Good Chemistry

Massage is a thing that feels good. It’s a healing thing. When your muscles hurt, you rub them. Little kids do it, construction workers do it, Olympians and dentists and grandparents – it defies categories. We all have muscles, they all hurt sometimes and when they do we all, instinctively, turn to massage to stop the pain. Ah massage. The Great Uniter.

Wait, what was that? Massage is just for bridesmaids? Massage is something you only get when you’re in Hawaii?  Massage is for people who smell like patchouli? But, didn’t I just see you rubbing your temples to relieve the pain your clenched jaw brought on at the mention of patchouli? You don’t rub your muscles when they hurt?


Of course you do, but that doesn’t mean you feel okay about getting a massage. Because what we also all have in common is a giant, tricky brain. Our brain wants to make sure we aren’t in danger – and who can blame it? –  but it’s hard for it to decide which is more dangerous: sore muscles or the threat of looking weak. And if massage just feels good, if the people who get it are just indulging a desire to experience pleasant things, then it isn’t for strong people. Strong people don’t do things simply because they feel nice. Strong people wear clothes made out of canvas and thorns and sleep on newly hewn logs. Outside. In the snow. They never pet kittens. They hate rainbows. Strong people don’t get massage. Strong people take Advil and possibly cry a little at night, but only when they’re alone. Oh, strong people. It just makes me want to swaddle you in flannel and baby lambs.

healed by lambs

But here’s the good news for our brains: Massage doesn’t just feel good – it actually heals you! Science says so! Massage is like medicine, and you’re allowed to take medicine. Say you are a giant heavyweight boulder-heaver who moonlights as a tugboat on the Hudson and you get strep throat.  You take penicillin to get rid of it, right? There’s nothing weak about that.  You have to take it because science says so. Well now science says you have to get massage. Sort of. Here, I’ll tell you all about it.


A smart fellow named Mark Tarnopolsky at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada came up with a very tough and rugged way to make massage completely un-fun and grueling and see if it could work anyhow. He rounded up a bunch of adult male humans and explained to them that he would like to cut out many little bits of their thighs over and over, and would they mind. Because they were so tough they said – heck, no we wouldn’t mind. One was so tough he offered to rip the bits out with his own teeth (I made that up). So cut Dr. Tarnopolsky did. At their first meeting he cut out the small chunks of thigh he would use as a control, five from each boy, and then they made a date to come back and be cut up more. This time, though, they each got to ride a stationary bike to exhaustion before being cut and then had five muscle morsels taken from both thighs. Now is where the massage comes in! Each boy got ten minutes of massage on one thigh – there’s no mention of whether soothing music was played or candles of any kind were lit, but I’m guessing they were. Dr. T just seems like the type, don’t you think? Then more cutting. Five more bits from each thigh. Then 2.5 hours of resting (sissies) and then one final round of cutting. Ahhhh. Spa day!

So, after all that pampering here’s what science found. The muscle samples taken from the massaged leg showed a marked decrease in a compound called cytokines, which play a big role in inflammation. So massage worked kind of like Advil, but easier on the kidneys. Unlike Advil, massage also stimulated mitochondria, which converts glucose into energy essential for cell function and repair. Maybe it was just the cucumbers they laid on their eyelids, but it seems massage functioned at a cellular level to chemically speed healing of the sampled tissue. Gnarly, dude.

more science

In another, less rugged study conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, researchers gathered up a group of gentler souls. Into these mild mannered participants they inserted a large needle through which they could collect a series of blood samples while the sweet dears received 45 minutes of massage. These people were obviously all pansies, compared to the people in the other study. A needle. Please. If they had been strong people they would have just sliced their forearm open with an army knife and bled into a bucket during the massage. But still, they did the study so I guess we can at least look at what they found.

Participants showed decreases in their levels of cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the production of cortisol. You remember cortisol, the stress chemical that when chronically elevated brings you such delightful effects as:

  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immune function including slowed wound healing

and the always popular

  • Increased abdominal fat

Cover your eyes for this sentence toughs – massage also dramatically reduced the production of Arginine Vasopressin, which is a hormone linked to aggression. But it increased the production of lymphocytes, which are a collection of immune cells including Natural Killer cells (for real!)!!! Natural Killer cells target tumors and cells altered by viruses – they’re like tumor fighting ninjas, basically. What’s tougher than that?!

not this guy

Phew, that was a lot of science! Let’s sum up then, shall we? The main points here are:

  1. Massage doesn’t just feel good for you, it IS good for you
  2. People have had many bits of their thighs not to mention blood removed to prove this using science
  3. There are ninjas in your blood (no there aren’t)

So be strong my little lambs and go find a massage table to lie down on. I’ve got one here. I’m happy to massage out your chemistry any time.

…and other things.

Last week I went to poetry camp. “Poetry camp?” you say. “I had no idea you wrote poetry.” Well, then I’m sorry to say you are not psychic. I have to be honest with you, I’m disappointed in your lack of clairvoyance. I’ve been waiting and waiting for you to ask about my poems. And waiting.

Easy now, don’t beat yourself up too badly. It’s not just you who has failed to channel my unspoken literary hopes and dreams. You’ll be shocked to discover that over the many years I’ve been writing poems and not telling people about it, no one has asked about the poetry I’ve kept secret from them. No one! In fact, to be allowed into this camp I had to TELL THE ORGANIZERS I WANTED TO GO. In words. And then I had to show them poems I’d written, which they READ. It confounded me, it alarmed me, but I decided to just trust the process and it paid off.

(This was going to be a picture of me and the fabulous poet D. A. Powell in which I’m smiling as if I’m posing with Ghandi. Because I sort of felt like I was.  Doug Powell is pretty spectacular. Sadly, due to technical difficulties, I can’t get that picture onto this blog. So instead I’ve included a photo of a book of his poems which he signed for me, personally. Pretend that it says what it says and then also that he and I are BFFs. Okay? Just pretend.)


Did you know about this? About how you have to ask for the things you want? I mean, sure, you probably knew about having to ask for the salt at the dinner table or a latte at the coffee shop – but the bigger things? Did you know about asking for them?

Ask for what you want. That’s a thing I learned at poetry camp. I learned other things too – like about poetry – but a person can’t absorb everything at once. For now we’ll focus on this. Ask for what you want. It’s not cheating, it doesn’t make you any less deserving, and if you get what you want after asking for it it will be no less a gift.

I’ll start: I would like to be to be a semi-famous poet. (Not super-famous. I don’t want to be the kind of poet that has to wear sunglasses to go shopping and fend off the paparazzi when I go on family vacations.) I would like for bits of my soul to glimmer out of my poems and flash off bits of my readers’ souls. Like a poetry-based, soul-disco-ball-lit, community room/dance hall. That’s what I want my poems to be. I would like to earn large-ish amounts of money from the sales of action figures based on the characters from the blockbuster movie based on my poems, so that I can massage you all for free. I will schedule no more than two massages per day and work on each of you till you are done. Maybe an hour, maybe three hours, maybe five. Five on your birthday, for sure. I will massage you till your body says it’s ready to move on. Plus horses. I’d also like horses.

Okay, now you. What do you want?

Dear Soft Tissue Whisperer,

My shoulders keep climbing up my neck towards my ears. No matter how many times I put them back where they belong and firmly command them to stay, as soon as I’m not watching them they sneak back. I feel sure they are doing it to spite me. I feel hurt and confused. Why are they so defiant? What’s a girl to do?

-Troubled Ears Need Space Eventually


You should withhold praise and treats until they are in a calm-submissive state and insist they allow you to go through doors and tight passageways BEFORE them. Also, stop letting them sleep on your bed so they understand that you’re above them in the pack.

No, wait. That’s not right.

You should tell them if they can’t respect your wishes you will be forced to leave this relationship and you’ll be taking your opposable thumbs with you.

No, not that either.

You should understand that they’re just trying to keep you safe, thank them for their effort and kindly but firmly insist that they stand down till you give them a mutually agreed upon signal to leap to action. Maybe whistle blows. Long, short, long means shoulders up!

We have spindly necks, you see. Spindly, thin skinned, hairless necks that connect our brains to most everything else. Our shoulders know that our necks are vulnerable and need to be protected. They know that, when being stalked by a predator or an enemy, it is crucial not to allow our tiny pencil necks to snap or be torn open, AND they know your neck can’t help itself. I mean, look at it.

And, for comparison…

It’s not a good situation. You can hardly blame your shoulders for wanting to come to its rescue.

The problem is, your shoulders don’t understand that the cable company is not actually trying to kill you (or so they say…), and neither is your passive aggressive co-worker, the New England Patriots, or the serial killer on CSI. It doesn’t make sense to your shoulders. You’re clearly upset, you’re dripping with adrenaline and cortisol – you’re in trouble, right? They should make your neck as thick and inaccessible as possible. So up they go. But then Vince Wilfork fails to launch himself out of your TV screen and neither are you are able to claw your way through the telephone wires (which I understand don’t exist anymore, but just go with me here) to defeat your foe, the cable guy, in hand to hand combat – and your shoulders are left hanging. From your ears. Which turns out to be okay because now the internet isn’t working at your house for some reason and your girlfriend’s aunt Becky is coming to stay with you for a month to recover from her hip replacement. Long short long! Long short long! Shoulders UP!

Plus you likely spend most of your day at a desk with your arms bent and forward and your head bowed, which is also odd to your shoulders. What on earth are you doing with your hands? When are you going to stride across the prairie? When are you going to hunt? Or gather? If you were doing any of these things with regularity (like for hours each day) your shoulders would get stretched and wrung out and they would happily settle back down to, you know, shoulder height. What’s that? You don’t just sit at a desk all day you also spend hours and hours on your road bike? Is your road bike a unicycle? Well then that’s not really helping things, I’m sorry to say. Drat.

Here’s how you can fix this problem.

1. Breathe. Your body gets cues about its emotional state from the pace and quality of your breath. If you are taking deep, calm, steady breaths your body might be willing to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that you are not actually a part of the carnage at the Tour. In France. Notice when your breathing becomes shallow and quick and reset it. Sigh dramatically, even. It will help.

2. Swing your arms. Just every once in a while. If you’re feeling very daring maybe even shake them out some. Moving your arms will help dissipate some of the fear chemicals that are piling up in your shoulders just waiting to be useful. Give them a job. Let them do what they were born to do. Let them make your muscles move.

3. Stand up. If you can stand up at your desk and work with your arms extended for even a few minutes every hour it would mean a lot to your shoulders. If you could stand up and walk while, say, talking on your cell phone (it doesn’t have wires, you know) your shoulders might just swoon.

4. Unclench your jaw. Easier said than done, I know. If your shoulders are up by your ears your jaw is almost certainly clenched. Likewise, if your jaw is loose, your shoulders might still be pretty tight, but it’s less likely. Jaw clenching is a thing a person can do with their mouth open or shut, so don’t be fooled by the fact that your teeth haven’t shattered. Singing out loud will help with this enormously. Plus it will delight your office mates. If you can sing and gesture grandly at the same time you get bonus points.

5. Get massage. Obviously. Imagine what would happen if you spent 8 hours a day clenching your fists. By the end of the first hour your hands would have only a dim memory of their palms, by lunch you would have learned how to eat without the use of your fingers and at driving home time opening your hand would be no more an option than bending your knees backwards like a goat. The same is true for any other set of muscles in your body. Muscles that are contracted chronically lose their ability to relax. Massage gives it back. It pushes fluid into the bellies of your muscles which allows chemical detritus to be washed away from and healing cells to be delivered to needy tissue. It elongates your muscle fibers, breaks up adhesions, and jump starts your body’s innate healing processes. Plus it reduces stress hormone levels system wide. And gives angels their wings (I might be wrong about that last one…).

Let me know if I can help. Probably the thing I will be most helpful with is the massage. But I would also be willing to come sing with you sometimes. I know the words to lots of Beatles songs. Also songs from musicals and anything Julie Andrews ever sang. Just say the word!

My shoes treat me real good when no one’s around…

Listen, honey, I’m really not trying to break you guys up. They aren’t what I would choose for you, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right for you. Everyone’s different and what I really want is for you to be happy. But are you happy? Hmm?

That’s what I’ve been worried about. I wish you could see your feet the way I see them. They’re so capable. So intuitive and perfect. And smart. Like bony little brains at the ends of your legs. (Not like that. That’s creepy). But SMART. Like you, sweetie.

Yes! Like that! Want to know who else is smart? William A. Rossi, D.P.M. He wrote a very smart article about why you deserve more than those stilettos. You should read it. He has important things to tell you.

But William and I know you’re busy and we don’t want to take up too much of your time, so let’s just chat a little now while we’re all together. Sit. Relax. Put your feet here where I can rub them.

There we go, that’s better. Now, here are some things William and I want to talk to you about, because we care about you and want what’s best for you:

First of all, your feet have always been very sensitive, which is a thing we love about them. They have over 200,000 nerve endings in their soles and toe pads. They’re so in touch with things. So grounded and adaptable…or they were. Since you’ve been meeting up with this thick-soled, high-heeled, rigid crowd, you’ve been a bit muffled – a bit removed. And who could blame you? All wrapped up like they’ve been, 50-65% of your feet’s tread has been lost. Lost! I was going to say stolen, but William reeled me in. I get upset, I can’t help it. It seems like less and less of you is really making contact. Remember when you used to be able to sense whether the ground under your feet was soft or hard, even or uneven, level or sloped? Nothing got past you. You were so quick! And you’d adjust your gait and posture to adapt to the terrain in a flash. I couldn’t have been more proud. These days the little bits of you that are still noticing the ground through all that foam can’t tell a dirt road from a grassy field. The ground misses you, is all we’re saying. It misses you. Some good conversations, maybe a coffee cake every now and again, that’s all it asks. Is it too much?

You know we love you and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but since we’re talking about it at last I feel we have to tell you something.  You’ve been off-balance and less flexible since you’ve been running (and walking and standing) with that built-up, strait-laced crowd. I remember when your heels were level with your toes, which allowed the anterior tilt of your pelvis to be a correct and healthy 25 degrees.  I remember when the ball of your planted foot flexed to 52 degrees with each forward stride. Sigh. Those were the good old days, weren’t they? Your lumbar spine had a soft natural curve atop your stable pelvis. Your Achilles tendon and calf muscles were long and happy. Your ankle and knee weren’t forced to overcompensate for your over-restricted feet and your thighs and hips weren’t making up for your stifled calves.  These days we hardly ever see you when your pelvis isn’t tipped to at least 30 degrees. And that one day you came over in those clogs with the 3-inch heels! Your pelvis was tipped to 60 degrees. 60! I thought I’d die. And so stiff, honey! Why, the flex at the ball of your foot is routinely reduced by 30-80%. Why don’t you want to bend your toes anymore, sweetie? I’m worried that those shoes have limited and restricted you for so long you’ve lost your ability to move through your natural range. They’re very controlling.

And what is going on with this “toe spring” that your new friends are so into? That’s not how your toes go, honey. Your toes were good just the way they were made, level with your heel and ball, in touch with the ground. For goodness sake, you’re not a rocking horse, sweetheart. I know, since your feet can’t bend in the stiff little cages you’ve taken to putting them in, they have to just roll their way forward a bit and then be picked up and replaced ahead of you. Your hip flexors haven’t moved into full extension in an age. William says you might as well hang an out-of-business sign on your toes (he didn’t say it quite like that, he’s very soft spoken and polite, but that’s what he meant). With your toes flying skyward they can’t grip. They can’t push off. So now your heels are up off the ground and your toes are up off the ground – that puts a lot of pressure on the balls of your feet. A lot of pressure. I’m just saying…

I could go on, but William says it so much better than I could. He’s a foot expert, you know. You’ll read his article. Or this New York magazine article. Or both, because we know what a good reader you are.

And I’m here to help you anytime you want. Just ask. It’s not easy to get back on your bare feet after you’ve been in a relationship with such authoritative shoes for so long. Come over soon and I’ll do some more rubbing. Also, consider trying these exercises. Your feet can be strong and independent again – which isn’t to say they have to be on their own all the time. We’ll find you a nice adaptable shoe who will let your feet be exactly what they were made to be. Resilient, flexible, and smart.

Baby Got Back – An Anatomical Perspective

“Shake it! Shake it! Shake that healthy butt!

-Sir Mix-A-Lot

Sir Mix-A-Lot wasn’t given the honor of knighthood for nothing. A healthy posterior really is vitally important to our function as bipeds, and something to celebrate. In his classic ’80’s hip-hop composition Sir Mix-A-Lot makes clear his wish for a “…piece of that bubble.” – but which piece, I wonder. Piriformis? Obturator externus? There are 9 muscles that originate on the posterior hip, and a host of nerves betwixt them, each worthy of a rap style song of its own. I will give you a bit more information about this complex area which powers so much of the movement in your lower body and then leave it up to you to compose your own song of homage in whichever style you choose. I can hardly wait.

Often people, when discussing the muscles of the posterior hip, throw them all together and call them glutes. This offends the deeper hip muscles. It hurts their feelings. Gluteus maximus, medius and minimus are the most superficial of the hip muscles (not superficial like a hip hop artist singing about bottoms. Superficial in the sense of physically shallow) and they get the most attention. All three attach the iliac crest to the femur – or, as they say on the street, the hip bone to the thigh bone (they don’t say that on the street). These muscles work to bring our thigh bones into extension and to stabilize our trunk atop our legs . If Sir Mix-A-Lot wanted a girl who could stand on one leg and do an arabesque, these would be the pieces he should choose.

But he is very specific about wanting a girl who can “turn around”. Turning around requires external hip rotation and therefore the help of the profound and under appreciated deep hip muscles. They’re so deep. They were considering majoring in philosophy at one point. They are, from least to most likely to write poetry in coffee houses: piriformis, superior gemellus, obturator internus, inferior gemellus and quadratus femoris.

Here they are now; let’s all look at them for a moment. Not a cursory look, a serious look. They’re easily offended.

Because you did such a good job of looking just now, you can’t have failed to notice the large nerve running between piriformis and superior gemellus. The sciatic nerve. Oh, sciatic nerve – so powerful, so crowded. It isn’t the only nerve weaving its way from the spine through the many layers of the hip to the lower extremities, but it is hands down voted “most likely to make your leg feel like it’s being attacked by electric eels” time and again in all the major surveys.

While I have no doubt his intentions are laudable – I appreciate the sentiment behind his promise not to, “cuss or hit ‘ya” – I fear good Sir Mix-A-Lot may be contributing to the sciatic nerve’s delinquent ways. Sir Mix (which is what I call him when we’re at the polo fields) readily admits that he is here to “get the friction on” and friction is at the root of so much on the sciatic nerve’s lashing out behavior. I think what he meant by “get the friction on” was “cause tiny tears and abrasions to the deep hip muscles through chronic tension and repetitive use that heal with scar tissue forming fascial adhesions, which, in turn, rip causing more scar tissue and adhesions, and on and on”, but he went with the shortened version for artistic reasons.  It’s hard for the sciatic nerve not to get caught up in all this violence, because of the overcrowding. Eventually, when its environment becomes too fraught with negativity, it becomes inflamed and aggravated and unleashes its wrath on all it enervates.

Fortunately, massage can stop this destructive cycle. Fascial work can lengthen and loosen scar tissue so the deep muscles of the hip can move past each other with friendly nods and waves. Work in the muscle bellies can undo chronic tension making them more pliant and easy going. Once the soft tissue of the hip is healthy the sciatic nerve will have nothing to fear and no reason to act out. And this is just the surface of the bubble…of healing. Healthy, relaxed hip muscles lead to better alignment of the femur in the hip socket which means fewer back and knee problems and more functional movement overall. Which might be a good first line for a country western song.

There. That’s plenty in the way of inspiration, I should think. Please send your hip muscle ballads, rock operas and cool jazz songs to or dial 1-718- QULZ (I couldn’t make a word. My cell phone number has a lot of 0’s and 1’s in it. Sir Mix-A-Lot was lucky to get an 800 number that spells his name…)

Baby got back!

Your Perfect Body

Recently one of my clients wrote before his massage to warn me about his feet. They had done many hard things in the days preceding his visit and were battered and blackened. He quite sweetly wanted to give me a chance to bail on them – he was worried that their suffering would be too ugly for me which, of course, it wasn’t and which I totally get.

I’ve apologized to massage therapists for my feet which are rarely shod and could most generously be described as “rugged”, and for my legs which are the legs of a mammal and therefore grow hair. I’ve even apologized for my tight shoulders which I’m well aware are doing my massage therapist a favor by being tenaciously prone to bunching.

Getting massage is a little scary. We’re rarely touched in this culture, even by people we love, and suddenly there you are in a room with a stranger with your face in a face cradle and your clothes on a hook. It’s hard not to tick off all the things she might be judging you for – all the things for which you’ve secretly given yourself low marks. Muscle tone in upper arms – 6 out of 10. Will she notice?

She won’t. If she’s me, at least. And if she does she’ll find it perfect regardless – or because. (Another thing she won’t do is speak about herself in the third person again, unless she has to. For example – if she becomes the Queen…)

So, just to make things perfectly clear, I’ve composed a partial list of Things I will Not Find Ugly and For Which I Will Not Judge You:

  • wounded toenails
  • stretch marks
  • scars of any kind
  • hair or the absence of hair
  • tattoos you now regret
  • soft places
  • bumps, lumps and other fleshy adornments
  • wrinkles
  • limbs that won’t go floppy even when I say “can you make that be floppy?”
  • blemishes
  • skin that sweats or has recently sweated
  • snoring (I’ll find this highly flattering)
  • drooling (also flattering)

It’s a gift and a joy, your willingness to lay on my table. I often marvel at it. Your body could not be more perfect or more brave and I tell it that every time you come over. I hope it knows how I feel about it. I understand that it might take a bit longer for your brain to catch up, but I’m very patient (about things like this – in traffic I’m a crazy Bostonian). And we can add things to this list whenever you have a doubt.

Dear Person With a Body,

I am writing to remind you that you are, in fact, an animal. Yes, you have a giant brain and yes, you can fly through the air in a sleek steel tube but that doesn’t change the fact that you are a beast. Your body is essentially the same as it was 200,000 years ago. That’s before planes and cars and desks, before grocery stores, before pavement, but not before massage.Benefis of massage therapy to your bodyOur body evolved in a world where anxiety meant physical danger and physical danger required a chemical response. When we’re stuck in traffic and we’re late to an appointment and the guy behind us is honking and honking even though there’s nowhere to go, our body thinks it’s under attack. Some part of our brain knows fighting that guy or fleeing the car on foot at top speed won’t solve the problem but still, it pumps out adrenaline and cortisol – just in case. And then we sit there pickling.

But if the appointment you’re late for is a massage appointment you’re in luck. Because massage knows how to fix that. Back when we lived in a world that made sense to our bodies, back before traffic jams and pharmaceutical companies, we were body workers and our bodies remember. When we get massage our body understands that it’s safe. It’s not being chased, it doesn’t need to fight or flee and it’s part of a group. It can let someone else stand guard while it relaxes and heals. Literally.  Studies show that massage reduces stress hormone levels in our blood and boosts immune function. Our cells know massage. And they need it.

for more information about scheduling a deep tissue massage in Portland, OR visit