6 Simple Self Massage Tips

by Sherrin Bernstein on May 23, 2017

For when you just don’t have time to go to a pro

By Sherrin Bernstein, LMT, CA

  1. Slower, Smoother, Softer – It’s easier to both to receive and deliver slower, smoother, softer applications of pressure. It’s easy to hurt yourself, miss a point or be ineffective using fast, jerky and/or hard-handed strokes. It’s less shocking to the nervous system, it gives your muscles more time to respond to the stroke and you also give yourself more time to feel out what you’re doing. Faster applications may stimulate a reflexive run or fight response in the target muscle. Slower strokes give you time to relax and the tissues of the body more time to go from a sol to gel state, literally melt. In short, you’ll be more effective without hurting yourself.
  2. No Pain Equals Gain – Pain is an informative tool, not a technique. The last thing you want to do is stimulate the fight/flight Sympathetic Nervous System and/or cause inflammation by hurting yourself. Pain is part of the human condition. It can be very useful and educational. People identify who they are by their pain and reaffirm their and its existence, but it is not an objective in a therapeutic massage. It is a tool to inform you to lighten up or slow down. So if you are feeling pain, stop, breathe, check in with your body, ease up and continue.
  3. Broad Pressure vs. Localized Pressure – Use the right tool for the job. Foam rollers provide broad pressure and may not get into the nooks and crannies like a tennis ball will, however smaller tools are sometimes more difficult to control and create localized pressure which when it lands on a pain receptor loads it with an all in one spot sensation. This feels inside the body like stronger pressure and may stimulate the pain receptors more extremely. Sometimes you may have the right tool and you just need to slow down though (see Point 1). The learning is in the doing, so try different things until you feel knowledgeable, and then choose the right tool.
  4. Relax, Don’t Do It – Relax, breathe, align yourself, lean in and sink in. Working hard to massage yourself defeats the purpose. Use your body weight to apply pressure whenever you can. Also, put your mind in the muscle. Relaxing the target muscle on purpose gives it some direction as to what to do while you are working on it. It will respond better even if you are not experienced enough to feel the difference under your fingers yet. So talk to it or try using an image such as it is putty in your hands. You should be able to feel muscles responding after a while. If you can’t, check in with your hands, if you are holding tension in your hands you may not be able to feel the muscle relaxing. If that’s the case relax your hands, shake them out, stretch them, massage them and start again.
  5. Oil vs. No Oil – Oils, creams, butters and balms are basic lubricants for strokes that you want to have glide over the skin. They save your hands and your skin by decreasing resistance (drag) between your hand and your skin. There are strokes which don’t require glide, such as compression and friction, but most people naturally think of gliding strokes when they self massage and do very well with a lubricant. The skin is thicker and tougher on the hands and feet and so a cream, butter or balm works better in these areas. Regular hand and body lotions are formulated to dry out quickly; I find them difficult to work with. I often use my own products Silken Body, Skin Smoothing Emollient Bath & Body Oil and Silken Feet, Soothing Foot Balm with Beeswax and Healing Butters on my client’s feet. If you haven’t found the perfect self massage products, you can try my Silken Body here and my Silken Feet here. They are formulated for the job, to be good for the skin and smell much better on you than the olive oil in your kitchen. (Base ingredients, conveniently, are also carrying agents for essential oils, which have lovely natural aromas and therapeutic naturally occurring chemical constituents.)
  6. A Rose by Any Other Name! – Back in Shakespeare’s day, we didn’t have synthetic fragrant oils, but we do now. I prefer using products that use essential oils in their natural therapeutic aromatic distilled state. Essential oils add extra dimension to your self-massage and give a product fragrance. How do you know if you’re getting the real deal? Check the ingredient section for red flag words such as “parfum”, “fragrance” or “fragrance oil”. These terms are not actual telling you any definitive information. They are marketing speak for what could be blended synthetic aromatic compounds in carriers that you don’t have any control over. If “essential oil of such and such” or “such and such essential oil” is not actually written, then you don’t really know what it is. Hydrosols and essential oils are the real deal. They are distillations of plant parts that we put in carriers for their fragrant and therapeutic properties. Lavender, for example, has been found in many studies to be sedative to the central nervous system (Buchbauer et al. 1991 and 1993). Essential Oils with menthols can be cooling because menthol interacts with the cold-sensitive thermoTRP channel RTPM8 (Klein AH et al. 2010 and 2011). That’s why I put Peppermint piperita in my Silken Feet product; it can have naturally occurring 37% menthol in its chemical makeup! Essential oils still have chemicals in them (they’re just naturally occurring and balanced by all the other constituents in them) so I recommend using products that are at least made by a Certified Aromatherapist (CA). For example, I studied with Robert Tisserand (author of Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals) and am certified by the Aromahead Institute. My training allows me to choose my ingredients, amounts and the ratio of relationship to each other well, so that they are skin nourishing balanced fragrant formulations and still I use Irina Berlina, my Organic Chemist who set up Best Lab and Notebook Practices for me, to ensure I formulate to my goals for each product. But in general, it’s fun to explore new products; just avoid the ones with vague languaging in the ingredient section on the label.

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