Photo courtesy of Robert Whitman/The Licensing Project
How to Give Yourself—or a Partner—
a Great Massage
There are about a zillion ways to work away stress, but the one we’re really craving these days is a massage. A good one, where the waiting room has a lit fireplace and fancy teas and the treatment involves a silky essential oil blend and the hands of an actual angel.
So we got one of those actual angels on the phone: Amber Lee, a holistic practitioner and advisor at The Lifehood, a massage studio in Culver City. Lee’s job is to bring all things intuition into the process of massage. She’s one of those people you just feel better after talking to. And her philosophy is built around something called healing intuitive touch—the idea that massage can bring mind, body, and soul together for an experience that’s about way more than just working out some knots.
Lee gave us some pointers on bringing that healing intuitive touch home. And as we sat on the phone with her, rubbing our wrists with a bit of body oil we had around, we found ourselves getting exactly what she was talking about: You don’t actually need to know what you’re doing to give yourself—or someone else—some relief. It’s not about karate-chopping your partner’s back at the correct rhythm or using a specific angle of your fingertips. You simply start by tuning in: to your body, your breath, and the space around you.
BEFORE YOU GET STARTED
“Take a moment,” Lee told us, “to work with what you have in terms of time and space and create a healing environment that can support your experience.” That could be as simple as cleaning the room, putting electronics away, or lighting some incense. If you want to turn on some music, may we suggest: the album Resonance Meditation by Beautiful Chorus. The coupling of sound bowls and vocals is gorgeous, each song is aligned with a different chakra, and it’s exactly what we want to be listening to during a massage.
Then find a comfortable space to practice. Lee advises finding a private place where you won’t feel rushed or be interrupted. The bathroom can be a great choice if self-massage is on the menu, especially if you’re practicing nude. Otherwise, pick whatever calls to you: a bed or a couch is a nice foundation, and a backyard with lots of greenery and sunshine can be totally soothing. We’ve been dreaming of replicating a spa experience with hot stones, too: The Gemstone Heat Therapy Mat from Healthyline is on all of our wish lists.
Finally, pick your oils. There are massage and body oils that are designed for a practice like this, and Lee encourages us to use those if we have them. But she also says that if you don’t, it’s no big deal: Use whatever is in your environment. Coconut oil? Great. Olive oil? Cool. Just make sure it’s nourishing to you.
The great thing about self-massage is that it’s intuitive: You can tell immediately what feels good and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. Lee’s best advice is just that. “Self-massage is about being guided by your own curiosity,” she says. “You set the pace and rhythm and level of pressure that’s best for you.”
That said, Lee has some movements to try. In her personal self-massage practice, she starts at the crown of the head and works her way down to the feet. She gently lands her hands on the scalp, applying gentle pressure in circular motions with her fingers, before moving down behind the ears, through the muscles of the face, and down the neck. To release tension in the facial muscles, Lee likes to use smooth stones, like rose quartz or turquoise, in the same small, gentle, circular motions. (If you have a gua sha tool or a facial roller, that’s perfect, too.)
As you reach the body, Lee suggests making a practice of inward and outward movements. When she’s working on the arms and legs, Lee likes to make long, flowing strokes toward the heart. As she does, she visualizes receiving whatever it is she has set her intention for. As she strokes back away from the heart, she imagines clearing and release. Switch between movement and stillness whenever it feels right, like resting a hand on your heart for a moment as you move from your chest on to the next thing.
Getting the back can be a little more challenging. If you’re able, try lying on the floor with the back of your head flat on the ground and your body in line. Resting with your legs out is great if it feels right to you—otherwise, put your feet on the ground a little bit apart, with your knees falling inward to touch. You can use the natural pressure of the floor to gently work spots on the back and along the spine. Certain tools, like foam rollers and massage balls, can help. They just have to be safe and comfortable, Lee reminds us: It’s important to recognize the difference between pressure and pain.
To finish, Lee likes to sink into a bath. “A warm bath is a great time to nourish yourself, especially after a massage,” she says. “It’s a special moment to really come into the present.” We also happen to be big bath fans, and our favorite way to soak post-rubdown is with a really good, totally luxurious bath salt blend. You can throw something together at home if you have Epsom salts, baking soda, and some essential oils sitting around, or you can pick up something premade: We formulated “The Martini” Emotional Detox Bath Soak for moments just like this.
WITH A PARTNER
When you’re doing bodywork with a buddy—whether it’s your partner, a friend, your child, or a pet—it should always begin with a check-in. Because you won’t be able to rely on the immediate feedback from your own body as you would during self-massage, communicating what works and what doesn’t is especially important. “When we’re working on friends and loved ones, there’s a certain degree to which we can read them intuitively,” Lee says. “But it can be really informative and powerful to simply ask what our partner wants out of any session.”
So start with some intention setting: It could be anything from working out a specific area of the body to cultivating feelings of peace. You can use this initial conversation to guide the overall experience. If you’re going for relaxation, maybe gentle, long, slow strokes are in order. If your partner expresses that they’d prefer some deeper pressure in their shoulders, you can run with that. Just establish that the lines of communication are open for the duration of the practice, take a few deep breaths together, and get ready to begin.
You want to position yourself in a way that gives you access to the areas of your partner’s body that need the most attention, if they’ve indicated any, and in a way that allows you to employ the weight of your body, as opposed to pressing only with your hands and arms. It’s best to have gravity on your side, Lee says, so find a comfortable way to sit or stand above them.
“‘When we’re working on friends and loved ones, there’s a certain degree to which we can read them intuitively,’ Lee says. ‘But it can be really informative and powerful to simply ask what our partner wants out of any session.’”
For example: If your partner tells you they’re holding tension in the head, neck, and shoulders, you might want to try having them sit in front of you on a cushion on the floor while you sit behind them on a chair. If they’d love some attention on their calves and feet, you might have them lie down with their legs propped up. That said, expect to rearrange yourselves to reach all the spots you need to. The tables used by professional massage therapists are made for this; your couch is not.
Lee says that the best way to get started is the same as with self-massage: Use your curiosity and don’t overthink it. When in doubt, long flowing strokes are king. Massage oils reduce friction and make the whole thing more pleasurable. Take advantage of the different surfaces of your hands—it’s not all in the fingertips. The heel of the hand, the knuckles (important here: keep your fists loose), and the outer surface of the thumb all feel good. You can try out your forearms, too, but avoid using your elbows; unless you’re experienced in how to use them safely, they can be a little intense and difficult to control. Work with the natural shapes and patterns of the body, not against them. Pay attention to body language. And ask for feedback: Does this feel good? What about this kind of pressure? Where are you feeling sensitive?
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When you get to a knot—tense or tight bumps in the muscle that may be sensitive to the touch—Lee says it’s all about exploring how to reach that area from different directions. Keep your movements gentle and have patience. “Knots are released through time,” she says. “Crisscross it as much as you can.” This is where Lee will often have a client change positions, from sitting up to lying down or however else makes sense, to get at a knot from new angles.
As you close out, return to the long, deep breaths you started with. This is an especially important part of any massage experience, explains Lee: It’s not just a physical practice, but an energetic one, too. It all comes back to a philosophy of loving-kindness. “In order to give energy, we have to be in a position to receive energy,” she says. This is where the breath comes in. It’s a moment to center back on our intentions and sink into the acts of giving and receiving. “The kinder we are to ourselves, the more love we have to give to others,” she says. “And when we take that time to nourish others, we nourish ourselves, too.”
IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE MOOD FOR ALL THAT
A little percussive massage goes a long way. By yourself or with a partner, you can use the new Theragun Pro for quick and efficient massage. It’s not quite as romantic as a whole candlelight-and-body-oil setup (although, who’s going to stop you?), but we do walk away from a five-minute Theragun session feeling as if we haven’t been hunched over our laptops all day. It makes quick work of second-day postworkout soreness. And that kink in your back from picking up your kid just slightly the wrong way? Calls for a little Theragun love.
The Pro is designed at professional quality, with machinery that’s built to last for massages well into the future. It goes for hours on a single battery charge, delivers up to sixty pounds of force at up to sixty repetitions a second, and has bells and whistles beyond what other percussive massagers offer: customizable speed ranges, Bluetooth-enabled programming, and six specialized attachments for different parts of the body. And it’s super quiet—like, electric toothbrush quiet.