By Bernice Karnop
I don’t have a lot of pain and I don’t experience much stress. When I had an opportunity to use a massage appointment that my daughter had made and couldn’t keep, my first thought was that I really don’t need this. Still, I knew it would be relaxing and enjoyable, so as a second thought, I decided to go.
I lay face up on a warm heating pad and Belle Clark, licensed massage therapist and owner of Rosebay Aromatherapy and Massage in Great Falls, placed her hands under my neck, gently massaging near the base of my skull. It was as if my body turned to wax and I was melting into the table. Almost immediately, I felt like Raggedy Ann. I’m not sure a drug could relax my entire body as quickly and completely. My arms and legs stayed rag-doll-loose for the next hour while I drifted into the wonderful experience of a therapeutic massage.
Belle says that a first massage experience is different for everyone. “Some people are alert for the first 15 to 20 minutes, alert to the experience, to the environment, and to the sensations,” she says. She has them lie on their backs with their eyes open so they feel less vulnerable. She gives them the option of whether or not to undress. The person is always covered with a sheet except for the part she is working on. The goal is to help the person rid their body of life’s every day stresses.
Our culture is stress-filled. Most people live on the edge of stress all the time. Triggers include major events like grief, loss, and divorce, or everyday events like deadlines, relationships, and even elections! When we feel stressed, our parasympathetic nerve system kicks in. This “fight or flight” response causes blood vessels to constrict, the digestive system to slow down, and the pupils of the eyes to dilate. Heart rate and blood pressure rise and a host of other responses kick in. The body is ready to respond quickly to the threat that causes the stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system runs counter to the sympathetic system. This “rest and digest” nervous system is what a massage therapist wants to encourage. It shows up in feelings of well-being, rest, and security. Among a host of other effects, blood flow increases, blood pressure goes down, digestion improves, and the person relaxes.
All the nerves exit the cranium in a bundle at the base of the skull. They branch off as they go down the spinal cord. My massage started here at the base of the skull, but Belle says she can start elsewhere, depending on what issues the person wants addressed. She may begin with hands, feet, or back. She also asks about medical conditions and prescriptions the individual is taking and considers how they may affect what she is doing.
In addition to the massage, the therapist creates an atmosphere of relaxation with ambient light, a quiet environment, and soft music. Belle also does aromatherapy, which is the use of essential oils derived from plants. The essential oils assist the body in relaxation and wellness.
About half of Belle’s clients are over the age of 50. The friendships that develop with regular clients are among the things that make the job rewarding. People much younger than her 57 years call her a friend, and people much older do the same. One older couple inspires her with their enduring love for each other and for how they have chosen to live and navigate life. They exude a vision that is an example of how Belle wants to live and finish strong. “I benefit from knowing them and they don’t even know it,” she says.
Massage holds special value to an individual who no longer has someone touching or holding them. A deceased spouse and dispersed children and grandchildren may have left them alone. But the body benefits from touch as blood pressure goes down aches and pains are soothed away. Some people just enjoy talking to the therapist. “A massage is nurturing to the soul as well as the body,” Belle says.
Belle became interested in massage therapy when she lived in Alaska and saw a chiropractor on a regular basis for her scoliosis. He recommended massage, saying that it would work well with what he was doing. Chiropractic addresses structural issues in the body and a massage addresses the soft tissues. She followed his advice and it helped her so much she continued receiving massage therapy.
She started her training at age 49, expecting to be the “odd duck” because of her age, but found that most of the class was over 40. Being a massage therapist involves physical work that sometimes challenges her own body. The cure is to schedule a massage for herself.
It’s not something that you can do for yourself. “We were made to rely on others to provide healthy, healing touch,” she says.