This past weekend I was invited to guest teach at a massage school in western Massachusetts. I’ve enjoyed teaching over the past few years, and I was eager for an opportunity to teach a new group of students.
I expected to share some of my favorite tips and massage techniques. I did not expect to be confronted with my own perfectionism and self-doubt around teaching. And I really didn’t expect those experiences to be the foundation of a much more powerful and helpful lesson.
When I was offered the chance to teach, I wasn’t given any specific requirements around the course content. Instead, I was given an open field with a simple guideline: this is a great group of people who have been working together for ten months. This will be one of the last classes they need to take before they can receive their massage therapy licenses.
I racked my brain as I prepared for the class. What am I supposed to do with a blank canvas? I can teach ANYTHING? How am I going to fill the time? What’s the perfect thing to teach in a class like this? What if I come in and they’re just not interested in what I teach?
I was filled with self-doubt and felt nearly paralyzed.
I decided to put some faith into myself and acknowledge the work that I’ve done over the past fifteen years. While I’ve studied many bodywork techniques, what makes my practice different isn’t the method I use; it’s my approach. When I work with clients, I lead with the principles of curiosity, paying attention to the whole person rather than just their tissues, and engaging them in the process of change.
I realized that these principles — this unique approach — was the most valuable lesson I could offer my students.
I started the class explicitly saying that I know a bunch of stuff, but that these students have a better understanding of what they’ve learned and where their interests lie. I asked for their trust in taking a journey with me where our first class would help us lay out the upcoming classes.
What happened in that classroom was amazing. We had a room full of people who were all genuinely excited to experience new things. We fostered an environment where they explored what new techniques felt like in their bodies as practitioners and were eager to receive feedback from their peers. They trusted themselves, each other, and me enough to be vulnerable and figure things out.
As our day evolved, I was impressed that the students remained engaged with the work and even said that a looser approach was a breath of fresh air. Many of the students found that they had struggled with being “looser” in their work — more open to organic exploration in the moment.
The common thread was that they were using too much tension and force in order to refine their movements. Put another way: they were approaching the work from a place of structure and control, rather than being present with what (and who!) was in front of them and being willing to explore.
The irony isn’t lost on me, and I think it makes this an even more profound experience. What I encountered in my preparation to teach was exactly what my students were experiencing when they got their clients onto the table. And like it nearly impacted my ability to teach, it definitely impacted the quality of experience these students could offer in massage sessions.
The takeaway for me is that by softening my expectations of myself and leading with confidence in my approach, I can model softness in my students. And when those students model softness, that confidence and open-mindedness sets them up to better support their clients.
The outcome is that we ended up with a class of students who left feeling deeply enthused and with a wider perspective on what they could do as massage therapists.