A shoulder massage is a great way to help someone relax, particularly if they've been working at a desk all day. It can be done without oil, or through clothes, and is therefore also an ideal platonic massage for giving to friends without looking like you have ulterior motives.

This massage shouldn't be done on anyone with injuries to their shoulder or neck, allergies to any oil you may be using, or skin problems. Ideally you should be in a relaxing environment, and there should be a comfortable chair for the person you're massaging to sit in that still allows you to reach their shoulders, neck and upper back. You should be able to massage them without having to bend over, or else by the time you've finished you'll need a back massage to get over it.

  • Stand behind the person you're massaging as they sit down. If they've taken their top off, offer a towel for them to cover the bits you're not massaging, unless it's both very warm and you know each other very well. If using oil, put a little in the palms of your hands and rub them together to warm it up.
  • Start using sweeping, stroking movements (effleurage) of your palms over their upper back and shoulders, to coat the skin in a small amount of oil. Using far too much oil means you can't grip the skin for some of the moves. Work from the centre up and out wherever possible. You can use this move to find any knots in the muscle for later moves.
  • Pluck the tops of the shoulders from near the neck to the deltoids. This means holding your hand as if you were picking up a glass of water, holding the top of the shoulder between thumb and index finger (supporting with the other three fingers), and then gently pulling up and away. The idea is lift the muscle without pinching it - ask them if you're doing it right. If someone has particularly beefy muscles (or if you just want to vary things), use both hands on one shoulder at the same time, holding the thumbs and index fingers together.
  • Resting your fingers on the tops of the shoulders, make circular movements with your thumbs on either side of the spine, again working up and out. You can be quite firm with this move, always ask if they want more or less pressure. If you find knots (which you can feel as bumps in the muscle), you can try and work on them by pressing and holding over them, or rotating the thumbs in opposite directions around them. Releasing a knot feels very nice for the person being massaged. Work all the way to the edges of the shoulder blades, and more gently over them - then work gently on the neck in the bands of muscle just on either side of the centre (don't go further round with this move, or it'll hurt).
  • The next move is 'two handed hacking'. Push your wrists and fingertips together firmly, but relax your fingers so they can move from side to side when you shake your hands. Hold the fingers apart and in a kind of prayer position, and rotate at the wrist so the little fingers slap into their back and the other fingers slap into the little fingers. If you get it right, it'll make a distinctive sound - get it wrong and it'll feel like you're just karate chopping them. Do this over their upper back as hard as they want. If you want, you can take your hands apart and do the same thing with each hand individually (with practise you can hit the same spot with both hands in turn so fast that it feels continuous).
  • Now, support their forehead with one palm, and put your index finger and thumb around the back of their neck. Pull towards the back of the neck fairly gently (similar to the move on the tops of the shoulders, but only using the finger and thumb). Do this up and down the neck as required.
  • Now, with your hands in the same position, try and find the occipital ridge on the back of their skull using the index finger and thumb (one on each side of the centre). This is the line you can feel at the back and base of the skull, and it starts about an inch behind the ears. Work around the ridge doing tiny circles.
  • Finally, do a bit more plucking on the shoulders, a few more circles with your thumbs on their back, and some more effleurage. Finish the massage with effleurage leading up to the tops of the shoulders, then firmly down the arms and off the elbows.

This is one of the quickest and easiest massages to do, and if done right feels very good. Above all, make sure you both enjoy it, and don't do anything that hurts either of you - it's incredibly easy to strain your own muscles trying to relax someone else...

This is based on amateur lessons I was given by Cambridge University Massage Society, a nifty group that exists to teach students how to massage. This certainly isn't professional advice or anything...

See also: Massage Terms

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