the issues of being a massage student, and the many difficulties and joys
of entering a wellness profession.
The skin, the largest organ in the human body, protects us from external hazards, regulates our temperature, stores fats and liquids for later use, and is our primary somatosensory organ. Other structures of the integumentary system include hair, follicles, nails, fat tissues, fluids, and other structures that help to maintain homeostasis in the body, and the skin itself is packed tight with numerous microstructures, such as sensory receptors and glands. In only one square inch of human skin there may be over 600 sebaceous (sweat) glands, 50,000-60,000 cells that produce pigment (melanocytes), more than 1,000 nerve endings, dozens of blood vessels, and some 50 million bacteria.
Humans depend vitally on touch – it is touch that compels a newborn infant to let out their first cry and binds children to their parents from the first moments of life, it is touch that soothes the nervous system and lowers blood pressure, it is touch that reduces depression and decreases levels of stress chemicals, and it is touch that serves as a crucial aspect of our communication. Touching also releases the neuromodulating hormone Oxytocin, which is responsible for cervical distension during childbirth, sexual reproduction, orgasm, and the human social interaction-recognition response; and which brings contentment, lowering of anxiety, and other behavioral controls, such as the sense of security we feel around those to whom we are most closely connected, including romantic attachments.
As massage therapists, touch is the primary sensory medium with which we work. While massage therapists also rely on other forms of communication and perception to create feelings of wellbeing and trust with their clients, it is through touch that most of the healing occurs. Still, the first day of a Massage I class is a surprise for many students. For, whether you’ve never experienced a massage or have spent many years as a consumer of various bodywork modalities, touching your classmates and receiving their touch in return is the cause of inevitable transformation.
One classmate of mine remarked that “my first day of class was a real eye opener. I’ve given and received massages for years, but sitting there with a stranger I’d never met before and palpating their forearm extensors was both exciting and uncomfortable.” Another student expressed astonishment: “I wasn’t really prepared for so much touching on my first day of class. I thought it would be like other college courses where you just get the class introduction and then go home. We actually got under the sheets, took off our clothes, and massaged each other on the first day. It was fun and everyone seemed to be really excited about it, but it also felt really strange.”
Any feelings of strangeness are quickly overcome for most students, though, and an eagerness to learn takes over. Those first days of class spent massaging the arms, then the back, and then the legs while learning the basics of Swedish massage turn out to be a real delight. As students add more strokes to their “toolboxes” and practice integrating them in new ways each week, the excitement only increases and that initial discomfort at being unclothed beneath the sheets while someone massages you – sometimes with all of your classmates watching and taking notes – disappears, and this massage school reality comes to feel commonplace. Trust grows within the classroom; and much of that trust results from touch.
For students who continue to feel discomfort, the decision to leave massage school is often an important consideration, but for most people, a real enthusiasm ensues. Massage class becomes a place not just of practice, but of healing. Students look forward to each next lesson, getting to practice new strokes on different areas of the body, working with different partners and experiencing a new classmate’s massage yourself. Over time, it no longer matters to you that you’re massaging someone’s uncovered gluteus maximus, or their upper chest, or their foot. Self-consciousness is replaced by good-humored focus.
Massage students are learning to become professional bodyworkers whose primary medium is touch. With this learning, transformation occurs. There is really no way it could not. After all, touching is crucial to the human experience, and going to school to become a touch therapist means opening oneself to a deeper relationship with touch than most people ever consider. Touch takes on new meaning in your life as you recognize the meaning it has for all life; and during those long breaks between terms, you really start to miss massage exchanges with your classmates, and look forward to getting back to that process of exploration and growth.