The unwary can be caught out if they enter the treatment room with no idea of the unwritten rules, warns Ashley Davies
It’s a funny old business, paying someone to touch your body. At this time of year, most of the treats we seek in order to expunge the trauma of piercing cold and debt are immediate sensory perks rather than those involving adventure and travel. And in order to avoid all the pleasure being related to dipsomania and gluttony – intoxicatingly slow forms of self-harm that merely borrow happiness from tomorrow – lots of people consider giving their sense of wellbeing a boost by getting a massage.
When it’s done right it is sublime and has undoubted benefits for your physical and mental health. It can be both preventative and curative. I don’t buy in to New Age baloney but I do know that when the widgets in your shoulders and neck feel like headphone leads tangled up with Lego in a chaotic rucksack, there are people who can help you. And when all the conditions are spot-on, a unique sense of intimacy develops between you and the massage therapist.
But statistically, what are the chances of a successful outcome in the following scenario: a stressed person takes off most of their clothes and lies down in a room with someone who in all probability is a stranger, knowing that in an hour or so they’ll be handing over their payment.
Or compensation, depending on how things go.
I’ve had more uncomfortable massages than I’ve had successful job interviews. As with anything worth having in life, you need practice to be a good recipient of a decent one, and I have finally learned this means that while of course you should display courtesy to your therapist, you don’t have to inquire about their wellbeing more than they do about yours. Maybe it’s a journalistic habit – asking too many questions.
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I learnt the hard way many years ago when my masseuse spent our entire session opening her heart about her depression, and about how she so badly wanted to get pregnant that she had been “stress lactating”. That was about as relaxing as a candle-lit bath with John McCririck but I felt I had no choice other than to be kind and solicitous.
If the person doing the kneading appears to be suffering it’s hard not to feel as if you’re on the demand side of some hideous form of modern slavery. Last year I was part of a group on a cruise ship, and a few of us had a treatment from the same overworked practitioner.
In a voice that made her sound like Nikita Khrushchev with low blood sugar she mumbled to one of my colleagues: “I am very tired. I would PAY you not to have to do this.” She complained that most of her clients on that trip were too old, and loudly objected to having to give anti-ageing treatments to women in their nineties. God knows what she said about me after I waddled out, 40 per cent more tense than I was when I met her.
And once, while on a beautiful roof-top setting in Sri Lanka, facing the ocean and relishing the warm breeze on my skin, I froze in pure British terror as my Ayurvedic practitioner went to work on my Michael Bublés. Roughly. A cold-hearted lawyer might claim my silence implied consent but I didn’t know what else to do. And another time, in a fancy hotel spa in Egypt, my masseur was so intent on working on my coccyx that I felt compelled to clench my buttocks as if my life depended on it.
Communication is never not important, and the language barrier can be a serious issue if you’re getting a treatment in another country. I know someone who went for a massage in Hong Kong in an attempt to fix a dodgy knee. As the session drew to a close, the masseuse started tweaking the client’s nipples, stroking her hair, and calling her a beautiful girl. Turns out she was an actual prostitute.
And a friend of mine who is an accomplished and highly trained massage therapist still wonders exactly what a young Chinese client of hers meant when, while she was doing some tough work on a problem in his neck, he asked her: “Will there be something after this to help me relax?”
Her sensible advice for getting a good massage is to say what kind of pressure you prefer, and to be clear at the outset if there are any areas you’d rather not have exposed or touched. And don’t be embarrassed if you fall asleep, or if your tummy gurgles, or indeed if you break wind – within reason. It’s a sign that you’re relaxed enough for the treatment to be effective. “You’re there to deal with the body and the body does stuff,” she says, reassuringly.
And a good practitioner should really keep the areas that aren’t being worked on covered, so you shouldn’t really feel exposed.
While there are countless stories about treatments being too intimate, I recently had a heavenly experience that, had it had been described accurately to me before I tried it, I’d have run a mile from because it sounds bloody ridiculous.
It comes from California – to the surprise of no-one – and it’s called Watsu. The blend of “water” and “shiatsu” in its name suggests that’s all it is – shiatsu massage in a pool. But it’s so much more. In a small, round, private, darkened indoor pool, my practitioner told me in a gentle voice to float on my back, close my eyes, go limp and trust her. She then spent an hour pulling me around the water, sometimes by my hair, bending my limbs and ultimately making me feel like I was back in the womb. A few times I laughed out loud because it was so utterly, surprisingly delightful. At the end, she folded me up like a giant baby and positioned me so that my head was resting on her chest. I felt safe.
Yes, it’s a strange experience, but surrendering yourself to someone who’s really looking after you is special. But chaps, whatever kind of treatment you’re getting, please learn from the mistake of an unfortunate pal of mine and make sure everything’s tucked away neatly. A stray testicle can really ruin the vibe.