Question: In your book Embodied Liturgy you include references to massage as well as yoga. You actually provided yoga practices in your teaching. How would you use massage in teaching liturgy?
Answer: I probably wouldn’t include massage sessions in the classroom like I did yoga sequences, although I might encourage people to receive a massage as another way of getting in touch with their bodies. We can’t get into liturgy as an embodied experience unless we are sensitive to our bodily senses and motor actions. In a full body massage session you become acquainted with all parts of your body as the massage therapist touches and manipulates them, sometimes exposing points of pain and stress you didn’t even know you had.
My experience after a year of chemotherapy for colon cancer was that both yoga practice and massage therapy were beneficial to healing and to getting back in touch with my body and its embodied memory. In yoga I was put in mind of bodily things I did as a youth, such as being in the elementary school boys gymnastics show. I had not thought about this experience in years, but muscle memory released in yoga practice brought it to mind. Massage was good for eliminating toxins in my body (there were a lot after a year of receiving chemical cocktails) and getting my blood flowing again. But I also learned how my behavioral patterns were effecting muscles and posture.
I went through a couple of Central European women massage therapists and they were quite good until they were no longer available. Then I found a male massage therapist (MT) whom I have continued to see regularly for ten years now. He practices muscular deep tissue and myofascial trigger point release, modalities that can be quite intense. But it is sometimes needed after biking, yoga classes, or sitting for hours at the computer (not good for the neck and shoulders or lower back).
Massage Addresses the Mind
But the main point of massage therapy is touch, whether the massage is for relaxation or deep body work. And while massage is manipulating the body it is also accessing the the embodied mind. The pioneering body worker Deane Juhan, author of the classic massage textbook Job’s Body, writes in an online article on “Reaching the Brain Through Touch,”
The skin is the surface of the brain; to touch the surface is to stir the depths. I cannot touch an organism’s skin anywhere without arousing that organism’s entirety. That is to say, the skin on one hand is a primary boundary of our physical selves, and on the other hand a primary threshold of interactions that connect our inner world with the world around us in many ways.”
The nervous system runs throughout the body. Stimulated by massage of the skin and tissues the nervous system sends impulses to the brain. Our limbic system in the brain is associated with our feeling states. Stirred by neuropeptides, which serve as our biochemical messengers, the limbic system modulates our consciously perceived emotions and translates cellular responses throughout our body, orchestrating innumerable reactions to our current feeling states.
“Mind” is located throughout the body, not just in the brain, and the mind holds “memory.” We speak, for example, of muscular motor memory. Neuroscience is discovering ways in which healing touch can mobilize the body’s wisdom and renewing resources on many levels. On this basis psychotherapies are being developed that make use of bodily manipulation (like those used in Thai yoga massage) to jar the memory, trigger emotional responses, and serve as the basis for guided discussion. Phoenix Rising, for example, is a yoga-based, Rogerian-style talk therapy (Carl Rogers) that encourages the client to respond to feelings as the body is moved into supported positions by the therapist.
Massage touch, as well as hugging and stroking, can be healing for our body and our spirit. But in our society acts of touch may require sensitization. Some people are averse to touch and need to come to terms with why they are. if they are. In my own family upbringing there wasn’t much hugging or kissing. It took me quite a while to become comfortable hugging or kissing a girl on a date.
Aversion to interpersonal touch has some liturgical consequences in terms of ritual interaction with other worshipers (for example, the greeting of peace) or with ritual gestures (for example, the laying on of hands). Obviously, in massage the therapist going to be touching your body — all over it.
For persons whose aversion to touch is severe, somatic psychotherapy or somatic body work may be helpful. In doing this work we meet up with those aspects of our self that contradict the qualities that compose our self-image. Somatic psychotherapy identifies ways in which the body keeps the memory of bodily abuse or unwanted touch or traumatic illnesses that often affect behavior later in life.
Massage is a way of being touched in a safe environment whose purpose is relaxation or healing of pains or muscular tension. It is always a sensuous experience, but massage can be a spiritual experience as well. While massage focuses on individual parts of the body, it is also addressing the whole body. By the end of the massage the individual senses merge into the total sensation of being at one with your entire bodily self. This is a mystical state and the wise massage therapist encourages the client to just lay at rest, absorb the experience, and not be in a hurry to get up. This is kind of like savasana at the end of yoga practice. (Of course, only for so long since another client may be scheduled.)
Massage and Nakedness
Because massage involves touching the body, the body should be exposed as far as possible. That is, the client should remove his or her clothing. In Asian massages the draping will be minimal, sometimes using only a towel, as in this photo.
In American practice the client will usually be covered by a sheet and/or blanket as draping and the massage therapist will fold back the drape to expose the parts of the body to be worked on. Sometimes in a private studio, however, the client can request no draping and the massage therapist may strip down also.
The client has the choice to leave on pants or underwear, although in an Australian resort I was told by the female massage therapist to leave on my underwear and in an Indonesian family day spa I was given a pair of silk shorts to wear by the young male massage therapist who was also wearing silk shorts.
If allowed I would prefer total nakedness and minimal draping (if any) for a massage because it makes for a better quality massage. This is especially the case when rubbing in oil where long strokes are desired. I experienced this in Lomi Lomi Hawaiian massage and also in Indian abhyanga treatment (see below). When I experienced Lomi-Lomi only a small towel covered my butt when I was face down and covered my genitals when I was face up, but it was in private room, not on a public beach like in the photo below. When I experienced abhyanga treatment I was given a plastic jock strap to wear.
Relationship with the Massage Therapist
In addition to its physical and mental health benefits, some people enjoy massage because it often involves caring, comfort, and a sense of empowerment. It can create deep connections with one’s massage therapist. Obviously professional/client boundaries need to be observed, but there’s a value to continuing a relationship with a massage therapist who becomes intimately acquainted with your body. Anything that is said within the walls of a massage treatment room, is kept confidential between the client and therapist.
In the 2005 award winning Philippine film, Masahista (The Masseur), written and directed by Brillante Mendoza, a young a masseur working in a massage parlor in Manila, played by Coco Martin, struggles to make sense of his unfulfilling relationships in conversations during massages with one of his clients, who has his own issues, while he is simultaneously assisting his mother in preparing his father for burial. The film cuts back and forth between Coco Martin’s character lovingly preparing his father’s body for burial and bringing healing to the body of his massage client, and receiving healing for himself in the process.
A Personal Testimony: Massage As Initiation
Massage can be important at pivotal times in one’s life. One of the most important massages I’ve received was after I retired in 2013 and went to Singapore to teach. [I discussed this massage experience in Embodied Liturgy, pp. 70-71.] I had spent the previous weeks saying farewell to people I cared for in my congregation, moving my office to my home, and preparing for presentations in Singapore. A lot of travel tensions needed to be worked out of my body as well as personal anxieties concerning my retirement and the new experience I was about to teach in a foreign country for which my mind needed to be calm. Singapore is known for its massages. I went to an Asian men’s spa and the experience I had there became like a rite of initiation.
In some Asian men’s spas the customer can select a massage therapist from those who are available and waiting for a client. In my case I was greeted by a young Asian masseur who removed my sandals, brought me a fruit drink, and showed me a massage menu. I chose a fusion massage that included acupressure that addressed trigger points and herbal oil therapy that applied a lot of oil to all parts of the body.
He showed me to a curtained cubicle where I removed my clothing. He gave me a towel to wear around my waist and led me to the shower to clean up for the massage. Asians are especially particular about working on clean bodies.
When I returned the masseur commenced with the acupressure massage, for which he sometimes used a drape since lotion or oil isn’t used in this modality of applying pressure. Typically more attention is given to feet and calves in Asian massages than in American massages, which can be quite intense.
He then removed the sheet for the herbal oil therapy so that he could rub the oils into my entire body.
The oils bring relaxation to the body and mind, dissolving accumulated stress and tension. The oils are good for the health of the skin, and the circular application of the oils is good for the circulation. Quite frankly, the application of the oils is the most sensuous part of the massage. The massage therapist may use his or her body as an applicator, rubbing in the oils with hands, arms, and even torso (see below).
Toward the end the masseur asked if I wanted urut batin. I didn’t know what that was and he explained that it included the sex organs and is considered a healthy treatment for men. Later I learned more about it (see the explanation below). I kind of nodded yes and he commenced including my sexual organs in the oil massage and handled my penis with long tugs and twists and turns and pulling of skin and tissue. The treatment was extremely sensuous and not unwelcomed.
Then my young massage therapist removed his shorts, placed my hand on his back, and climbed up on top of me. “You need more relax,” he said, as he laid his naked body across mine in a profound embrace lasting several minutes that brought a deep relaxation to my body. It’s not uncommon in Asian massage for the massage therapist to use more of his body than in Western massage, and even to be on top of the client.
In any event, relaxing at the end of the massage allows the body work to settle in, including both the deep tissue work and the gentler application of the massage oil. After a few minutes he got up, wiped excess oil off my body, and sent me to the shower. Some spas in southeast Asia provide steam sauna rooms with a shower head to bring relaxation to the body after a vigorous massage treatment.
When I returned he had prepared green tea which he served on the massage table. It was like communion following the hospitable welcome, the laying on of hands, anointing, embrace of peace, and water bath. This is the same ritual process as ancient Christian initiation. Since this experience I have since come to see an initiatory quality in all massage: it provides a transformation from a hurting body to a renewed body.
Cultural Aspects of Massage
How a society treats massage can say a lot about how it regards the body in its culture. American massages reflect the basic puritanism of American culture with concerns about modesty (draping the client) and not becoming too sensual (as if hands on a naked body will not be sensual). We notoriously have a strong sense of body shame.
Generally, in Asian cultures women do not massage men, and vice versa (although in many spas men will receive a massage from a woman if male massage therapists aren’t available — I have).
In Korean Spas men and women are in separate pool areas where nudity is required. Combined body scrubs and acupressure massage are offered in those areas. The client is usually naked on the table and the masseur may only be wearing underpants. As the body is exfoliated and dead skin is scraped off, the client is rinsed with buckets of warm water sloshed over the body. I’ve received this treatment a number of times. Clients also wash and scrub themselves at faucets. Sometimes fathers and sons and even friends scrub each other’s backs.
Asian massage modalities are older than Western massage modalities by several thousand years. The approaches are quite different. For one thing the Asian massage therapist will use more of his or her body to address the body of the client. This could include the use of the forearms, feet, or torso. Japanese women, for example, will walk on the backs of their clients while holding on to an overhead rope.
An Asian massage therapist might use his or her whole body when rubbing in oil, which requires the MT to also be naked. This obviously produces a very sensuous experience.
Asian massages are associated with the so-called “happy ending,” which is never advertised as such and is, in any event, always a private transaction between the MT and the client for extra cash payment directly to the MT. The offer of “extras” is initiated by the MT, NEVER asked for by the client. If you don’t want to get into this you can decline the offer. Even if the MT doesn’t speak much English the words “no thanks” are always understood. But body language can also be easily understood, and MTs can tell what the client wants.
Malaysian “manhood massage” might be on the spa menu, as it was in Singapore. (See below) Massages may be sensual without being erotic (ending up having sex). The experienced massage therapist knows how to work up to a release slowly during the course of the massage, circling around and grazing the “forbidden” areas, until finally producing a release that results in total relaxation of the body and mind and is therapeutic in itself. It’s not the same as self-pleasuring. It’s not sex.
As I mentioned above, in Singapore and Malaysia men can ask for “manhood therapy” (called urut batin). This is not the same as a “happy ending.” It is a massage of the sex organs to stimulate the nerve ending and tissue to free the circulatory path of toxins and impurities, thus enabling a free flow of blood to the groin area and to the related sex organs such as the testes, prostate and penis, which is necessary for erections. In Malaysian culture, where large families were desired and needed, being able to achieve and maintain erections for procreation was necessary. The massage therapy involves pulling and stroking the penis. The point is not to achieve ejaculation in the massage session, but sometimes it happens.
Since the urut batin massage includes the entire genital area, it may include also a prostate massage. The prostate is accessed by pressing on the pelvis or the perineum or by sliding well oiled fingers up the anus where the prostate can be accessed more directly. Since the prostate produces the bulk of the fluid that surrounds sperm in semen it is vital for male fertility. The process is known as “milking the prostate,” and this too can produce an erection and possible ejaculation. Presumably the Malaysian massage therapists know what they are doing, which may not be the case with many Western massage therapists. (It’s also not always a comfortable procedure.)
Javanese massages have a reputation for being especially strong. Because of the intense strokes, it can be regarded as a form of deep tissue massage. The massage therapist is trained to use all parts of his hand in giving the massage. As in other Asian massages the massage therapist is often on top of the client for extra leverage.
Massages are very inexpensive in Indonesia and massage therapists will often show how strong they are as they seek customers. But no matter how light or how strong a massage therapist’s touch is, it is still touch. Touch is finally what massage is about about.
An Indian abhyanga treatment involves vigorously rubbing appropriate seasonal ayurvedic oils into the whole body using long strokes, which necessarily means that sometimes the body is nearly entirely naked. Very often in India two therapists work in tandem.
I received this treatment several times in a Kerala Wellness Center in Chicago, although only from one therapist. As I wrote above, they provided a plastic jock strap which, when the therapist rubbed across the elastic bands, gave me a rash. I asked if we could dispense with that and he was ok with me not wearing the penis covering. But then he rubbed oil also onto the penis, which occasionally produced an unintended ejaculation. Since he just took that in stride, I did too.
As with any oil massage, a steam sauna is recommended to open the pores so the oil can soak into the skin. The Kerala Wellness Center provided a steam cabinet that I sat in for 10-15 minutes with just my head protruding from the top of the cabinet. Sometimes in Asian spas, as I wrote above, a steam sauna is provided.
Private Room Visits
It is common in Asian cities for massage therapists to be called to customers in their hotel rooms. MTs advertise online that they are available for outcalls. They usually provide a photo of themselves and advertise the type of massage they give. (“Full body” is a code for receiving the “happy ending.”) The reviews for many of these men indicate that they provided the customers with satisfying services. You can read between the lines.
In all honesty, these “house calls” could be an arrangement for an erotic massage and sexual encounter, but it doesn’t have to be. It is between the customer and the massage therapist what is included in the massage. In any case, Asian massages, especially with the application of oil, is going to be sensuous. This stimulation of the body and spirit is itself healthy. And frankly, gay MTs are often very good because they know the needs and appreciate the desires of the male body. (The MT I have been seeing for ten years is gay.)
In Indonesia my hosts provided me with massages after a long flight from Chicago. In Jakarta my host twice called his massage therapist to visit me in my room for a two-hour session, once when I arrived after a long flight from Chicago via Hong Kong and again when I was preparing to return home.
The Human Need for Touch
The body is renewed through touch. Massage is all about touch. Massage therapists touch the body all over. They know that the stimulation of the skin through touch is as necessary to us as water, food, or oxygen. Without adequate stimulation of our skins through touch we will languish. Infants sufficiently deprived of touch perish, regardless of being fed and sheltered.
Touch is the first of the senses to develop in babies. It enables us to have a relationship beyond our own periphery. Becoming a healthy human being requires the loving touch of parents, and development may be inhibited when touch is denied. The need for touch continues throughout our lives. We really don’t thrive without loving touch.
There is really no reason why massages cannot be given from infancy on through old age.
How many people lack regular, touching relationships in their lives? We go to licensed massage therapists for therapeutic massages but also also enjoy the touching. The client doesn’t usually touch the MT, although hugging before and/or after the massage can be practiced by mutual consent where the relationship warrants that sign of welcome and appreciation. But massage is also something that couples can learn to give to each other. This form of touch not only relieves stress; it affirms a loving relationship and forms a bond between the couple that can lead to greater intimacy.
This gay couple is giving each other a mutual massage.
Types of Massage
In this “answer” article I have mentioned several types of massage. Types I have received and mentioned include: Swedish, Deep Tissue/Trigger Point, Thai stretching, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, Acupressure, Aromatherapy (healing oils), Javanese. I have also received Korean body scrub, Asian reflexology (foot massage), Asian cupping, hot stones, and meditative touch. I have not received the Japanese walking on the back, Japanese Reiki (a gentle touch therapy), Japanese Shiatsu (an acupressure technique), experienced rolfing, or Tantra massage (see Frank Answers About Yoga, Sex, and Tantra). These are all ways of knowing the body through touch.
Even though massage addresses the body, it has spiritual power. Massage can be a form of spirituality in which one becomes one with oneself, the massage therapist, the universe, and God. A good massage brings one to a state of bliss in which one senses that all is well with one’s body, one’s life, and the world. That’s a good feeling to have even though it could dissolve once one leaves the massage table. But that table and the MT’s hands always beckon a return.