Massage Therapy Without the Touch

After the coronavirus lockdowns took hold in March, Suzanne Kwasniewski, a licensed massage therapist in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., began calling her regular clients every week or two, at first just to see how they were doing. “When I spoke with some of my regulars, particularly those I’ve known a long time, I picked things up in their voices,” she said. Sometimes it was fear and frustration. Other times she sensed deep-seated emotional distress.

As the weeks rolled by, she realized she could help them remotely.

She had met with one client, a woman in her 90s, in an aromatic therapy room every other week for more than five years, a routine abruptly disrupted by the pandemic.

“When I spoke with her, I knew she was exhibiting symptoms that she has struggled with before, slipping back into a childhood trauma due to her current Covid-related isolation,” Ms. Kwasniewski explained.

She considered what she would do if her client were able to lie on her massage table. “I would do some polarity work, some first and second chakra work, and some acupressure around the lungs and heart, points that relate to self-love,” she said, referring to ancient meditation practices and the seven chakras that are considered the main energy centers of the body.

Sans table, remotely, she taught her client how to do some acupressure herself — walking her through finding and holding light pressure on a point that practitioners of energy work, including reiki healing, associate with grief.

“Take your right hand and put your fingers in the opposite armpit. Close your arm around the hand. Where your thumb is should be the pressure point,” she said. If the area is sore, she explained, it is likely related to grief. “Rub the area, and over time it should become less tender — along with decreased feelings of sadness,” she said.

Many of Ms. Kwasniewski’s clients have told her they won’t be coming back for an actual touch massage any time soon. And while she has invested in a new ultraviolet lamp, HEPA filter and other antivirus gear, she says: “Opening my physical practice seems further and further off.”

When the time is right, she envisions seeing fewer clients each day and probably offering a minimum of 75 minutes on the table, rather than the current 60 minutes, to help accommodate the time-consuming cleaning regimens she’ll need to conduct between massages.

Joyce Gauthier, a licensed massage therapist in New York and North Carolina who lives on the 32-foot Duchess, a sailing ketch she shares with her husband and Shih Tzu, Loki, said that she has seen “everything across the board these past months” among the 2,000 or so practitioners who are part of her online massage community. Known as the Sailing Massage Therapist, Ms. Gauthier offers webinars, instructional videos and social media posts for continuing education. Pre-pandemic, she also held in-person courses for empowerment, business growth and hands-on learning.

“Massage therapists are expanding their online offerings — teaching clients self-massage and stretches, meditations, etc., utilizing distance healing over the phone or Zoom and other platforms,” she said. Some are “finding other jobs, going back to school, closing their businesses.”

She also hears from many who miss the hands-on benefits of massage. “Clients have realized how much they relied on massage therapy, not as a luxury ‘beauty’ service, but for pain relief, symptom management and mental health,” Ms. Gauthier said.

Karen Ciancetta, a licensed massage therapist in Schenectady N.Y., who has been in practice for more than two decades, recently began seeing clients again. “Many people contacted me over these months asking that I call them first when I start working again,” she said. “I have another contingent, several very regular clients, telling me they won’t be coming back for at least a year.”

“While it feels great to be back at the work I truly love, I am planning to go slowly,” Ms. Ciancetta said. She has spent the past several months keeping up with frequently changing Covid-related restrictions for reopening, including requirements from New York State and guidelines from the American Massage Therapy Association.

For current compliance, clients are asked to come only five minutes ahead of their appointment and leave immediately after to minimize wait room lingering in close quarters. Both she and her clients must wear masks throughout the session. She must do daily temperature checks and fill out symptom checklist questionnaires. She is also required to be tested for coronavirus every two weeks.

“Much is the same, at least for the client. And that is what I am working hard to achieve,” she said. She is looking into televisits and phone consults for the clients she knows well who don’t feel comfortable meeting in person.

“With someone whose body I have worked enough to really understand what they describe to me, I am comfortable without the additional information I get from my hands,” she said. “I could easily demonstrate a self-massage technique,” for example, placing two tennis balls in a sock and strategically rolling or lying on them to relieve back pain.

For now, she is happy to be back at her table, with natural light beaming in from a small window, her new frequently changed table coverings and the quiet humming of a recently installed protective air filter. Along with others in her profession, she is reinventing her practice in ways she never would have thought about before the arrival of Covid-19.

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