“You can’t throw a rock without hitting a massage therapist in Asheville,” or so the saying goes. However, you could throw that rock and miss the Mayan abdominal massage therapist or the Thai massage practitioner down the street.
Seeking to uncover the lesser-known, innovative and ancient massage modalities practiced in Asheville, Xpress spoke with several therapists who are shaking up the scene.
On most days you can find Carrie Spencer assisting clients with gentle yoga-like stretches as they rest fully clothed on a colorful mat on the floor. She’s a Thai massage therapist at Bodhi of Life in West Asheville, and a defining characteristic of the practice is that it takes place on the ground rather than a massage table.
According to Spencer, this shift allows clients to experience a wider range of freedom and movement. Stretches like a spinal twist that would be ruled out and downright awkward to execute on a massage table easily interweave into a Thai massage.
Many consider the practice “a lazy-man’s yoga,” Spencer says, jokingly. They’re suggesting that you don’t have to do yoga to become more flexible, because the massage increases flexibility, she continues. In fact, during a Thai massage, clients try to remain completely passive and relaxed while the therapist aids movement in different directions, she says.
Thai massage is composed of a medley of assisted stretches, compressions and acupressure points that help free the muscles and joints as well as open the body up energetically, Spencer notes.
The practice is very much a movement meditation for Spencer and her clients. When therapists are centered in their own bodies and in sync with their breath as they deliver the massage, clients can have a deeper experience, she explains. “When we can bring our absolute presence to the unwinding of tissue, so, too, do our minds relinquish whatever it is we have been chewing on,” she says.
For many people, Thai massage is like a deep mind-body journey, Spencer adds. It “offers a deep visceral, mental, emotional and spiritual cleansing,” she says. “It brings in good prana, nutrient-rich blood and fresh energy to our system.”
Mayan abdominal massage:
Releasing deep belly stress
Jen “Muse” Lokajickova sits in her sunroom with the windows open, white curtains blowing in the morning breeze and birds chirping outside. She’s the epitome of a women’s health practitioner in this sanctuary, where she practices The Arvigo Techniques of Maya Abdominal Therapy (ATMAT).
Unlike many massage modalities that skip over the abdomen, ATMAT places the belly in center stage. The massage covers the entire abdominal region down to the pelvic bone as well as the sacrum, tailbone and hips. Lokajickova says the massage is ideal for digestive health issues, emotional trauma and women’s reproductive health.
This in-depth sensitivity to the abdomen as the storehouse for stress is a key facet of ATMAT treatment. Working tenderly around the abdomen and inviting clients to bring their breath into the lower torso helps them successfully clear physical and emotional stagnation from the organs. It also encourages unimpeded circulation of blood, lymphatic fluid and qi throughout the entire torso, she says.
Lokajickova works extensively with women in all stages of life, addressing painful menses and, when necessary, repositioning the uterus to comfortably rest inside the pelvic bowl. “If the uterus is leaning to one side, forward or back, it can press on other organs and structures of the pelvis, which can create discomfort and, over time, block the flow of body fluids through the pelvis,” she says. After an initial session, Lokajickova teaches clients self-massage so they can integrate the understanding and practice into their own lives.
A slow wave
Just north of downtown Asheville, Robin Fann-Costanzo offers Esalen massage inside the fresh oasis of Still Point Wellness, a business she opened with husband Corey last year. While the center is brand new, Fann-Costanzo has been offering Esalen massage for the last 17 years. Developed at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Ca., the practice grew out of the unique mixing pot of various healing modalities and influential teachers active during the 1960s.
The institute is positioned on a cliff just above the Pacific Ocean, Fann-Costanzo notes, and the massage was developed to the sounds of waves crashing against the mountains.
It is this pacing with the element of water, the in-breath and out-breath of the ocean’s tides, that places Esalen massage in a category of its own. According to Fann-Costanzo, it is not unusual for clients to pick up on this connection. “Many [clients] report they experienced the rhythm of the ocean in the pacing of the massage,” she says.
The pace is quintessentially slow and rhythmic, helping induce a sense of safety and relaxation while also allowing clients to integrate the whole experience, Fann-Costanzo says. Unlike other modalities, Esalen massage has no set script but is associated rather with long, slow and rhythmic strokes that cover the whole body.
Moving down the entire length of the body in a holistic way during a massage gives the receiver a sense of connection to and integration of the whole body, says Fann-Costanzo. It also invites them to release and recognize subconscious tension patterns, she adds.
On historic Montford Avenue, Brady Preiss uses his feet to deliver a unique massage. Preiss is the founder of Unity Healing Arts and applies ashiatsu massage — which translates as “foot pressure” in Japanese.
In most massages, practitioners mostly bend over a massage table, working with their hands and arms to manipulate the body. In a shiatsu, they stand on a massage table as they move, holding onto suspended bars for extra support and balance.
According to Preiss, the feet are amazingly well-designed and adept at working with the contours and angles of the body. “They can work like strong tools with extra surface area to iron out tight muscles, or the pressure can be light and soothing as the compression helps to relax the nervous system,” he says.
Although having your massage therapist surf up and down the length of your body is truly a unique experience, Preiss says the verticality of the technique provides a depth unmatched by other techniques, because gravity lets the practitioner apply more weight and/or pressure than in a traditional massage. This leads to a “sinking in” experience, which Preiss describes as incredibly soothing to the nervous system and thus relaxing for the entire body.
Chinese manual therapy
Zachari Cahn is a licensed acupuncturist who integrates Tui-na (pronounced Twee-nah), a Chinese musculo-skeletal-based massage, into his acupuncture practice. The name comes from the root “tui,” meaning “to push,” and “na,” meaning “to lift and squeeze.” Cahn says that the hand movements in a Tui-Na massage are so unique that some people believe he is using a massage tool.
However, Tui-na massage’s real gem is its emphasis on orthopedic evaluation, Cahn says. The evaluation is done with the hands to identify what muscle, tendon, fascia and/or nerve involvement are causing pain or injury. “Its ability to specifically diagnose and treat muscular and structural abnormality is what makes it unique in the massage world,” Cahn says.
Not surprisingly, his clients are generally people experiencing stubborn pain that they can’t seem to get rid of. Sacroilliac and lower back pain are among the most common complaints, he says. Once the root cause is examined, the massage continues with a combination of stimulating acupressure points, rolling the knuckles and shaking to encourage movement through the meridians and relieve the affected area.
Whether it’s getting centered with an abdominal massage or allowing gravity to ground you while someone stands barefoot on your back, Asheville has a multitude of massage options. Perhaps next time your body whispers that it’s time for a massage, you may feel inspired to try out something new.
Thai massage, Carrie Spencer: Bodhi of Life, (828) 808-7805
Mayan abdominal massage, Jen “Muse”Lokajickova: Medicine of the Feminine, (503) 707-5212
Esalen massage, Robin Fann-Costanzo : Still Point Wellness, (828) 348-5372
Ashiatsu massage, Brady Preiss : Unity Healing Arts, (828) 225-5825
Tui-na massage, Zachari Cahn: Asheville Acupuncture Wellness Center, (828) 242-0990