L. R. Heartsong breaks down myths about men and massage and offers encouragement and a dare.
The night breeze dances around me as I lay on the massage table, the canvas panels of the tent-like enclosure flapping softly in the wind, while a sweet island scent of plumeria perfumes the air. It’s a sort of natural aromatherapy, lulling me into a relaxed stupor. As my therapist sinks his elbow deeper into a constricted knot along the medial border of my right scapula, I realize with a frown, I’m a mess.
How could I have allowed myself to go so long without a massage? As a former therapist, I know better. For more than twenty years I’ve been coaching and encouraging people to get regular bodywork — especially men, who tend to resist taking care of themselves in a nurturing manner as with touch and massage.
A week of packing boxes and lifting furniture in my latest episode of moving house has left me feeling tight, stiff, and sore, and has driven me back to Michael’s massage table after too long away. (I seem to do this moving thing yearly, which qualifies me as a nomad, I think.)
As he kneads and stretches my muscles, joints, and connective tissue, I struggle to silence my inner critique of his technique and simply surrender to the healing work. A former instructor of healing arts, I’ve trained hundreds of therapists and sometimes it’s challenging to turn off the ‘teacher’ in my head and simply receive a session. I’m focusing on simply being in the moment and letting good, strong hands coax me back to a place of comfort in my own skin.
I also give a gentle hush to the critical voice inside who, once again, is berating me for not taking better care of myself. Sometimes our inner commentary offers worthwhile guidance, but too often it’s overly negative (mine definitely is). Life is challenging enough without a steady stream of self-criticism, thank you.
I take a deep breath and sink a bit deeper into the padded table, appreciating the deep pressure of Michael’s hands. Listening to the evening breeze play with the Balinese bamboo wind chimes, the low, melodic tones transport me to other island destinations I have known and loved.
I’m pleasantly drifting deeper into relaxation, closer to the dreamy threshold of sleep. It’s a rare place for me to reach on a massage table unless a therapist is truly skilled and a dozen other factors are in place: a good space and lighting, unobtrusive music, comfortable temperature, appropriate boundaries, minimal discourse, etc.
Men are funny about massage. In my years of private practice and working at elite resort spas like the Four Seasons, I know that most guys prefer a female therapist. Somehow the thought of another male touching and working their body is threatening. What if it feels good? (Frankly, it should feel good — tight muscles and painful spots notwithstanding) Or they are secretly nervous, if they like the man’s touch, does it mean they’re gay?
Or what if, god forbid, I get a hard-on while a man is working on me? (For the record, an erection is a fairly normal, physiological reaction in massage that doesn’t necessarily correlate to sexual arousal or sexual energy; it has more to do with relaxation and patterns of nerve distribution in the skin called dermatomes.)
Sometimes men worry that a male therapist might be gay and attracted to them. Don’t flatter yourself, guys. Even if he is gay, it doesn’t mean he finds you hot or wants to have sex with you; and if he’s a professional, he should never reveal his attraction or, worse, act on it. (Naturally the same standard applies to female therapists.)
In the minds of most men, somehow it seems safer and more comfortably within the realms of masculinity to receive massage from a female.
Personally, I prefer bodywork from other men. I appreciate the strength, the solidity of touch, and the (generally) increased pressure for deep tissue work — though admittedly I have been astounded by the depth of some fairly petite women. (Deep work isn’t about muscles or strength, per se, but rather technique, body mechanics, and intent.)
We all have various issues around touch, influenced by personal, familial, cultural, and religious factors. Still, how sad that many of us as men don’t take better care of ourselves, or that we let our ideas about masculinity, intimacy, and pleasure block our own nourishment. I cannot count the times when, at a party or social engagement, the topic of bodywork or massage would arise (“So, what do you do for work?”) and a man would exclaim defensively, “I could never get a massage from another guy!” As if the very thought of being touched by a male was an affront to his manhood.
How shallow and insecure. Really, how limiting.
Over the years, my own work has evolved from hands-on bodywork and somatic psychotherapy (think “massage meets counseling” and you’re roughly in the ballpark) towards a more generalized coaching of embodiment.
Learning to be fully at home in the body is one of the most empowering things we can do as men. Consciously inhabiting our bones and breath helps us reclaim or discover a sense of power and authenticity. It also reveals our patterns (somatic, mental, emotional), and gives us the ability to shift them. As bodyworkers like to say, “Our issues are in our tissues.”
Authentic movement and fully inhabiting our bodies seems like it should be the most normal thing in the world. If we observe an infant or child, the way they live in their body, we see what we’ve lost. Censored. Forgotten. As adults, most of us live almost entirely in our heads. For a dozen personal and cultural reasons, we’ve become distanced from our own bodies except at the most acute levels of sensation, hunger and desire.
In our modern, domesticated world, we have lost the fluency of being embodied, sensual, wild souls. We’re pretty tangled up in shame, too — men, especially.
Yet conscious touch in massage can bring us into our body in a much more dynamic and integrative way. Like martial arts, bodywork can help us develop a better relationship with our own core — a tactile, authentic sense of who we are.
In a previous post for the Good Men Project, “Men and Beauty: Evolving the Masculine,” I wrote, “Appreciating natural, elemental beauty is one of the most important things we can do in this life. It’s a soul practice, actually.” Similarly with allowing ourselves to receive a bit of nurturing and pleasure. Massage is healing and restorative; it delivers a flood of well-documented health-inducing benefits. Put simply, it’s good for body and soul.
Years of bodywork (both giving and receiving) have taught me that if our bodies are tightly armored and constricted, we can never open our hearts fully.
Resting on the massage table, feeling my tight back slowly relaxing under the consistent, slow pressure of Michael’s elbow, I am relaxing and letting go. The long slow strokes are connective and integrating, reminding me of my essential shape. I feel less irritable and less sore. My breath is fuller, deeper, and easier. I welcome his attentive touch, allowing myself to rest in the space of being cared for in a nourishing, therapeutic way.
I’m an unconventional guy, one who loves tossing stereotypes out the window. I navigate the world through my heart and open senses as effortlessly (and often better) as I do with my head. As a healer, I know that life often triggers us to pull in and constrict, and sometimes we need a little help in opening back up again. I would offer that it doesn’t make us less of a man to seek out and welcome that helping hand, it makes us a better one.
Brother, I challenge you to do something good for your body and soul. Get a massage. And I double-dog dare you to get it from another man.