Second, what a massage feels like depends on the massage therapist. Every massage therapist has their own style. Some might do deep tissue in a slow, gentle way. Others might give you a vigorous Swedish massage.
A Massage Should Never Hurt
No matter what kind of massage you get, or who the massage therapist is, the massage should feel good! A massage should never hurt. Even a deep tissue massage should feel good and be deeply relaxing.
If a massage feels painful, it's more pressure than you can take. Listen to your body. Feel free to state your preference for pressure before and during the massage. The massage therapist won't know if it's "too much" unless you tell them.
What Happens During a Massage
Generally you start face down, your face in a cradle so you don't have to strain your neck. You are usually naked underneath a towel or sheet, but the therapist only works on the part of the body that is uncovered. You are also free to wear underwear or anything else that makes you comfortable.
The therapist should non-verbally "cue" you that the massage is about to begin, and the first touch should be gentle, not a surprise. Their hands should be warm. They use massage oil so that their hands glide smoothly over your bare skin.
Massage therapists use a combination of classic Swedish massage strokes to work the muscle tissue:
- smooth, gliding strokes, called "effleurage," warm up the muscle tissue. It can be done slowly or quickly, depending on the therapist. In general, a slower pace is more relaxing and quicker is more invigorating.
- kneading the muscle tissue by lifting and pulling the fleshy muscle away from the skeletal structure. This is called "petrissage." This starts to work the tissue a bit more deeply
- cross-fiber friction is when the therapist targets a particular trouble spot (called an "adhesion") to separate the tissues, restore circulation and make the muscle softer and more pliable. They might use their thumb or fingers...or sometimes even an elbow (the most intense). Cross-fiber friction might feel uncomfortable or good, depending on how much pressure the therapist uses and how you interpret the sensation.
Some therapists also use passive stretching, such as moving your arm over your head to mobilize the joint. The stereotypical "karate chop" move from the movies, where the therapist quickly "chops" your muscles with the side of their hands, is not very common anymore.
The best way to figure out what a massage feels like, and what style you like, is to try different therapists. And go back to the ones you like. That way you enjoy the long-term health benefits of massage.