We all know that in times of stress, a good massage is just what the doctor ordered. But those lucky enough to experience a massage from Registered Massage Therapist Dawn Sells can tell you that there’s nothing quite like it to melt the stress away. Her gentle touch and warm personality will have you saying “Deadline? What deadline?” After 16 years in the industry, Dawn has worked hard on combining techniques and developing her own style. We recently sat down with her to learn how her practice has evolved and what she most enjoys about her work.
Ewa Reid: To start, what is it that you do and how long have you been doing it?
Dawn Sells: I am a Registered Massage Therapist. I have been doing this work since 2006.
ER: And what does a Registered Massage Therapist do exactly?
DS: [laughs] They massage people! My goal is to support people using massage therapy, always keeping in mind the context of what they’re going through, in terms of their pain, stress, and so on.
ER: Do you remember getting your first massage ever?
DS: Yes. I do. It was way back when I was in university and I was having some trouble with my back. I went to get a massage and it was so helpful. From then on, I was hooked!
ER: And was that the original spark of interest that led you to what you do now?
DS: In university my BA was in speech communications with a broadcasting emphasis. I used to work in film and advertising for about 12 years after school. And then started to have a change of heart. I realized that I wanted to change careers. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do but I had always loved massage therapy and respected the massage therapists that I knew. So I decided to go back to school and change careers.
ER: And never looked back?
DS: That was over 16 years ago and here we are, so–no. [laugh]
ER: What do you love most about your work?
DS: It may sound cliché to say, but I love helping people. I love making a difference in peoples’ lives and it’s very rewarding because I have a job where people are always really happy to see me and they’re also usually very happy and relaxed when they leave my room.
ER: How would you describe your personal style of massage therapy?
DS: Relaxing. The pressure that I use is probably light to moderate. I always say that I like to work deeply enough to get in and make a difference, but not so deeply that the body will tense up and resist. I think calming the nervous system is a very important part of what I’m trying to accomplish. So the main techniques that I use are Swedish massage, myofascial release, and craniosacral therapy.
ER: Okay, and for us “non-RMT folk”, what is myofascial and craniosacral?
DS: [laughs] well “myofascial” is about working at the level of trying to affect the fascia. Fascia is a deep connective tissue that basically connects everything in our body. So I am trying to help get some more mobility and find the areas where they are restrictions and gently find a way to get in there and break that up. And “craniosacral” is kind of complicated but it’s basically the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds our brain and spinal cord has its own rhythm and sometimes that rhythm can get out of balance. So by doing some gentle holds and techniques, we’re trying to encourage it to have a more healthy flow or rhythm.
ER: You’ve been practicing for a while now. You’re an experienced massage therapist. How would you say your practice has evolved over time?
DS: I think my palpation skills have improved a lot so as I’m working it’s easier to get to the heart of what I think might be going on or what needs the most attention. That would probably be the main thing. It’s becoming easier to get a sense of what’s going on than it was when I first started. When you’re in school, they teach you that you have to go through all these steps when you’re assessing. And of course it IS important to have a thorough conversation before starting to work, but a lot of it is really hands-on. Once you can get your hands on the person, you really get a feel for what’s happening.
ER: Do you find that a lot of times your patients think one thing is wrong but it’s actually a entirely different thing?
DS: Yes, quite often! Well… sometimes it will match up. Like a person will come in and say, “oh my right shoulder is killing me,” and then I’ll work and I’m like, “oh yeah the right shoulder is like, wow!” And then other times, they might say, “the right shoulder is killing me,” and I’ll be working and from my perspective I’ll find a lot more things happening on the left side. So sometimes it’s the side where they can actually feel things isn’t the side that is locked up in some way. It needs work. So yes, sometimes it matches up and sometimes it doesn’t.
ER: What is your favorite muscle to work on and why?
DS: My favourite muscle? [laugh] Well, if I had to pick I’d say the suboccipital muscles. They are very interesting tiny little muscles in the back of the head that connect the skull to the neck. They often get very tight because of head-forward posture and because we are a society that spends a lot of the time staring at screens. I really like working on those and reminding people to be conscious of their posture; especially being aware of how they’re holding their head.
ER: Are there any particular areas of the body that you enjoy working on more than others?
DS: One of the areas that I really enjoy working on is the abdomen. We learn about how to massage the abdomen in school, but in general I think massage therapists don’t work on the abdomen very often. I really enjoy this work–in terms of finding the restrictions that might exist in the muscles, the fascia and the organs. So that is something that is a bit different about me, I would say.
ER: And what kind of feedback do you tend to get from patients who experience your abdominal massage?
DS: You know it’s interesting… sometimes people will be hesitant, “oh I don’t know if I want my abdomen worked on,” as it can be a sensitive area. But I can’t think of any time when someone hasn’t enjoyed the work. Remember, the work that I’m doing is very gentle. I’m not digging deeply into the organs [laugh]. But what I am looking for are restrictions that might need some gentle encouragement to release. For example, if someone is having reproductive health issues, digestive issues, things like that, they might find that type of massage therapy support helpful. Hopefully we can get everything moving freely and there will be less tension in the area.
ER: We have been talking about the pressure – “deep tissue” versus “soft touch”, and also you mentioned things like Swedish and sports massage, different terms. So can you give us a general overview of what are the different types, besides your own, like what kind of massage treatments are out there?
DS: It’s hard to really put it into strict categories. I tend to be more on the relaxation end of the spectrum, although my work is deeper than a relaxing spa-type massage. Closer to the other end of that spectrum would be something that’s more like deep tissue or an orthopedic approach. All massage therapists will have their own style and sometimes the categories are not so clear cut.
ER: For the past 16 years, you’ve observed and been in the industry. Have there been new styles that have come up over the year? Or new programs/techniques?
DS: I know the programs have changed a little bit and the programs are a little bit shorter and maybe more succinct than when I was in school. My program was 3,000 hours and now I think it’s 2,200 or something like that. Which doesn’t mean that it’s not as good, just that they’re cutting to the chase a little bit more. And I know that there’s a big push for evidence-based work. Unfortunately there has not been much research out there about massage therapy–of its benefits and how we’re making a difference. There are some studies, but not a lot…yet.
ER: And why do you think that is?
DS: Well studies require funding, right? Usually there has to be some shareholder that has an interest in doing a study.
ER: In terms of other modalities that complement massage therapy, what would you say works best together to provide patients with truly integrative care?
DS: I often refer clients to acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Also to see a physiotherapist if they have an orthopedic concern that might require orthopedic special tests, a diagnosis, and specific homecare exercises. Sometimes I will refer to a chiropractor if it feels like they’re in need of that. Osteopath is another good one. It just really depends on the person and what would work best for them, and what they’re willing to try; what resonates with them. Different modalities, or combinations of modalities, work for different people.
ER: And can you elaborate or give me an example of how acupuncture and massage therapy can work together?
DS: For example, if the tissue is very dense and it’s hard to really get in there with massage alone, sometimes if they get the needles, that will help penetrate more deeply and break up the pattern that’s happening.
ER: What about homework? What kind of home care do you often recommend to people between treatments?
DS: I’m very big on awareness. For example, if posture and ergonomics and things like that are an issue, becoming aware is so important. Another example is clenching the jaw or shallow breathing. We do those things without realizing it. The more that a patient can become aware of what’s happening, it can become second nature to fix it.
ER: And what’s next for you in your professional journey?
DS: So there is a course that I have taken once and I am going to take it again because the instructor has expanded it. It’s called ‘Female Pelvis, Female Issues’. Heather Gittens is a wonderful teacher who is very knowledgeable about visceral, craniosacral, and myofascial work. I’m taking this again in the Spring and I’m really looking forward to that. And I’ll have to see what else comes up in terms of continuing education. I would love to get involved in research as well, but I’m not exactly sure how to make that happen.
ER: What happens in the industry now? Are there massage therapists that do research often or is it fairly rare?
DS: Well I’m thinking in particular about an amazing RMT and instructor named Paula Jaspar. I’ve taken several courses from her on prenatal massage, well actually perinatal because we also learned about post c-section and postpartum massage. She is very interested in doing research and she now has a master’s degree in education. I would love to help her with research if it worked out because, well everything perinatal, reproductive, this is definitely an interest of mine. I want to support women that are having challenges in this area.