How to Manage Your Mind During a Massage

by Marianne Sears, LMP, CCH

Do you ever find your mind so racing with thoughts during a massage that you wondered where the hour went? Maybe you were so busy worrying about how soon the session would end or planning what to do after it that you barely registered the massage. The challenge of being fully present in the moment is one that has occupied spiritual traditions for millennia. The unique situation of receiving bodywork can be an opportunity to make a little headway towards this end for yourself.

As in the techniques of many spiritual traditions, breath can be an important tool in focusing attention. Try thinking of your breath as giving an inner massage to your lungs and vital organs as you take long, deep breaths during a massage. Focused breathwork can dramatically increase the benefits of a massage by working from the inside out.

Another technique is to visualize or imagine sending each exhalation to a part of your body that feels tight or needs extra attention. Or just tune in to where the practitioner is working and exhale "into" (or concentrate on) that area.

Sometimes giving the mind more to do paradoxically keeps it from being distracted. Try adding color to your breath awareness. Use a color that comes easily to mind, a favorite color or one that seems helpful to your particular situation, for example a cool color for an inflamed, throbbing area, or a warming color for a constricted spot. Infuse the selected area with increasingly vibrant hues of this shade as you breathe. Allow it to change if that seems needed. Gold, silver and iridescent colors can be powerful.

A variation on this theme is to embark on an "incredible journey" into the body by imagining yourself shrinking to microscopic size and entering an area you've decided to explore. Move through the area using all your senses, getting a feel for any message it may be trying to communicate via pain or dysfunction. Note size, color, smell, texture, and stay with it a while, noticing any change that occurs. You can also picture yourself improving the situation you find -- vacuuming, mending, lengthening, tenderizing.

The more graphic the imagery, the more receptive the subconscious mind is to it. For tight, guarded muscles, you might call to mind young weeping willow fronds blowing in a spring breeze or a slow, strong river flowing calmly between its embankments.

Just noting or "witnessing" sensations in the body can be very effective in pain management. Try detaching your ego identification from any discomfort you may be feeling by saying to yourself, for instance, "Aching is happening" rather than "I feel achy." This shift in focus can subtly make things easier to tolerate.

You can also try an exercise in which you assign a color, size and texture to any disagreeable feeling. Is your headache the size of a golf ball or a melon, bumpy or slick, red or dark blue? The answers may stay the same or change moment to moment -- the point is simply to monitor the feeling as an interesting sensation rather than rigidly labeling it as "pain." Surprisingly, often the "pain" quickly clears up.

If there's a particular emotional or life problem bothering you, mentally focus on its salient aspects briefly as the massage begins. Then release it into the universe (a visual image could be letting a balloon go into the wide, open sky), affirming that at the end of the massage you will experience the issue with greater peace and clarity.

Another element in a massage that can be distracting is your relationship with your massage practitioner. Bodywork can be an intimate, vulnerable situation, and it's simply easier to relax with someone with whom you feel comfortable. It can take several sessions with someone to begin to feel familiar enough to relax deeply. Make sure to make your needs known, especially if there's something about which you're uncomfortable. And if you don't feel a rapport with your therapist, allow yourself to shop around.

Some people enjoy talking during their massages. This can be fun and perhaps a chance to get some helpful therapeutic information from your practitioner or do some emotional processing. But don't feel like you have to keep your massage therapist entertained -- it's your time! If you get more out of a silent session, it's fine to say so, especially if your therapist is being talkative.

Sometimes just the simple act of articulating to ourselves (and maybe to our massage therapist) before and during a session what our intention is in being there can be a powerful tool for manifesting that intention. And whatever brings you to the massage table, your experience will be enhanced by the framework of conscious, attentive reception and participation that you bring to it.