The Magic Number

What’s your magic number?

How many massages can you do in a day?

This is a popular question posited to me by many a new and regular client. You can never be fully honest for obvious reasons. You don’t want to seem tired and overworked, even if you are, because now the client is thinking they will get a shitty massage or feel guilty that they are number (insert double digit) of the day. If I am in the spa setting, I usually make a joke and say that I am “strong like bull” in a mock Eastern European accent and tell them not to worry. If I am in a clinical setting, I distract them back to the matter at hand – their condition, thus dismissing the question altogether. If they bring it up again, I then tell them these clinical massages are shorter and more focused, so don’t worry about me. Let’s focus on you!

The only thing a client should be focused on…

Truthfully, there is a magic number of massages a therapist can perform consecutively before burn out happens. Of course, this number is different for all of us. I weight train and exercise at least three times a week; therefore I am “strong like bull.” Despite this strength and stamina, I know that if I do 5.5 hours of consecutive massage, I am at my body’s limit for the day. I learned this from the rare times I had done 7 or even 8 hours of consecutive massages. The next day, I could barely make my hands into fists coupled with the ache in my forearms and shoulders. Now, for those of you who may say, “You work a 6 hour shift? That’s so part time.” Let me take a moment here and define what consecutive means in this context. These massages are occurring literally back to back. Once the one client is off the table, there are between 5 to 7 minutes to get the room changed over, grab a sip of water, then run to get the next guest without looking like you ran to get them. This is usually what happens in a spa setting, as the booking is done to maximize profitability; not to consider the physical demands made on the therapist. So, you see how 5.5 hours of continuous physical work plus the added cardio of running up and down stairs for guest pick up, drop off and supplies is enough of a full work day for me. You cannot compare it to a 9-5 p.m. desk job, which exhausts many in a different manner (i.e. from holding their bodies in poor sedentary posture and mentally focusing on a screen with few breaks).

Burnout of a different kind…

I recall working an event where another therapist boasted at the amount of clients they could take on in a day. Observing their body mechanics, I assessed that within a few years this therapist would surely burn out. Chronic Tendonitis is a common occurrence in any profession that requires repetitive movements over long periods of time. Taking breaks to stretch, hydrate and regroup mentally and physically allow this career to last beyond the statistical death knell of 3-5 years. I’m not ashamed or scared to say NO when asked to go above and beyond my limit at this 3 year mark of my professional career. After all, I want to be able to straddle both physical worlds – the demands of my fitness regimen with those of my profession. I feel blessed that I know what my magic number feels like, as it makes me a better practitioner for my current and future clients. As for the rest of my fellow LMT’s, may yours pop up sooner than later.

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Over Exposed

Do you see anything you shouldn’t be because I don’t?

A million moons ago, I remember laying on the table in my massage school’s practice room waiting for my student partner to work me over for the sake of learning. Before any hands on techniques were ever taught, our instructors put massive emphasis on how to properly drape a client. I remember it was sweltering hot down there in that basement room and I asked my partner to leave whichever areas he had finished massaging uncovered. As he migrated to the backs of my legs, I heard this woman’s voice say, “Do I really need to see her tattoos?” About a minute or two later, I heard the teacher who was proctoring our sessions come over and say to my partner that he was exposing too much of me. “Keep the body parts you are not working on covered at all times.” Cringe! He made it sound like I was being dissected on a lab table. I popped my head up and said that I wanted to cool down since the room was too hot and that I didn’t feel in the least over-exposed. In a firm voice he said, “This is New York State Law, young lady” and walked away. The girl who made the comment about my tattoos was shaking her head at my partner adding, “You guys have to be careful.” Really?

This experience poses a conflicting scenario between what “THE LAW” says and communicating client comfort properly as a therapist in a professional setting. Let us dissect draping methods here: Some spas provide their clients towels to be used as a drape sheet. In some European styled facilities, you are handed a washcloth sized square to cover your pubic area and gluteal cleft (anatomical language for one’s butt crack) while the therapist works on you. An equally small cloth is used to cover the chest when laying face up. And if you want to get even less coverage, try the spas that provide just disposable underwear and bra. Our prudish classmate might have popped a gasket if she knew just how little coverage is actually mandated by the law. Still, in order to cover themselves (pun intentional) from potential law suits etc. many spa chains have disclaimers on their sign in sheets that note what our instructor admonished us to do. All parts not being worked on with any variation of said massage techniques (insert list here) will be covered. No genitals and no breasts. Should the client become uncomfortable at any time they have the right to tell their therapist and end the session.

How about that for coverage?

I supposed being a child of European parents has allowed me to be very comfortable with the nude form in a non-sexual manner. Here in the States though, with its Puritanical hypocrisy, everything becomes sexualized. I have seen commercials in Greece for bath soap that featured a fully nude mother bathing her child in a tub, while the father stands by with a towel to dry them both off. A beautiful family moment, au-naturale. This would NEVER AIR in the U.S. and yet other programming featuring pretty overt sexual and borderline sado-masochistic action does. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to know the message being plugged into people’s consciousness.

With that thought in mind, let us return now to the matter of draping per the LAW. I have had clients with major body issues, in the sense that there was a definite discomfort in uncovering ANY part of their anatomy. As an intuitive person and a professional, I addressed their issue immediately to prevent any blurred communication or innuendo. In one case, a young woman kept tucking her hands under her pelvis, which made accessing her arms impossible without having to reach underneath her into the groin region. Without hesitation, I gently told her what I wanted to do and asked if the position she put her hands in was a matter of comfort or otherwise. She sighed deeply and apologized, admitting that she was molested as a child and this face down position was bringing back memories. We decided together to do the massage face up and I let her know that any feeling she experienced was safe and okay in this context. I draped her very securely, folding the sheet into origami like patterns to ensure she felt covered at all times. By the end of the massage, she was almost asleep, which demonstrated to me how trust had been established. Imagine though that I proceeded massaging her without saying anything at all. With such a damaged relationship with touch, can you imagine what this poor young woman might have misconstrued as sexual? I believe this is the reason why many straight male therapists get into trouble with female clients. They are doing their “routine” without picking up on the body language that would let them know the client is not okay.

I have also had a client with hyperthyroidism, who begged me to un-drape him as much as possible due to his elevated body temperature. Even with a hand towel covering his pelvic region, he was still profusely sweating. The thing is, he never wrote this on his intake form. When I led him to the room he immediately blurted that he didn’t like to be covered with anything. Usually, this sets off my pervert flags. After explaining that certain regions of the body need to be covered per the LAW and the facility’s policy, he insisted that covering him up would make him sick. I had to pry it out of him, but he finally told me his condition and we proceeded in the manner I described above. Without this communication, I could have easily felt violated and threatened by this client’s desire to over expose himself.

Ultimately, we all have a baseline of how much or how little we are comfortable uncovering. However, as a licensed professional in an industry that is often joked about or targeted in a sexual manner, it is up to me to bridge the gap between what state of undress puts them at ease and what keeps me licensed and gainfully employed.

**A funny addendum here: Many male clients think they are being helpful when they spread their legs to allow for us therapists to tuck the sheet down properly for draping; however, what they don’t realize is they inevitably flash us their testicles. Every single time. Without fail. Dear future male client: Please just lay there as un-helpful as possible and leave the tucking to the professionals.

Cellulite is NOT an itis…

On the left, cellulitis; On the right, cellulite – big difference!

I can’t tell you how many times, when discussing “trouble spots” with a client they refer to their cellulitis. What they mean to say is their cellulite, but the term they choose has nothing to do with the aesthetic appearance of their wobbly bits (see image above). It is understandable that for some women, the look of cellulite can feel like a serious medical condition. With summer unexpectedly here, they become acutely aware of their “imperfections” and panic; rushing to the spa for any firming, toning and detoxifying treatments available in the hopes that they can bare their flesh without fierce judgements. Cellulite doesn’t happen overnight, though. We are all born with a certain amount of fat cells that are distributed throughout our bodies according to our genetics. As we enter puberty, hormonal fluctuations affect our metabolism and shifts the distribution of the fat underneath our skin. The same thing occurs as we age and enter into menopause. In 80 to 90% of women, some level of cellulite will be visible; however the following factors greatly influence its widespread formation. Take notes:

  • Poor circulation and lymphatic drainage

The tissues in your body need to be fed and then flushed of the by products and toxins left behind after the fact. However, if you have a genetic or pathological insufficiency, the “toilet water” sits and festers, causing the breakdown of the matrix that holds the fat cells in their proper place. Since it all has to get flushed up and out, the areas most affected are the extremities. Exactly where you don’t want to see the cellulite.

  • Increased levels of stress hormones in the blood

We all know a high stress lifestyle can take a toll on our health, but it also has an affect on our fat distribution and connective tissue. Cortisol and catecholamines are stress hormones release by the adrenal glands as part of our “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous response. The body instinctively slows its metabolism and increases its “padding” of fat as it reacts to survive. The presence of the hormones over long periods of time can start to break down connective tissue, which as mentioned above, creates the matrix that holds the fat cells at bay. Once the matrix is damaged, the fat cells push up against the lower layers of skin, which is the puckered look that we all recognize as cellulite. The slowed metabolism also causes weight gain, which swells the size of the fat cells, making them pucker up even more.

  • Yo-yo dieting

Weight fluctuations occur as a result of physiological and hormonal changes. Step on the scale in the morning and again at night, and you could see your number rise or fall by 5-8 lbs. This is normal. Patterns of weight loss and gain over long periods of time of more than 20 lbs, damages the elasticity of the skin and connective tissue matrix. Out pops the cellulite.

  • Liposuction

Remember how we are all born with a certain number of fat cells? This procedure removes them from specific areas of the body also referred to as “re-contouring.” Once the fat cells are gone, they are gone. However, should the individual gain weight, the fat cells that are left redistribute the bulk in places the individual never had before. This is why the best candidates for liposuction are those who lead an active lifestyle and have a consistently clean diet.

And speaking of active lifestyles and clean diets, let’s segue into how one can address cellulite. Certain treatments and topical applications can produce visible results if the person remains consistent with modifications to their diet and exercise. Here are some of the one’s I can vouch for in my professional and personal practice. Still taking notes, I hope :-).

Dry brushing per day keeps the cellulite at bay…

Dry Brushing – One of my favorites is dry brushing. The practice consists of lightly brushing the surface of the skin in long upward strokes, starting at the lower limbs and moving upwards toward the heart. The brush bristles should be made of natural fibers and the brush itself easy to grip in order to properly handle it. Not only will you exfoliate the top layer of skin, but the increased blood flow to the capillary networks renews and tightens the skin’s surface. The movement towards the heart promotes proper circulation and flushing of the tissues via the lymphatic system. Done daily, it’s a great way to diminish the dimples.

Flushing and tightening

Caffeine, topically applied – As a little girl in Greece, every female relative young and old swore by their CLARINS cellulite cream and slathered in liberally in all corners and crevices of their bodies. What many creams geared toward cellulite contain is caffeine and what they do is act as a diuretic for the tissues, flushing out excess fluid and helping to tighten the surface of the skin. The cellulite puckers less; happy times on the beach. What I have seen work best is an application of caffeinated cream prior to a workout. The combination of an exercise induced sweat and that of the caffeine is like a one-two punch, firming and flushing. Also, since tissue repair happens during sleep, an application at night can be effective as well.

Courtesy of “8 Kilos to 50” Tumblr (You go girl!)

Get your sweat on and build muscle Recall how earlier we talked about people having a predisposed amount of fat cells that are distributed under the deepest level of skin in different ways dependent on genetics, hormones and age. These factors are sort of written in stone; however what you can control is how much a fat cell can swell. Therefore, the amount of lean muscle you build will reduce the size of the fat cells and help spike your metabolism, as muscle requires more calories than fat for maintenance. Reducing your overall body fat % will counter the factors you cannot control. A wonderful little exercise known as the Bulgarian Split Squat can do a whole lot to diminish the look of the dimples that many women have directly under their gluteal fold. At least, that’s what I have found within my own workouts. A tiny addendum to this bit on exercise is to make sure you are hydrating properly to flush your system out while also maintaining a balanced diet that is specific to your activity level and overall bodily needs. Consulting a registered dietician or certified nutritionist for advice is a great way to make sure you are eating right for you, cellulite or not.

It is also important to keep in mind that within that 80-90% of women who have cellulite are the fashion models, actresses and popular girls we gush(ed) over and/or envy. It’s a fact of physiological life that we can address to a certain extent, but inevitably must come to accept. Be good to your body through all its transformations and transitions and hopefully, it will be good to you.

Let’s Make a Deal

I recently read an article being circulated amongst the massage therapy community regarding the ills of deal running. Deal sites have seen a boom in popularity since the economy went south back in 2008. Some are more popular than others (think of LivingSocial, Groupon and Gilt.com) but search the world wide web and you will find a myriad of deal sites for just about anything.

Here a DEAL, there a DEAL, everywhere a DEAL, DEAL!!

If you are searching for a new coat, have a craving for a fancy dinner out or want to book your all inclusive trip to Morocco, you can find a deal online at sometimes 50% or more off the original price. After the deal site pockets a certain percentage of the sales of the deal, the business running it will receive a FAT check in advance. This sense of immediate wealth is offset by the wait for the clientele to actually redeem their deals. This is more true of service industries like restaurants and spas; not so much for products or travel. Deal or no deal, the business still has the same overhead – employee wages, supply orders and stocking, the rent to pay, etc. There will be days when the books fill up with the discounted clients leaving little room for the regulars and full price paying walk-ins. Suddenly, that FAT check is looking a little lean. What seems to be good for the bottom line in the short term, actually costs the business a lot more than they bargained for.

Once the deal is redeemed, the business’s hope is that they will make you into a regular full price paying client. Unfortunately, there are many conflicting statistics regarding client retention after deal purchases and for a number of reasons. The bulk just wait for the next deal to come along. The long term affects of constant deal running can be disastrous to a business’s reputation. I once overheard a conversation on the subway between two men who had purchased a restaurant deal off one of these sites. One of the men said, “Oh, that place is always running deals…like every month.” In response, the other man laughed and said, “I bet they’re in trouble.” Public perception of a business that is always discounting is that the business is going under or that the services are going to be sub-par. An example of the latter happened to a friend of mine who redeemed a deal on a deluxe manicure/pedicure at a popular Manhattan nail salon chain. Despite the place not being crowded, my friend waited for almost 45 minutes to receive her treatment. It seemed to her that the staff was trying to decide amongst themselves which one would be taking her appointment. The technician who finally performed her treatment reminded her throughout the hour and a half together that she should tip on the original price. She was not offered any of the treats and beverages other clients were enjoying and she also noticed that her technician skimped on a couple of the aspects of her treatment. Not only was my friend disappointed with her entire experience, but also felt that if she were a full price paying client she would have been treated differently. There is some truth to the adage, “You get what you pay for.”

In an effort to boost their already bruised bottom line, many establishments will not pay “commission before discount” to their employees. This means that the employee gets paid less for the same amount of work. In other cases, the employee will be paid a flat rate for a treatment package that requires more work. There is, of course, no excuse for poor customer service and short-cutting; however I can relate to the feeling of having one’s skills undervalued. Sometimes, when every single one of your clients in a day is a deal, it’s hard to be so tired for what amounts to around $8-10 per working hour. It’s also hard to accept what is NOT a living wage and also not reflective of the level of education and skills brought to the table. Let’s not even mention how physically demanding the work can be. The more deals offered the more undermined and wrung dry the therapists and technicians will feel. It’s a never ending cycle of not being able to catch up, both financially and physically. And at the end of day, the overall bottom line can’t do so either.

Now, before you as the potential consumer/client start to feel guilty for shopping a deal, please understand that this whole diatribe is meant to inform your purchasing decision; not deter you from it. Deals are a great way to discover new places to patronize, try treatments that otherwise you never would have tried and also gift to someone special without breaking the bank. Just heed the following: Pay attention to how much off the original price the deal is. The higher the percentage, the more you can guarantee some of what I described above occurring. Also, look up the reviews for the place running the deal. Do they have good client retention? Are the experiences for deal redeemers positive? This is how you can ensure you will get the right treatment and a deal worth paying for.

Flu-like respect

The last time I had the flu was back in the year 2000. Despite the trials and tribulations I put my body through since then, I have yet to fall victim to the influenza virus again. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the world. The national news has declared an “epidemic” and warns that all who think they may be infected or have come down with full blown flu should do their best to stay within the confines of their homes. Flu vaccinations are in short supply and unless you literally feel all of the below symptoms in full force, you should steer clear of any ER, where an even worse condition could befall you.

All this talk of contamination and germs reminds me how much of a risk a hands on profession like massage poses to both the therapist and client.

Having a slight sniffle should be grounds for staying out of work, but often, massage therapists are forced to suck it up with doses of Vitamin C and over the counter medications and show up rather than risk the economic repercussions. Sadly, every body touched comes into contact with their germs and runs the risk of catching whatever they have. Even when all surfaces are wiped down with anti-microbial agents and protective aesthetic masks are donned to cover the nose and mouth, germs can still spread. Getting sick is not the feel good service clients came in for. Same applies for clients that show up with a full blown situation in their respiratory tracts, sneeze into the face cradle, nasal drip and cough in every direction. Universal precautions like washing hands between clients or using hand sanitizer after doing facial, neck and head work (big germ cloud in that region) can definitely reduce the likelihood of catching their germs, but it’s no guarantee. Coming down with the flu is the tip that keeps taking.

Despite not having any of the above symptoms, I decided to do my potential clients the service of staying home today. That is how much I respect my livelihood and the health and wellness of the people whose bodies are entrusted into my care. We should all give each other the respect of keeping our germs to ourselves; the NYC Subway is already Petri dish enough!

Influenza…yum!

Gouri, 2013

It’s a New Year and with that come the flood of resolutions, made with good intention, to have a fresh start of things. What often tops these lists are changes in diet and exercise. Gym memberships notoriously surge in the beginning of the year, while kitchens are cleaned out of their sundry contents to be replaced with all kinds of leafy greens and organic snacks. After a few weeks, the novelty of the fresh start wears off and for many, old habits die hard.

One of my New Year’s day clients joked that massage should be at the top of his list for 2013. In fact, all the clients I saw on that day expressed wanting to begin their year on a relaxed note. Many of them had received these massages as gifts. The Greeks call this gouri, a gesture or gift of good luck typically given to family members and friends for the New Year. Honestly, it’s a brilliant commitment to oneself to reduce stress and bring balance to the body on a regular basis. Think of all the cumulative affects of a chaotic lifestyle, rife with packed schedules, inhaled meals and little sleep and the investment of one massage per month becomes feasible. This is what I tell clients when they cannot fathom the cost of such a “luxury.” If you can spend $80 to $100 on frothy coffee drinks per month, then you can afford one massage. 

It’s pretty and smells delicious, but doesn’t last very long.

I could post heaps of statistical data supporting the benefits of regular massage on health, immunity, mobility, recovery and performance, but I won’t. What I want readers to keep in mind is a word I mentioned above – commitment. Many of us have a problem honoring commitments made to ourselves; moreover, the list of resolutions we make at the beginning of each year to change this, that or the other is a bit of a joke when we have no intention of doing anything. Why even make a list at all? If you can commit to just one thing at the start of each month, I am positive you will enact more self change then tackling an entire list in just January. Here are a few to pick and choose from:

  • Commit to one massage a month.
  • Commit to one session of strength training per week.
  • Commit to five minutes of deep breathing and/or stretching before bed every night.
  • Commit to taking the stairs at some point during your day.
  • Commit to 20 minutes in the steam room at the gym.
  • Commit to juicing one morning per week.
  • Commit to making your day off count for you!

Spa Confidential: An Opinion Editorial on the Wellness Underbelly

Back in 2000, chef Anthony Bourdain released his best seller “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly” a part auto-biography, part behind the scenes look at restaurant kitchens. For many, his cautionary tales, anecdotes and commentary changed the way people viewed the restaurant industry.  Inspired by some recent “unrest” amongst spa staff where I work, this post is a peek into the urban day spa. Nestled in the bowels of a cacophonous city, the spa should function as a mecca of relaxation for the guest. Leave your troubles at the door and enter a sanctuary of blissful rest for the next hour and change, depending on what treatment you have booked. However, if you are an observant type (and I so  am THAT person) you may be able to detect an undercurrent of negative, frenetic energy emanating from the staff servicing your decompression.

You may also wonder why, in a feel good business such as the spa industry, would anyone be in a negative way? Part of what makes me look forward to going to work is that 99.9% of my clients leave with a smile on their face and compliments falling out of their mouths. What other “service” profession is that gratifying?  Whatever the state they arrive in, be it imbalance, stress or sometimes pain, they leave in a better place than they arrived.  That makes me feel like my therapeutic duties have been satisfied. After all, I went back to school to become a massage therapist in order to help people. Being able to make a decent living is an added, secondary bonus. It sometimes makes me wonder where a colleague’s priorities are with respect to this profession, when I sense their disdain at having to work. More often that not, it is the feeling that their employers do not have their best interests in mind that overtakes their therapeutic mood, tainting them for their clients and all other people in their path. A recent corporate decision had many staff members airing their fears and complaints via online forum. Some of the things I read made absolute sense, but others were unbelievable laments of the ills dealt to them. Here is the thing – if I was that miserable and downtrodden at work, I wouldn’t stand for it. I would be on a fiendish search for a new home for my skills. Yes, the economy is not the greatest, but it is possible to find a number of part time gigs to supplement what you need to live, financially speaking. You can also grow your private clientelle, especially if you have been at this profession for a number of years. I am almost two years in and I have 4 steady clients I see privately in addition to my spa work. If I can do it, what’s stopping you? Is almighty FEAR rearing its head again? Or is it the stubbornness of the old school mentality of working the same job for 20-30 years, retiring and living off a comfortable pension for the rest of your years; no worries?

I don’t pretend to know everything (although I would love for that to be the case…ALWAYS 🙂 ), I just feel passionate about my profession and wish that more of my colleagues shared that sentiment. It’s so unfair, both to ourselves and to our clients, to allow policy changes and corporate memos to affect how we feel about the work and quality of service. It’s frustrating to have just a few minutes between appointments to not only walk your client back to reality, but clean the room, change the sheets, wash your hands and run to the next appointment without looking or acting harried. It’s frustrating to ask spa attendants for supplies you desperately need for your treatments, only to have them shrug and say they don’t know where anything is even though they have been working there longer than I have been licensed. It’s frustrating to have commissions you have worked hard for get slashed twice in a year, with no incentive on the horizon to reward your hard work. And finally, it’s frustrating that computer glitches and “prioritized” booking causes appointments to be unevenly distributed. How we anticipate these frustrations and how well we support each other as a team will make all the difference. I arrive early, I give the best possible service experience to my clients under the conditions I have to work with, I smile and say “YAY” when I greet them (not always, but when merited like “YAY, this is your first massage ever” or “YAY, you found a babysitter so we can give you the TLC you deserve, etc.), I squirrel away the supplies I need in bulk and give myself internal pep talks about the universe taking care of all. It’s been working for me so far, but as soon as it gets to the point where my clients become aware of my frustrations, I will need to reassess. Maybe the urban day spa may not be the right place for my work in the long run; however no matter what space I work within, I am always myself – a licensed health care professional with your well being in mind.