Confessions Of A Massage Therapist

The following is an interview with Glenn Ferrugiari, the National Director of Body Services at Red Door Spas. As told to Hannah Morrill.

Before I became a massage therapist, I was a professional dancer in New York City for 15 years. I danced on Broadway, in movies, and in commercials. I knew dancing was destroying my body and I wanted to know how I could fix it, so I took anatomy and physiology. That education really helped me understand the musculature of the body.

When I left the theater, I did a lot of odd jobs. I was a headhunter and the director of training for a department store. Then, one day, I decided I needed to get away from the corporate world and became a reservationist at a spa. At the end of the day, the massage therapists would be exhausted and I’d rub their shoulders, palms, and forearms. They’d say, “You’re really, really good at this. You should probably be a massage therapist.” So I became one. It's 15 years later, and I’ve worked for some very high-end spas before getting the job I have now.

Heavy Lifting
I would equate being a massage therapist to heavy physical labor. We might as well be digging ditches with the amount of effort, force, and physical exertion that we put into our work. We don’t just rub people with oil. And, let me tell you, no one wants anything but deep-tissue. While we don’t want to disappoint our guests, we also don’t want to kill ourselves. So we have to learn how to work smart and build stamina.

If you watch me, you’ll notice that although my hands are in constant contact with the guest's body, I’m not doing a lot of arm motions. Most of the movement comes from my lower body — like my thighs, calves, and legs — which has bigger, stronger endurance muscles than my arms. I use the bulk of my lower body to augment the strength of my upper body.

We also have to learn how to work specific muscles. If we do that, guests will think we are using more pressure than we actually are. There are certain muscles that, when you put pressure on them, elicit that deep sensation people are looking for without a ton of effort by the massage therapist.

Energy Exchange
The people lying on our tables are absorbing energy from us; that’s an important part of the relaxation process. But sometimes, they want more than we can give. Generally we very rarely disconnect, or take our hands from their bodies, but there are certain times when we need to. I’ll remove my hands, put some peppermint on a tissue, put it in the front of my shirt, and breathe deeply. Within a second or so, I reconnect and am able to proceed.
Something Comes Up
There’s a physiological reason men sometimes get erections when they’re being massaged. The nervous system has two components: the sympathetic nervous system, which protects you, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows you to rest and relax. The latter is the component that’s stimulated by the band of muscles on either side of your spine. When you’re getting a massage, your parasympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. You are relaxed. You might be half asleep. And then, all of a sudden, a hand is going over a part of your body. Maybe it’s the back of your knee, or the side of your leg, or across your décolletage. But it’s going to trigger a natural physical response in your body — and in men it’s visible, while in women it’s not. Men should not be embarrassed. We’re trained on how to control it: A little bit of pain, a little pinch in your shoulder, and the sympathetic nervous system kicks right back in.

There’s nothing wrong with someone getting an erection. What’s wrong is when it becomes inappropriate on their part. I paid $18,000 to get my license, and there is no way on God’s good Earth that you could convince me to do anything inappropriate during a treatment. It’s my reputation, it’s my livelihood, and, in most cases, it’s the guests who initiate those actions. At some of the high-end spas I’ve worked at, it’s rampant. It’s not a part of my career or profession that I enjoy talking about.
Tough Clients
In my career, I’ve been fortunate. I have pretty empathetic energy and a very strong hand. No one should be complaining that my massages aren’t hard enough, but we do get complaints. Most of the time, I look at it this way: I don’t know what’s going on in their life. Are they having financial troubles? Are they having marital troubles? Are they having children troubles? Is there a crisis? If someone complains, all I know is that I’ve given them at least 200%. I don’t take it personally; I just change.

At the Four Seasons, I once massaged a girl who was a Victoria’s Secret model. Five minutes into the massage, she said to me, “I’m sorry. We have to stop. You’re too nervous to work on me.” I just looked at her and I was like, “What?” She said, “You’re too nervous to work on me.” What could I say? People are people.
The Regulars
With people on whom you work regularly, you don’t even have to ask them what they’re feeling. You can just look at their body mechanics — the way they’re holding their shoulders and the furrow in their brows. One gentleman I used to work on said to me, “You know, Glenn, I’m the CEO of a large financial company and I get massages all over the world. I was in Hong Kong this week, and the whole time I was getting massaged, I was thinking, 'I really don’t want to be here. I want to be lying on Glenn’s table.' Is that weird?” I said, “No. We have a relationship. Our energy connects. I know your body. I know that your left shoulder has this problem, and that your right calf doesn’t like too much pressure, and that your feet are ticklish. A person who doesn’t know you doesn’t know that.” That’s the kind of thing that happens between us and a client we’ve been working on for a great deal of time.

I’ll tell you about another wonderful experience that I had in my private practice. I work with a gentleman who is paraplegic and has spastic paralysis on the left side of his upper body. His elbow is completely bent, his wrist is completely flexed, and it's all up by his shoulder. When I work on his hand and his arm, I can get his arm into a straight position and he just looks at me in wonder. Unfortunately, as soon as I stop, it just goes right back. But to be able to do that and give him that momentary relief? That’s why we do what we do.

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