touch, two indisputable and totally involuntary reactions occur. The first is that the bloodstream gets flooded with oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. The second is the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), otherwise known as the relaxation response.

Oxytocin immediately makes us feel calm and connected in empathetic ways to both our internal and external environments. When the PSNS relaxation response is triggered, our bodies move into healing mode where digestion occurs, organs repair and our immune response is activated. Significantly, when the PSNS is stimulated, the stress response (SNS: Sympathetic Nervous System) always diminishes. The two systems are complementary.

These mechanisms can be easily communicated to customers and add an important scientific layer of credibility to our simple touch services. We no longer have to promise musculoskeletal miracles to justify our services, but can confidently make the case that positive touch is enough.

“What we think, we become.” -Buddha

With good science and an accessible delivery system in place, how do massage practitioners build an identity as a touch educator? The first step is to filter our massage work through the lens of skilled touch.

For example, every massage we perform is a validation, through direct experience, of the importance of positive physical human contact. Thus, since every massage becomes a tutorial in touch, then every practitioner must already be a touch educator.

We can use that filter to reframe the whole massage experience for each customer before, during and after every massage. Below are some examples of that reframing but first, a note about terminology.

You don’t actually have to use the word “touch” to be a touch educator. Fortunately “massage” is a perfectly acceptable code word for touch. Each conversation will be different but I often start out by talking about massage and then slowly injecting the notion of touch in to the dialogue.

When doing chair massage I avoid the terms “therapy,” “therapist” and “treatment.” The point is to keep the expectations of the customer focused on the substantial benefits of touch rather than massage therapy done to resolve specific musculoskeletal issues. I describe myself a “massage practitioner” or a “chair massage specialist.”

The guarantee

“No matter how you feel before you sit down, if you don’t feel better when you leave the chair, the massage is free.”

Such a money-back guarantee is a powerful way to highlight the most basic benefit of positive touch—it makes us feel better. No matter if your headache, stiff neck, backache or repetitive strain injury goes away, we know that a surge of oxytocin and stimulation of the parasympathetic system will invariably transform the brain and the body into a more positive and productive environment.

How many services can offer a money-back guarantee on feeling good? It is a rare and valuable gift to guarantee that, no matter how you feel right this moment, in just 10-, 20- or 30-minutes you will feel better. And, there is nothing magical or mystical about massage. In fact, the job of a touch educator is to demystify touch. Without the help of any hocus pocus or hanky-panky, massage makes us feel better.

It is just good science.

Touch is sensational

Often, at the beginning of a massage, I will make some version of this comment: “Everyplace I touch during the massage will have a sensation. I want those sensations to be good, not bad. You need to let me know if any sensation feels uncomfortable, OK?”

All touch creates sensation. One of the goals of chair massage is to reconnect people with their sensational selves. Contemporary culture tends to shut down the links between our brains and our bodies and interrupt our natural sensory feedback systems by numbing our bodies with drugs or over stimulating our minds with media, video games and the like.

Encouraging feedback during a massage is an important way for people to take ownership of how they feel. So many people have fallen into the trap of believing that how they feel is a result of external circumstances beyond their control. The current fascination with zombies is, I believe, a disturbing reflection of our own personal and cultural disembodiment.

Reinforce the connection

There are many ways to reinforce the connection between massage and the myriad benefits of touch in the massage relationship. Be on the lookout for opportunities to share the following messages. For example, often in response to some comment about how awesome a customer feels during or after a massage I might say:

  • A little touch goes a long way.
  • It is amazing how a little oxytocin boost can lift our mood and make our world a little more manageable.
  • We call massage “an instant attitude adjustment.”

Here are a couple of other educations notions I like to share with stressed out customers:

  • By making us more mindful of the present moment massage helps turn obstacles into challenges and big problems into manageable tasks
  • Too often our bodies spend too much time either in stress response or waiting for a stress response. Each time we get pinged by an arriving email or text message our body gets a little jolt of adrenalin. That’s good for fighting or fleeing tigers, but bad for navigating our day-to-day lives. Massage helps make the relaxation response a habit.

Traditionally, chair massage in the workplace was always framed in terms of such variables as increased productivity and morale along with reduced stress and absenteeism. Unfortunately the evidence behind such claims has always been sketchy at best. However, when filtered through the lens of touch science, all of these outcomes make sense. Consider these impacts of positive touch:

  • Massage/touch brings out minds and bodies back into the present moment, which is where, as the mindfulness experts keep telling us, all of the best decisions are made.
  • Because massage stimulates the relaxation response we know that relaxed employees are focused, healthy and happy workers.
  • The immediate oxytocin boost provided by a massage results in an increase in morale and collaboration.

The touch connection

From the moment of birth we crave connection with other human beings. Touch is the first and most fundamental manifestation of that connection. It is also the most intimate connection but, unfortunately, our cultural fears around intimacy are wide and deep.

Chair massage is the perfect container for the non-threatening intimacy. I remember the first time I heard a woman remark to me in the early 1980s that her chair massage experience was the first time she could remember a man touching her non-sexually.

Touch is fundamental to all massage. Since no other profession has taken up the mantle of being the cultural experts in touch, it only makes sense that our profession should carry that banner and become the primary advocates for the benefits of positive touch.

Adding the identity of a touch professional/educator/advocate to your chair massage work will transform your practice, your relationship with your customers and, maybe, even yourself. Let’s start building a pro-touch society one touch-informed massage at a time.

Further resources

To help you get started in becoming a conscious touch educator check out the latest touch research detailed in the new book, Touch by David J. Linden. You can also follow current touch news from Suzanne Zeedyk: The Science of Human Connection and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.


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Story Massage in Nepal

In Nepal most girls are married at a young age and have few opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. Story Massage is one way.

In Nepal most girls are married at a young age and have few opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. Story Massage is one important way.

The reach of positive touch never ceases to amaze me. All it takes are some bold and visionary advocates, in this case from the folks at Story Massage UK working in Nepal. Read about this totally innovative program that empowers young women using structured touch for interpersonal skills development, confidence building and self-discovery.

“Central to our work is the principle of respectful touch, and this is especially important for Nepalese girls living in a society where men traditionally hold the power. They were taught to ask permission before touching another girl, and to say ‘thank you’ at the end of the story massage. We also discussed using hand signals to offer feedback if the touch is too soft, or too firm – if it felt really good or if they they like it to stop. The girls were intrigued by these signs and chose to spend time practising and remembering them.”

Posted in In the News, Touch | 3 Comments