Comfort for All
An Introduction to Clothed Massage
By Faith Cornwall
This article is from the Autumn 2013 issue of Body Sense magazine.
Chances are that if you are reading this, you already have some experience with receiving massage. While we most commonly think of massage as involving a massage table with lotions or oils, and draped sheets for privacy, did you know that there are many kinds of massage you can receive while still keeping your clothes on?
The style of clothed massage you are most likely to be familiar with is chair massage. Available at airports, health fairs, and even in grocery stores, chair massage is easy to give and receive in public places. But the options for clothed massage don't end with this traditional favorite.
Types of Clothed Massage
Many of the techniques used in chair massage are adapted from shiatsu, a type of massage that originated in Japan and literally translates into "finger pressure." Like acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, shiatsu uses a system of energy meridians. Techniques used include brushing, compression, kneading, rocking, shaking, stretching, and, of course, thumb pressure, to stimulate the meridians. You do not have to be interested in, or knowledgeable about, meridian theory to feel the effects of a shiatsu massage; simply lie back and enjoy it as you would any other bodywork. Traditionally given on a mat on the floor, shiatsu has also been adapted to the table. While appropriate for relaxation and wellness, it also utilizes passive stretching.
Tui na and Thai massage are two other types of Asian massage. Both use many of the same techniques as shiatsu to ease the recipient into a state of relaxation. The more gentle tui na is generally given on a table, while the more vigorous Thai massage is traditionally given on a floor mat, though it may be adapted to tables as well.
Acupressure uses the same meridian system as acupuncture, but uses the practitioner's hands and fingers instead of needles to stimulate each point. Of all the kinds of massage mentioned here, acupressure is the subtlest.
Reflexology, a style of massage that aims to affect the whole body by touching only the hands and feet, is another widely available type of massage that can be received fully clothed. It is great for people who do not wish, or are unable, to receive touch on the rest of their body (for instance, due to burns, a rash, or modesty).
Sports and deep-tissue massage may be given partially clothed--for instance, in a sleeveless shirt and shorts--if the session is focused on one area of the body, such as the calf or forearm. Oftentimes, you'll see massage tents set up at various sporting events, like bike races. Weary athletes will find their way to the massage tables after a day's ride, looking to have their aching muscles attended to through their clothing.
A Great Way to Start
One of the benefits of all types of clothed massage is ... you get to remain clothed. If you have ever felt timid about undressing for a session, or have a friend, family member, or colleague who is hesitant to try massage for that reason, clothed massage can be a great way to feel safe and secure while receiving the healing gift of touch. You may also enjoy it simply because the sensation of being touched through clothing is different from the sensation of skin-to-skin contact. Ultimately, if remaining clothed gives someone the courage to try massage for the first time, then it's a worthwhile option.
In shiatsu, there is a saying: "It takes almost as long to learn how to receive shiatsu, as it does to give it." This is a great reminder that touch therapy is a very wide world, with many different flavors, tastes, and colors to try and explore. Good luck on your bodywork adventure!
Want even more options?
With nearly 300 different types of massage and bodywork available to you, there is a spectrum of styles that offer clients the option to stay clothed. In addition to shiatsu, tui na, and others mentioned in this article, here are a few more:
Craniosacral Therapy--Using only the lightest touch, this therapy does not require clients to be unclothed, although practitioners may ask you to remove your belt, jewelry, shoes, and socks.
Energy Modalities--From healing touch to polarity therapy to reiki, most energy therapies allow the client to remain clothed. Energy work can also be incorporated into traditional, unclothed massage.
Movement Re-education Techniques--The Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique are examples of movement re-education therapies that require clients to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.
Rolfing Structural Integration--For the most part, this modality allows clients to be treated in everyday clothing, although your therapist may ask you to wear a swimsuit or sports top and shorts to evaluate your alignment and structure.
Regardless of the type of massage you're getting, if you are not comfortable undressing, tell your therapist. He or she knows that taking off your clothes before getting on the massage table, even if it's to have an undeniably beneficial, therapeutic experience, can be daunting. Your therapist's most pressing concern is your comfort and care. Oftentimes, the two of you can find a workaround. Wearing yoga clothes for your session, or even leaving undergarments on, might be your solution.
After you've been exposed to massage and all it has to offer, you might reconsider your comfort level. Because, while your therapist can adapt to the situation, some of the best bodywork happens when the knots on your back are fully exposed to your therapist's hands, when proper oils and lotions can be applied to your skin for a soothing glide of your massage therapist's touch, and when clothing doesn't inhibit the work at hand.
Faith Cornwall is a massage therapist, yoga teacher, and student of Healing Touch in Oakland, California. What have your experiences been with receiving clothed massage? She would love to hear. You can reach her through the contact form at