What is massage?


The essential element across all kinds of massage is touch, a basic way of making contact with others, which we all need. For a baby, nurturing touch is essential for growth and development. If a child falls over, we instinctively ¡®rub it better¡¯. Massage uses touch in a sensitive and respectful way, with the intention of promoting a sense of wellbeing in the receiver. This means the therapist takes account not just of your physical symptoms, but of your mental, emotional and spiritual being, and the circumstances under which you live your life. For instance, if you have no housing and are unemployed, this could affect your physical and mental health. Understanding the context in which problems develop is as important as looking for the symptoms. A holistic approach is often seen as being the very opposite of conventional medicine, but not all complementary therapists work holistically, and conventional medicine can be practised in a holistic way.


Massage therapies are often described as being complementary or alternative. Complementary means a therapy that can be used in addition to, or alongside, conventional medicine. Alternative means a therapy that claims to be a complete system, which can be used instead of orthodox medicine. In practice, all forms of massage can be, and are, used on their own or alongside Western medical treatments. For the future, there are moves towards ¡®integrated medicine¡¯, including the best of both worlds. Complementary and alternative approaches share a belief in the body¡¯s ability to heal itself. Treatments are non-invasive, without unpleasant side effects, and the practitioner commits more time to the client than a GP is usually able to do. The quality of the relationship between therapist and client is important. It¡¯s a relationship based on trust, and is about ¡®being with¡¯ rather than ¡®doing something to¡¯ the client. Massage practitioners are sometimes called ¡®bodyworkers¡¯. Western science tends to foster a split between body and mind, but complementary therapists often try to reunite them as one, with the concept of a ¡®bodymind¡¯. Practitioners believe that we are creatures whose mind and emotions are embodied in our physical existence. It follows that our memories and personal histories are also in our bodies, which is one reason why touch, in massage, can be both powerful and helpful.


What different kinds of massage are there?


Massage with oils  This is sometimes called Swedish massage. Various techniques such as stroking, friction and percussion are used to knead and stretch the soft tissues of the body.


Aromatherapy massage This is usually a gentle massage, using essential oils from plants, because they have specific therapeutic purposes. Essential oils are chemically complex and very concentrated. For massage, they are usually diluted with a nut or vegetable oil, such as almond.


Shiatsu Coming from Japan, this traditional massage works, like acupuncture, by stimulating and balancing the body¡¯s energy flow along 'meridians' or energy pathways. The practitioner

uses techniques such as holding, pressing, and stretching, to balance Ki or Qi (energy) in the body.


Thai yoga  Another traditional massage, this time based on Indian and Thai forms. It consists of a flowing sequence of stretching and pressing on energy pathways in the body, using hand, arm, thumb and foot pressure. The treatment includes passive yoga stretches.


Reflexology Reflexology is based on the principles of ¡®zone therapy¡¯ (similar to the meridians or energy pathways) and the theory that every organ and system of the body has a counterpart in reflex points in the feet and hands. Practitioners work largely on the feet.


On-site massage A quick treatment, typically given in offices, which focuses on muscles and acupressure points on the back, arms, neck and head. Wearing normal clothes, you would usually sit leaning

forward on a special chair, which supports you comfortably. These are the most common types, but you may also hear of Indian head massage, Bowen, Hellerwork, Rolfing, Trager, biodynamic massage, pulsing and sports or remedial massage, among others. Practitioners may combine different types.


Your choice of massage will probably depend on convenience, cost and friends¡¯ recommendations. And you may need to try several kinds before you find a type of massage and a practitioner that suit you.