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by Bill Strubbe

What are your choices? How do you decide where to go? There are lots of listings in the phone book and ads in the local paper, but you're not sure what questions to ask. You don't want to feel obligated to make an appointment with the first person you call, but you're not exactly comfortable shopping around. On the other hand, at $30-$60 a crack, you don't want to waste your money on an inexperienced charlatan whose touch is more appropriate for alligator wrestling than kneading your gluteus maximus.

A Run-Down of Techniques
A wide variety of massage and bodywork techniques is advertised, and every masseur renders each technique differently. The basic and most common types of massage are:

Swedish. What most people think of when they think massage. The big, brawny blonde pounding and kneading those muscles while you wince and grimace helplessly on the table. Swedish doesn't have to be painful, but it is generally vigorous and therapeutic. It involves techniques with exotic names like effleurage; long, stroking movements (tapotement); pounding and karate chops (petrissage); compression and kneading.

Esalen. This may involve some of the Swedish moves, but it's a lighter, more pleasurable, playful and sensual massage.

Shiatsu. This falls under the general category of Oriental massage, as would AMMA massage and acupressure. This system involves sustained thumb or spot pressure on specific points with a coordinated breathing pattern. It's meant to penetrate deep into the tissue and, while it doesn't usually provide for an immediately sensual or relaxing experience, the benefits can be deep and long-lasting.

Polarity. Polarity involves very light touching of specific points of the body and head. Reiki could be classified as a type of polarity work. Little pressure is involved, and polarity stimulates and balances the etheric, energy body. While this technique is more "esoteric" than others, the effect is often profoundly relaxing. The client often goes "out of the body" and may not be fully conscious of what transpires, but both body and mind feel relaxed and centered afterwards.

Deep Tissue. Rolfing, Postural Integration, Heller Work, all are considered deep tissue work. These treatments, usually done in a series of 10 sessions, are for those serious about getting down to the nitty-gritty of body/mind/spirit work. It involves releasing emotions stored in the body tissues. Screaming, crying and pain are to be expected.

Where to Begin
The best way to find a good masseur (technically, a masseur is a man who practices the art of massage, a masseuse is a woman; for the purposes of this article, we'll use masseur collectively) is to get a recommendation from your sporting pals. Ask around, especially people who have experience with more than one type of massage and/or more than one masseur.

Lacking that, take a closer look at those ads. While most people advertising are capable of giving a decent massage, you might have heard horror stories about people who've arrived at a studio to find a dump, a dirty table, no table (just a pad on the floor) or a masseur who's offering "extra" services you weren't looking for. Fortunately, these cases are the exception rather than the rule. By learning to ask the right questions on the phone, you can eliminate such encounters entirely.

The Right Questions
When speaking to the masseur, certain questions will help ascertain what kind of situation you'll be walking into. The obvious questions are:

Schooling and years of experience. Simply ask where they received their training, if they're certified, how long they've been in practice and what techniques they employ. Although some of the best massages I've had were from people with no formal training, experience is a good standard to use for masseurs you otherwise know nothing about. In New York, Florida and Hawaii, the state-issued massage license number must appear in the ad. Look for words like certified, licensed, seven years' experience, etc. Although certification doesn't guarantee a great massage, at least you'll know they've passed basic training.

Price. Prices vary widely depending on the skill, location and length of the massage. Some ads list a price, but most don't. Make sure you know before you make an appointment. Most massages are 60-90 minutes in length, the price anywhere from $30-$60. In most cities, the average price for a 75-minute "in-call" is $30-$45, while an "out-call," where the masseur comes to you, will cost $15-$30 more.

If you're in financial straits, a student or unemployed, you might inquire about a sliding scale fee. My own personal rule is that no one should be denied a massage for lack of funds, and I'm usually willing to work something out. Not all masseurs - particularly those who are very busy - will bargain, however.

Form of payment. Expect to pay in cash. Travelers checks are often acceptable. It's rare that masseurs working out of their homes are equipped to take credit cards, so ask on the phone if this is how you intend to pay. Payment is usually made immediately after the massage is completed.

Length. Unless you specifically desire a partial massage, like a neck-and-back, anything less than an hour is inadequate. Some massages last two hours or more, but plan to be a vegetable for the rest of the day.

The following not-so-obvious questions will increase your chances of a wonderful massage:

Do you work on a table? Most masseurs work on a portable massage table. If they specialize in deep tissue or pressure work, they may prefer to work on a pad on the floor. Beds don't work well for massage; they're neither the right height nor the right firmness.

Is your room heated? Do you play music? Even in California, the room may need to be heated for optimum comfort. When you're lying still for an hour, you're apt to be more sensitive to temperature than normal.

Most masseurs play light, New Age meditation music to help calm and relax your mind, carrying your thoughts away from the daily mental chatter.

What kind of oil do you use? This is especially important if you have allergies (an allergic reaction to peanut oil is common). Oils commonly used in massage include sweet almond oil, coconut, olive, apricot kernel oil or some combination of these.

Making the Appointment
A few points potential clients should understand about the massage business. No matter how legitimate the ad appears, the masseur inevitably receives calls from sincere-sounding people who make an appointment and then don't show up. Many masseurs refuse to make appointments with a new client unless given a confirmation phone number. Many will not take appointments from pay phones. So, if the masseur requests your number, don't be put off. If, for some reason, you don't feel comfortable giving out the number (maybe you're at work or at your mom's), offer to call back at a specified time to confirm.

Arriving for Your Massage
Plan your appointment with ample time to shower after your golf game, work or the beach. As with any appointment, if it's apparent that you're going to be more than 10-15 minutes late, a quick phone call is always appreciated. If you show up half an hour late and the masseur has someone scheduled after you, you're likely to be expected to pay the same amount, even though the actual massage time will necessarily be shortened.

Once you've arrived at the masseur's studio, you should feel comfortable in the space provided and with the masseur. If it's untidy, the sheets look used or you just plain don't like the masseur, you're perfectly within your rights to change your mind and leave. Don't feel guilty - just go. If possible, tell the masseur outright the reason you're leaving; it's to their benefit. A trained masseur should ask if you have any injuries or pain they should know about. If they don't ask, be sure to volunteer the information. If you're wearing contact lenses, let them know, as they often rub down over the eyelids.

During the Massage
During the massage, you're encouraged to breathe, moan and groan if necessary, cry or yell if that's what you feel like doing. You'll be surprised at how easy it is to cry during a massage when you're sufficiently relaxed and open. Letting sounds out as you exhale helps facilitate the release of stress and pain. If you particularly enjoy a certain move or stroke, croon and swoon and let it be known. Most masseurs are sensitive to and enjoy your reaction; the more you respond, the better their performance will be.

Because of the intimate, sensual nature of massage work, it's natural and common to feel sexually aroused. Don't feel ashamed or embarrassed about these feelings. Relax and enjoy them - just don't try to act on them.

When It's Over
If you really enjoyed all or parts of the experience, it's appropriate and helpful to tell your masseur what you liked (or didn't). Masseurs don't receive promotions or pay raises. If the massage was exceptional, a tip is appreciated. If you really loved the massage, tell your friends. A great massage is something to pass on to others. Your friends will thank you - so will your masseur.

Bill Strubbe was a masseur for 14 years

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