Massage like a pro

Practitioners of the healing arts explain how to bring a little of their magic home.



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While visiting a spa should net you a great massage (if not, you need to find a new place), the professional rubdown isn't the most intimate or romantic—not to mention budget-friendly. For generous souls who want to pamper friends or loved ones, we asked NYC massage experts their advice on proper muscle-kneading technique.

With the lucky receiver face down on a flat firm surface, such as a bed or couch, sit at the person's side, even with the hip. (To kick up the intimacy factor, straddling the back also works.) “Start by pressing lightly with hands and forearms,” says Mark Bingel of Dorit Baxter’s New York Day Spa. Begin with light strokes, careful to stay away from the spine, as to avoid nerve damage. Using your thumbs and fingertips can be exhausting, so “on bigger muscles try using different parts, such as your whole forearm, elbows or fists,” NYC Massage Studio's Angela Crossman recommends. Exert primary pressure in whichever direction is toward the heart (up from lower back, down from upper).

Head and neck
When massaging the scalp, use fingertips to apply pressure in small circular motions. Still with your fingertips, you can also pull the scalp up from the base of the neck. Don't be afraid to tug on a little hair. When massaging the face, “Try placing your palms in prayer, with the wrists against the recipient's forehead," Crossman says. "Slide you hands back—flat and apart—toward the ears. Act as though you are trying to smooth out wrinkles on the face.”

Neck and shoulders
These areas can be worked with the massagee lying on a flat surface or sitting up. And don't be afraid to switch positions during the course of the massage. Sandy Greenberg, an instructor at New York College School of Massage Therapy, encourages using “long, fluid strokes,” and maintaining a continuous motion as much as possible. She says, “With your fingers, try lifting and squeezing the muscles on either side of the neck,” which carry the most tension, and adds “You can also lightly pound these muscles with the sides of your fists.” (Our experience: The karate-chop maneuver may work, but it does carry some risk of killing the mood.) Once at the neck, use your first four fingers to apply pressure in circular motions upward, on either side of the spine. As with other parts of the body, “remember to use firm, steady pressure and work slowly,” says Anna Crean Wiener from Yelo NYC.

With your partner lying down, sit in front of the hopefully nonstinky targets and place a pillow across your lap. Rest the feet on the pillow as you work. Focus on the areas that hold the most tension, which would be “the arches and heels,” according to Bingel. Push your thumbs into the sole of the foot, and “try stretching the toes apart with your fingers.” Wiener offers a slight variation in setup. “Have your partner sitting or reclined with his or her feet elevated so that the soles of the feet are facing your abdomen,” she says. (In this position, you'll probably want to sit on a short stool or bedside.) Then you can easily support the foot in your hands, with your arms falling at a right angle to your torso.

Like the feet, hands carry a lot of tension, particularly after a hard day of holding coffee and/or Facebooking. Gently pull on all fingers, especially the joints. If you aren't sure where to start, Bingel has a handy tip: “Touch your pinkie to your thumb and you can see the major muscles of the hand,” all of which need relief. Crossman encourages hand massagers to “picture five lines from the wrist to each fingertip” and apply pressure along them, giving each finger the individual attention it deserves.

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