I was about 16 years old when I first discovered the joy of being massaged. I was going through a breakup and my good parents thought a massage might just be the thing to help me. Since then I have gone to spas in hotels, boutique salons, private practices in little treatment rooms, the streets of Bali and beyond trying out the different massage techniques and the different hands supplying them.

After trying many spas, salons and masseuses, I have identified my two angel masseuses that I always return to. For instance, I know by now that a hotel spa won’t help me sort out the chronic tension around my left shoulder blade that I often suffer.

While I find the atmosphere and aesthetics of a hotel spa experience appealing, the massage itself, unfortunately, feels rushed and routine-like. It comprises the same strokes over and over again and seems to be a chore the therapist needs to get done. There is no focus on my specific problem.

For that, I need to go to someone who has a gentler and more sensitive touch, who is willing to give me what my body needs. I always look forward to my time with Sarita Verster, who has her own private practice at the Lightwise Wellbeing Centre. And I have received probably one of my best massages ever from Natalie Wittwen, owner of Stillness in Motion. Both these ladies have certainly got me out of a few tough, uhm, knots before!

So what is the difference? What makes the treatment I receive from these two ladies so different from what I might receive at a hotel?

It seems it has everything to do with intention.

As Natalie explains: “I believe that whether you’re a parent giving your child a soothing back rub, or a trained massage therapist, the most important aspect is your intention as the giver. The intention in these two examples may appear to be quite different: for the parent it may be to soothe the child’s mental anguish or physical pain, while the masseuse’s intention may solely be to encourage the body to heal itself. Either way, both givers’ intentions are ultimately to facilitate healing.” The intent therefore goes far beyond just making a few bucks. It’s about giving without getting something in return. Sarita says she is fully invested in her clients’ treatments because she really loves giving massages. She feels it’s of utmost importance to create a safe, caring space in which the client can feel there is nowhere else they need to be or nothing else they need to do. They can just relax.

You may think this is where it all ends – relaxing while someone rids you of your physical tension. Perhaps you go to a masseuse because you want the tension in a specific part of your body released. You expect the masseuse to prod you with her elbows and knead your muscles as if you are a piece of dough. You want it to hurt because you believe if it doesn’t you will still feel the original pain the next day.

But you may be misunderstanding tension and the language of your body.

“Yes, massage makes the muscles feel better and relieves the pain. But massage encourages you to relax. Relaxing, in turn, releases your stress and all the other pent-up emotions, and the tension melts away.”

Every emotion has a physical response. However, often we are not aware of the emotions we carry in our bodies. “We live in a stressed-out condition,” says Sarita. “Stress is the norm, so much so that often we do not even know that we are stressed out until it starts to manifest as a physical symptom.” The body becomes the unfortunate container of all our unprocessed, unacknowledged stressors and emotions that show up as physical symptoms and tension points.

My parents therefore knew what they were doing when they sent me for a massage to help heal my heartache. I remember that besides my emotional turmoil, I was also having trouble sleeping and my back was killing me. This makes sense, as Sarita, who is trained in Swedish massage and has a degree in Sports Science, explains:

“Apart from the occasional client I get because they have slept in the wrong position or have pain in their shoulders because of an incorrect sitting position, 90% of all bodily aches and pains can be traced back to our emotions.”

Unprocessed and pent-up emotions can lead up to massive health problems: “We all suffer some level of chronic stress these days,” says Natalie Wittwen. “Tensions, worries, stresses, exhaustion and pressures, if not dealt with or left untreated, will accumulate and manifest in the body in the form of, for example, adrenal fatigue, anxiety disorders, chronic fatigue, digestive disorders, depression, headaches, insomnia, muscle pain, etc. But by learning to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, we can reduce the stress on our heart, digestive system, immune system and more. Regular massage can play a role in facilitating relaxation.”

Relaxation is therefore a key component, but not the final pay-off. “By relaxing,” says Sarita, “we separate ourselves from our conscious. Our analysing, overreacting, egotistical side. When we relax, we let go. We let go of control. This gives our all-knowing, better knowing subconscious a chance to speak up.” When I visit one of my masseuses, I first have a quick chat. By now they know I love closing my mouth along with my eyes as soon as the massage starts. As I lie there, just breathing, thoughts, images or colours go through my mind, as I enter a sort of meditation. When Sarita is working on a specific part of my body, sometimes an image of a certain unpleasant experience I had during the week comes to mind. At this point, I know the treatment is working.

The goal of having a massage is to heal. Through the body you heal the soul.

Natalie, who is a qualified Neuromuscular Kinetic Bodywork therapist, explains this as follows: “By going to a massage therapist that you trust, and who provides you with a safe, caring space, you will naturally fall into a relaxed state, whether this means being comfortable to share your thoughts or feelings or just to BE. This is a vital step towards healing. The next step is a feeling of surrender, of ‘letting go’. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The masseuse’s approach along with the intent or purpose of the treatment, as well as the massage techniques are applied to release accumulated toxins and adhesions of the pain-body. I always say to my clients, ‘It’s a two-way thing.’ It is never just the therapist. The first step to good health and healing is through you as an individual. Taking charge of your well-being is your responsibility as a human being.”

A massage can then actually help you take charge of and change your life.

Sarita feels that many people believe stress and a stressful situation they find themselves in are just a bad hand they have been dealt. They believe it is just the way things are and always will be. “This is not true. It doesn’t have to be so. The things that cause us stress will not disappear by themselves, but we may be too afraid to take the necessary steps. That’s why, after a massage, I always invite my clients to chat to me about whatever is on their minds. But mostly, the massage is enough.”

There is great power in being touched while feeling safe and relaxed. “To me touch is so important,” says Natalie. “It is the first tangible feeling we experience when we come into the world. And Jim Butchers’ quote on this very subject really resonates with me: ‘There is a primal reassurance in being touched, in knowing that someone else, someone close to you, wants to be touching you.

“There is a bone-deep security that goes with the brush of a human hand, a silent, reflex-level affirmation that someone is near, that someone cares.”

I also love the way Sarita puts it: “We are all energetic beings who are connected to each other. Through touch, we recognise this connection. We acknowledge our shared experience.”

Perhaps that is the point then. We all live with emotions that we do not always have the words for. Unfortunately most of us also forget to pay attention to what our bodies are trying to tell us. This leads to a shared human experience of feeling disconnected from ourselves and others. However, through physical touch we can get back to ourselves. Through being touched, we are reminded of what it is like to be cared for. To feel cared for, however, we need to be receptive to care, and the only way we can practise receiving care is intentionally to give it to ourselves. Through unconditional gift of touch, we are reminded to take better care of ourselves.

Should you like to have your own professional “touch medicine” therapist, then contact Natalie Wittwen at 0724004329/0215516229 or like her Facebook page here. Sarita Verster can be reached at 0824758345 or you can visit her by going to her Facebook page here.

[Main image: Royalty free stock photo from 123RF/serezniy]