HealthLife & Style

Bear Pawz: The Inclusive and Compassionate Massage Therapy Practice of James Tien

James Tien is a Board-Certified Licensed Massage Therapist operating out of Aurora, Colorado. He is the proprietor of Bear Pawz Massage Therapy LLC; and has been acknowledged by the Colorado LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce as one of their 40 under 40 Business Leaders of 2023. His is a unique practice that caters to ALL types of bodies to all types of people looking to unlock the healing and relaxing benefits of massage.

As gay bears we know it can be difficult to find practitioners of any kind who create a welcoming space for our bodies which are oftentimes bigger and/or harrier than average. That’s why we believe it is so important to highlight the work of people like James so that bears looking for message therapy in and around his area can link up with him and benefit from his expertise.

While James is certainly an excellent massage therapist, he has many other passions and interests that we believe contribute to his unique qualifications as a bodyworker. First off, he is a ten year practitioner of the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan, a highly unique form of exercise that actually aims to increase relaxation and slow you down as opposed to other cardio intensive and strength training exercises. He is a lover of animals and a consistent patron of The Wild Animal Sanctuary from which he adopted a Grizzly Bear named Alex. In addition, he adopted a Tiger named Gracie that was saved from Joe Exotic (The Tiger King), and bought an acre of land for The Wild Animal Refuge expansion.

James Tien of Bear Pawz Message Therapy

James is also an accomplished artist, concentrating in the mediums of painting and rapping. (Be sure to check out his painting here and his music on Bandcamp.)

Given his pedigree, compassion and creativity we thought James was the perfect person to dig into the finer points of massage and the potential benefits it can have for those of us inhabiting bear bodies.

Please read on for an enlightening discussion on the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of message and by all means if you are in the Aurora area, go experience James’ talent in person.

BWM: What led you to open a bear-centric Massage Therapy Practice?

James Tien: I wanted to bring the practice of massage to an underserved, and often underrepresented community. I see so many massage therapy businesses that center around athletes, holistic and natural care, and beauty. Advertising will often only show bodies of a certain range of fitness. I think that a common cultural notion, especially in the hetero and cis normative culture, is that massage is a feminine act or profession. I wanted to represent a male clientele, while also being an inclusive space for bigger bodies. I was inspired to join the body-positive movement by works like “The Big Fat Gay Podcast”. Towards the end of massage school, I was considering going into business as another alternative medicine, mystical type massage therapist, which is already so prevalent in the industry. In some ways these styles of businesses may exclude people who don’t believe in or have any interest in these topics and cater to a narrow definition of health. Healthcare in general may be an uncomfortable or condescending experience for people who are plus-size. Many of the larger clients I have seen are quite healthy from what I can tell, and the social and mental/emotional stigma against size is a more significant factor. People who are naturally on the heavy side, and like themselves without feeling a need to lose weight should have a practitioner they can access too. People who have felt self-conscious about body image should have someone they can go to to receive true care and celebration.

I also wanted to participate in gay business ownership, and creating more spaces for gay men, outside the gay bars. As a gay man, this is a fitting niche for activism, and standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. My attitude of body-positivity can be extended beyond just including bigger bodies, to any type of difference or uniqueness a person may have (like being beary hairy).

BWM: You make sure to mention that all bodies are deserving of care and welcomed in your practice. How are massage techniques modified for bigger bodies?

James Tien: Every individual will have their own personal response to massage. Regardless of size or weight, I try to customize the experience by checking in with them during a session about how they feel. I want them to speak up during the session if the pressure becomes painful, or needs to be deeper. Before working on a potentially personal area such as the buttocks or abdomen, I ask them if that’s what they want. There isn’t any specific modification to massage techniques for a heavy set body, it all depends on the individual. The main component is communication. One thing that I may change for a bear or larger person is the table height, and that is for my own body, to apply my techniques effectively.

BWM: What type of massages do you offer and what are the health benefits associated with them?

James Tien: I primarily practice my own blend of styles as needed. I usually open with some compression, a broad, consistent level of pressure. I then move onto effleurage, using lotion to glide over and moisturize the skin, working at the center on both sides. During this time I pay attention to noticeable structural differences, such as the muscles that are contracted or lengthened. In this stage I may find “knots” or adhesions where the texture of a muscle changes. I also will spend some time on the areas a client requested if they have any. I often include some deep tissue massage using the forearms and heavy, leaning, pressure. Sometimes I will do Thai massage techniques, which are basically passive-assisted stretches, meaning I move joints for them while they remain relaxed. Examples of this being knee flexion, neck mobilization, or turning hip rotators. Some of the things I’ve helped a client with are neck cricks that happened during sleep, soreness, back and leg pain, and inducing a relaxed state. I’ve been told by clients that their chronic pain was reduced to some degree following massage. Massage research is ongoing, but there is some evidence of an effect on hypertension (high blood pressure), back pain, anxiety, and depression. There are many variables, such as the effect of being in a relaxing and safe environment with someone you trust; that make it hard to specify what benefits come from the massage, versus the whole experience.

BWM: Is there a mind-body connection associated with message? What are the spiritual and emotional benefits?

James Tien: I think there is a mind-body connection at work when receiving massage. The skin receives input from different nerve endings specialized for different types of sensation, like light pressure, deep pressure, pain, and temperature. Most of the time people are in their heads, massage is a good way to interrupt this habit and bring one back to the experience of body. There are few experiences of embodiment as immersive as receiving massage. It really takes you on a brief trip away from the usual way you operate in all your senses. It’s a form of psychosomatic therapy. I would say valuing yourself and setting aside time for a massage appointment is a spiritual thing to do. It’s a great way to say thank you to yourself, for all your body does and goes through, it deserves it! Just by having a body, with the opportunity to experience massage is reason enough.

BWM: How would you encourage bears who are self-conscious to let go and give message therapy a try?

James Tien: As far as encouraging a bear to receive their first massage, I would want them to know it could be a joyful and healing experience. It may boost self-esteem as well as relieve tension. Who knows, after their first massage it may become a part of their life indefinitely because of how great it was. If nothing else, it’s at least an hour or longer of having to pretty much do nothing while someone takes care of you! They might leave feeling like they dropped stress they didn’t know they had, feeling totally renewed and soothed. I would want them to feel safe with their questions about the experience and to be free to speak as a client during the massage if needed. It’s also in their right to stop the session at any time if they don’t want to continue. It is completely appropriate to leave on clothing or disrobe as they feel comfortable with. Although it would be easiest to apply the full range of techniques by undressing to the underwear, if they’re comfortable with that. If you live in Colorado, you may not realize how dry your skin can get and can get some benefit out of the lotion being applied all over your skin.

BWM: What has the feedback been from clients? Or perhaps a memorable session that really helped someone?

James Tien: Some of the best feedback I’ve heard from a client is that the session made them feel fully comfortable in their body. I’ve also been told they like the way I check in about the massage and customized the session to their needs. I have also treated veterans who reported that massage was diminishing their chronic pain. The most common thing people say is that massage left them feeling relaxed, with less tension. I’ve helped clients increase mobility in their necks on the same day, and also helped show them what good posture feels like. Many bear clients have sought me out for my body-positive and LGBTQ+ friendly approach. I personally have used massage during stressful times, helping me get back in the game and move on from difficult experiences.

James is available by appointment Tuesdays through Friday at his home office in Aurora. Head to his  website for additional information, his blog and to book an appointment. Be sure to also follow Bear Pawz Message Therapy on Facebook and Instagram.

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