Choose Your Own Adventure: An Exploration of 3 Unique Massage Practices

Guest post by licensed barefoot massage therapist Sara J. Gray

Because ashiatsu barefoot massage is such a novel form of massage--there are only 5-6 therapists who currently practice ashi in Pittsburgh--many of my clients come to me just to enjoy a new experience. Some of them have hands-on massage therapists whom they’ve been seeing regularly for many years. Often, such folks will come out of my treatment room after a session with a wistful expression. “That was a great massage!” they’ll say, “But I have a regular therapist...I’d like to see you again sometime, but I kinda feel like I’m cheating on my other therapist.”

One of my clients enjoying an ashiatsu barefoot massage in  my private practice.

One of my clients enjoying an ashiatsu barefoot massage in my private practice.

I understand the sentiment, and I always encourage clients to let go of any guilt about whom they choose as a massage therapist. My priority for all clients is for them to feel good in their bodies, and if someone else is better at helping them with that than me, they have my blessing. I also exhort clients to try out as many therapists as they like. I myself have many different massage therapists whom I see for various reasons. If I have some nasty trigger points that need snuffing out, I go see my neuromuscular guy. If I am super stressed out and need someone to calm me down, I know a therapist that will make me feel nurtured. When my emotions are all over the place, a centering session with one of my massage school teachers who specializes in reiki is just the thing to sort me out.

Massage therapy is an umbrella term for a wide variety of practices from all over the world. Massage is so, so much more than getting a back rub at a massage franchise or a chair massage at a street fair! Trying out different massage modalities has been a personal adventure of mine for years, and I’m always on the lookout for something I haven’t tried before. Massage therapy works because it gives the central nervous system novel sensory input, which not only can knock one’s body out of a habitual rut of feeling pain, tension, or stress, but can open one’s mind to new ways of feeling and being. Whether you like a light touch, or the deepest pressure an ashiatsu therapist can give, there is a therapist or a massage modality out there that’s just right for you. The following are three therapists whom I’ve seen personally, and all of them practice unique modalities that I find healing and inspiring. To celebrate Everybody Deserves a Massage Week, I’d like to share some of my experiences with these therapists in the hopes of encouraging you to branch out and try new kinds of massage.

Craniosacral Therapy and Intraoral Massage with Gabriel Cantillo

Gabriel Cantillo, LMT, a local specialist in craniosacral therapy.

Gabriel Cantillo, LMT, a local specialist in craniosacral therapy.

Back in massage school, I heard a little bit about craniosacral therapy, and I was intrigued by how divided opinions were about it. “It’s so light, you can’t even feel anything,” some scoffed, while others crowed, “Craniosacral cured me of migraines! I love it!” I decided to find out for myself what all this craniosacral business was by booking a session with Gabriel Cantillo at Mookshi Healing Arts Center. Like me, Gabriel attended the Pittsburgh School of Massage Therapy so he could get his license and then focus on one particular modality: craniosacral therapy as taught by Upledger Institute International.

At the time of our session, I was dealing with jaw tension from bruxism (the fancy word for “grinding your teeth all night long”) and wearing braces. Gabriel suggested doing some intraoral massage to help relieve this tension. I’d had trigger point massage inside of my mouth for jaw pain a few years before, and I hadn’t found it helpful at all. Instead of relieving the tension, the deep, focused pressure of trigger point therapy made my jaw hurt even more. I said as much to Gabriel, and he reassured me that intraoral craniosacral work was very gentle. 

The session began with my lying down fully clothed on a massage table on top of a sheet. Gabriel started by very lightly resting his fingertips on various bony landmarks of my body: the bony points of my hips, the tops of my feet, and my collarbone. Sometimes, he would slide his hand under the sheet I was lying on so he could let my sacrum or the back of my head rest on top of his hand. The experience was very meditative. Since his touch was so light, he could go to places (such as my throat) that I’d never had a massage therapist work on before, as those areas are filled with delicate blood vessels and nerves that could be injured by deeper pressure. Though his touch was feather-light, it definitely made me feel something. Each touch was like a guided meditation. As he moved, I grew aware of how I was unconsciously tensing whatever part he happened to be working on, and how that tension connected to and pulled on other, seemingly unrelated parts of my body. Each touch felt like it was encouraging my brain to redraw its inner map of my body.

Eventually, he stepped away to put on a pair of latex gloves. “I’m going to start the intraoral work now,” he said, so I opened my mouth. What followed was one of the strangest and most surprising massage experiences I’d ever had. Very slowly and gently, he methodically contacted each part of my mouth: gums, teeth, muscles, even the edge of my hard palate where it blends into the soft palate, all with a pressure that just barely registered. He occasionally withdrew to give my jaw muscles a rest from being held open. I was self-conscious at first, fearing that I’d either gag, drool, or accidentally bite him, but over time, that same remapping sensation I had with the rest of the massage started taking place in my mouth. I felt how my jaw muscles also connected fascially to my throat, my ears, and even the back of my neck. Once he was done, it felt like my masseter and pterygoid muscles--so used to feeling like cold, tight wires--had melted into warm clay. I carried this sensation with me for days afterwards.

I was surprised by how good it felt to have my teeth massaged! It made total sense to me then how craniosacral therapy could be used to help victims of trauma reconnect to the parts of their bodies they’ve unconsciously shut out. I saw how Gabriel’s intraoral work could not only relieve chronic jaw tension, but could also be helpful to anyone who’s experienced dental-related fear or trauma. I couldn’t help but think of my poor husband, who suffers from cold sweats and sleepless nights before each dental procedure he’s had (and he’s had so many that we’ve lost count). Craniosacral work can be a wonderful mode of therapy that reminds the body that any site of tension or pain can be taught to let go all own its own, and with only a gentle touch as a reminder.

Ayurvedic Massage with Eva Trapp

A former Pittsburgh Ballet dancer, Eva now teaches yoga at Om Lounge and practices ayurvedic massage at Bindu+Body.

A former Pittsburgh Ballet dancer, Eva now teaches yoga at Om Lounge and practices ayurvedic massage at Bindu+Body.

I’ve practiced yoga on and off for over 15 years, and so I’ve absorbed by osmosis some information about the Indian practice of ayurveda (at least enough to tell you what dosha I am). Once I became a bodyworker, I was determined to try ayurvedic massage, especially because I’m obsessed with someday learning chavutti thirumal, an ancient form of South Indian barefoot massage that’s similar to other forms of ayurvedic bodywork. Eva Trapp, one of my classmates at the Pittsburgh School of Massage Therapy, chose to attend the California College of Ayurveda after her graduation so she could specialize in ayurveda. As soon as she opened her practice, Bindu+Body, I booked an abhyanga oil massage followed by a svedana steam tent.

An abhyanga massage uses oil--LOTS of it. After I lay on Eva’s table, she liberally applied what felt like cupfuls of warm sesame oil to my muscles. The oil felt rich and soothing, in perfect contrast to the cold spring day outside. Using quick, precise movements, she then massaged various parts of my body using friction, one of the many techniques (along with effleurage, tapotement, and others) that we had learned in massage school. Friction is the same thing as rubbing your hands together on a cold day; this movement warms the skin and wakes up the muscles. Done on dry skin, friction can start to hurt after a while, but with all that oil, the friction felt strangely lulling and awakening at the same time. Typically, a therapist will pick some unobtrusive ambient music to play during a session, but here, Eva had lively sitar and tabla music playing, which perfectly matched the vigorous movements of the massage. 

Once I was all oiled up, she left to make me a cup of tea while I put on a cotton robe. I drank the tea as she pulled the svedana steam tent out and affixed it to the table. (I had to chuckle at its brand name: Steamy Wonder!) Turning her back, she held the tent’s door open for me as I disrobed and climbed in. She put a cool towel on my forehead as the rest of me cooked inside the tent. Very soon, the steamy heat made me break out in a sweat, and after a good twenty minutes or so, I was absolutely drenched in a mixture of sweat and sesame oil. That sounds kind of gross, right? The experience was exactly the opposite! The heat opened my pores, allowing the oil to be more readily absorbed by my body, leaving my skin super soft. What’s more, the steam and sweat made me feel refreshed, as if I had just gotten out of a hot shower. I emerged from the tent with the craziest post-massage hair imaginable and with a new taste for one of the most ancient practices of bodywork I’d yet experienced. Come winter, I am definitely going to steam and oil my SADs away at Bindu+Body.

Sound Massage with Wyatt Melius

Wyatt Melius using a Tibetan singing bowl to begin a sound massage. He also sells Tibetan singing bowls at his retail store, Gardenalia.

Wyatt Melius using a Tibetan singing bowl to begin a sound massage. He also sells Tibetan singing bowls at his retail store, Gardenalia.

Back in my 20’s, I used to be a kundalini yoga teacher, and one of my favorite things was playing a huge gong for my students while they napped at the end of each class. I left kundalini yoga behind, but I really missed how the low booming of the gong could lull me into a deep trance. Thus I was very excited to learn about Crown of Eternity, the sound healing project of musician Mike Tamburo. I eagerly attended as many sound baths with Crown of Eternity as I could before Mike moved away from Pittsburgh. One of these sound baths was held at Gardenalia, whose owner, Wyatt Melius, had trained in gong playing with Mike and in Tibetan singing bowl massage with Peter Hess. Now that I couldn’t get my sound bath fix as easily anymore, I was curious to see what a private sound massage was like, so I booked a session with Wyatt at his private practice, Rooted in Sound.

Wyatt greeted me warmly and lead me to a massage table. We started the session with me lying face down, fully clothed. He began to play Tibetan singing bowls of various sizes and tones, first placing one on my feet and striking it with a soft mallet. The vibrations felt like they were traveling straight up the bones of my legs, a pleasant tremble from within that I’d never felt before. He continued, sometimes placing the bowls on my body so I could feel their vibrations directly, or hovering them over me as he played them. When I flipped over to lie on my back, he played multiple bowls at once, striking ones that rested on my stomach, my chest, and one of my hands. It felt like a gaggle of cats had decided to sit and purr on me, but in musical form. Before I slipped totally into trance, I imagined that this massage could be enjoyed even by a deaf person, as the physical sensation of the vibrations were so clearly felt.

At one point, he removed the bowls and played an assortment of gongs and other resonant percussive instruments in a setup just across the room, similar to what I’d experienced with Crown of Eternity. I was already very relaxed by the Tibetan bowls, but during this part of the experience, I went into a deeply altered state of consciousness. I lost track of time, my body, my mind, everything except the gongs vibrating every molecule within and without me. Eventually, I was awakened by the sound of silence, which seemed eerily still after so many vibrations. Wyatt helped me sit up on the table so I could recollect myself. I was agog--I felt so stoned that it took me a good five minutes before I could string a coherent sentence together. 

As I came back to myself, Wyatt told me about the benefits of getting regular sound massages. “With repeated sessions, the mind comes to associate the sound of the gong with deep relaxation, and it will go there more quickly and more deeply as time goes on,” Wyatt explained. 

“Just like Pavlov’s dog!” I blurted, still cross-eyed from my trip into vibration land. Wyatt smiled and nodded as he indulged my (not terribly flattering) comparison of his singular sound experience to making a dog drool at the sound of a bell. My experience bore that out, though. After enjoying so many sessions with Crown of Eternity in the past, it was no wonder I went so far out at Rooted in Sound. My little brain was already primed to go bye-bye at the sound of a gong. As I headed back to my car, I walked an extra lap around the block, as I still felt so goofy that I was leery of driving. I was also convinced that this sound massage was absolutely worth every penny. I would especially recommend this work for someone recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, as it was a totally healthy and substance-free way to enjoy a natural high. 

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This is a guest post of Sara J. Gray, licensed barefoot massage therapist at Hilltop Barefoot Bodywork.

Sara Gray