Is it time for massage to embrace touch?

The hand of GodWhich profession should hold the keys to the storehouse that contains all of  the world’s  knowledge about human touch? Besides bodyworkers, is there any other (legal) occupation with more practical and theoretical knowledge about touch? I don’t think so and yet I have been struck by the fact that the massage profession often seems to relate to touch the same way fish relate to water. We take it for granted.

I believe that the primary function of entry level massage programs is to train the next generation of  touch specialists and, obviously, that means their highest priority should be teaching students how to give and receive touch. And that is not happening.

I know it is not happening because one of the questions I regularly ask bodyworkers in my classes is how many of them graduated from massage school with other students whom they didn’t want touching them? Most often, every hand goes up.

I also know massage schools aren’t prioritizing touch because although we have plenty of  textbooks on anatomy, physiology, pathology, ethics, techniques, body mechanics or business and we also have general textbooks that cover all of those topics, we still have no single textbook that explains everything every bodywork professional needs to know about touch.

Graduates may study the anatomy of the skin and touch receptors, but do they study the emotional, psychological, familial and cultural anatomy out of which touch attitudes, perception and receptivity arises? They may learn how to take a medical history, but how many massage schools teach their students how to take a touch history?

As a profession we are squandering a golden opportunity to advocate for a part of the human experience as essential to the development and maintenance of good health and well being as the air we breath or the food and water we consume. Everyone needs touch and lots of it but because touch in our culture is the orphan sense, most people living in urban environments wake up every day with a serious touch deficit.

The ears have music, the eyes have art, the nose and taste buds have food and perfumes and our sense of touch has–what? How exactly do we feed our sense of touch? Family affection and sex are the two obvious answers, but I would suspect that in most contemporary lives these options are in short supply.

The obvious answer for filling this touch gap is massage. Isn’t it time for the massage profession to embrace touch? Sure, massage therapy trying to be a health care profession is good, but isn’t offering the gift of unconditional touch with simple massage even more fundamental?

At most, only 4.2% of the adult population in the United States gets regular massage. If we want to have any hope of breaking through that ceiling, then massage needs to go back to its roots. Turning “massage” into “massage therapy” has helped the industry shed its shady past but at the same time has sidelined the most important reason people actually get a massage: because it makes them feel better. Not better in a medical sense, but better because they feel more real, alive and whole.

With simple massage the left brain starts talking to their right brain and everything above the neck starts noticing everything below the neck. By the end of a massage people’s core sense of trust and security in a fundamentally unsafe world gets renewed and they are able to face their lives and the world with a calm, balanced optimism.

On a physical level massage enhances circulation so that the body’s own natural healing systems can function optimally. Little problems are far less likely to become big problems with regular massage.

Redefining “massage” as “massage therapy” as the AMTA did in 1983 was mostly a defensive move. The thinking went, if massage is a health care profession, no one will mistake us for prostitutes. But we are, for the most part, past that issue. It is time to get back to our roots and highlight what we are better at than anyone else in the culture.: touching people safely, unconditionally, with clear intentions, significant training and experience.

Question: What do you think is the most important role of massage professionals?

This entry was posted in Education, Politics, Touch and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Is it time for massage to embrace touch?

  1. Irene Smith says:

    David, I applaud this article . I have students with mega hours of schooling who are afraid of having their hands be still, taking a breath and allowing themselves to feel the body they are massaging. Why? Because their fears and emotions about intimacy were never processed in massage school. They went right to technique without a base of tactile maturity to build on. Working with the ill and dying is about making contact. It’s easier for me to teach those with no massage experience. In the quest to be accepted in mainstream medicine practitioners have developed the same separate approach as medical professionals. Funny …wasn’t bringing touch into medicine the point in the first place? So here we are with the same approach which spells touch deprived. Ultimately the medical model creates burn out for the professional.

    I think one of the reasons for this… starting in the middle teaching…. is that many classrooms are so full that there is no longer one on one teaching. It takes a personal approach to process students feelings about touch. With technique you simply give instructions and give this is correct or incorrect feedback. Many of my students have never had one on one feedback before. They are amazed that I want them to speak and they share their gratitude about me giving personal feedback. No wonder I don’t go out into the mainstream massage community for massages. Ive been shocked at the lack of maturity of the professionals , the lack of knowledge about comforting the client and the lack of ability to include me in the session. Technique is all about the practitioner. I like to be included.

    So this is a major topic. I’m so glad to see you raised it to the surface. When a major portion of massage CEUs can be provided from the virtual classroom it’s scarey to think where the profession is going.

    I love you loads.

    • David says:

      Yes, Irene, this is a major topic. You describe the irony of the situation well.
      It reminds me that physical therapy and chiropractic were both originally massage professions until they go decided they needed the imprimatur and the dollars of the mainstream medical system to bolster their self-esteem and pocket books. Now they are often about maximizing throughput and with high tech solutions and have left the high touch behind. What a shame.

  2. Wow. I am a clinical instructor and we work on the dynamics of massage. Focusing on body mechanics and muscles with the quality of touch and intention as a minor part of instruction. We require all students to receive massage but we have many that do not like to do this.
    My question is what do you do when you have a student who is from a family that is not supportive of touch. They are not used to this type of contact and do not know how to give or receive touch. These students hands do not connect with the body they are working on and the quality of touch is poor. I do not know how to teach this.
    Any ideas?

  3. David says:

    Thanks, Angie. You have given a wonderful example of exactly the issue that I am addressing. Can you imagine a personal trainer who doesn’t like to work out? How about a pianist who doesn’t like to listen to music? A nutritionist who eats junk food?

    The fact that this is even a question is the growing tragedy of our profession. In my opinion, massage students who don’t like to be touched should never be allowed to graduate. We are supposed to be the touch specialists of the world which means, simply, that our profession should know more about giving and receiving touch than anyone else.

    But I don’t blame the student. The fact is everyone entering massage school has some unresolved touch issues because everyone raised in this contemporary culture has issues around touch. Not being breastfed, genital mutilation, cultural attitudes toward sex and sensuality, contact sports, community violence, familial affection, school regulations (see the post on school district bans on hugging), media messages and dozens of personal experiences every day shape our attitudes toward touch.

    The solution is for our schools to begin developing curricula that teach massage students the critical importance of touch and techniques to learn about and heal their own touch issues. In future articles I will begin outlining one such a curriculum.

  4. Vee says:

    This is *such* an important topic. I went to an excellent massage school where in-class massage trades were part of the learning process. These were enormously valuable in ways that are not easily measured on tests. It wasn’t until I worked at one of the ‘chain’ operations that I met LMT’s who actually did not want and/or did not like getting bodywork! At first, I was appalled! When I asked why they didn’t want/like receiving bodywork, the answers generally boiled down to comments about power and control — they did not like feeling vulnerable and not in control. And it didn’t take long to figure out which therapists didn’t like bodywork. There were only a few out of the many I met and worked with, but those few tended to have more ‘hard edges’ and abruptness than roundness or curves in their interactions between sessions. In general, they also tended to see massage as a ‘job’ more than as a passion. This was, to say the least, disturbing. It also broke my heart — the hard edges were both protective and defensive, and I could only speculate on what wounds they covered. If there is a way to reach *these* people through touch, then the potential transformation of this profession could be profound.

  5. Leslie says:

    The school I attended was purchased a few years ago by a small chain of schools, and from what I heard from graduates Pre – Insert Chain Name Here, it was much different then. There were individual people in my class whom I did not want to receive massage from, and the feeling was common and an open secret. The students are never screened for intent and quality of touch, and the school’s constant hammering on the importance of borders, boundries, professionalism discouraged the exploration of why they were accepted in the first place, moved through the curriculum, graduated and licensed. It was because they paid for school and could do it…on paper.

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comments, Vee and Leslie. Things are very different from the massage schools of 30 years ago started and run by people who actually made a living doing massage and were passionate about the importance of touch.

      I have recently heard massage school directors claim that their insurance doesn’t permit teachers to touch students, only students to touch each other. Teachers are only allowed to demonstrate on teaching assistants. What nonsense. Can you imagine someone learning how to play a musical instrument by only listening to other student’s playing? Or learning to dance without ever experiencing a professional performance?

      When I owned a massage school the rule was that every part of the Japanese massage taught was demonstrated by the instructor on each student and each student had to demonstrate each section on the instructor, often multiple times in both directions. Obviously this takes up more time and limits the size of the classes. The problem is economic. The massage school factories that have emerged maximize their income with large classes and, inevitably, quality suffers.

      • Ruth Marion says:

        Hi David,
        How wonderful to reconnect with you after many years! For the last 11 years, I have owned and directed a small massage and skin care school in Montana. I have *always* appreciated and taken to heart your philosophy about touch. I remember you saying that massage schools should require that students begin the program by working on only the elderly and infants. While I haven’t been able to make the logistics work for that, I have made sure that quality of touch is focused on throughout the program. I look forward to seeing your curriculum! I think that a key component is recognizing we need to give students very specific descriptions of what we expect them to experience and learn, and we need assessment tools (tests) that clearly show whether or not students have met our expectations (learning objectives). I have said for a long time that it is the responsibility of this profession to *clearly and specifically articulate* the qualities inherent in the heart, art and soul of deeply relaxing, skilled touch. I believe that regardless of the focus of the massage session (stress relief, treatment of an injury, relief from a symptom of an acute or chronic condition, etc.), every massage session affects both giver and receiver on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels. It drives me crazy when people say that they want *just* a relaxing massage. Deeply relaxing massage provides all of the benefits of touch — physical, emotional and spiritual healing, and that overall sense of wellbeing that has a huge effect on the quality of life. In our program, students must receive professional massages outside of school, they must exchange with classmates and perform many sessions with practice clients (either classmates or friends and family, and this is in addition to lots of practice time in class), and they must give a full body massage to an instructor three times during the one-year program, at prescribed times. The feedback forms guide the instructor in giving the student feedback on many aspects of the quality of their touch and presence, as well as their ability to communicate with sensitivity and insight. I can’t imagine sending my students out into the world without having given them our course in psychology. Self awareness, understanding of their family of origin (including doing a genogram), cultural attitudes and media messages about touch, and communication skills are all addressed in this 2-semester course. Students are required to write in a journal every week for this course, and we give them criteria that their journals must meet, so that we can determine whether or not they are doing the inner work that we believe is essential to their preparation to become massage therapists. We also have policy in the student handbook regarding counseling — the school reserves the right to *require* counseling, and we enforce that policy in various situations, including students who don’t seem to be able to connect with themselves and be authentic. I think many students get seduced by the idea that they are going to be able to *fix* their clients. It is our job as educators to steer them clear of this trap by clarifying that clients are responsible for their healing process, and massage therapists should partner with their clients, focusing on what is in the client’s best interest and sharing the credit for achieving whatever results are most helpful to the client.
        I look forward to reading all of your submissions. Hugs, Ruth

        • David says:

          Beautiful comments, Ruth. As one of the “old guard,” you continue to be an inspiration. And thank you for demonstrating that the problem about touch in our profession is not that we lack the talent, tools or experience to train touch professionals.

          People like Ruth have been doing this kind of training effectively for decades. The problem is that by turning massage into massage therapy our focus shifted from the internal/subjective to the external/objective. The massage renaissance in this country began in the 1960’s with the human potential movement pointing out that physical and mental health care in this country had become mechanized and reductive to such an extent that humans were no longer treated as “wholes” but rather as “parts.”

          The great gift of massage is that it doesn’t just focus on a part of the person. The great danger of massage therapy is that, when taught as just another health care modality, it reflects the dissociative tendencies of all other health care modalities and ends up simply training another group of body mechanics. Of course, I am such a fan(atic) of skilled touch that I don’t believe that anyone should be allowed to become a doctor, nurse, chiropractor, physical therapist or, indeed, a massage therapist, unless they have first learned and demonstrated that they know how to do massage. Before there was drugs, surgery, splints, psychiatric approaches, vertebral adjustments or even band-aids people rubbed themselves to feel better. Massage is, always has been and always will be the original healing art. Let us begin with touch.

  6. Connie says:

    Hi David,
    I believe the nursing profession is involved in touch through out their shift caring for patients. Massage was a important part of care and especially to care for the skin. Nursing needs to reimbrace massage.

    • David says:

      Thanks for the reminder about nursing, Connie. When I was in the hospital with a broken leg in the eighth grade, I got massaged with a wash cloth every morning and massaged with lotion every night. Those were the days!

  7. Bill Stern says:

    David, You are so right! I’ve been telling people much the same for years. I was lucky enough to study under Irene Smith and to be mentored by the late Chester Mainard, who taught us that quality of touch is as, if not more, important than technique. I tell all our CMTs that the loving touch they give heals – not the number of moves or modalities they learned. I encourage them to go slow – and to breathe, for then the client breathes as well.
    Massage is just coming into its own as a field in this country and how it is to be regarded and practiced is still in flux. Anything we all can do to keep loving touch as a significant aspect of massage will be very important now. Keep up the dialogue! Bill Stern, Executive Director, Positive Being

  8. Magnetic Hands says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I firmly believe in the power of touch. My clients love my massages because my hands connect with them. That’s how I got the magnetic Hands name. In my class, we all had great chemistry and loved working on each other. We gave massage in between classes and outside of class. We never had a problem of not wanting to work with each other. However the class ahead of me did.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that schools aren’t teaching about touch because I graduated from a Clinical massage school and our first lessons were on feeling the body under our hands and connecting with it. There are some fantastic instructors out here and some great students. Being a CMT, I can say I’ve had bad ones and great ones.

  9. Grinch says:

    While I am on the edge of being a massagahollic, I am also picky. I dont liked to be touched by less than good therapists (usually in my experience only 1-2 out of 10). It is better to starve (body work wise). So the question perhaps to the students would be why they do not want to be touched.

    Perhaps a paradigm shift is needed. Rather than tooting the horn for professional massage therapists providing touch, the emphasis should be to encourage massage as a way of life from the start in life. Exercise/sport, creativity, sciences are a part of our education. Why not self care/massage?

    Mr Grinch.

  10. Brian says:

    I find this article very insightful. As a recently certified masseur, I find it interesting that none of my clients openly list the need for touch among the reasons they seek massage. We all hear “sore neck and upper back” on the list, but no one ever says, “I need to be touched”. I clearly remember the response of many of my classmates, while in massage school, when I openly stated that people seek massage because they need touch. They were uncomfortable. My tearchers were varied on their inclusion of the issue of touch in their instruction, but my practice has shown me that my clients come to me two types of need: the ones they’ll tell me, and the ones they don’t tell me. I believe an important part of giving myself to my work is about my respectful consideration of what my clients don’t tell me.

    • Ruth says:

      Hi Brian,
      I think you’re right — people don’t say that their reason for receiving massage is to receive touch. It can feel embarassing or shameful to admit that one is touch-deprived. It draws attention to a lack in one’s life — the lack of a partner/spouse or the lack of affection shared by friends or the lack of physical closeness in their relationship with their partner/spouse. I think it’s great when massage therapists help clients understand that touch is just as important a human need as food, water, air, activity and rest and reassure clients that there is no shame in seeking out massage to fulfill this need.

      • David says:

        I might also note, Brian, that massage practitioners also come in two flavors, the ones that know they do massage, in part, to fill a personal need for touch and the ones who have no idea that parts of themselves have any touch agendas. Practitioners who have never been guided by their massage training to identify and process their biological and psychosocial touch needs are crippled in their ability to understand the skilled touch relationship.

  11. Pingback: From Acceptability to Accessibility | |

  12. Pingback: Everflowing » Blog Archive » Touch: The Missing Link In Massage

  13. Cynthia says:

    Hooray, love this continuing conversation, ever evolving ideas of what actually occurs with contact through massage….so many layers….intentions, expectations, needs, where both client and practitioner ” are ” in there own journeys, and how conscious and aware they are … many layers, and yet, massage still exists, has for many, many years, and cultures throughout the world….so where to begin ? at the beginning…schools of massage for sure…touch….is a subject to be experienced over and over again…keep going lovers of touch… is …..

  14. Tina Loibl says:

    I am massage therapy student in Louisville, KY and our department director at my college does address the importance of touch on a person physically, mentally, and emotionally, and the lack of positive touch in today’s society. Until reading this article I wasn’t aware that this was not something taught in massage therapy programs all over. I want to thank you for reminding me of how lucky I am to be educated so well by my instructors who have become my mentors.

    • Tina Loibl says:

      After reading the comments I have to add that my school requires hands on massage from student to student and our teachers demonstrate on the students by showing the student how a particular stroke is supposed to be performed by allowing us to feel it then practicing it on our classmates. I have never experienced or heard of another student at my school having a problem being massaged by another student or instructor. In my personal opinion all schools should be based this way. I agree that if a student is not comfortable getting a massage they should not be allowed to become massage therapist.

  15. Pingback: Haptics: The Science of Touch | |

  16. Rich Bartlett says:

    Thanks David and everyone for bringing this up. This is a discussion that should be had in more massage classes.

    It is really unfortunate when someone who doesn’t like touch, or who doesn’t like touching people who are unlike themselves, becomes a bodyworker. They must truly be missing a major aspect of the experience, and they cannot give proper attention to their client’s needs. However, having some difficulty trusting (and I have some of my own due to many negative experiences with touch) is what gives us empathy for our clients and their fears and pain. It is a fear we can each work through, and be liberated and transformed by the experience.

    I think the real problem is the distrust of touch in our culture as a whole, and it is sad that it spills over into even a touch-friendly profession like ours.

    I have to laugh when I see some device advertised, like those vibrating chairs, that is supposed to mimic what we do. Even when research proves the value of touch therapy, people respond by creating something that can be put in a box and sold, and other people gladly buy it rather than be touched by another person. I have often noted that people (usually men) have expressed a preference for having surgery or injections over receiving touch therapy. Do they merely think it is ineffective, or is it the fear of touch with homosexually suggestive overtones?

    I think it is up to us to start a revolution of touch. Touch can be friendly and casual, in a culture where everything is often misinterpreted as sexual. Touch can be therapeutic but not “too personal.” I don’t mind using the word “therapeutic.” Pain relief does not have to be impersonal or mechanical. We can be a friendly, comforting presence in people’s lives without getting intrusively close, but people need to learn about the different kinds of touch, and learn about themselves, before they can trust us.

    It is important, though, not to become “touch nazis” or “touch snobs.” We should allow people to touch and be touched as they choose. You do not know, when you meet a person, what their experience with touch has been, or how much shame and fear and distrust they have been taught or had beaten into them. Are we not healers? We should earn a person’s trust, and accept it when they choose to give it. To expect it is a kind of forced stretching on an emotional level. It hurts, and it is not therapeutic.

  17. Russell Borner says:


    Don’t know how I missed this article: “Is it time for massage to embrace touch?”………’re ringing all the bells from the Town Church Tower…….I have only one comment…..When will your book on Touch be coming out?

  18. old45s says:

    Let me know where your book will be distributed. Would you like a pre-review? Send me a note

  19. Pingback: Moving Massage from Acceptability to Accessibility

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.