Why massage yourself and your loved ones?
Because it feels great! Plus it’s easy and free. Why not give yourself and your favorite people this gift? It’s self-care, it’s meditation, it’s delightful. Not to mention, touch is crucial for our wellbeing, and many of us are touch-starved. (Especially in Covid times!)
"Physical touch has... been shown to be a necessary aspect of physical and psychological health, but most of us cordon off physical touch so that we only receive it during short hugs, sexual contact, or massages that we pay for."
– Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotions
Let’s change the culture around touch, starting locally… with ourselves and our people.
Where to even begin? Maybe you’re not used to giving yourself loving touch. Maybe you scratch your itches, do some basic body hygiene, shoot for an orgasm here and there, but don’t think too much about touching your body beyond that. My hope, with this guide, is to give you an entry point into exploring intentional self-touch, and to help you give non-sexual touch to a friend, family member, or romantic partner.
Note what arises for you as you try these techniques. Do you feel any shame, embarrassment, or awkwardness? I sure did when I got started. I was gobsmacked to realize how little self-touch I'd given myself over the years, how new and awkward it felt. Maybe there's some cultural shame around touching yourself. I mean, even the phrase "touching yourself" has shameful sexual connotations and makes people giggle. Why hadn’t I been giving myself massages, in as many accessible body regions as possible, for my whole life? Why rely on massage therapists and romantic partners? You certainly don't need a massage license; there are plenty of easy techniques.
Some practical tips
I encourage you to use these guidelines as a starting point rather than a prescription. See where your intuition takes you. See what feels best and most needed for your own body, or that of your partner’s. I’ve tried to include lots of numbers and descriptors, to help you get started, but the numbers are not actually important – just my own personal preference that I’ve discovered through experimentation.
If you’re working with a partner, communicate early and often. It won’t disrupt the flow, as long as the communication is on-topic. Here are some examples:
“Would you like any more or less pressure here?”1
“How is this feeling for you?”
“Does it feel better if I rub this spot or keep the pressure consistent in one place?”
If anything feels off or painful, don’t do it! We all have different bodies, different range of motion, and different needs.
When massaging yourself or a loved one, I recommend setting the intention to send love and healing. My Qigong teacher Stanwood talks about directing qi through the body three different ways:
with the intention of healing in your mind and thoughts
with the intention of healing moving through your fingers and hands as you touch
with the intention of healing directed by your eyes to the area in question (when possible)
So, I extend you this invitation: can you send love and healing via your hands, mind, and eyes as you massage yourself or your partner?
Face, Head, and Neck
Goals: relaxation, easing tension
1: Scalp massage
This is a dope Twitter thread on the transformative power of head massage. The author, Nibras, tells the story of giving a high-anxiety friend a scalp massage, and that friend completely relaxing within a matter of minutes.
My Integrative Massage teacher, when covering scalp massage, told us "DON'T do the shampoo!" (referring to the kind of scalp massage you receive when getting a shampoo before a haircut). Well guess what, I love the shampoo massage and so do the people I've tried it on. He was encouraging us to do more fascial2 techniques on the scalp, which he finds more effective. I like a nice 50/50 mix of fascia work and shampoo-style massage when I work on my own scalp or others’.
Shampoo massage: Imagine you’re shampooing your hair, or the hair of the friend you’re massaging. Glide your fingers across the scalp; alternate between using your fingertips and doing some lightly scratchy movements with your nails. Keep both hands moving quickly and try to cover the whole scalp eventually, which leaves the receiver with a satisfying feeling of completeness.
Fascia work: Place your hands on the scalp and do small, pulsing movements, so your fingers stay in contact with the same parts of the skin the whole time. You're moving the skin against the cranium rather than gliding your fingers over the skin. This can help the fascia relax and loosen, which is great for people with tight scalp fascia. Maybe try 5-10 pulses in one place before moving your fingers. Again, try to cover the whole scalp eventually.
2: Occipital hold
If you wanna get a little fancier than a basic scalp massage, and you have a friend or partner to work on, try an occipital hold! Slip your hands under the back of their head (while they're lying face-up), starting with your fingertips at the nape of their neck. Then pull your fingers toward you until your fingertips slip under their occipital ridge. Some very gentle pressure here, and slight pulls, will feel incredible. How much pressure? Start very light: let’s say about the amount of pressure it would take to lift a baseball or an apple. Then check in with your friend and see if they’d like any more or less.
3: SCM grab [demo video]
The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) is an important head and neck muscle that, for many of us, holds a lot of tension. This muscle is commonly involved in tension headaches. The SCM sits on top of some important nerve bundles that don't like being compressed, so it's better to pinch this muscle ("pincer palpation") rather than massaging it into your neck.
First, to locate the SCM, turn your head to one side and glance in the mirror out of the corner of your eye — you'll see your opposite-side SCM contracting:
Pinch it between your thumb and pointer finger, down at the bottom of the muscle, near its attachment at the sternum. Now that you have a hold of it, move your head into a more neutral position, so the muscle is able to relax. If i'm massaging my left SCM, I find the best neutral position to be: looking straight ahead, with my left ear tilted down toward my left shoulder:
Now that you have a hold of it, and the muscle is shortened and relaxed, gently compress it between your fingers; if it's tender or sore, that's a good indication that it could respond well to massage. Try squeezing it for 3-5 seconds, and experiment with the pressure level of your squeeze. Slowly move up the muscle toward its attachment behind the ear, doing 3- to 5-second compressions as you go. Repeat on the opposite side.
4: Face massage
Face massage is great for on-the-go, as it’s easier to do in public than other areas of the body. Why not fit in some self-care while you’re stuck in traffic?
Eye hook: I love this move. It’s easy to do for yourself or another. I actually find it useful for relaxing my jaw, which tends to collect tension. If trying it on a friend, have them lie face-up. You’ll sit by their head, and using either your thumbs or pointer fingers, nestle the pads of your fingers into the space where the eye socket meets the nose, just below where the eyebrow starts. I find there to be a real sweet spot there — ask your partner and adjust your fingers until you find it.
If you’re doing this for yourself, I recommend using your thumbs, and pressing them in that same spot. (Your thumbs will face the opposite direction than the ones in the picture — they’ll be pointing up towards your eyebrows.)
Other: We have dozens of muscles in our face and they’re often tense. Play around and see what feels good. Find a tender-feeling spot on your temples? Do little circles on the spot with your middle finger. Press gently into any sore spots in your jaw. How about your sinuses? Try tracing them with your pointer fingers, pushing gently as you go. Give yourself a forehead rub: place your middle fingers in the middle of your forehead, then comb them both outward, in opposite directions, toward your temples. Use as much surface area of your fingers as you can, e.g. from the tip of the finger down to the second knuckle crease. Experiment and discover where your facial tension may be hiding.
Goals: relaxation, falling asleep, digestion
1: Belly massage
Stomachs are left out of standard massages unless you specifically ask. Mine loves to be rubbed! If you’ve never had your stomach massaged, I recommend trying it yourself first before receiving from a friend or therapist. It can be a vulnerable area, for a variety of reasons. Here are some tips for getting acquainted with your own belly:
Clockwise belly rub: I usually do this in bed just before going to sleep, making a small circle around my belly button. What feels best for me is keeping the circle pretty tight — about 6 inches in diameter. I place one hand on top of the other and use the entire surface of my bottom hand – palm and fingers. Traditional wisdom is to rub clockwise, in the same direction that food moves through the large intestine, to help stimulate digestion. Try making about 10 circles and then check in with how your belly is feeling.
Fascia pulls: Just below this area, right above the pubic bone, I find my skin and fascia are often pretty tight. Gentle tractions can feel great. I do this by sinking my fingertips (all fingers except thumbs) into the skin there, like a hook, and then slowly pulling the skin. I’ll do this in the direction of my head for a few seconds, then push down towards my feet for a few seconds. Repeat in both directions about three times.
2: Rib rub
I just love running my fingers over and between my ribs while lying on my back. Again, I do this as I’m falling asleep. I love the way my ribs feel. (The texture reminds me of one of those outdoor patio tables at a restaurant.) Plus the intercostal muscles, which run between the ribs and are involved in the breathing process, typically don't receive touch very often.
I start with each thumb on a rib, one on each side of the body. Then I move them towards each other, until they meet in the middle of my body. Then away from each other, tracing the surface of my ribs. I repeat this up and down the rib cage. I also move my thumbs along the spaces between my ribs, home to the intercostals. If you’d like a more full-handed feeling, you can do this with your four fingers instead of your thumbs. Use the entire surface of the bottoms of your fingers, not just the tips. Often the size of the hand, and the distance between fingers, is perfect for placing adjacent fingers along adjacent ribs. If you find a tender spot, pause and spend some extra time there. You could rub it, make little circles on it, or press your finger into the spot and hold for a few seconds.
Legs and Feet
Goals: easing tension, grounding
1: Achilles Tendon massage
The Achilles Tendon connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. It is the largest and strongest tendon3 in the body, and I find that mine is often tender. It’s a good one to work on when you’re sitting on a chair or couch — if you bring your foot up onto the seat, the AT is nice and accessible. I mostly work on the section down at my heel; I like rubbing it, holding it in place with medium pressure, or pinching it into an “S” shape:
2: Kidney 1 hold
Please note: this hold is contraindicated (i.e. don’t do it!) for pregnant women.
Kidney 1 is an acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot. The name refers to it being the first point along the kidney meridian. It is a special point, known for its grounding effect. I incorporate K1 holds into pretty much all of my massages – it’s one of my favorite ways to end a massage. It's really nice to have someone do it for you, so you can lie on your back with your legs straight and completely relax. But you can also do it for yourself if you're flexible enough – sitting with your foot folded over your opposite knee, or sitting with your leg outstretched. Push your thumb into the spot gently and see if it helps you ground. (You may have to play around to find the exact spot.) Start light, as if you’re pressing the button in an elevator, and consider deepening your pressure from there. I find that many people like deep pressure in this spot. Once you’ve found a good spot and pressure level, try holding it for about 30 seconds.
You can also try massaging your pets! In my experience with my dog Nyla, it’s sweet bonding time and mindfulness practice, in addition to easing her muscle tension. Between the shoulder blades and around the hips and glutes seem to be her hotspots.
I would love to hear how these techniques go for you! If you have any feedback, or a favorite simple technique to contribute, please let me know. You can reach me by Twitter DM or by email: email@example.com.
Special thanks to:
@anonymiserly on Twitter for initially posing the question in my DMs — simple massage tips for a layperson — which inspired me to write this.
Sofia-Jeanne and Chris, my writing pals, for reviewing my drafts and giving amazing feedback. And, more generally, for providing a loving container where we explore the oddities and hilarities of a writing practice.
You’ll get a more specific answer phrasing the question this way rather than “how’s the pressure?” It’s too easy to simply answer “good” when asked “how’s the pressure?” even if an adjustment would actually be preferable.
Fascia is a web of connective tissue just beneath the skin that spans the entire body and surrounds all our organs, muscles, and bones.
Tendon is tissue that connects muscle to bone.