A Personal Look: Beginning My Massage Career During a PandemicPin it

Every morning when I get up, I thank G-d for a new day, new opportunities, and the gift of my body. As a recently licensed massage therapist, I am grateful my body serves me, enabling me to serve others. Never has this been more pronounced than this past August when I began my very first assignment as a professional licensed massage therapist.

Due to coronavirus, this was indeed a very strange time to begin a career as a massage therapist. I graduated from my school program at the end of March and was scheduled to take my licensing exam the following week.

Then, when the whole world stopped, my test was postponed with no future date foreseen.

I was in a no woman’s land: not yet certified and no date in sight for taking the test. The anxiety built as I studied 8 hours a day and continued to practice massage so I wouldn’t forget a thing. I finally took the test on June 29th, 3 months after the scheduled date and – thankfully – passed.

My Original Plan

My original plan was to take special classes for oncology and geriatric massage immediately after obtaining my certification. Unfortunately, courses for these two communities that are so meaningful to me were put on hold indefinitely.

My First Assignment

My first was assignment was providing chair massages as part of an employee appreciation initiative for a government agency. As essential workers serving the community, their doors hadn’t closed during this pandemic. While speaking with the prospective client I thought: “Is this crazy? Should I really take on work that would put me at such risk?”

I knew that in order to accept the job I had to be assured about my safety and the safety of those receiving massages, vis-a-vis COVID. My client would need to take the necessary steps to protect everyone’s safety:

  • Per CDC guidelines, everyone at all the locations of this government agency gets their temperature taken every time they enter the building – and can’t display active symptoms.
  • Two weeks prior (it takes that long to get the test results here in Florida), I got tested for coronavirus just to be sure, and the results were negative.
  • Per massage federation guidelines, all parties must wear facemasks – a facemask for massage!
  • I let my client know that I would be wearing gloves, and that I needed a sink nearby for me to wash my hands (in addition to disinfecting the chair) between each participant.
  • Disinfecting and changing the linens (face cradle cover for chair massages) is already standard operating procedure with massage. The masks, gloves, and temperature-taking are the new ‘value add’.

With all this to consider, my goal was to create a 10-minute reprieve from a stressful work environment for each of the participants. It was amazingly rewarding to be able to provide this type of relief and hear their tension sighing out with each breath and massage stroke.

I was presented with all shapes, sizes, and smells, including cigarette smoke. I reminded myself to remove judgment and provide kindness, love, and therapeutic touch to overstressed people being yelled at everyday by customers – who are going through the added stress of a pandemic life themselves!

About a third of the recipients had never had a massage before, and almost all had never had a massage with a face mask.

The routine went something like this:

  • I wait for each client to come in while I am cleaning the chair, put on the disposable cradle cover, discuss expectations, address the mask issue by humorously reminding them that masks need to stay on “but isn’t it good we care enough to protect each other.”
  • After, I would struggle a bit to put the gloves on, assuring each person the 10 minutes would only begin at the start of the massage.
  • I found myself not only adjusting the chair to suit the client, but also adjusting the facemask, ensuring that the client could easily breathe through the face cradle.
  • The dialog has now changed to “while it is more difficult with the face mask, remember to breathe…”
  • And “give me a moment while I put on my gloves…” Fortunately, the snug gloves had the added benefit that they weren’t noticeable to the client during the massage.
  • I timed it so that the next client entered while I was cleaning up from the last. I thought about having all this done before the client came into the room, but I wanted them to be assured that they were getting sanitary conditions.
  • I also had to make sure my hands and arms were well dried and moisturized between sessions. This facilitated getting the gloves on as well as preventing my skin from getting chafed from the friction created by massaging over the variety of material being worn.

As I greeted each client I smiled, hoping that my expression would come through my eyes, since the mask was covering my nose and mouth. I wanted to give each participant a warm welcome, making them feel relaxed and comfortable.

One client came in without her mask and it took us both a moment to realize that ‘something was wrong.’ In the bizarre new world we live in, an unmasked face wasn’t normal. We both laughed as she quickly placed her mask back on her face.

Another client was claustrophobic and I had to gently work with her to ease her face into the cradle, remove the ear straps so the mask could fit loosely while still feeling safe. I used this ‘trick’ with several clients to make them more comfortable.

During the massage I cared for each person equally, going through my chair massage routine, while also focusing on individual needs. I would get lost in the story the muscle tissue was telling me, and focusing on making each person feel better.

My whole body, not just my hands, was key to giving the massages with the right force and effectiveness. It was a tango that depended on how I reacted to what the recipient’s body was telling me. Even though I am considered petite, and I am sure some thought I would just feel like a fly to them, I was able to support all the shapes, sizes, and tensions that were introduced.

Jo Bakal performing chair massage with a client.

It’s not how hard I pressed my hands into a person; rather, it was how I leaned my body into the person that created the pressure suited for each of them. My hands and fingers helped me feel what was needed and leaning in helped me apply the appropriate technique.

My forearms provided another tool when more depth and power was needed. My 20-year practice of qigong and tai chi helped my choreography, as I used balance and my body to provide a satisfying massage without stressing my bones and muscles. As I shifted my weight, maintained contact with my massage partner, and moved 360 around the chair, it really did feel like a dance routine.

Jo Bakal using her forearm during chair massage.

It was a tremendous opportunity and I was honored to have these people entrusted to my care. Each person walked into the room feeling tense and walked out feeling relaxed and relieved. Their only disappointment was they wished the massage was longer.

At each location the supervisor shared how happy each person was. I felt so good to help these people feel better in the midst of their hectic day.

Final Note

Smiling is extremely important even if no one sees you. I noticed that when I wasn’t smiling I was tenser, and that tension could be relayed to the massage recipient. I constantly reminded myself to smile which, in turn, helped me lighten and relax thereby providing a better massage.