Mike and Merry Vediner think a new massage course in Ashland should be a "prerequisite for couples."

Mike and Merry Vediner think a new massage course in Ashland should be a "prerequisite for couples."

The Vediners, married 35 years, reached that conclusion after their first class with JoAnn Lewis, director of the Family Massage Education Center in Ashland. Open since January, the center specializes in "couples massage." But that doesn't mean just married couples like the Vediners.

Lewis and her staff teach parents how to massage infants, and they offer techniques for massaging seniors and pregnant women. All the material is intended for use in the home, not to administer professionally, which requires a state license.

The center, located in the former Ashland Academy of Art, employs seven therapists and hosts classes in five-week sessions. Lewis, a licensed massage therapist, also offers continuing-education credits for other licensees. Instruction in infant massage is open to anyone, including social workers and day-care providers, who pass the lessons along to parents responsible for the actual touching.

"We're protecting the bond between the parent and the child," says Lewis.

Previously instructing parents in infant massage at Ashland Community Hospital, Lewis says recurrent requests inspired her to teach the larger public. Dozens of massage clients told Lewis they had massage tables in their closets at home and didn't know how to use them.

"People everywhere need nurturing touch," she says. "It's like regular exercise; we all know it's important."

For Ashland mom Sabena Moriarty, massage is "another tool" in her parenting toolbox. Moriarty and husband Stephan Moriarty learned infant massage from Lewis shortly after their daughter, Ava, was delivered by Caesarian section at ACH.

"She was so fussy, and she was having some digestive problems," recalls Sabena Moriarty, 43.

Ava, now 2, was regurgitating food, and the Moriartys weren't getting any sleep. Hospital staff called Lewis, who massaged Ava and taught her parents the techniques. It became their standard strategy for soothing Ava's colic.

"It was a world of difference," says Sabena Moriarty. "It seems like such a simple concept: If someone's upset, rub their belly."

Ava's younger brother, Phineas, didn't suffer colic. But the Moriartys — parents to six other children — wanted him to receive the individual attention lavished during massage. Although Phineas was crawling more than sitting still by the time Lewis opened the massage education center, the Moriartys signed up for its parent-baby series, held Tuesday evenings.

"It's just really nice to learn how to touch and soothe," says Sabena Moriarty.

The knowledge can benefit their older children, too, says Moriarty. Ranging in age from 16 to 4, the kids all play sports and, the older ones in particular, suffer sore muscles and their share of minor injuries, she says. The parents, however, aren't ignoring their own desire for well-being and relaxation and plan to sign up for a couples class at the center.

"I think it's just a nice way for us to get a break," says Moriarty. "We have such a big family."

Lisa Widner, 52, says professional massages give her a welcome break. But Widner says five Thursday evening classes with Lewis — approximately the same price as one massage — are "a great alternative." Enrolling with her 11-year-old daughter Rosanna also brought them closer together, says Widner. Accepting a massage from Rosanna, she adds, opens their communication and makes her daughter feel important.

"For her, that was really empowering."

Widner, too, is empowered to help her hospice and home-health care clients through massage. After learning that her tendency to vigorously manipulate muscles wasn't correct, she visualizes handling corn starch. As Lewis explained, muscles respond to rough treatment like corn starch, which hardens up. Under gentle fingers, corn starch and muscles are loose and pliable.

"The feedback is ... the great part about helping someone with massage," says Widner.

Lewis, Widner and other students acknowledge there's sometimes a stigma associated with massage and the common phobia of being touched. But participants praise Lewis' methods and the center's calming atmosphere.

"It's very discreet," says Merry Vediner, 58. "She never crossed any boundaries."

Class series start with the extremities — hands and feet — and progress to massaging the arms, legs, back and other areas. Participants can remain fully clothed, says Lewis. In classes for adults, Lewis does hands-on demonstrations before turning the recipient over to his or her partner. Couples practice exclusively within their pairs, she says.

The center, however, widens the definition of "couple" to encompass a variety of family relationships, even to caregivers or friends accompanying seniors. For older adults, Lewis focuses on massage to improve mobility, alleviate arthritis and work with joint replacements, muscle atrophy and integrity of the skin — usually thinner and looser as people age.

Before delving into the mechanics of massage, Lewis emphasizes the importance of choosing the right lubricant, namely plant-based oils or lotions, not petroleum-based ones. That message was nearly as significant as the massage, says Vediner, adding that her skin is "much softer" since she took Lewis' advice.

"I threw everything away — I started over," she says. "And I'm pretty cheap."