Students who are most comfortable listening to lectures, watching videos or reading books are often challenged by kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning-yet so much of massage school involves kinesthetic learning.
At its core, kinesthetic learning is learning by doing; you can even think of it as learning through performance. For this reason, study techniques specifically related to the performing arts, such as theater, can prove especially helpful to you.
1. Work outside of class
One challenge you might experience in the massage classroom is performance anxiety in front of your instructors. The teacher's well-intentioned, watchful eye can be intimidating. My students sometimes tell me they feel nervous when I walk around the classroom and pause to observe their work.
Your instructor is both an audience and constructive critic of your massage performance; however, sometimes you need to feel comfortable working on techniques away from the watchful eye of a teacher. Actors always engage in practice outside of the regular rehearsal space. Follow their lead and schedule some hands-on learning time outside of class to reduce the stress of performing for an audience.
2. Make mistakes
Don't kick yourself for not being perfect while learning something. Making mistakes, recognizing them and correcting them is an important process in learning. While rehearsing a play, performers make innumerable mistakes, which is why they rehearse a scene and physically correct mistakes as they go. An actor might back up to the place in the scene right before she made the mistake, then perform that little piece again and again, until she has corrected the mistake.
In the same way, you can make mistakes and correct them while studying massage. For example, if you perform effleurage starting at the ankle and glide up the leg, but you forget to do your return stroke, don't worry about it. Pause. Give yourself a do-over, immediately rewind, and put in that return stroke.
3. Find a buddy-body
Massage school involves putting your hands on a fellow student's living, breathing, judging body. In a very real way, this body beneath your hands is another audience to your learning. Think of her as your client-audience, who is judging your massage performance.
Let's say you are learning petrissage. The best-case scenario might be that your client-audience loves your performance because it feels good to her as you practice kneading up and down her leg. A worst-case scenario could be that she hates your performance because you just can't get the rhythm and depth of pressure correct.
To tackle this challenge outside of class, get a hands-on study partner. Look for a study buddy-body who is focused and tactfully honest; you are looking for a study partner, not a friend. In my experience, study buddy-bodies become friends because they have been through a learning experience together, but friendship should not be the goal in the beginning.
You want tactful honesty in a study buddy-body because to learn, you need to hear the good and the bad. You need to hear, "No, that does not feel quite right," or "Yes, that feels right." Or, "If you move your hand a little lateral on your return stroke, it will feel better to me."
I found a focused and honest study partner when I was in massage school, and Eric made all the difference in the development of my palpation skills and in building my confidence.
I remember when I was learning to do advanced techniques in gluteal, hip and abdominal massage. I was uncertain about draping these regions of the body, and especially nervous about draping and undraping male clients. Eric let me practice my draping on him. He made suggestions along the way that allowed me to adjust my draping so that he felt more comfortable and secure on my massage table. He let me practice my draping until I felt confident in my abilities.
Finding a couple of different study buddy-bodies can be a good strategy, too. Different people bring unique learning styles and insights to the table.
4. Look for an empty rehearsal space
Once you find a study buddy-body, you need a place to rehearse. Practice can be done at each other's homes. Another good place to review your techniques is at massage school. The school at which I teach will let diligent and responsible students work in an open classroom or clinic before or after class, or during lunch breaks. It never hurts to ask.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Everybody in the performing arts knows this is the way to succeed. It is also the way to study massage. This may seem obvious to you, but many people are not aware how much practice it takes to get even the most basic massage techniques to feel instinctual. Ideally, you want to create muscle memory for performing massage.
This same study technique is also useful after you graduate, for when you take continuing education classes. You will need to find a study buddy-body and practice, practice, practice the massage techniques. By the time you introduce the technique to a paying client, the moves should be part of your well-rehearsed performance repertoire.