On Thursday, I gave a Thai Massage to a former English student. It was actually her second time seeing me for a head-to-toe bodywork treatment.

I write about this because when she first Facebook messaged me to set up a time session, my first thought was like ohhhhh is that allowed? I mean of course it is. And of course it should be. But in this political environment, ripe with men taking advantage of women, it’s a potentially dangerous thing to massage former students. Especially as a male teacher. And especially in the college setting.

Here’s the basic set-up. I dim the studio lights very low—so low it takes my eyes a minute to adjust. I unroll the thin foam massage mat on the wood floor and cover it with a thin Afghan. The studio is warm, almost hot at 85 degrees. And then I close my eyes and think good thoughts. Some jargled combination of: This is a sacred space. I can do good work with my hands. My intentions are to heal.

I think good thoughts because the cultural narrative is so negative. Touch can only be sex is the loudest voice in my head. Massage can only be groping. That’s up there too. But after an hour of giving massage, I feel restored, calmed, grounded, and centered. The cultural noise about taboo, taboo, taboo is just toxic oil spill.

My former student is now 19 years old. A sophomore in college. Last year she sat near the front in my afternoon English class. When she arrived to the studio this past Thursday, I ask her how it’s going. The identical question I ask most all my English students when they walk into the classroom. “It’s going,” she says. “School,” she pauses, “life.”

I don’t remember what I said in response, but I probably nodded and said yeah I hear you. Which is true. I get the dreary grey malaise. And I did last year too.

Inside the dimly lit massage space, she takes off her shoes and sweatshirt. I ask if she wants to work on anything particular today. She says shoulders. I say okay. We start with her sitting cross legged. I ask her to take a deep breath in and an exaggerated exhale. I do the same. For multiple reasons. Maybe the primary one is ameliorating the awkwardness massaging a former student. Deep breaths set the tone. But the awkwardness persists. The taboo of touch between youth and adult is so strong it’s difficult to sustain eye contact. At least in the beginning.

The shoulders and traps are tight on almost everybody. I start standing behind her, pressing palms into the tight cable muscles at the junction where neck meets shoulders. I press one hand down, sinking my body weight into hers. And then the other hand. Easy rocking from side to side. I move my hands to the edges of the shoulder and back in. Then I kneel behind her and pinch her traps, squeezing and releasing. Working down her spinal muscles, I thumb press the groove on either side of her spin. Walking my thumbs down the trenches along the spine, and then back up. Down and back up.

There may be good reason that student-teacher physical contact is a no-no. It may be possible that, more times than not, platonic physical touch slides into sexual touch. Or at the very least, the “platonic touch” slides into sexual thoughts. This seems more common. And there’s no space to write about this here (today’s entry already pushes length limits), but I’m going to take up and write on this question from my own experiences very soon. My personal deadline is before V-Day.

But sneak peak, basically my argument is that sexual thoughts are unavoidable and autonomic. And that if you closet yourself every time you feel sexual thoughts for someone other than your spouse, you’re going to spend your whole life caged like a disobedient dog. My argument is going to be an admission (or confession, call it whatever) that there’s incredible tension between culture standards of civility and our mammalian sexuality. But that’s for another day.

I work the shoulders again, and then the back. Adding more intensity and more movement. After an amount of time that feels like twenty minutes, but I don’t know because I don’t wear a watch and the phone is in the corner of the room playing chill mystical music, I ask if her shoulders feel sufficiently buttery. She’s slow to reply. Her eyelids are closed, and when the open, her eyes have that rolled back in the head look. She smiles and says, “What? Yeah. Oh my god. Shoulders. Great.”

I ask if her what else she’d like to touch. Anything particular, I say? Or a full body run through?

Full body she says.

She lays down on the blanket, closes her eyes. And this time much of the awkwardness has left. Tiptoed away too during the shoulder work. Now she’s just a person on the mat. Which is still awkward for me, still raises my blood pressure because I have a very large personal bubble, you could say. Or you could also say I just don’t have a habit of touching people. I don’t hug or use physical touch when I gesticulate with my hands. I feel like this is a common guy thing.

I thumb press the soles of her feet. Her inner and outer arches. Moving up, I used my palms and press down into her calves, up and down, inside and out. Then move up to quads, using my full body weight. She’s lying down, eyes closed. I’m on hands and knees. I work up the legs and down. Then there’s a series of difficult-to-explain hip and glute techniques. What’s easy to explain is the high sensitivity area of working on a former student’s glutes. Or any person’s gluten. As a heterosexual man, working on a woman’s glutes is a sensitive thing.

For the last fifteen minutes, I kneel behind her head. I gently apply pressure to her shoulders—one hand on each shoulder, pressing straight down. Revisiting her tension. Then, with my hands, I walk down her biceps and then forearms, and then palms. And then back up. At the shoulders, I sit cross-legged behind her head. I slide my hands under her back and use my fingers to find the soft spot between shoulder blade and spine. Using two fingers on either side, I press up and pull towards me, press up and pull.

Last is the head and face. A scalp massage to start, and then fingers to forehead, I spread the skin from center out. Do that three times. Then stroke the nose, from tip to top. Do that ten times. Then firmly stroke the eyebrows, moving from inside out. Then underneath the eye, then above the lip, then below, then press the jawline until the ear. Then gently squeeze the ear cartilage.

This is the time during the hour massage where your mind goes to a different planet. Your whole body has been pressed, squeezed, brushed. And your mind is free to float. And it does. I know this both from my own personal experiences receiving Thai Massage, and from what my clients tell me.

The last thing I do is cradle her head in my hands, and hold for a few breaths.

I say before you open your eyes, scan your body. Take your time. And then when you’re ready, open your eyelids, flicker your fingers, and stretch.

She stretches and sits up. I ask how it went. Good she said. We talk more. About school. About transferring. About anxiety. About depression. About parents. As she’s leaving, I say what percentage of the massage was mental healing and what percentage was physical healing. She says 75-25 mental-physical. Interesting, I say. Does that mean I’m a chill guy, but bad masseuse? Not at all, she says. I ask what she means. She says it’s hard to quantify. She says the physical part that’s awesome is just being touched. Because we live in a touch starved culture. I nod. Because I agree. And because she said it more succinctly than I could.

The research confirms her theory. Touch starved babies develop later (or skip developmental stages), have weaker immune systems, and have more volatile personalities. Adults receiving physical touch recover from illness faster and are less susceptible to depression and anxiety.

That’s one of the reasons I got into Thai Massage. But even with untrained touch, we can heal one another. Which sounds preposterous and hokey. To talk about healing. But it’s true. And worth talking about. I did $36 massages last week. I wish I could pay someone 36 bones to release a little bit of ugh from the tumor of anxiety and millennial melancholy metastasizing in my head.

So yeah. It was a really good thing to give a Thai Massage to my former English student.

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