Is the Holy Grail of relaxation finding the perfect massage therapist? Possibly. But whether that’s your goal or whether you’re a massage newbie, there are steps you can take to make the most of your experience.
Key to fulfilling your needs is understanding that there are two types of massage practitioners in British Columbia: Registered Massage Therapists and spa therapists.
The Massage Therapists’ Association of B.C. defines an RMT as a health-care professional “trained in the assessment and diagnosis of soft tissue and joints of the body, and the treatment and prevention of injury, pain and physical disorders”. In B.C., an RMT must undergo 3,000 hours of training at an accredited college. They’re held to the highest standard in North America, and B.C. is one of three provinces (the other two are Ontario and Newfoundland) where massage therapy is regulated (in B.C. it’s been regulated since 1946). RMTs are governed by the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia, according to the Health Professions Act, the Massage Therapists Regulation, and College bylaws.
The difference between the list of conditions a spa therapist and an RMT can treat is a bit of a “grey zone”, notes Sarah Bonner, managing director of the Vancouver School of Bodywork and Massage, whose school trains spa therapists. A spa therapist can practise massage “right up to the point that it becomes a sort of more clinical or medical massage,” she says in a phone interview. “If you had some sort of severe acute or chronic condition that was really more of a medical condition rather than just stress and strain, an RMT is definitely the massage you’d want to seek out.”
Yet there are many conditions a spa therapist can deal with. “We can definitely address chronic strain caused by things like sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day, or even the strain of an athlete, so long as it isn’t a medical condition.”
If you have “any condition where massage would be inappropriate or even detrimental to the condition”, known in massage-speak as contraindications, massage should be avoided. Bonner explains that these are “very acute conditions, such as a fresh sprain of the ankle, for example, or some heart conditions”.
There are also things you can do to prepare for a session. If appropriate, Bonner recommends a hot bath or sauna to warm up your muscles. Thorough physical hygiene is a definite plus. She recommends not eating an hour before a massage session and foregoing your daily caffeine fix, because they may affect your ability to relax.
One sign of a good massage therapist, Bonner says, is the ability to help a client overcome nervousness or anxiety. Her school trains students to read clients’ body language, utilize eye contact and listening skills, and employ the “art of draping” to maintain privacy. During a session, some first-timers may be ticklish in some areas, but Bonner points out that “they won’t be ticklish all over.”¦If you can get them to relax a little bit more, they won’t be as ticklish.”
Communication is essential to maximizing your experience. While a good therapist will home in on signs of discomfort, such as flinching or changes in breathing, it’s important to let the therapist know if the pressure being applied needs adjustment. “Most clients get tired after requesting a change of pressure once or twice,” Bonner says. “They want to relax, so then they’re just like, ”˜All right, whatever, I’m just gonna go with it.’ I would advise clients to not just accept pressure that isn’t what they’re after.”
There is also a difference between beneficial and painful discomfort. “If we’re talking about deep pressure, we’re basically aiming for what we call sweet pain. So we’re looking for that level of pain that is actually kind of satisfying. From my experience as a therapist, I think there is a mentality, and a lot of clients, where they think ”˜No pain, no gain,’ and they basically want to be brutalized, which is not always the best therapy. There are other therapies which really don’t use a deep pressure which can also be very effective.”
If you feel emotional or cry during your session, you’re not alone—both literally and figuratively. “Our [her school’s] therapists are trained to basically back off the massage itself,” Bonner says regarding emotional release. “Because they’re not psychotherapists, they can’t really go into whatever that issue might be underneath, but they really just try to be as best as they can be with their client while the release is happening, and make them feel totally comfortable to emote in whatever way that’s coming out.”
Your choice of practitioner may come down to dollars and cents. Treatment from an RMT can be partially covered by MSP if you are on premium assistance ($23 per session for 10 visits), and some extended health insurance plans offer coverage as well. If you’re looking for an RMT, the Massage Therapists Association of British Columbia Web site (www.massagetherapy.bc.ca/) features a handy locator that lists RMTs by name and location. Spa therapists can be found—needless to say—at spas, hotels, and resorts.
But if you’re on a budget, there are affordable options. Bonner’s school (604-688-5060, www.vsbm.com/) offers a student-run clinic on Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s $26 for an hourlong session, and $37 for 90 minutes.
With all this in mind, the most important thing to remember is that, ultimately, getting a good massage shouldn’t be a stressful endeavour.