The strong hands began at my head, first holding firmly for a few moments to help relax my understandably apprehensive body. Draped only in a sheet about my waist, I lay on my back on a small padded table undergoing, my first professional massage -- a legitimate one, not to be confused with the X-rated variety.

Then the hands began, slowly and smoothly rubbing my forehead, my cheeks, moving on to the neck and the shoulders, the strokes growing longer and firmer.

"These are the bread-and-butter strokes," said Kevin Andreae, who explained that in the past 10 years the therapeutic massage profession has experimented with dozens of new techniques aimed at relieving stress and body tension. Andreae, 35, is director of the Potomac Massage Therapy Institute, a school of massage that has helped staff many of the health clubs in the Washington area, including the Watergate, Elizabeth Arden and the Holiday Spas.

Andreae moved to my feet and legs, the strokes continuing long and smooth. I could feel the tension, draining, my limbs beginning to feel more-supple.

"Does this hurt?" he asked, applying additional pressure with his elbow on a leg muscle that he said felt particularly tense. Only slightly, I murmured, half-asleep, and only for a few seconds until the muscle relaxed.

Early in the hour-long demonstration, Andreae began rubbing on my skin an oil called Auro Glow, a mixture of peanut, olive and almond oil. The scent of almond filled the room. I wondered if I'd ride the bus home smelling like a candy bar.

Why the oil? It helps in the rubbing "and people seem to like it," said Andreae.

Finally, the chest and then the back -- several tight muscles there, probably from leaning over a desk for hours at a time. "We get people coming in here who are frazzled," he said. "If you're in a job with a lot of tension, massage is a great way to keep it minimized.

Afterwards, Andreae stepped out of the room, leaving me to rest quietly on my back for a few minutes, my eyes closed and my body enjoying the kind of pleasure it gets, say, from a long soak in a hot bath.

In recent years, Americans have become increasingly aware of the pleasures of a healthy body, and millions have turned to dieting and jogging and other exercises to keep themselves physically fit. Massage practitioners say this trend is bringing them more clients -- especially health-conscious young adults -- and getting more people interested in learning how to give massages to family and friends or as a career or part-time job.

And, suggests Gerald W. Olson, who gave massages at the Silver Spring YMCA for eight years and now divides his time between a health studio at the Irene Apartments in Chevy Chase and the Columbia Country Club, massage is becoming more popular simple "because there's more tension in one's daily life."

These practitioners are concerned that the spread of massage parlors across the country, often offering sex rather than a rubdown, has given the public a poor image of their profession, which they call "the oldest of the healing arts."

"In people's minds, they immediately think of sex. That's what we have to contend with," says Andreae.

At its annual convention in Hartford earlier this month, the 1,500-member American Massage and Therapy Association called upon state legislators to ban the use of the word "massage" by X-rated parlors. The association wouldn't care if the parlors changed their name to "relaxation center" or something similar, says spokeswoman Pierrette M. Plouffe of Bellingham, Mass., "as long as they don't hurt our image."

The association also wants to upgrade its professional status, and it is pushing state legislators to set minimum educational requirements for the practice of massage. The association itself certifies members as registered massage therapists after they have completed 1,000 hours of approved study and three years of professional work. They also must pass a three-hour exam covering, among other things, anatomy, physiology, heat therapy, practical massage and office ethics.

The association has applied to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to become the nationwide accrediting agency for the profession, according to national education director Ruth Williams of Kennewick, Wash. She says the association now recognizes about 20 schools in the country, adding that the Potomac Institute has submitted an application, and only a few technicalities remain to be cleared up before approval can be granted.

"We're professional people," says Plouffe, whose voice bristles when her place of work is referred to as a "business." "Call it an office," she says, "the way you refer to a doctor's office.

Another problem is restrictions in some communities against giving a massage to someone of the opposite sex -- ordinances enacted in the most part to discourage the spread of massage parlors. "Doctors don't have to work only on the same sex," argues Thomas R. Fink of York, Pa., who stepped down as association president this month after three years in the post.

In the District of Columbia, one part-time practitioner, Joseph Lockley, says if he has a female client he always asks that a female relative or friend be present.

Therapeutic massage, as defined by the association, is "the scientific manipulation of muscles, ligaments and connective tissues" aimed at increasing efficient body functioning. Members point out that they "do not diagnose or cure," but say that massage can stimulate the circulatory, respiratory and lymphatic systems as well as aid in digestion and elimination and restore good tone to the body.

Lockley, an industrial relations representative for an architectural and engineering firm, says most of his clients come for help in relieving lower back pain, and Plouffe says massage can help in the rehabilitation of persons recovering from operations or auto accidents. A number of massage practitioners say they get references from doctors and psychologists.

And it relaxes. "Anytime someone relaxes, it's a health benefit," says Alma Burger, who with Jane Grissmer runs the Center for Healing Arts here, where they give massages and offer classes for non-professionals in massage, yoga and meditation.

Burger, 41, gave up a government job to practice massage. Before, she says, "Never felt well, I had chronic problems with colds and didn't have as much vitality as I knew I was capable of." Now, "I feel wonderfully healthy. I haven't had a cold in two years."

Kristen Manns, secretary-treasurer of the 27-member Washington-area association, calls massage "the cutting edge of preventive medicine." She adds that it's good for sleeplessness.

Practitioners talk a great deal about "becoming aware of your body," "self-discovery" and the interconnection of the mind and the body ("getting into your emotions"). Says Andreae: "Lots of diseases are stress-related. They will clear up if you relieve stress," and one way is by massage. "Of course they'll clear up if you go on vacation, too."

Some practitioners go beyond the basic full-body Swedish massage introduced in the United States 100 years ago (and which the association insists all its members be capable of providing) to practice such specialties as rolfing (a deep probing of the muscles and connective tissue), reflexology (applying pressure to various points of the feet to relax the body) and polarity therapy (a balancing of the body's "energy flow").

For one who has just experienced his first massage, it's hard to beat association president Fink's explanation of massage's growing popularity: "It feels good."