Yoga, muscles, and massage

Last week I got a massage for the first time in nine months. I needed one. My back, my legs! My body craves deep pressure, verging on unbearable (no swirly Swedish stuff).

The massage therapist, Janet, found my muscles very taut and tight. With two clients who practice yoga, she quipped, “Now I’m afraid to try it. All that stretching and you still need massage?”

I explained to her that yoga encompasses more than passive stretching. Much asana work requires strenuous muscular contraction; it’s not too surprising that muscles might be hard rather than soft.

During the massage services, my piriformis, tensor fasciae latae, and gluteus muscles were screaming. Janet suggested that I sit cross-legged (think sukhasana) and press my thighs down to stretch them. Huh? (My ego kicked in, I admit.) My thighs lie flat in baddhakonasana. I already do gomukasana, padmasana, and the whole series of pigeon stretches!

Then I settled down and pondered: Why do my passive muscles react so strongly to deep pressure? Should my muscles be more pliant at rest? Should I ideally feel minimal sensation, no matter how strong the palpation?

On one hand, maybe all active people who “work” their muscles feel some sensation. After all, with exercise, we can’t help but minutely tear muscle fibers (which increase in size and strength with R&R). Wouldn’t our muscles always be in a state of repair? And, wouldn’t I rather be lean and toned than a squishy couch potato or slack-limbed Gumby?

On the other hand, an acupuncturist acquaintance once told me about a martial-arts master with muscles both very developed and very malleable. “He was strong, very muscular but, at the same time, his muscles were like taffy,” I recall him telling me.

So, I asked an experienced RMT, whom I know through yoga, whether strong sensation is typical. He made some interesting points:

  • Generally, the stiffer the musculature, the more ‘reactive,’ tender, or painful it will be during deep-tissue massage.
  • You can be flexible and even hypermobile but still have stiff muscles. Dancers, gymnasts, and acrobats can have stiff muscles, just like anyone else.
  • Ideally, muscles should be well-toned, strong, and extensible.

“Some clients whom I massage very deeply feel absolutely no pain at all,” he said, before adding, “Just remember that there are always exceptions to the rule.”

Any personal anecdotes about yoga and massage? Any comments from other massage therapists?

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13 thoughts on “Yoga, muscles, and massage

  1. Ooh, just reading about a massage makes my muscles feel tight. I haven’t had a massage in over a year. Maybe now’s a good time to schedule one. 🙂

    Interesting commentary about how flexible people can still have stiff muscles. Hadn’t thought about it that way before.

  2. All forms of bodywork affect the body differently. So even a different style of yoga than your usual will have you finding muscles that are weak, inflexible, or tense- even if you’ve got an advanced practice with your main style. So it’s not suprising that your massage therapist found the body working a little differently than it does on the mat!

  3. Funny. I have a massage scheduled for today. I can’t wait. My muscles are just aching. I can understand where your massage therapist was coming from. We always talk about how good yoga makes your body feel. But, it is work, and stretching and building muscles so of course we are sore! Or, if you’re like me and you have a day job where you hunch over a computer all day…my shoulders are screaming for a massage! Overall, I think yoga and massage are good compliments. Massage is just another way to build that awareness. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Grace:

      Thanks for the award! (It’s a crazy month and I might need to postpone the steps but I wanted at least to thank you!)

      I agree that massage is a splurge. But I’d go for a massage over a “spa” treatment (facial, manicure, pedicure, etc) any day!

  4. Interesting questions. I also find bodywork very complementary with my asana practice. I’m going to run this by my regular massage therapist and ask her to weigh in. I do seem to recall her saying that her yoga clients are more receptive/less resistant to deep sensation than the average person.

  5. I think this is one of the reasons I love Yin and Restorative yoga. The long, deep stretches are completely different from shorter duration stretches in which you also contract muscles.

    I echo Babs, I think massage is a great way to build awareness and also to relax. Yoga works from the outside in, massage from the inside out… Perfect harmony!

    1. Never? NEVER?

      I love massage, but only deep, specific pressure (otherwise I find it ticklish). Before you try it, ask around for recommendations. Try a handful of different massage therapists. Your experience will depend on the particular person (likewise in all of life!).

  6. I wish my parent could have had the benefits of yoga. Yoga is great for circulation. Massage is great too, but I really think that 55+ really can benefit from the physical exercise.

    Just stopping by to see what other blogs are out there.

    namaste –

    Brian

  7. As a massage therapist and yoga teacher I can definitely say that even the most flexible and able yoga practicioners have places of muscular tension. As you point out, we use our muscles a lot in asana practice. And, as mere mortals, most of us have movement patterns, tension patterns, and emotional patterns that show up in our bodies somewhere.

    I think massage is such a great compliment to the yoga practice because I can experience my body in a totally different way when I am passive and the work is coming from someone else. It’s like driving a car vs. being the in the passenger seat – a completely different set of experiences.

    Massage helps bring awareness to, and release, the deeper subconscious emotional content of the tension that yoga asana and even meditation, do not.

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