The Upper Hand

Massage technique


According to the latest edition of the International Spa Association (ISPA) Foundation’s Consumer Snapshot Initiative conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), massage is, without question, the top treatment at spas today. The study, which was based on the views of consumers from the U.S., UK, Canada, and Australia, reveals that 72 percent of spa-goers experienced a massage within the previous year. “Massage is no longer considered a luxury treatment, it’s a necessity for many,” says Lilliane Caron, owner and director of Caronlab Australia and Waxxxpress. “It can help with balancing emotions, anxiety, circulatory issues, joint and muscle pain, insomnia, and much more. Regular massages help to establish and maintain good health and wellness.” As more and more spa-goers recognize and experience the wide range of benefits that this service offers, many spas are expanding their massage options to include popular services, as well as lesser-known modalities.

Unfamiliar Territory

Most spa-goers are familiar with massage techniques like Swedish, deep-tissue, aromatherapy, prenatal, and sports massage, but there are a number of lesser-known modalities that also offer many benefits to clients, including:

Abhyanga: This full-body massage approach utilizes aromatic herbal oils to help balance the body and stimulate circulation. “It is more fast-paced than your typical Swedish massage and has a lighter touch, as well,” says Emily Richey, director of spa at The Spa at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado (Santa Fe, NM), which offers the Abhyanga Massage ($165, 50 minutes). “The motions of the massage include strokes up and down the client’s bones and circular motions around the joints. While the treatment focus is on detoxification, clients will also feel revitalized.”Massage treatment

Ashiatsu: This barefoot massage technique involves the therapist walking on the client’s back using deep compression effleurage strokes. It helps relieve pain from chronic soft-tissue damage and provides deep relaxation. At The Coeur d’Alene Resort Spa at The Coeur d’Alene (Idaho), guests can experience the Ashiatsu Massage ($215, 75 minutes; $280, 1 hour 40 minutes), in which the therapist is supported by parallel bars suspended above the table to utilize gravity and balance to provide deep pressure and help unwind the muscle tissue.

Cranialsacral Therapy: This gentle form of bodywork helps release compression in the head, spinal column, and sacrum to provide stress and tension relief. Kohler Waters Spa at The American Club (WI) offers Craniosacral Therapy (starting at $155, 50 minutes), in which the therapist uses a delicate touch to help the body release restrictions in the craniosacral system. “We promote this service to someone who is experiencing migraines, chronic fatigue, TMJ disorders, stress, and fibromyalgia,” says spa director Garrett Mersberger. “This treatment is unique in that you are connecting with the body with a light touch approach. It releases tension deep in the body to relieve pain and dysfunction and improve whole-body health and performance.”

Multiple-Hand Massage: This therapy requires more than one practitioner who simultaneously massage the client through a choreographed and balanced spa experience. The Texas Eight-Hand Massage ($550, 50 minutes) at The Ritz-Carlton Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, for example, involves four therapists. “Guests feel like they have enjoyed a four-hour massage in just one hour,” says spa director Julie Duncan. “It re-energizes the muscles and revitalizes the body and soul.”

Esalen: The Esalen approach involves gentle massage, joint stretching, and energy work. During this service, the practitioner usually tries to determine the client’s needs based on breathing rhythms and physical cues. “Techniques, such as Esalen,provide a more relaxing experience when compared to the style and feel of Swedish or deep-tissue massage,” says Elisabeth Nehme, international brand ambassador and master educator at [ comfort zone ]. “Yet, the benefits of a softer approach are virtually equal to those of a deeper technique: We still enhance the immune system response, alleviate muscle ache and tension, encourage natural detoxification, and soothe stress and anxiety. In fact, the decrease in stress and anxiety is more powerful in this mindful and attentive approach.”

Lomi Lomi: A traditional Hawaiian massage technique, lomi lomi includes the use of the therapist’s two hands, forearm, and elbow to produce broad strokes of pressure to a large area. According to Irisha Steele, spa director at Remède Spa at The St. Regis Aspen Resort (CO), lomi lomi deals with the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects of the client. “This service has long continuous, flowing strokes combined with a very loving touch, which relaxes the entire mind, body, and soul,” she says. At Remède Spa, guests can experience the benefits of this massage technique with the Lomi Lomi Massage ($205, 60 minutes; $280, 1 hour 30 minutes), which helps relax muscles, promote circulation, and balance energy. 

Manual Lymphatic Drainage: This massage approach includes gentle, rhythmic strokes that stimulate the lymphatic fluids in the body to help cleanse it of toxins, strengthen the immune system, and reduce pain. “Manual lymphatic drainage benefits clients who suffer with rosacea, acne, puffiness, overall sluggish skin, and post-surgery inflammation and bruising,” says Rhonda Allison, founder and CEO of Rhonda Allison Cosmeceuticals. “Stimulating lymphatic flow is a precise skin movement technique that occurs at the surface level of the skin. The technique doesn’t involve moving any of the tissue underneath the skin. It stimulates the lymph to move more efficiently, because when it is sluggish, it becomes more difficult for the body to purify and cleanse itself, the effects of which may become visible on the skin.”

Maya Abdominal Massage: Maya abdominal massage helps to improve organ function by guiding internal abdominal organs to their proper position and releasing physical and emotional congestion from the abdomen. “Maya abdominal massage targets the abdominal area, often for the specific purpose of restoring balance to the reproductive organs, but it’s wonderful for any digestive issues, as well,” says Nehme.

Myofascial Release Therapy: This approach involves stretching of the fascia (the thin tissue that covers every organ and muscle in the body) by applying gentle, sustained pressure to myofascial connective tissue restrictions to eliminate pain and release tightness in the muscles.

Rolfing: Ideal for clients looking to reduce pain and chronic muscle tension typically from physical and emotional trauma, Rolfing is an aggressive deep-tissue approach that helps reduce pain and stiffness, improve body alignment, and balance the entire body, rather than just an area of tension.

Trigger-Point Myotherapy: Trigger-point myotherapy consists of alternating levels of concentrated pressure on the areas of muscle spasm to provide pain relief. It is often difficult for a therapist to properly perform this treatment without overworking the tissue, says Jean Shea, owner and president of Biotone. “Understanding the mechanics of a technique is essential to the safety of both the therapist and the client,” she says. “Trigger-point therapy requires pointed pressure, often delivered by the thumb or elbow of the therapist, that when applied with poor mechanics can cause wear and tear to the therapist’s thumb, wrist, elbow, or shoulder.” To minimize stress, therapists should make slight adjustments to the height of the table to avoid additional stress on the joints and give hands a break whenever possible, stretching before and after treatments.

Tui Na: Tui na includes a combination of light and soothing to strong and energizing strokes. It helps to promote blood circulation and healing by working on the muscles, bones, and joints, as well as the energy of the body at a deeper level. Agave, The Arizona Spa at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa (Scottsdale) offers Tui’ Na (starting at $149, 50 minutes; $219, 80 minutes), which stimulates acu-points and meridians, loosens muscles and joints, and stimulates the circulatory and lymphatic systems.

Watsu: This bodywork technique is performed in warm water and combines elements of massage, muscle stretching, and dance. The therapist cradles, moves, stretches, and massages the client in the water to provide pain relief, relax muscles, improve mobility, and reduce stress.

Keep in Touch

Because people are often hesitant to book treatments they don’t know, many spas rely on word of mouth to encourage clients to try less familiar massages. Therefore, Nehme suggests treating the spa concierge team to the services, so they can provide true feedback. Also, when the spa concierge team experiences the treatments firsthand, they can more accurately answer any questions and properly promote them to clients. “A description on the website and in the reservation area is a must, but I’m a big believer in the power of word of mouth, and of one person sharing their own experience to encourage another,” says Nehme. She also suggests describing the benefits thoroughly, so that guests easily understand why the treatment will benefit them. “Virtually everyone will identify with needing to relax, to alleviate stress, to ease fatigue, or to restore energy and vitality,” she says. “Many modalities offer multiple benefits, so focus on what is most valued by your guests. If your spa is in a ski resort, address the warming benefits and muscle-ache relief. In an urban environment, the anti-stress and relaxation benefits should be featured.”

Joline Harrington, spa director at The Spa at Wine & Roses (Lodi, CA) utilizes the hotel’s website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and email blasts to educate guests, and she recommends hosting events around the new modality and offering specials for a first-time experience to entice clients to try the service. In addition, Lydia Sarfati, founder and CEO of Repêchage, recommends offering a sampling of these lesser-known techniques during other treatments. “All of these methods can be incorporated into both facial and body treatments, including waxing procedures, and can be promoted by offering them as easy upgrades to regular services such as facials, body waxing, manicures, and pedicures, as well as body treatments,” she says.

Employee Benefits

As massage services continue to grow in popularity, spas are able to boost their clientele and bottom line, but the many different approaches can take a toll on therapists. “Giving a massage is very taxing on a therapist’s body,” says Caron. “While some clients enjoy very little pressure, most are seeking a deep-tissue massage, which warrants a lot of physical force from the therapist. Our arms and hands have small muscles and ligaments that are not designed to endure intense, repetitive work for extended periods of time. As a therapist, we need to look for ways in which we can provide excellent services without unnecessarily straining our bodies.”

According to Nathalie Bouchon-Poiroux, cofounder of Cinq Mondes, it’s important for massage therapists to take care of themselves to ensure they can properly and effectively treat clients. “Massage therapists need to be very conscious of their breathing while giving any massage service,” she says. “The breath will help them stay focused and calm, as well as cleanse the body and ensure proper oxygen intake during a rigorous service. Therapists should also take care of themselves with proper diet, exercise, and water intake. They stand and use their bodies physically every day—the body is a beautiful instrument that deserves to be taken care of.”

Also, while it is beneficial for spas to introduce less familiar massage services, it is imperative that therapists are trained in each technique for the safety of themselves and their clients. “All techniques require proper training,” says Nehme. “Some are specific and may take several days, while others may be offered by continuing education centers and require just a day or two of initial training. One of the gifts of many alternative techniques is the rest they can give to the hardworking hands and body of the therapist. Some alternatives are proper massage therapies, but offering options that are gentler, and those that are energy-based, will allow some downtime from the physical strain of deeper work. These softer approaches are also ideal to segue into deeper work for those who might eventually benefit from something more intense.”

Cool Tools

When it comes to massage, nothing beats the healing hands. However, spas today often utilize a variety of tools to enhance the results of their massage offerings and minimize the impact on therapists’ bodies. For instance, using bamboo sticks provides a different sensation and reduces the physical toll on the therapist. “The rolling enables the therapist to provide a deep-tissue massage with less effort,” says Lynda Solien-Wolfe, vice president of massage and spa for Performance Health.  According to Shea, massage tools can also reduce the effort needed by therapists to go deeper, when used correctly. “Tools can not only take some of the labor out of massage but some can also pinpoint areas that therapist hands may be too large to get, like tiny trigger points in the intercostal muscles,” she says. Such tools and elements include:

Bamboo sticks: These warmable, smooth sticks provide a deeper massage with less stress on the therapist’s hands and wrists.

BoomaGlam: This boomerang-shaped massage tool from Jindilli features an ergonomic design that molds to the contours of the body. It relieves tense muscles and stimulates the lymphatic system.

Gems: Gems clear negativity and enhance positive energy.

Golf balls: Able to target hard-to-reach muscles, golf balls are ideal for everyone but massage therapists who may find them damaging to their hands. Fortunately, the ergonomically designed SPAball Kaddy was invented to hold the ball and make it easier to manipulate.

Himalayan salt stones: These warm crystal stones help to balance the body’s electromagnetic field, central nervous system, and meridians. They help to relieve stress and tension and bring the mind, body, and spirit into balance.

Hot stones: The heat from the stones helps relax the muscles.

Ice globes and rollers: Ideal for use on the face during a facial massage, they provide a cooling sensation, help calm the skin, and reduce inflammation.

Jade stones: Can aid in product penetration for mature skin.

Roller massager: Especially useful for sports massage, rollers can help provide a deeper massage to eliminate tight muscles.

Shells: Warmed clam shells, also known as lava shells, help to relieve sore muscles and joints.

Tibetan singing bowls: According to Nehme, when placed near or directly on the body, the vibration from the bowls help create a sustained cellular vibration that is energizing to the body and calming to the mind.

Soothe clients’ sore muscles and relieve tension with these products that enhance massage services.—Darby Radcliff

1. Advanced Body Care by ME! Bath 07 Eucalyptus Cooling Creme With Arnica: Infused with antioxidants, a patented ceramide and oligopeptide blend, and shea butter, this cream smoothes wrinkles, relieves tired muscles, and repairs skin.

2. Aromatherapy Associates De-Stress Massage & Body Oil: Formulated to ease muscle pains, this therapeutic oil contains arnica, ginger, lavender, and rosemary to help revive clients with tired, overworked muscles.

3. Aveda Stress-Fix Body Lotion: This organic lotion infused with clary sage, French lavender, and lavandin helps to relieve stress while providing a calming aroma.

4. Biologique Recherche Body Calming Oil: This lavender and palmarosa essential oil treatment relaxes heavy-leg sensations and helps relieve stress.

5. Biotone Deep-Tissue Massage Lotion: Formulated for therapies that target trigger points, deep tissue, and neuromuscular areas, this lotion infused with aloe and almond, Hawaiian kukui nut, and pecan oils provides relief to muscles.

6. Bon Vital’ Therapeutic Touch Massage Lotion: Best suited for Swedish and deep-tissue massages, this lotion enriched with arnica extract, olive oil, and a blend of grapeseed, jojoba, and sesame oils moisturizes and nourishes clients’ skin.

7. Dermalogica Stress Relief Treatment Oil: This cooling essential oil blend combines clary sage, lavender, orange, and sandalwood with naturally purifying extracts to counteract the negative effects of stress.

8. FarmHouse Fresh Quinsyberry Botanical Body Oil: This vitamin-rich antioxidant oil contains black currant extract and a blend of natural oils that help rehydrate and refresh the skin.

9. Gena Mani Spa Massage Lotion: Condition skin with this pink-grapefruit-scented formula infused with AHAs, antioxidants, and an argan oil complex that seals in moisture.

10. Jindilli Body Melt: Infused with macadamia wax, this massage medium provides a long-lasting glide with a butter-rich texture to soften dry skin.

11. Naturopathica Sea Fennel Massage Wax: Nourish and detoxify clients’ skin with this formula featuring a seaweed gel base that provides a luxurious texture while sculpting and then turns into a hydrating milk upon contact with water.

12. Young Living Cool Azul Sports Gel: Invigorate skin with this cooling gel featuring a blend of camphor, dorado azul, menthol, peppermint, and oregano essential oils.