4 Lessons from a Massage

4 Lessons from a Massage

Getty/Iuliia Komarova

When we allow ourselves to rest, we can better understand the workings of the world around us. Learn how our animal chaplain integrated healing messages from a vacation massage.

Espiritu, Sarah,” she implored. My Spanish language skills are practically nonexistent, but I understood without trouble exactly what my massage therapist wanted me to do. I breathed in deeply, inhaling a smell I couldn’t quite place. “Now, breathe out,” she continued. She pressed down firmly on my lower back. With a crunch, my body relaxed.

For the next hour, all of me was in good hands—mind, body, and spirit—as I listened to the scatter of gecko legs scurrying up the walls and the faint barks of local canines who were endlessly perplexed by the iguanas who sunned themselves on the high concrete walls surrounding the garden.

As often happens when I cease moving, I slipped into a state of massage brain, letting go of my outer world in favor of letting someone else take the lead. Lessons my mind needs to relearn appear courtesy of my body—and, as Maria had advised, from spirit as well.

Lesson 1: Words Are Overrated

I’ve lost count of the number of locales where I’ve been stretched and Shiatsu’ed, folded like a pretzel in Thai style, or kneaded courtesy of the Swedish. But all styles of massage have something in common: the need to communicate in gestures.

I am woefully terrible at learning new languages, and so I must rely not on my charming loquaciousness to communicate but instead a humble gesturing and an absence of chitchat that suits me off the table as well, when I can just remember to be silent and “be here now.”

Lesson 2: Modesty Can Be Optional Out-of-Doors

I am someone for whom nudity can be uncomfortable, like when I ended up with no covering towel on a public beach in Tobago not too far from snorkelers. Or on the day I found myself bare-breasted on a deck overlooking the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, not 15 feet away from people sipping their cocktails, a kick wall not providing much privacy.

If I am able to relax in these moments and get past decades of unhelpful messages about what my body is “supposed to look like,” I can attune to the wind gently touching me in places that rarely see the light of day for long periods. This reminds me that my body is beautiful when it can be open to nonjudgmental Mother Nature—presuming I am in a safe enough space I won’t hear a “Nice rack!” or “Great butt!” lobbed my way. I can embrace my natural sensuality.

Lesson 3: Be Open to Attending to Your Whole Body

Many massages in the US leave me wanting more. My chest muscles, inner thighs, and stomach are carefully avoided for fear of getting too close to my “private parts.” While I understand that boundary violations in massage are a real concern, the avoidance of vast parts of my body out of an abundance of caution can irritate me.

With delight, my massage in Mexico included what is generally referred to as Maya Abdominal Massage, a way of gently moving inner organs, which can aid in digestion and help realign a uterus that has been strained from pregnancy, too much exercise, or—in my case—time and gravity!

While at first it felt like my insides were being arranged, as I relaxed into the practice, I became aware of how good it felt to have more of my body attended to. Upon returning home, I was fascinated to learn that abdominal massage also shows up in Chinese, Japanese, and Thai massage modalities and that it can aid in managing anxiety. And I learned how to ask for what I need while maintaining good boundaries for those private parts.

Lesson 4: Remember Your Animality

When I’m not on vacation, I am prone to trying to fit a massage in between grocery shopping and picking up my dry cleaning, or between tightly packed Zoom meetings. Yet on vacation, I am more likely to embrace spaciousness and become very aware of my surroundings in a way that nourishes me and connects me to the grounding energy of the earth.

For example, I have a tendency to get inspired by the animals of the locale I am in. In Mexico, as I lay on the table, listening to the more-than-human world all around me, images of those animals passed through my mind, carrying messages: Be bendy like a flamingo. Stretch your wings like a gray-tailed grackle. Keep still like an iguana.

I made a mental note to take this final lesson home to my local habitat, too, even if it was just to remind myself: Stop rushing around. Even squirrels rest sometimes.

Want more travel-inspired practices? Read "Lessons from an Underwater Monastery."

4 Lessons from a Massage

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