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The Surprising Key To Career Longevity

About one year into my career as a massage therapist I started to question if my thumbs were made for this job. They felt weak and the pain was relentless. A year later, my wrists became the problem. Another year after that it was my low back’s turn… acting like a toddler — poking at me and incessantly trying to get my attention. I learned, very quickly, how to ice, stretch, get massages regularly, and put self-care in the forefront of my world. These were quick fixes, though. And that toddler, as toddlers are, was stubborn.

I had heard that the average career span of a massage therapist was three years. From about year three to about year ten, I understood all too clearly why that was true. I found myself in a constant balancing act between wanting to launch my career forward and wanting to quit. I had fallen in love with bodywork — the flexibility, the anatomical knowledge, the being my own boss. But my body hurt and I was struggling. The nagging toddler was growing into a strong and, mind you, very opinionated kid.

Work had lost its luster. You know the scenario: Your work week begins and you are feeling pretty good. Perhaps you had gotten a massage on your day off, read an inspiring article, maybe you had even taken a class. Proud and excited about what you do, you are ready to face your clients with confidence.

With each session, though, and with every passing day, the aches grow stronger, the breaths are drawing slightly deeper and the inter-session stretches are held just a tiny bit longer.

Physically tired, by the time your next day off rolls around, you find it harder to sink deeper, hold your intention, and work creatively. This pattern starts to become evident.

Needless to say, time wears you down. Your passion has all but deflated and the monotony of doing the same massages over and over is all you can muster. Your body is suffering and “ouch” becomes a part of your every day vernacular. Your strongly opinionated kid has grown up. You are now the proud parent of a full-blown teenager who just won’t listen to reason.

This is not one of those stories that relates a revolutionary moment that can change everything for you. This is one of those articles that is going to suggest that you shift the way you think. Your teenager is off and running. It is time to revisit you.

After 10 years of being in the field, being in this exact position, I did not want to give up everything that I had worked towards. So, as is true for everything else in life, the only thing I could change was me. I wanted to feel invigorated again. And I wanted to not hurt so much. So I dug deep not to find more strength, but to find a shift. I got creative.

I knew some side lying techniques from my pre-natal work. I had also seen and vaguely remembered some cool applications with athletes on their side from my work at sporting events. These memories felt like a blur from my early days. But I decided to give it a try. My clients were no longer going to lay just prone or supine.

The irony is that when most bodyworkers turn a client onto their side, they lurch into poor body mechanics which only results in more pain. I was no different. But trying a new method is a lot like learning how to sit straight after slouching most of your life. You are using different muscles in new ways. There is going to be a learning curve.

Turns out that curve is not so steep. Within a few sessions I realized a crucial concept that changed everything for me. It can be summed up in 4 words: Help them help you. Side-lying is the best position to enact the idea that bodywork is teamwork. If a client is lying passively on the table, you, then, are doing all the work. Time to put that idea to rest.

Here are some basic rules that you can start utilizing today:

1. Have them slide close to you.

Shift them away from the center of the table. If they move closer to you, you are not reaching and, therefore, you are not overusing those back muscles to hold you upright.

2. Ask them to move their limbs.

This position unveils a whole new space for the arms, the legs, and even the neck. Without that pesky table in the way, have them engage into various range of motion exercises for the shoulder and the hip to activate muscles you otherwise would have a hard time accessing. And without the face cradle, lateral flexion of the neck is a thing of wonder!

3. Remove the pillow.

Speaking of lateral flexion, removing the pillow from underneath your client’s head suddenly elongates the Upper Traps, Levator Scapula and Scalenes. You were looking for ideas on how to help clients with short necks? Voila!

4. Use gravity to your advantage.

And speaking of gravity, bring the upper leg into hyper extension and let it drop freely and heavily into adduction. This tug at the hip opens doors for new access to the Glute Medius, Quadratus Lumborum, and so much more.

There’s an added bonus to flipping your client from side to side: because most bodywork keeps clients either prone or supine, the focus stays on the larger muscle groups that move in the saggital plane - the Quads, Hamstrings, Abdominals, and Paraspinals to name a few. These players are well known and, in my opinion, attention hogs. They are famously greedy for relief and, quite frankly, if they were social media influencers, would have followers in the millions.

The lesser known underdogs of the medial and lateral body - the Obliques, Glute Medius and Minimus, the Peroneals, the Adductors - may be quietly awaiting their turn in the spotlight but their impact might surprise you. You see, not only does work on these mighty supporters wake up muscle fibers that have been quieted and possibly totally asleep, it also awakens a communication pathway to the brain that reignites awareness.

For your clients, managing these large muscle groups has been their own foray into parenting. With a singular focus on those that demand attention, everything else falls to the wayside. In this case, those larger muscle groups (the kids) have been the squeaky wheel who have gotten all the grease. Meanwhile, the supporting players (self-care, down time, sleep) have all but atrophied. Or at least the neurological pathway between these and the brain has.

Bringing attention to the muscles that don’t always get it can be like a vacation away from the everyday. New doors open and new light shines on dusty corners. Those intercostals can get pretty dusty sometimes. And you know the expression, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Wake up that brain signal and reignite your clients’ awareness to a whole new perspective on life.

Whether you are shifting the mindset for your clients or, more importantly, for yourself, it is time to change gears and pull energy from the elements that will keep you going. Ask your clients to move, twist, activate and engage. The new found freedom that comes with fresh awareness has always been a possibility. Gift yourself, and your clients, the freedom to reach out and take it.

This article was written for Massage & Bodywork Now, the incredibly cool tabloid written for "connection, education and inspiration", from the kind folks over at ABMP


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