When I started massage school in Los Angeles just over 16 years ago, I had just completed 2 years of intense learning in a very religious Yeshiva (Jewish Seminary) in Jerusalem. It was men only and (to be totally honest) very sexually repressive. I had been trained to be overly sensitive to anything having to do with the opposite sex, especially physical touch.
So, you can imagine what it must have been like for me when I first started massage school. I literally used to sweat every time I had to work on anybody, but especially women… and my class was composed of 65-70% women. I will never forget the first time I did the full body massage protocol that we had learned. There I am, still with this long beard (which I eventually trimmed down), working on this naked woman (covered with sheets,) and so nervous, I can’t even begin to tell you. She had been in the class longer than I, so I would ask her for pointers as we worked. As I started working on her pecs (chest muscles), I asked her if what I was doing was ok. She then proceeded to pull down the sheet a bit, pull out one of her breasts and demonstrate how I should be doing the massage. This was not meant to be sexual in any way, and I didn’t feel that it was, but it was truly a shock to my whole system! I did not work on her breasts, she just felt the need to expose herself as she corrected my technique. I crack up at that story every time I think about it…..that breast is etched in my memory forever (LOL). Over time, I learned to relax, found my center, and learned how to be very comfortable with all kinds of bodies in many different types of dress or undress.
I have learned different modalities of bodywork through the years and each one has a preference as to how a person is dressed or undressed during a treatment. In most forms of massage, people usually undress and are treated directly on the skin. Within that framework, people have different levels of comfort as to how much they will take off. In massage school and most of the treatments I performed before moving to Jerusalem, people almost always were completely naked removing all undergarments. Jerusalem is a totally different scene and I would say less than 10% of the people I see will get totally naked, most will keep on underwear. When a client comes in, I explain that he/she should undress to their own particular comfort level, and that they can keep on as much as they want and take off as much as they want. However, many of the people who come in choose to keep their clothes on and that is totally ok, and I can treat those people just as well.
When I went to learn Myofascial Release (MFR), the preference was for people to strip down to their underwear or to wear a bathing suit or comfortable shorts and a sports bra for women. The reason being is that the style of MFR that I learned, teaches that skin-on-skin contact is a key element in releasing the Fascia (connective tissue) in the body. There is also an element called unwinding that involves lots of movement, which many times throws off any sheets covering a person. Thus, the idea is that a person will feel comfortable even if the sheets fly off, while being directly treated on the skin.
When I started learning Craniosacral Therapy, the preference was to be fully clothed. Techniques are very gentle, and it is believed that there can be just as much as a release treating over clothes.
So, what is the best way to proceed? With or without clothes?
I want to start off by saying that the most important thing, way above anything else, is safety. A person must feel safe when they are getting treated. There will be no release, no relaxation, and certainly no healing if one is in a protective “Fight/Flight” mode on any level. In other words, if one is too busy fighting or defending themselves for whatever reason, there will be no release of tension. The more a therapist can create a safe space, the deeper their clients will be able to go inside, release tension, release trauma, and find inner resources of health. Ideally, every person would be aware of what their comfort level is and act accordingly, but unfortunately that is not the case. Many people are just not aware or are somehow pressured to undress for a massage even though they are not comfortable. At the beginning of every treatment I check in with a person’s body and verbally communicate with them to assess the feeling of safety of my client. Good communication is vital to empower the client in creating a safe environment. A teacher of mine once suggested to even ask the client if they would feel safer if you left the room. It’s vital to establish the client’s level of safety in order to deepen their healing experiences.
That being said, I think skin-on-skin contact is ideal (and amazing) if one is fully comfortable. Otherwise, as I said before, it’s not worth it. Also, practically speaking, one is able to glide directly on the skin with lotion or oil, which is certainly a different experience. Ultimately, there is no one answer, and I would suggest that each person test it out for themselves.