14 Massage Techniques

By Judith Fein / September 12, 2011

You’ve probably met them as you travel though life: stock brokers, teachers, public relations folks who quit their jobs, enroll in massage school, and follow their bliss into the world of body work. They spend their days in rooms that are designed to soothe: low lights, gentle music, harmonious and pleasing décor. And they offer their clients a broad array of treatments that enhance well-being, relax, pamper, nurture, relieve tightness and tension, and pay respect to body, mind, and soul.

There are different kinds of massage that correspond to what your body is asking for on any given day, and, in a constantly evolving field, you can count on new and improved treatments as you lie down on a massage table and kiss stress and worry goodbye. Below is a guide to different massage modalities in the wonderful world of massage.


1. Swedish

This European technique is geared for relaxation. Combining effleurage (long, sweeping strokes), kneading, vibration, pressure, and other manipulation techniques and slow movement, it is gentle and soothing, and leaves you more comfortable and relaxed, ready for a good night’s sleep or dinner with friends. It targets fatigue, nervous tension, and brain exhaustion. It’s the perfect massage for anyone who likes a light touch—which, surprisingly, includes many muscle-bound, iron-pumping folks.

2. Shiatsu

The Japanese are great at more than cars and sushi. About five millennia ago they developed this treatment, which calls on the therapist to apply thumbs, palms, and elbows to the body’s meridian and pressure points (also called acupoints). Once stimulated, these points activate the body to come into a state of energized balance and allow energy to flow through the entire system. The treatment is customarily done with your clothes on.

3. Deep Tissue/Sports Massage

This falls in the category of therapeutic massages, and is used to treat both acute and chronic problems. It alleviates soreness and stiffness in the muscle tissues, joints, and tendons, and increases flexibility and circulation. The best part is that the therapist provides the relief, but you get to call the shots about how deep you want the pressure to be. It is usually a full-body massage, but be sure to communicate with your therapist about areas that are screaming out for special attention. A tuned-in therapist will find them, so you can fall asleep if you wish to, and you will wake up with your tissues attended to.

4. Thai

Thai massage, which evolved from ancient healing techniques, has gained a reputation as a no-no for sissies. In Thailand, therapists sometimes walk on your back or twist you into shapes that are usually the domain of pretzels. In America, most practitioners will help your body to stretch—often using poses associated with yoga—so that muscles are energized and lengthened. Thai massage lovers rave about improved flexibility, circulation, and healing.

5. La Stone Therapy

Inspired by centuries-old traditional Native American medicine modalities, this relative newcomer to the modern massage world has quickly caught on around the globe. There are many variants, but the basic treatment involves deep, penetrating heat that is applied with heated stones, often alternated with chilled stones. Spa aficionados swear by it and skip off the massage table feeling balanced and relaxed. It is a full body massage that is like the Red Cross for tense muscles, aching joints, and an overwhelmed mind and spirit.

6. Anti-Stress Massage

It’s quick and efficient, and it’s a fave of jetlagged travelers and folks who have spent too many hours in the office. It generally focuses on the neck, shoulders, and back, and it’s a balm for sore, achy, and tight muscles.

7. Reiki

Although a darling of the New Age, Reiki is actually an ancient method for channeling energy. The practitioner’s hands are placed on the body in special patterns, allowing blocked channels to open up and vital, universal energy to flow through. This is a non-invasive, gentle treatment that emphasizes touch rather than penetration. It is a spiritual treatment, and doesn’t involve traditional massage strokes. It is geared toward relieving pain, reducing stress, and aiding the healing process for physical and emotional injuries and difficulties. Reiki means “universal life force,” and it can be likened, in the Western world, to “laying on of hands.”

8. Craniosacral

If we all had well-functioning nervous systems, there would likely be no need for stress-reduction and massage. Craniosacral treatments work gently on the soft connective tissue that surrounds the central nervous system, bringing relief as it increases the circulation of fluids and improves the availability of nutrients. It uses your body’s own healing mechanisms to reduce the deleterious effects of stress on your central nervous system. Expect a series of feather-light yet powerful holds along the spinal column and head.

9. Polarity

A kissing cousin of Reiki and Craniosacral, polarity therapy targets blockages to the natural flow of energy. It is aimed at achieving balance and harmony, and the therapist applies pressure that ranges from soft to deep; again, you call the shots.

10. Reflexology

Its underlying philosophy is that all things are connected, especially the hands and feet to the organs and structural areas of the body. By working the reflex points in the members, the entire system reaps the benefits. It revitalizes and relaxes the whole body, while concentrating on areas that need special attention. The treatment is said to emanate from Pharaonic Egypt, and we know what magicians those ancient Egyptians were!

11. Lomi-Lomi

Lomi-Lomi evolved from the practices of Kahunas (shamans) in Hawaii. It treats the body we walk around in, as well as the spirit that nourishes us. The therapist does breath work to align herself and prepare for healing. Then you are coated in oil and massaged with long, repetitive strokes as the therapist works in dance-like fashion, performing circular and figure-eight-like movements. The analogy to dance is not gratuitous, as Lomi-Lomi is based on the sacred Hawaiian hula. It is not deep like a sports massage, and in gentleness of touch is more akin to Swedish.

12. Aromatherapy

The nose knows. As the practitioner uses essential and fragrant oils of plants, flowers, and herbs, the body rejuvenates and is restored to harmony and balance. Many travelers chose this therapy to overcome jetlag and acclimate to high altitudes.

13. Neuromuscular

This is not recommended as a first-time treatment and is a deep, powerful, penetrating massage that relieves both acute and chronic pain caused by over-worked muscles and injury. If you enjoy Swedish massage, this is not your puppy.

14. Lymphatic

Where there’s life, there’s lymph—and this lymphatic drainage helps to activate the body’s natural immune system by eliminating toxins.

A general note about massage treatments: In music, art, teaching, or most other professions, an excellent practitioner brings his or her own skills and adaptations to the work. The same is true of massage therapists. Many of the inspired ones bring their own flair to the massage table, so you may find variations that will surprise and delight you.

I was recently stunned by the effectiveness of a cutting-edge manual therapy treatment administered by Mauro Jaramillo in Santa Fe (he teaches 125 of the 300 hours of the Holistic Massage course at the Scherer Institute of Natural Healing and divides his time between New and Old Mexico). For seven years I have had shoulder pain from a minor car accident. Mauro’s work is rooted in the theory of massage and therapeutic body work and is geared towards resolving myoskeletal conditions that include structural and functional problems like scoliosis, chronic pain, short leg syndromes, rotated and tilted hips, injuries and body traumas. His aim is to not only relieve, but to prevent and resolve problems.

Mauro began with a thorough evaluation and assessment of my body—my range of motion, how I walked, stood and moved. To my surprise, he didn’t just focus on my shoulder, but he paid particular attention to my toes, the length of my legs, and the fact that my shoulders tend to curve inward, as though protecting my heart. I got up on the table and Mauro stretched, massaged, and tested my whole body, explaining that he was going to the origin of my pain, rather than just treating the symptom.

A day later I felt a little better, two days later I felt more improvement, and by the third day, my shoulder pain was gone. The healing lasted for seven months, and then I went back for a re-evaluation and touch-up. Many people go to Mauro for great bodywork and to see where they stand in terms of structural balance and fitness (www.thyselfbehealed.com).

Judith Fein
Judith Fein

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