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Massage Etiquette

What are the manners involved in being a massage client?

Being a massage client is unlike any other mode of clientele. Not exactly a patient, and not simply a customer-you're somewhere in between. It's more involved than getting other body treatments such as a manicure, or your hair cut. Because of this, being a massage client can be a source of anxiety and confusion. It doesn't have to be. There are some basic manners and dynamics every massage client should know.

Massage and body treatments are a lot more enjoyable if you are properly prepared. Massage etiquette applies to any type of spa services, from facials to pedicures, and it will ensure that you get quality service while remaining comfortable and relaxed. Most spa etiquette tips are common sense, but some are uniquely adapted to the spa environment.

Before your massage or spa treatment, make sure that you book an appointment at a time which is convenient for you. Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early, and make sure that you do not need to rush off after your appointment to another destination. Make sure to ask about the spa's cancellation policy, and be specific about what you want. If you want a 90 minute deep tissue massage, for example say that you want a 90 minute deep tissue, rather than “a massage.” If you are booking a spa treatment, ask about available treatments and how long they generally take. After you have made your appointment, ask the receptionist to confirm the date, time, and service with you.

When you arrive

On the day of your massage or spa treatment, make sure to shower and wear loose, comfortable clothing. Being clean is an important part of massage etiquette, since your massage therapist is going to be handling your body. If an area of your body such as your feet is especially dirty, the massage therapist may skip it, and that could make your massage less enjoyable. You should also take off your jewelry, as it can interfere with a massage. Always turn off cell phones, pagers, and other digital devices before entering a spa; this basic massage etiquette makes your session more comfortable and ensures that other spa clients are not disturbed.

When you arrive at a spa, you may be asked to fill out a spa intake form, unless you are a repeat client. This form asks you to disclose medical conditions and concerns which you want the spa to be aware of, and it is a good idea to be honest about allergies and underlying medical conditions such as heart problems or asthma. You will not be denied service on the basis of a medical condition, unless the spa feels that the service you have booked may be dangerous for you, and information on spa intake forms is kept secured because of its sensitive nature.

When you meet your massage therapist, it is a good idea to go over your expectations for the massage. If you have areas which you want the massage therapist to address, request that he or she focus on them, and do not be afraid to talk about any concerns you may have. Once you and the massage therapist have talked about what to expect during the session, you will be asked to step onto the table or floor mat which will be used for the session. If you need to undress, the massage therapist will step out for a moment to allow you to do so.

Your Body

One's body is sacred space. So, of course, there are going to be all kinds of issues when dealing with the type of physical exposure that goes along with massage.

Modesty and immodesty are huge dynamics with most clients. During the massage, a good therapist will maintain the minimum amount of bodily exposure as possible. If you are a naturally immodest person, this should not affect the normal undressing and redressing, or draping parameters set by the therapist.

It's my experience that some clients use their immodesty to show trust, comfortability, or friendship with the therapist. Don't do this. Likewise, don't ask for less draping, or tell the therapist the sheets are unnecessary if it makes it easier. Although it isn't your intention, these draping requests and inquiries are normally red flags-code words-used by people seeking non-therapeutic, sexual touch.

During your massage

During the massage, you may find that you get the most enjoyable experience by remaining silent, or you may prefer to chat.

Express your preference to the therapist beforehand. You should also provide feedback to your massage therapist; if you want him or her to go deeper or to work more in a certain area, for example, express it.

At the end of the massage, the therapist will step out to allow you to collect yourself, usually telling you to “take your time” getting off the table; interpret this as taking a few minutes to relax and end your session.

The modest draping is there for the therapist's comfort and boundaries as well as the client's. It is also the law, and therefore non-negotiable, in many states. Also, never undress or dress in front of the therapist. Wait until she or he has left the room or space.

If you are very modest, certainly tell the therapist. Bodyworkers have dealt with all levels of modesty, and can work with you and make all sorts of accommodations for your comfort. More modest draping, leaving items of clothing on, or other modalities are all options.

There are a couple other issues involving the body that must be mentioned-hygiene and apologies. Clearly, it's polite and considerate to be clean upon arrival for a massage. I have had clients come to an appointment immediately after a workout, after gardening all day, walking around barefoot, and I will just say...other events.

Although squeaky-cleanness or a special pre-massage shower is not required or expected, neither are filth, dirt, sweat or any body fluids. It's not just what you think it might be, like offensive odors or germs-it can actually interfere with the massage strokes, oils, and lotions. Likewise, lots of body lotion, dried or caked deodorant, body glitter, powder, or anything else should not be used prior to a massage.

Many clients are so self conscious and uncomfortable, that they constantly apologize about their weight, hair on arms or chest, lack of freshly shaved legs, tattoos, piercings, and a host of other things. This is unnecessary, and even a possible source of discomfort for the therapist, having to validate and reassure.

Experienced massage therapists have likely seen and worked on a wide array of body types, and apologies are unnecessary. Believe me when I say what you think is abnormal about your body is probably common and normal.

Clothing

Clothing is often an issue in massage etiquette. Some types of massage such as Thai massage require loose, comfortable clothing, while others require the patient to undress, at least partially. You should always undress to your personal level of comfort. The massage therapist can usually offer the best massage if you are nude, but he or she can also adapt if you prefer to wear underwear or a bathing suit during the session. Whether you go naked or prefer to remain modest, you will be draped at all times during the massage.

The most common question I would get involving a modesty issue is. "Should I leave my underwear on, or do I have to remove them?" After a while, I would simply made the how-much-to-take-off issue part of the standard pre-massage instructions. I would explain that it was a matter of personal comfort, modesty, and choice, and would not affect the massage. I would also explain that the draping method covers all areas that underwear does.

I estimate that 50% of people, both men and women, choose to leave on their underwear. Removing bras is standard, though. Exposure is never a problem with the draping.

When removing your clothes for a massage, fold them and place them in the area indicated by the therapist. If nothing is mentioned, ask where they and anything else you have brought should go before the massage begins. It is uncomfortable, unsanitary, and inconvenient for a therapist to have to move your clothes, and shoes from the floor, or maneuver around obstacles on the floor, or on tables.

Payment and Tipping

Tipping after a massage or body treatment is another tricky aspect of massage etiquette. Standard tips range from 15-20%, although you are not obligated to tip. Be aware that if you do not tip, the massage therapist may think that you were unsatisfied with the massage; if you choose not to tip, you should clearly express your satisfaction, or lack thereof, with the experience.

Many clients feel awkward paying a therapist, especially if there is no receptionist. There's really nothing to feel awkward about. Aside from a general sense of discomfort, the most common issues seem to be about tipping, and price inquiries.

As a client, you should have been presented with the price before the session. If not, make sure you ask before receiving the bodywork, and arriving for your appointment. Likewise, ask about accepted methods of payment prior to arrival. It is awkward to have to run to the ATM machine to get cash, especially if your therapist is booked and unavailable when you return.

It is standard practice to tip the therapist. It is not required, of course, but if you feel so inclined, by all means, tip away. In my practice, I estimate that 90% of clients tipped. However, I was never offended or upset when clients did not tip. But keep in mind that therapists working in spas and chiropractic offices only take home a fraction of the massage price.

I had many clients not only ask me if tipping is appropriate, but ask how much they should tip. It's an uncomfortable position. Simply tip what you think is appropriate, using the standard 15-20% tipping guideline.

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