Personal Space 

Facing massage-phobia at Midtown's Calming Influence salon.

I have personal-space issues. I don't like hugs. I don't like handshakes. And I would never in a million years voluntarily sign up for a massage.

But, like Barack Obama says, it's time for a change. I'd like to make 2009 the year of banishing senseless phobias. First up: my fear of being touched by strangers. Thankfully, the folks at Calming Influence, a Zen-like massage salon on Cooper, offer plenty of options for massage newbies and veterans alike.

For starters, the dimly lit massage rooms at Calming Influence feel like a guest room in someone's old Midtown home. I'd expected clinical rooms with unflattering fluorescent lighting, but the sage-green walls, wooden floors, and beige paper lanterns immediately put me at ease.

"This place has a nice vibe to it," says owner and massage therapist Gene Elliott. "We tried to create a place that wasn't a high-end hoity-toity spa but not too airy-fairy New Age either. Our place is really grounded and comfortable."

Like many massage salons, Calming Influence offers a menu of services — massage therapy, detoxifying face masks, salt glows, paraffin dips, and aromatherapy. The salon also offers couples massage.

"We put two tables in one room so people can enjoy a massage together," Elliott says. "We get couples celebrating anniversaries or women on girls' night out. People have a lot of fun with it. They either zone out or howl with laughter, because it's so much fun."

Since I'm traveling solo, Elliott suggests I try the one-hour, basic, full-body massage. The thought of lying still and being touched for a whole 60 minutes sends me into panic mode, and I talk him down to a half-hour spot-work massage.

"I used to have some touch issues too. I was uncomfortable hugging people," Elliott tells me. "But massage really helped me break out of those boundaries. It drives my family crazy, because now I'm a huggy person."

Perhaps this massage will make me a huggy person too, I think, as Elliott introduces me to my massage therapist, Tammy Braithwaite.

In a gentle tone, Braithwaite tells me I can leave on as many clothes as I want. She leaves the room so I can undress, and since I'm a modest gal, I opt not to remove my unmentionables.

As I lay face down on the massage table, most of my body is covered with a soft white sheet. I hear Braithwaite reenter the room, and I'm suddenly aware of the 28 years of tension built up in my neck and shoulders.

She rubs oil onto my upper back, and I explain that I'm not only new to the massage thing but actually a little nervous. Any tension is exaggerated by the fact that a stranger is touching me.

But Braithwaite cuts to the chase and starts massaging my taut muscles with the firmness of a pro wrestler, and it's not a bad feeling. As she describes to me, her clients often classify the firm pressing of their muscles as a "a good hurt."

She manipulates her hands in various ways to work out my knotted muscles, and midway through my 30-minute session, my muscles begin to relax. I zone out and eventually lose track of time. Suddenly Braithwaite stops and says, "You can come out when you're ready." She leaves the room.

What? It's over already? I lift my head and realize I'm in a bit of a daze. It's the same pleasurable feeling I'd get from taking painkillers, but it's a natural high without icky side effects.

When I drift back to reality, I realize massage isn't such a bad thing after all. I wouldn't advise my friends to start hugging me just yet though. I'll need a few more massages before I reach the huggy stage. ■

Calming Influence, 74 N. Cooper (276-9423)

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