If ever there was a sacred treatment, I would have to say it was massage and the art of ‘touch’. The concept of massage therapy goes back thousands of years, although I daresay the art of healing touch is, as a primal instinct, as old as human kind itself.

In India and the Orient, touch was practiced to release chi (or energy) that was trapped in parts of the body through some sort of injury or stress, so the body was free to heal itself.

I learned massage as part of a Aromatherapy Practitioner’s course I took and offered aromatherapy and Swedish massage on people as well as Therapeutic Touch and Reiki treatments. To me these treatments are about promoting the flow of chi. They include scent, touch and colour – all of which can shift blockages in chi flow that are brought on by trauma (whether physical or emotional) and stress. These treatments are very relaxing and at the same time, healing. It can feel like there is nothing happening but there is a lot going on. It is just – usually – ‘quieter’.

But here I am getting caught up in my own story! Usually when people think of massage they are thinking about swedish massage. This article talks about the different types of massage therapy, but first let’s learn what massage therapy can do for us.

Benefits of Massage Therapy

  • Reduce stress
  • Increase flexibility
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Alleviate many types of back pain
  • Increase range of motion
  • Reduce cramps and spasms
  • Improved blood circulation in muscles

What is Massage Therapy?

In all types of massage pressure is applied to the body in various ways (hands, fingers,- and sometimes knuckles, forearms and elbows). The goal is manipulation of the soft tissues to promote better health and pain relief.

Generally speaking, the deeper the therapist goes into the soft tissue, the more intense it can be – meaning it can be uncomfortable. This is particularly true for a sports-type massage which is what I am getting for my back and hip pain. It is a deep tissue treatment. And although the problem started with my hip and thigh, it appears that the hip itself is causing problems in my thoracic spine. It makes sense. Since all the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are connected, if one joint is misaligned, or a muscle tight and contracted, it exerts pressure on other areas.

When I was taking a yoga teacher training intensive, the instructor demonstrated scoliosis using her own body, showing how a tightness or rotation in one joint produced a curve and rotation – a weakness on the opposite side. It was quite an impressive demonstration, so that I am quite able to accept that first my hip hurt and now, to treat it, my upper back is quite unhappy at being disturbed. But the question is, which came first: the hip pain or the tight muscles in my thoracic area? This is one of the main reasons why we cannot self-diagnose back pain. A massage therapist has the training to figure out what is going on with your back.

Choosing your Massage Therapy Type

There are many different types of massage therapy. Choosing the right one will take a bit of experimenting, but any reputable massage professional will walk you through the proper method for your particular back pain.

Swedish Massage
Swedish massage involves long strokes with the hands. Ideal for increasing blood flow to the muscles, increasing circulation, reducing toxins in the muscles and increasing flexibility. I love this style of massage and you will find this basic technique goes by different names. As I mentioned above, aromatherapy massage is often a Swedish massage. I had a Hawaiian style massage when I was in Mexico this spring. It is called Lomilomi – which means massage in the Hawaiian language and while the actual technique varies by region, it is basically Swedish massage. When I had it in Mexico, there was a Mexican spin by using coconut oil and tequila on my skin (I smelled like a tropical drink when it was over) and it was one of the most exquisite  massage treatments I’ve ever experienced. Now, was it the Lomilomi massage technique or the therapist? Who can say, but I do know I would have Lomilomi again.

Hot Stone massage
Hot Stone is a pretty close contender for my favourite massage – ever. I had one aboard a cruise ship. It only pales in comparison to my recent Lomilomi experience because it was so long ago. It was deeply relaxing and well, mystical. I’ve experienced altered states while in meditation, but it was the first time I had gone into such a deeply relaxed state in massage. My body and energy field was so greatly expanded I felt as large as the sky and I was just sort of floating. All entirely appropriate to having a massage while at sea, I thought!

Hot Stone massage uses heated stones to relax the muscles and balance the energy centers of the body, and the stones themselves are used in a couple of different ways. Instead of hands, the stones make contact with your skin. The stones vary in size to fit the area they are working on such as large ones for the back and thighs and smaller ones for the neck, arms and feet. The massage is carried out using light pressure.

Heated stones may also be placed on chakra points on your spine, or on your hands and feet while the massage is done on your back or thighs. Sometimes when I am getting a massage and I am deeply relaxed it can feel like there are more than one set on hands massaging me: The ‘spirit’ hands come in. This is what it feels like when the hot stones are placed on my body. I assume other people have experience this ‘spirit hands’ phenomenon though I haven’t actually discussed it with anyone. If you have, let me know. I’d be curious to hear your stories!

Deep Tissue Massage
This is basically a Swedish massage technique that focuses on a particular set of muscles to break down adhesions or knots in the muscle tissue and increase the range in motion. The movements can be trigger point therapy (pressing deeply into ‘spots’ that hurt) or massage is conducted against the muscle grain to get deep into the tissues. There are quite a few different brands of deep tissue work out there. What I get is generally called sports massage which as I understand it, incorporates Myofascial Release, Active Release and TriggerPoint Therapy.

In my experience, the massage therapist will check with you to see how much pressure you can take — and will back the pressure off it is too uncomfortable. My massage therapist uses progressive pressure. It starts out as quite light and as my muscles loosen up and relax, she begins to work more deeply on them. As it gets more intense, I focus on actively breathing and releasing that tight muscle. Although it is uncomfortable, my approach is that it is taking my consciousness into places I was unaware of. If I can be taken to the muscles that are tight and contracted, I can actively use my breath and intention to let go of it. You of course, have the final say on how deeply any massage technique is done, however a sports massage – or any massage that works on deep tissue can make you feel sore for a few days. However, it may be no worse than what you are already experiencing and I believe that it speeds up the healing.

Thai Massage
This massage technique is designed to lengthen and strengthen the body. It improves range of motion, flexibility and improves posture. Poor posture is one of the causes of back pain. It is done fully clothed with the client and therapist on a mat. I haven’t actually had Thai massage yet but it is on my list and I’ve heard it described as supported yoga poses.

Aromatherapy Massage
This is a massage using specific essential oils that have therapeutic properties in and of themselves – such as pain relief or increasing blood circulation. The primary way the essential oils work is through inhaling the scents where they enter the blood stream fairly rapidly, but some of the essential oil does become absorbed by the skin as well. Although they can be used with any type of massage, many therapists use Swedish massage or effleurage.

Aromatherapy massage can also be a mystical experience, bringing on an altered state of very deep relaxation. When the massage therapist gets the blend of essential oils to be used for your massage just right, the combination of the smell and the touch is just exquisite. However, I have had aromatherapy massage where the oils used have not been to my liking and I’ve actually had an unpleasant experience as a result. Oftentimes I find that the therapist uses pre-made bottled scents and this is just massage with scents. It isn’t aromatherapy where the oils are selected and mixed for each individual client and appointment. Of course, being a trained aromatherapist, I am biased.

To conclude…

Massage therapy is a whole body therapy, but especially when you have aching muscles or a sore back because then your whole body is likely to be tense. Even if the therapist doesn’t work especially deeply on your back muscles, the treatment will relieve tension and increase blood circulation. If you are more relaxed it stands to reason you will feel better. In and of itself, relaxation is deeply therapeutic — touch is therapeutic and healing.

One of the reasons I have had so many massage experiences is because every massage therapist and the techniques they use is different.  Conventional wisdom would say to find a massage professional who is  a licensed and registered massage professional and well-versed in the type of massage that you choose. My experience is that registered massage therapists are extremely well trained in anatomy and health in general, and they continue their training throughout their careers. All those I have experience with were caring and dedicated individuals.

As a Certified Aromatherpist but not a Registered Massage Therapist I can’t agree that all good massage therapists are licensed and registered. The treatments I  gave when I was practicing Aromatherapy were  beneficial to my clients and as a healer I was often told that I had ‘good hands’.

There is also ‘a something more’ to look for that goes beyond qualifications, which is the energy of the therapist. It is not always easy to define, but what I look for in a massage therapist is someone who is a healer as well. To me a healer is someone who creates the energetic space for self healing to occur because I believe all healing is initiated from within, so there needs to be an energy match between the practitioner and client. For some people, perhaps this will be too ‘airy-fairy’ but I feel quite confident that all people recognize when they feel comfortable with one care-provider and uncomfortable with another. It doesn’t meant that one therapist is good and the other isn’t, just that there a good energy match between one but not the other.

© Deborah Redfern, 2011. All rights reserved.

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