It felt to my skin like a sanctuary as I padded barefoot across the aged oak floor within this softly-lit space toward a trio of massage tables set up at the far end. This building on the corner of Mountain Ave. and East Main had, in fact, been a church in its initial incarnation, before it morphed into a synagogue and then a school for art, and now a home for the Family Massage Education Center http://www.hellofmec.com/.)
But while the name on the sign has changed, the purpose to which the structure has been devoted seems to have remained very much the same. Whether with supplications and song, by making communion with color, and now with loving, therapeutic touch, the parishioners, painters and massage practitioners have seen this space as sacred, as a holy place, if holiness is what we are when we are at our best, seeking and sharing truths for the sake of the other.
And that was how I first entered this space, bearing a most-lofty Ashland-like spiritual intention. It seemed clear that my partner and I were not merely about to learn a few basic techniques of touch in the five-week Couples/Partners Class, but that we would be bathed in some serious holy light, which we duly prepared for by drawing deep chakra cleansing breaths.
I was wrong. Sort of. Apparently, even such a sincere intention doesn’t have to preclude giggling, guffawing and making an unholy mess playing with a glob composed of corn starch and water.
“Go ahead, punch it, hit it with your fingers,” JoAnn Lewis, our teacher and the director of the Center goaded. “It’s hard, isn’t it?”
She was right. No matter how sharply I thumped it with my finger tips or knuckles, the mixture wouldn’t give, resisting like it was concrete.
“Now try letting your fingers rest lightly on it. Feel what happens.”
It was then that the giggles and guffaws evolved into a chorus of “Oh my God”s. The response of the corn starch to this tender touch was as magical as it was profound. Fingertips that had been roundly rejected were now welcomed warmly within. According to JoAnn, the corn starch mixed with water is very much like muscle tissue, with fibers running alongside each other and always moving.
“With the warmth and weight of a relaxed hand, the fibers slowly spread apart. It’s the same thing, JoAnn explains, that makes birthing possible or “making love well.” (By the way, if you’re wondering how you can apply this principal to obtaining World Peace, or repairing your relationships, or getting your kid or spouse to pick up after himself, you’re not alone.)
“Rolling that corn starch in your hand helps you get the idea how muscles move and how to coax and persuade them. This is what we would feel like without skin, just a pile of corn starch.”
If that had been all I’d learned about massage, it would have been enough.
But it wasn’t the substance of the knowledge that JoAnn imparts to her students that enticed me to write this column; it is her passion for this most basic of all human practices and human needs.
“Massage is food; it’s love; it’s love-food. Touch,” she adds, her shoulder-length silvery hair framing a near-constant smile, “is one way into truth. And all touch is therapeutic. Human beings need to be kneaded.”
What became clear as I interviewed Joann after the conclusion of the class, massage therapy isn’t merely her occupation. You might say that she’s on a mission to share a Gospel of Touch, a Truth that she became aware of decades before she attended her first massage school.
Like so many teenagers growing up in the Iowa farm country, JoAnn earned money walking miles each day through rows of six-foot-tall corn stalks, detasseling the corn (for pollination control). It was arduous backbreaking work .
“I’d come home and my mother would rub my legs and back,” JoAnn says. “I grew up thinking that everybody’s Mom did that.”
Her mother didn’t refer to it as massage therapy. And it wasn’t any different than what JoAnn saw happening around her with the farmers and their animals.
“When an animal is injured, you rub around the injury, encouraging circulation to get them back on their feet. It’s just what you do.”
While she witnessed therapeutic touch as a healing tool on the farms around her, JoAnn saw little of it in the hospitals she worked at during high school. “Touch was hugely lacking,” she says. Discouraged from becoming part of the conventional medical system, and with few formal educational programs for therapeutic massage operating in the country at the time, JoAnn earned a degree and became a teacher.
It wasn’t until she was managing a chiropractic office in 1979 in Arizona, that JoAnn envisioned the possibility of a career in massage. The office incorporated massage therapy in its treatment. The impact was obvious and dramatic. “People got well really fast and stayed well.”
In 1995, at age 40, while her children were still growing up, she studied massage at a school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, following that up by becoming an infant massage instructor and committing herself to helping bring massage into Western culture. Eight years later, she sold her practice and moved to Belgium to become an infant massage trainer of instructors.
After being drawn to the West Coast to be near a best friend, JoAnn moved to Ashland in 2006, working at the Phoenix Day Spa for four years before opening the Center. Here, she and the Center’s other instructors offer massage classes for singles and couples, seniors, pregnant partners, parents and babies, Thai massage, animal companions massage and a reflexology class she calls “Happy Hands and Feet.”
Of course, you don’t have to wait to take a class to learn the first lesson on massage. Just mix up some corn starch and water, practice a little and play a lot. Feel free to make a holy mess. Then, once your fingertips have the feel, go find someone you love.
Talk about coincidences! Here’s a painting by my partner, Clista Prelle-Tworek that will be part of a one-woman show at the Massage Center during August. You can preview more of her work at: www.clistaspastels.com.
“Falling” by Clista Prelle-Tworek