There once was a time when, in moments of stress and exhaustion, you could seek relief from your ails at a mystical place known as a “spa,” or “massage studio.” These bygone establishments employed “massage therapists” to issue relaxing “massages,” and in the Before Pandemic era of human history, they were a terrific self-care resource for both the needy and indulgent alike. But ever since COVID-19 wiped them out in early March, the enjoyment of a massage and its many benefits has become a forgotten thing of the past.
Our muscles have deteriorated greatly as a result. Cramped up at home and tense with the constant stress of COVID living, we’ve begun to suffer aches and pains of previously unknown proportions; our only known recourse — a blissful, (probably overpriced) massage — just as far out of reach as a vaccine.
Thankfully, however, if you’re in lockdown with a partner — or someone whose lumbar spine you don’t mind canoodling — you can bring the massage parlor to you. Even with little experience and quarantine-weakened wrists, you can still give an effective massage, which will not only relieve tension in the mind and body of the person getting it, but strengthen the connection between you as well.
There’s actually a good amount of evidence for this. Massages have been known to lower cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. They also boost serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you happy and alleviates pain. Oxytocin — “the love hormone” or “the cuddle hormone” — also generates sexual arousal and trust during a massage, and dopamine fires up to mitigate pain and enhance pleasure. Massage similarly releases a healthy influx of endorphins into the blood, which work in harmony with other hormones to relax the muscles and calm the mind.
To kick-start all of this bliss at home, Rachel Beider, founder of Brooklyn’s Press Modern Massage, says it’s essential to set the proper mood. “[This] is really important,” she stresses. “Turn down the lights, light some candles or get one of those salt lamps going; just have it be as romantic, intimate, quiet and dark as possible.” Canadian relationship coach Alisha Fisher also suggests that couples in shelter-in-place mode pretend they’ve traveled elsewhere, perhaps to an island locale. To execute this, you can use coconut oil, scented candles and wave sound machines — whatever mimics the sort of escape you need.
“Once you’ve got the right vibe going, make sure you have enough physical support,” Beider continues. This can be achieved by placing pillows under the head and knees if the receiver is facing up, or, when they’re facedown, under their head and ankles. She adds that the most ideal spot for a massage in the home is the bed, with the receiver lying their head on the corner, giving the massager access to both sides of the body. If you’re using oil, be sure the massagee likes its scent and that it doesn’t damage their skin, which may be sensitive. (Also, lay down some towels so the oil doesn’t stain the bed sheets or other fabrics, too.)
At Beider’s studio, a client will start by telling their massage therapist what parts of the body they’d like focused on most. She suggests couples do the same. Her therapists also check in with clients throughout the massage, asking how they’re feeling and if the pressure is too light or intense. You can try that as well.
Obviously, verbal cues that your partner is enjoying what you’re doing are helpful, but watching for non-verbal cues is also important. Per Beider, if they’re tensing up, you’re probably going too hard or it’s uncomfortable for them. If that’s the case, ease off and check in. Creating a 1 to 10 pain or pressure-intensity scale is helpful here, and those dishing out the massage should find out where on that scale their partner wants to be.
The actual speed of the massage factors in, too. “Slowing down is really, really important,” Beider explains. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is they go, like, 90 miles an hour and it’s really uncomfortable. Especially when you’re working deeply, the slower it is, the more relaxing.”
In terms of types of strokes one can use, Beider says the effleurage technique is where you should start. Named after the French word for “touch” or “contact,” it aims to relax the receiver with light strokes, almost as if you were applying sunscreen to their body. The activity, sometimes with the aid of oil, also warms the tissue, readying it for a deeper working, particularly those tense areas most in need.
To pull it off, stand at the head of the bed with your partner facing down. Creating a diamond shape with your hands on either side of your partner’s neck, glide, using long strokes, straight down their back. When you reach their lower back, come around the edges of their body and then back up to the shoulders, establishing an imaginary upside-down V. Then, proceed from the shoulders back to the top of the neck, completing what Beider describes as a “top-heavy diamond” shape. This is mostly a warm-up stroke, so unless your partner prefers extremely light touching, don’t spend too long here — it’s really only meant to last a few minutes before the deeper stuff begins.
“From there, we get into what everyone’s favorite part is, which is petrissage,” says Beider. Petrissage features deeper, circular strokes with the thumbs or palms of the hand. Comparing this stroke to kneading dough, the purpose of petrissage is to introduce blood flow to the tissue. “It’s very relaxing, and it warms you up,” she tells me.
Next, the massager can seek greater friction in their strokes, working across the grain of the most tense muscles, feeling them “snap back and forth and give that kind of crunchy feeling.” “Friction can be painful when done too hard, so it’s something you should be mindful of,” Beider continues, adding they should ease into this section of the massage, with a technique called “cross-fiber friction.”
Though not a requirement for massage enjoyment — it’s plenty good on its own — it’s easy to see how this could quickly turn into a sexy time with your partner. For that, Fisher has some advice: “Rubbing in between the thighs, around the waist or in between the arms is a really sensitive thing, and to watch your partner get an erection or become wet and squirm, or you see their nipples become aroused, that’s a feel-good thing [for the massager]. That’s when you know that you’re doing a great job, and that’s not only great for your ego but for the relationship, because if you know that you’re pleasuring each other, that’s building teamwork, effective communication and, ultimately, consent.”
To master your massage skills further, Beider suggests interested parties check out The Anatomy Coloring Book, which is exactly what it sounds like and will help prospective at-home massage therapists better understand where muscles are, how they work and how they can be treated.
That, or you could, you know, just get a massage gun and blast your partner’s achy quarantine muscles into gelatinous smithereens. Up to you.