Updated: Feb 25, 2021
As Covid 19 swept across the world, no industry was left untouched. Everyone’s lives were affected, and for most people this included a change in how, where or if they worked. My primary occupation, before and after the onset of Covid 19, is massage therapy. I work at a wellness clinic in Denver, CO that, aside from the initial lockdown at the pandemic's onset in spring, remained open to provide services for the entirety of 2020 to present. Despite my work place being extremely reputable and well-managed, working in an environment that is by nature within arms length posed obvious safety risks and ethical considerations in a time when we are all supposed to be staying 6 feet apart. Upon returning to work after the closure, I was operating under the assumption that my schedule would not be consistently filled, since a massage requires close proximity for a long amount of time. I was wrong. My schedule was almost always full and since re-opening my percentage of return clients has gradually increased as I accumulate more regular clients. At times it's been extremely rough, but it has been equally rewarding. And it has taught me a lot. The three most prominent lessons I learned from working with as a massage therapist through this pandemic are: 1) The importance of creating, communicating and, when necessary, changing personal boundaries 2) The legitimacy of healing touch and effectiveness of my own practice 3) The factors beyond touch that are important in a safe and healthy client-therapist relationship
CREATING, COMMUNICATING AND CHANGING BOUNDARIES
Nothing screams “PANDEMIC” like the ole face mask. Returning to work after the lockdown required creating a new boundary and expectation around the wearing of masks. While there were state mandates and guidelines set by the workplace, how and if masks were worn during a massage ultimately came down to the practitioner. The rule in my practice was mask on for whole session, both client and practitioner, no exceptions. A very large majority of my clients would do so without complaint, understanding that it helps keep both parties safe. While it would baffle me when someone would ask if they could take their mask off, or at times even remove it completely without consent, I learned to meet these encounters with a calm and resolute energy. Resisting the temptation to dig into the "why" of what they did, I would direct the situation by simply asking them put it on if they had taken it off and to wear it for the remainder of the time. I never received any push back beyond this point, which I’m grateful for. Since I work as a contractor and not an employee, I have more autonomy over where and when I choose to practice. Therein, I’m aware that if the mask boundary was crossed and a client was non-cooperative, I always had the option to not go through with the massage and could do so without risking my job. I’m happy it hasn’t come to that point, but knowing this has given me peace of mind.
Last year was fucking tough. On so many levels. There were some days that just felt like too damn much. Days when I was out of my head emotional, when even the sweet blessing of leaving the house felt like a firestorm waiting to happen. Going to work and being present with, and potentially even helping, another person usually brought me joy and helped me stay stable. But, honestly, there were a few days over the past year that I felt entirely incapable to coming into work in a calm state. This work, to be done well, requires being grounded, being both physically and emotionally present. On a day where I couldn’t stop weeping, or my anxiety was so bad it is making me ill, I had to ask myself how present and grounded I could truly be. I learned to communicate my boundaries during these times by calling into work and telling them I needed to take the day off. I didn’t need to lie, nor did I need to sacrifice my own well-being for the sake of work. Of course, it is at times necessary to pull it together and soldier on. But when I am being honest with myself and in touch with my feelings, I know the difference between these states. With my capitalist conditioning, calling into work because I was “sad” at first felt pathetic. But looking back, I am proud of myself for not going into work on those days, because I honored and respected where I was in those moments. I’m proud of the days that I have come in even when the going felt tough. And I’m proud of myself for knowing the difference and being able to communicate that. Ultimately, prioritizing my own mental health makes me more resilient and better able to perform once I am rested and ready. CHANGING BOUNDARIES
When the center re-opened after the lockdown, there were restrictions set in place for how many people could be in the building at once. As time went on, restrictions lifted and the percentage of people allowed in the center at one time increased. As more time went on, local covid numbers spiked and we were placed, once again, under restriction. All of this required A LOT of schedule changes throughout the year. I was so grateful to our admin team at the center for handling all these changes with dignity and grace, although I’m sure it wasn’t easy. My personal boundaries changed during this time (and yes, you can always change your own boundaries). After working at least 3 jobs at a time for most of my adult life, I am quite comfortable advocating for my time. However, with so many adjustments being made to so many people’s schedules at once, I decided the best way to be a team player was to be as cooperative and flexible as possible. Where once I would draw a hard line, I accepted change, even if it meant working a less desirable schedule. To be frank, its a lot easier to be flexible when LITERALLY NOTHING ELSE IS ON MY CALENDAR! Additionally, in a time when jobs were sparse, I was grateful to be working at all. Still, the idea of changing boundaries when necessary became an important lesson learned during the pandemic.
THE LEGITIMACY OF HEALING TOUCH AND EFFECTIVENESS OF MY PRACTICE
Returning to work after the closure was a bit of a conundrum. Massage is one of the least socially distanced occupations of all time. I wanted to go back to work…but was it safe? My concerns were eased some after returning to the center and being guided through the new safety protocols. Masks were worn, temperatures were taken, plastic covers placed on anything possible, disinfectant sprayed everywhere always and, obviously, washing and sanitizing hands before and after every client. Practitioners were invited, not forced, to return to the center if and when they felt comfortable doing so, and the clients coming in were informed of the risks involved before receiving bodywork.
The truth is, despite the safety concerns, some people needed bodywork during this time more than ever. Stress levels in 2020 and beyond have been through the roof. Hugs and handshakes were canceled as tension and trauma accumulated. In addition to the daily exhaustion of Covid life, we suffered civil unrest, lived through a crazy election, saw our country burning, experienced sickness, worried for a sick loved one and lived in a constant state of the unknown, all while being confined to our homes with limited social interaction. Working as a massage therapist through the pandemic has amplified my experience with the legitimacy of healing touch. I was hands on with people who were going through it, who had just lost their jobs or a loved one, were working overtime or depressed about not working at all. I felt their tension, touched their pain. My hands helped to relieve some of that tension and pain. I felt it. I helped people breathe again, if only for a short while. To offer a small moment of respite in a world consumed with chaos felt like what I was placed on this earth to do.
Bodywork has a lot more to offer than stress relief too. Incredible changes can be made when someone really knows what they’re doing. Changes that can keep someone off the operating table, speed up their healing or generally keep the body functioning and healthy. Working through the pandemic, I’ve done lymphatic drainage on people recovering from surgeries, and on someone with chronic lymphedema, watching (and feeling!) the size of their leg shrink as lymph fluid went back into flow. I’ve done visceral work with a patient experiencing terrible abdominal pain, gotten manual laborers back into working shape and so many work-from-homers to move their neck again. I’ve supported the mental and physical health of emergency physicians, intensive care nurses, hospital chaplains, grocery store workers, zoomed-out teacher, amazon delivery drivers, overwhelmed parents and many more. Yes, there were safety risks involved but there was also a lot of important work to be done. Adherence to safety measures both at work and in my everyday life made this practice possible.
I truly believe in bodywork as a healing modality, that it helps people live better lives. I don’t wear scrubs or wield a scalpel, but I am a health care worker. Massage is so much more than rubbing oil on someone’s back, and over the course of the pandemic, I have gotten in touch with what I have to offer as both a bodyworker and a healer and come to understand the legitimacy and effectiveness of my work.
BEYOND TOUCH: THE POWER OF CONNECTION
Believe it or not, before covid I never really talked too much to my clients during sessions, unless it was relevant to the massage or their body in the moment. Over the course of the pandemic, I became much more comfortable with conversation on the table and have found it to be the missing piece in my practice. Some people do enjoy the silent massage, and when I catch that vibe I respect it. But over the last year, conversations with clients has been a powerful tool and quite welcome with more people that I had thought. Most of us were isolated and only able to process these big, life-altering events with a select group of people so the opportunity to chat was a relief for both myself and those I worked with. People are cool and it’s interesting getting to know them. Everyone has a story. I’ve learned that I can gather information about how their life affects what I feel in their body. I have also become more open to sharing bits about myself and my own life, which seems to set people at ease as they get to know a little more about who is handling their body. Trust goes both ways. After a session when the conversation is good, I, too, feel healed. My clients have really actually taught me a whole lot. I’m so happy for this shift in my practice and wish I would have ventured into conversation sooner.
For some of my clients, these sessions were literally the only human touch they were receiving during this time. These cases were especially poignant to me as I could feel both the weight of their loneliness and the level of appreciation just to be with another person. In these instances, I learned about the importance of genuine presence. During these sessions, the hands on aspect was important but what felt almost more healing was simply being there with and for another human. Working as a massage therapist through the pandemic, I learned that my practice involves more than just my hands, but my whole and true self. The more authenticity I bring to my practice, the more I connect with my clients and provide effective work.
Bodywork has a lot more to offer than stress relief too. Incredible changes can be made when someone really knows what they’re doing. Changes that can keep someone off the operating table, speed up their healing or generally keep the body functioning and healthy. Working through the pandemic, I’ve done lymphatic drainage on people recovering from surgeries, and on someone with chronic lymphedema, watching (and feeling!) the size of their leg shrink as lymph fluid went back into flow. I’ve done visceral work with a patient experiencing terrible abdominal pain, gotten manual laborers back into working shape and so many work-from-homers to move their neck again. I’ve supported the mental and physical health of emergency physicians, intensive care nurses, hospital chaplains, grocery store workers, zoomed-out teachers, amazon delivery drivers, overwhelmed parents and many more. Yes, there were safety risks involved but there was also a lot of important work to be done. Adherence to safety measures both at work and in my everyday life made this practice possible.