Holistic massage is an ancient method of healing that clears the lymphatic drainage system and releases toxins from the body. By recognizing that illness and stress affect not only our physical but also our emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being, holistic massage allows the body’s natural healing abilities to come forth and balance the entire body as a whole.
The term “holistic” derives from the ancient Greek word “holos,” which means “whole.” By definition, holistic massage treats the whole of the body as a single unity.
Holistic massage can lead to better circulation, less physical tension, and deeper breathing, which oxygenates the entire body. There are also many emotional and mental benefits from holistic massage.
Holistic massage techniques have been used for thousands of years in Egypt, China, and India. Ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing system, uses the therapeutic benefits of massage combined with plant extracts, spices, and aromatic oils.
In India head massage, known as Champissage, has been used for centuries for cleansing, relaxation, and medical purposes. The practice began with women using it to treat their daughters’ hair. Barbers have also used it as part of the process to cut their male clients’ hair. The tradition has been passed on in Indian families from one generation to the next.
Head massages originated as part of the ancient Indian practice of medicine, called Ayurveda, based on balancing the body, mind, and spirit to promote long life. Ancient Indians believed that massage of all types, used with herbs, spices, and oils, promoted strong muscles and skin, good health and encouraged the body’s natural healing powers.
I like the word holistic, although recognize that many people object to its holiness; indeed, I know some practitioners who insist on spelling the word wholistic. To my mind, the significance of the word whole in this context is that I not only work with the whole client but also I bring the whole of myself to the massage situation. Massage in essence is about sensitive communication through the medium of touch. At the moment of placing my hand on a client’s body, a range of physiological responses can occur, affecting the skin, the sensory nerve receptors, the muscle tissue, the circulation of blood and lymph, the ease of movement of joints, the digestion and so on. My skill as a holistic massage therapist, varying the depth, speed, and intention involved in the touch, helps to determine which response occurs.
Yet there is a great deal more than this. Our emotions are body-felt sensations. Consider when you have experienced familiar feelings such as anger, fear, shame, and joy. Each of these is fundamentally a physical response and experience as a result of the situation you were in. When I touch your body, I am literally in touch with your feelings. Also, our bodies embody our conscious and unconscious belief systems about ourselves. If you believe yourself to be a confident, outgoing person, you will carry yourself in a certain way, your muscles will develop particular patterns of tension and relaxation and you will present a particular appearance to others. If you believe yourself to be insignificant and unimportant, the posture and muscle patterning will appear very different. Whatever your self-belief, when as a holistic massage therapist I touch you, I am literally touching your view of yourself and the feelings that help to maintain that view. Of course, that view is likely to be the product of all you have experienced to date – so that when I touch you, I am in touch not only with who you are now but also with all of your personal histories to that moment.
In that moment of touch, not only are all your physical and emotional responses present but so are mine. I cannot help but bring to the massage situation my physical symptoms, my feelings and experiences, and my personal history. As a holistic massage therapist, my professionalism means that I will take care of myself elsewhere, but also that I may draw on my own history as appropriate in order to assist your individual process. It means that I may develop an expertise in working with particular clients because their experiences and needs related to my own. So the range of possible responses in a particular session is enormous, bringing together the rich complexity of who you are, who I am, and how we connect through the medium of touch.
As human beings, we are physical entities. Part of the deal of the human condition is that each of us has a body! Yet we have a culture and generations of conditioning that try to marginalize the body, teaching us to be ashamed of its size, shape, and functions. Many of us are not properly embodied. We have been taught by families, advertising media, partners, and our own inner critics that our bodies are not good enough. The role of the holistic massage therapist is both radical yet simple, namely enabling people to live fully in their bodies. That’s it! My work in essence is as simple yet profound as helping others to celebrate their physicality.
Our approach to a holistic massage today can be seen as a natural evolution from different massage traditions in both eastern and western cultures, over many years. Specific influences from the 20th century include;
- the development of Swedish Massage by Heinrich Ling;
- the growth of personal development and human potential movement. In particular, the meditative style of massage developed at the Esalen Institute in California is often seen as the birthplace of the present-day holistic massage;
- a growing awareness of stress as a major factor in health and illness;
- the growth in complementary therapies generally;
- the influence of physically-based personal development disciplines such as yoga, Tai Chi, and martial arts;
- increasing demands for massage therapists to adapt to a clientele in varied states of health, physical fitness, and emotional stability;
- the growing importance of practitioner self-awareness as an integral part of the massage, drawing here on therapeutic models such as counseling and psychotherapy.
Fundamental to my work as a holistic massage therapist is my ability to adapt and respond to the unique needs of each client, to customize my treatment accordingly, and also to take proper care of myself.
Holistic massage should be seen as a nurturing process of touch and response. The key here is to adapt the treatment to each client’s unique needs, physical characteristics, and personality. I often explain that I massage people, not bodies – that I do a massage with someone, rather than doing it to them. For example, I will adopt a very different approach to a client who approaches me in order to work through the trauma of a history of sexual abuse to one who simply wants her stiff shoulders eased after spending too long in front of the computer screen.
As a holistic massage therapist, I engage with each client, assessing needs and including physical, mental, and emotional factors. I then make an appropriate selection from a wide repertoire of possible techniques, customizing the treatment to meet those needs at that particular time. This process is creative, sometimes unexpected, and does not follow standard routines. I need to be guided by principles of sensitivity, awareness, knowledge, and professionalism.
In many ways, holistic massage is about setting an atmosphere, creating energy, being in a particular vibe. The way in which the massage is approached is as important as the techniques themselves. Of course, techniques matter too and may be drawn from a wide area. For instance, holistic massage may include:
- classical Swedish techniques such as effleurage; petrissage, kneading, friction, and wringing;
- percussive techniques such as hacking, cupping, pummeling, plucking, and brushing;
- gentle handholds, drawing on healing traditions and an awareness of the human energy field. This may extend to working off the physical body in the human aura;
- deeper pressure techniques; such as neuromuscular technique (NMT);
- passive joint mobilizations and stretches, such as muscle energy technique (MET);
- appropriate techniques from related bodywork traditions such as cranial-sacra therapy and shiatsu.
An important feature of this approach is the ability to track through from theoretical knowledge and understanding of anatomy, physiology, and pathology to the practical realities of each client’s symptoms and responses – and how therefore to adapt one’s massage. In other words, the really skillful holistic massage therapist will understand the body’s structure, function, and malfunction, know how to assess the effects on a particular client, and the consequent links to massage technique. The article by Darien Pritchard and Su Fox in the February issue of Massage World explains this much more fully.
The holistic massage practitioner is a facilitator through touch, working with and guided by the client.
This contrasts with other massage approaches, which may seek to sort out the client, regarding symptoms as problems to be fixed. Such a reductionist approach treats the body not the person, offering massage as a biomechanical intervention within a medical paradigm that is becoming increasingly outmoded. For instance, the growing scientific evidence for mind-body medicine or psychoneuroimmunology supports the importance of relaxation, stress reduction, and emotional factors as fundamental to understanding and healing dis-ease.
In addition to technical skills, the role of the holistic massage practitioner must require self-awareness, since the depth of contact with oneself is a prerequisite for depth in the therapeutic relationship. This self-awareness might be physical, through exercise, dance, yoga or tai chi; emotional through counseling or psychotherapy; or spiritual through meditation practice. What matters is that holistic practitioners are committed to working on their personal process, in order to enhance their work with clients. In the Massage Training Institute, all practitioners must maintain continuing professional development (CPD) through supervision and further training courses and cannot renew their annual registration without this.
Attention to personal as well as professional development by the practitioner means that during sessions s/he can be more present and grounded. Quality of touch becomes the interface at which the practitioner and client meet. There can be a deeper level of communication beyond technique, offering clients opportunities for change through greater awareness. Also, through effective body use whilst massaging the holistic massage practitioner both look after his/her own physical well-being and also brings into the session qualities of grace, fluidity, and rhythm.
Holistic massage can lead to a variety of outcomes; depending on the needs of the individual client. They can include:
- physical improvements such as relaxing tight muscles, improvements to circulation, nervous function, and joint mobility; can ease many short and long-term ailments, such as back pain, arthritis, and insomnia.
- reducing stress, one of the main causes of disease in Western society. As well as addressing stress factors, holistic massage can facilitate the switch between sympathetic and autonomic nervous systems, hence allowing both bodies and mind valuable recuperation time (refs 3,4,5).
- emotionally, massage can provide the caring non-intrusive touch clients have often longed for; this can soothe the busy mind, reduce stress and enhance self-esteem.
- at a deeper level still, massage can release the personal history stored in body tissues; this can lead to powerful changes in our energy and provide a vital and chemical ingredient in each person’s process of growth.
Of course, the key here is to work with each client and the agenda they bring. Some simply wish to have their tight shoulders relaxed, whilst others might use massage for much deeper personal growth.
The holistic approach to massage therapy can touch an individual’s whole being – physical, mental, and emotional. It holds the possibility of reintegration, is person-centered, and is guided by principles of sensitivity, awareness, and quality of touch. These enable the holistic massage therapist to work with clients, applying techniques and skills in an appropriate manner. At an organizational level, the MTI is one organization with a well-developed, thoroughly thought through approach to holistic massage.
A system of therapeutic massage and exercise for the muscles and joints, developed in Sweden in the 1800s. Includes effleurage, pétrissage, friction, vibration, and tapotement. Swedish massage is intended to improve circulation and tissue elasticity while reducing muscle tone and creating a parasympathetic response.
Swedish massage is the most popular type of massage in the United States. It involves the use of hands, forearms, or elbows to manipulate the superficial layers of the muscles to improve mental and physical health. Active or passive movement of the joints may also be part of the massage. The benefits of Swedish massage include increased blood circulation, mental and physical relaxation, decreased stress and muscle tension, and improved range of motion.
Swedish massage was invented by a Swedish fencing instructor named Per Henrik Ling in the 1830s. When he was injured in the elbows, he reportedly cured himself using tapping (percussion) strokes around the affected area. He later developed the technique currently known as Swedish massage. This technique was brought to the United States from Sweden by two brothers, Dr. Charles and Dr. George Taylor in the 1850s. The specific techniques used in Swedish massage involve the application of long gliding strokes, friction, and kneading, and tapping movements on the soft tissues of the body. Sometimes passive or active joint movements are also used.
There are numerous physical benefits associated with the use of Swedish massage:
- loosening tight muscles and stretching connective tissues
- relieving cramps and muscle spasms and decreasing muscle fatigue
- loosening joints and improving range of motion
- increasing muscle strength
- calming the nervous system
- stimulating blood circulation
- firming up muscle and skin tone
- relieving symptoms of such disorders as asthma, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic and acute pain syndromes, myofascial pain, headache, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, and athletic injuries
- speeding up healing from injury and illness
- improving lymphatic drainage of metabolic wastes
Mental and emotional benefits
- mental relaxation
- improvement in length and quality of sleep
- relief of stress, depression, anxiety, and irritation
- increased ability to concentrate
- improved sense of well-being
In Swedish massage, the person to be massaged lies on a massage table and is draped with a towel or sheet. It is a full-body massage treatment, except in areas that are contraindicated or where the client requests not to be touched. Aromatic or unscented oil or lotion is used to facilitate the massage movements. Each session usually lasts 30-60 minutes. Depending on the client’s preferences, a massage session may involve the use of several or all of the following basic techniques: effleurage, petrissage, friction, vibration, and tapotement.
Effleurage is the most common stroke in Swedish massage. It is a free-flowing and gliding movement towards the heart, tracing the contours of the body using the palm of one or both hands. Oil is applied with this stroke to begin the first stage of the massage. The therapist applies a light or medium constant pressure. This stroke is used to warm up the muscles, relax the body, calm the nerves, improve blood circulation and heart function, and improve lymphatic drainage.
This technique resembles kneading dough. It involves lifting, rolling, and squeezing the flesh under or between the hands. Pétrissage is designed to release muscle tension, improve blood flow, and increase lymphatic drainage.
Friction strokes work on deeper muscles than the techniques previously described. The friction technique is a pressure stroke and is the deepest that is used in Swedish massage. The massage therapist applies pressure by placing the weight of his or her body on the flat of the hand and the pads of the thumbs, knuckles, fingers, or the back of the forearms, and then releases the pressure slowly and gently. This movement should be a continuous sliding motion or a group of alternating circular motions.
To effect vibration, the massage therapist gently shakes or trembles the flesh with the hand or fingertips, then moves on to another spot and repeats this stroke. Vibration is designed to release muscle tension in small muscle areas, such as those on the face or along the spine.
Tapotement, or tapping and percussion, is a quick choppy rhythmic movement that has a stimulating or toning effect. The following are variations of tapotement:
- Cupping: The therapist forms the hands into a cup shape with fingers straight but bending only at the lower knuckles; the thumbs are kept close to the palms. The therapist strikes the flesh with the flat of the hands one after another in quick succession.
- Hacking: This technique is similar to cupping. The therapist uses the sides of the hands with palms facing one another to make a chopping movement.
- Pummeling: For this stroke, the therapist makes loose fists in both hands and applies them rapidly in succession over the thighs and buttocks.
Tapotement techniques are invigorating to most people but may be too intense for some. When prolonged, tapotement leads to overstimulation and even exhaustion of the nerves and muscles. In addition, it should not be used over varicose veins or directly above bony structures.
Swedish massage requires the following equipment:
- Massage surface: This may be a professional massage table or any firm but well-padded surface.
- A clean sheet to cover the part of the body that is not massaged.
- Cushions: These may be needed, depending on the client’s wishes, to prevent lower back pain. The cushions may be placed under the head and the knees.
- Oils: The base oil should be a vegetable oil, cold-pressed, unrefined, and free of additives. These oils contain such nutrients as vitamins and minerals in addition to fatty acids. They do not clog the pores as mineral oils often do. Essential (aromatic) oils may be added to provide additional relaxation or other therapeutic effects. Massage oil should be warmed in the therapist’s hands before it is applied to the client’s skin.
Swedish massage should not be given to patients with the following physical disorders or conditions:
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- broken bones, fractures, dislocations, or severe sprains
- contagious diseases
- open or unhealed sores or wounds
- body areas that are inflamed, swollen, or bruised
- varicose veins
- recent surgery
- severe pain
- kidney disease
- large hernias
- torn ligaments, tendons, or muscles
- high blood pressure or heart problems
- certain kinds of cancer
- history of phlebitis or thrombosis (These patients may have blood clots that may become dislodged and travel to the lungs, with potentially fatal results.)
- drug treatment with blood thinners (These medications increase the risk of bleeding under the skin.)
Some clients with histories of physical violence or abuse may feel uncomfortable about removing their clothing or other aspects of massage. A brief explanation of what happens in a massage session and how they can benefit from massage is usually helpful.
There have been few reported side effects associated with massage of low or moderate intensity. Intense massage, however, may increase the risk of injury to the body. Vigorous massage has been associated with muscle pain and such injuries as bleeding in the liver or other vital organs, and the dislodgment of blood clots.
Research & general acceptance
Swedish massage is now gaining acceptance from the medical community as a complementary treatment. Studies have shown that massage can relax the body, decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and reduce stress and depression. It may also provide symptomatic relief for many chronic diseases. Many doctors now prescribe massage therapy as a symptomatic treatment for headache, facial pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, other chronic and acute conditions, stress, and athletic injuries. Many insurance companies now reimburse patients for prescribed massage therapy.
*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
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