By Nora Brunner
What a long journey from the ancient healing traditions of massage to an hour of blissful care at the spa down the street. Massage has been intertwined for so long with the way we live, work, and play that a history for massage in its own right has emerged only in the last century. In the last two decades, its identity and reputation have been polished like a hot stone.
There’s a rich garden of bodywork to benefit you at the different ages and stages of your life. Getting the advice of your massage therapist, doing some research on www.massagetherapy.com, and seeking methods to which you are intuitively drawn are your best guides to finding what works for your body and spirit. No need to wait for a medical problem or a new high on the stress-o-meter to get on the table and into the hands of your massage and bodywork therapist.
When you enter a massage session, you are connecting with a tradition that’s been interwoven with athletic endeavors, midwifery, and ceremonial practices in religious and healing rituals throughout time. These practices have pointed the way to current research showing occasional, as well as regular, massage have myriad benefits to health.
Your practitioner is likely trained in Swedish massage—most therapists gain Swedish training as their first technique. Upon this building block, they often add other techniques that fit their gifts and interests. The additional training can mean adding specialized strokes with physical pressure, work with energy points, or massage to support healing of specific health conditions and injuries. Those that more closely address the mind-body connection are called somatic therapies.
Following is a top 10 list to start your journey. Begin with whatever suits your most immediate need, knowing it can be a lifetime adventure to connect and reconnect with different techniques for your best health, spiritual wellness, and sense of adventure.
1. Swedish Massage
This terminology is a bit of a misnomer as massage technique refined and named about 120 years ago was neither invented by a Swede nor developed in Sweden, despite massage history books that say so. It was Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838–1909) who gets the credit for adopting the French names that define the basic massage strokes—effleurage, petrissage, frictions, and tapotement—and systemizing them into what would most accurately be called classic massage. In any case, this technique is the starting point for most massage training today. It involves five kinds of touching and is delivered to soft tissues by the therapist’s hands, which are moisturized with massage oil or lotion. The lubricant can serve two purposes: reducing friction between your therapist’s hands and your skin, and often providing an aromatherapy experience that supports your relaxation. Smell evokes strong associations that are deeply wired into our brains, so it’s possible your experience will be profound. Your therapist may give you a choice of scents, so breathe deeply and enjoy. The kneading, rolling, vibrational, tapping, and percussive movements all work inward toward your heart and will stimulate your circulation. Among many benefits, Swedish massage will hasten healing of injuries, reduce swelling, and help dissolve scar tissue adhesions.
2. Deep Tissue
Often integrated with other massage methods, deep-tissue work is exactly what it sounds like. Your therapist can elicit plenty of relaxation for you with traditional massage to the outer layers of skin and muscle, but the benefits of deep-tissue massage can take that one step further … or deeper. Once the outer skin and muscles have been relaxed with preliminary techniques, it’s easier for your therapist to connect to the underlying musculature and deeper connective tissue, called fascia. The fascia is a deep, dense, strong part of your physiology that helps join your body parts together. Deep-tissue work is an excellent remedy for chronic muscular pain, injury rehabilitation, and reduction of inflammation-related pain caused by arthritis and tendonitis.
3. Sports Massage
Whether for professional athletes, active kids, or weekend warriors, sports massage has benefits for participants in the active life. For most people, sports massage is handy after muscle exertion to relieve stiffness and soreness. But anyone can borrow from the gym bag of the professional athlete, so to speak, especially if he or she is training for a major event like a triathlon. Professional athletes use fully clothed, vigorous massage before sports events to bring blood to critical parts of the body and loosen muscles. As this is done, athletes visualize their best performance, supporting the muscle memory that helps maximize their training and effort. Another professional tactic is to have massage right after an event to shorten recovery time. Anyone can use massage to reduce pain and tightness from athletic pursuits or to address sports injuries. Sports massage can ease muscles that shorten and tighten to compensate for and protect injured areas. Massage of surrounding areas can relieve ripples of pain that expand from the injury site.
4. Chair Massage
There will be times—during a strenuous shopping trip, visiting your health food store, or when traveling by air—that you might not be able to manage a full-body massage. Here’s your chance to use chair massage, as it’s just the thing for relief from long airplane rides or to relax shoulders weighted down by shopping bags or suitcases. This is not the massage chair with the electrical cord Uncle Fred requested for his birthday, but a brief massage by a trained professional with you seated on a padded, ergonomically designed chair.
Chair massage is often delivered in a semiprivate kiosk, fully clothed, without massage oil, and purchased in segments from five minutes to 20 minutes at about $1 a minute. The focus is applying compression (pressure) to the head, shoulders, neck, back, and arms.
Americans didn’t invent chair massage—there’s Japanese artwork showing seated massage from at least several hundred years ago. But American ingenuity spread the practice, with high-tech companies on the West Coast introducing it to the workplace during the 1980s. It spread rapidly from there and its use has been noted in national surveys on the best places to work.
And here’s something to double your fun—use chair massage to introduce your fellow shoppers or travel companions to their first massage. It’s a lighthearted way to start someone down the path to wellness.
5. Stone Massage
This modality is truly a hot topic. It’s listed far and wide on spa and practitioner websites. You may have seen pictures of massage clients with smooth, black stones resting on their bare spines. These stones are warmed and then placed on the body, as well as used as an extension of the therapist’s hands throughout the massage. The placement of the stones can be aligned with chakras, meridians, and zones according to the energy system your practitioner follows.
Stone work can easily be blended with other kinds of massage and can be a powerful healing and grounding force. It’s touted as an effective remedy to stress, anxiety, and overactivity. Your therapist may refer to improvements in your flow of earth element or to the function of your root chakra. Clients have noted pain relief as one of the benefits.
It may seem that supplies for this technique are free and plentiful, but in actual practice, there’s a lot to choosing the right stones. Your therapist will look at the stone’s exfoliating quality, weight, color, and porosity. That’s one reason mechanically polished stones are not recommended; mechanical polishing seals up the stone’s surface. It’s preferable that your therapist gets them from nature where they’ve been polished to perfection by streams and the ocean.
6. Geriatric Massage
There are many applications for massage therapy for the elderly. Many seniors grew up during the Depression and think of many grooming and self-care activities as impossibly self-indulgent. They might be more receptive to the notion that massage is good for their health. Many have greater discomfort with removing clothing than younger people do, so it might do well to explain to them the careful draping in a massage session that protects their privacy.
You can do a favor to the aging members of your family by knowing two of the biggest reasons first-timers generally try massage: a medical professional recommends it, or they receive a gift certificate. If you want your loved ones to benefit from massage when they are older, there’s no time like the present to acquaint them with the joys of professional massage therapy.
Down the road, as some greater infirmities like arthritis and dementia present themselves, the way will have been paved for massage to be a soothing resource. When the time comes, massage has its place in hospice care for both patients and stressed-out families. Give the gift of massage now and watch the dividends pay off for your whole family when it counts the most.
7. Pregnancy Massage
Mothers-to-be can greatly benefit from pregnancy massage. It’s worthwhile considering this as a baby shower gift for you or a friend to ease those backaches and swollen ankles. It can help a mother’s changing posture and possibly the positioning of the baby in the womb. The beneficial relaxation chemicals a mother’s body releases when getting a massage also flow to the baby. When the exciting time comes for baby to join the world, massage can be a wonderful support that eases and shortens labor, reducing mom’s pain and anxiety. Once the baby is born, massage can help bring mother’s strained body structure and physiology back into alignment. Massage can also soothe shoulders sore from holding and breast-feeding the little one. Mother’s emotions can be volatile while hormones are still running amok; studies indicate massage may be helpful in regulating stress and mood chemistry.
8. Baby Massage
Right after that pregnancy, there’s a special way for baby to get started on a lifelong enjoyment of massage. Baby massage provides stimulation to little nervous systems, promoting brain development, and supporting that all-important parent-child bonding. (Studies have shown premature infants gain weight more quickly when they are massaged. Keep in mind that massage of premature infants calls for different techniques than for full-term babies.) More parents than ever are learning and practicing baby massage. One training session is usually enough, as the techniques are fairly simple. Parents may feel less helpless with a fussing baby when they have another tactic up their sleeves. And it’s another way to enjoy the wonder of a new life.
Reflexology is a popular and ancient form of bodywork that flows from a Chinese tradition and works with the incredible system of nerves and energy meridians rooted in our feet, hands, and ears. Ancient practitioners of foot massage came across tender spots on feet and noticed specific health conditions improved after massage. That allowed them to map foot sensitivities with corresponding body parts. So if your reflexologist comes to a tender spot on one of these extremities, pay heed to the organ or system to which it may be connected.
Reflexology is a smart way to work with health concerns not ordinarily reachable through regular massage, such as problems in organs or internal systems. This also goes for areas too damaged or painful to benefit from direct touch. Reflexology addresses a modern problem as well. Our feet are cooped up in shoes all day and walk mainly on hard, flat surfaces. This means the opportunities for feet to send signals to the brain about temperature, texture, and surface variations are lost. Some reflexology practices have addressed this with mini-obstacle courses that might include walking over a variety of surfaces, such as cobblestone paths. Don’t worry—there are no hot coals involved.
10. Energy Work
A good way to understand energy work is to think of a tree. The trunk represents the idea that energy systems interact with and support the physical body’s health. There are major tree branches representing schools of thought that define energy flow by chakras, meridians, zones, or other classifications. These include ancient Chinese medicine, the Eastern ayurvedic tradition, and Native American healing.
If you’ve tried acupuncture, acupressure, or tai chi, you have already been exposed to the Chinese system. You may be surprised you’ve been dabbling in the ayurvedic tradition if you’ve tried yoga. Receiving energy work may mean never being physically touched, keeping all of your clothes on, and remaining seated or standing. Despite this hands-off approach, recipients of energy work often report dramatic reorientations in how they feel and move in the world. Some of the more prominent methods are shiatsu, reiki, Zero Balancing, jin shin jyutsu, and Insight Bodywork.
There are new discoveries every day in the complex relationship between body, mind, and spirit. It’s an exciting journey and your needs, as well as those of your loved ones, will change. Whatever your path, keeping an open mind and listening to your body are the guides to your unique situation. Your health and wellness are up to you, so relax and let go of your stress. You deserve it.