ABCs of Massage

By Sandra Ramani / July 29, 2014
With so many massage options on the spa menu, it’s easy to get confused. Here, are the ABCs of massage with skin care benefits.
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The Thai massage at Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Courtesy of Four Seasons Chiang Mai / Photographer: Markus Gortz

If you’ve ever found yourself staring blankly at a spa menu, overwhelmed by all the massage offerings and unsure of the jargon, we feel your pain.

“Spas try to be informative, but it’s easy for the details of what to expect—and the specific therapeutic benefits—to become lost,” says Brad Drummer, co-owner of Washington, D.C.’s eco-friendly Nusta Day Spa ( and massage therapist and teacher with over 20 years’ experience.

No matter what style you choose,  you’ll also enjoy the added benefit of improved skin care. “Massage is great for circulating blood flow to the skin,” explains Drummer, “while the motions used in massage help the therapeutic, plant-based oils—many with moisturizing, detoxifying and anti-aging properties—penetrate more deeply into the skin.”

To help you find your way, we’ve compiled this list of popular massage styles, with tips on the various benefits and techniques.

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Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Swedish This most popular style—a spa menu staple—is defined by its mix of “long, light, slow and rhythmic strokes,” explains Spa Director Daryl Naidu of the Miraj Hammam Spa by Caudalie at the Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto. Also called “classic massage,” full-body Swedish sessions typically begin work on the back and end with light strokes on the scalp.

Good for: General relaxation, stress relief, and increased blood flow and circulation. This is your “one-size-fits-most” massage style, good for most body types, ages and issues. Though designed to address the whole body equally, therapists are usually happy to spend more time on troubled areas, if requested. Try: The Swedish massage at the Miraj Hammam Spa by Caudalie ($80-$210); add on a traditional hammam steam treatment for added relaxation and to help loosen muscles.

Shiatsu A combination of the Japanese words for “finger” and “pressure,” shiatsu uses kneading, pressing, tapping and stretching techniques, plus thumb, finger or palm pressure to work on specific meridians of the body, says Jackeline Silva, massage therapist at The Peninsula Spa, New York. Traditional shiatsu is performed without oils and on a mat on the floor, with the client wearing loose, comfortable clothing.

Good for: Balancing the flow of Qi, or the “vital energy life force” that runs through the body, as well as treating a wide range of internal and musculoskeletal issues. “Many guests seek shiatsu to treat headaches, digestive disorders, fatigue, insomnia, fibromyalgia, stress, anxiety, and lower back, neck and joint pain,” says Silva. Try: The Shiatsu Massage ($295) at The Peninsula Spa, New York, is performed in the traditional oil-free way.

Deep Tissue This style “focuses on realigning deeper layers of muscles and connective tissue using warming, light-but-firm strokes to increase circulation, followed by firmer strokes performed with the therapist’s elbow, forearm or finger pressure,” describes Carol Epstein, spa manager at Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa in Sausalito, CA.

Good for: Easing chronic pain, increasing blood flow, reducing inflammation and alleviating tension resulting from tight tissue clusters. Try: The excellent Therapeutic Massage at Casa Madrona ($105 or $155);

Lomi-Lomi This ancient Hawaiian healing tradition is based on the idea that “you carry emotional knots in parts of the body that manifest as physical knots,” explains Vanessa Zevallos, a massage therapist at The Modern, Honolulu. The style is found in various forms throughout the Polynesian islands, but the standard Hawaiian version includes compression-based strokes done with the therapist’s hands, elbows and forearms, using a “continuous, flowing, but deep rhythm that mimics the ocean.”

Good for: General stress- and pain-relief and—if you’re up for it—releasing emotional issues. “This isn’t just pure relaxation like Swedish massage, but can include more emotion-based work,” Zevallos stresses. “If you are open to releasing and letting go, it can work on a much deeper level.” Try: The Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi massage ($135-$185) at The Modern, Honolulu, performed with deeply hydrating coconut and nut oils.

Spa products

Hot Stone In the medium-pressure treatment, a variety of stones are heated in a steamer, then incorporated into the massage strokes as smooth extensions of the therapist’s hands. “The warm stones help relieve deep-set tension within the muscles,” explains Spa Director Emily Richey from The Four Seasons, Santa Fe. Typically, therapists work on an area with the stones, then leave them on strategic pressure points to continue delivering heat while they move on to another area.

Good for: “The combination of the oil and stones being used in the massage is very grounding mentally, while increased circulation and muscle relief are great physical benefits,” says Richey. Try: The Sacred Stone Massage ($165) at The Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, Santa Fe, uses a combination of hot and cold stones, plus juniper, sage and cypress essential oils.

Lymphatic Drainage Designed to encourage the drainage of the lymph nodes and swelling in the tissues, this gentle massage uses slow and rhythmic strokes performed in the direction of the lymph flow to help vessels open up and increase circulation. Therapists use soft rubbing, tapping and fluttery strokes to push any accumulated fluid in the right direction.

Good for: Though originally created to help reduce inflammation post-surgery, manual lymphatic drainage has proved useful as a detoxifying treatment, says Alli Fodor, spa manager at The Mayflower Grace in Connecticut—and is also effective for treating headaches, sinusitis and congestion, reducing swelling after periods of immobility (like air travel), easing arthritis pain, and reducing fluid retention during and after pregnancy. On the skin care front, Fodor says the service can help clear the complexion and improve the appearance of fine lines and scars, making it a popular service pre- and post-cosmetic surgery. Try: The Sweet Surrender Massage at The Mayflower Grace ($170) mixes lymphatic drainage with craniosacral and acupressure techniques.

Thai Massage A mix of traditional Chinese and Indian styles, with yoga-influenced stretching moves thrown in, Thai massage is performed oil-free on a padded mat on the floor, with the client in loose pajama-style clothing. Therapists start with the feet then continue up through the body, focusing on releasing blockage in the energy lines and easing limbs into assisted yoga postures. It’s often a workout for the therapist, as well, as they might use their feet, legs and forearms for stretches, acupressure and rhythmic compression work.

Good for: Relief from muscle and joint pain, improved posture, rebalancing the body, unblocking energy meridians and stimulating circulation. Clients often report feeling both deeply relaxed and energized at the same time. Try: The traditional Thai Massage ($130) at Six Senses Yao Noi, where the spa is tucked into the tropical hillside and modeled on a typical northern Thai village.; the relaxing yet stimulating treatment at Four Seasons Chiang Mai,

Reflexology Based on the idea that there are hundreds of points on our feet that correspond to different parts of the body—including the internal organs and glands—this bodywork style uses “firm pressure to the zones of the feet using targeted thumb, finger and hand techniques,” explains Catherine Powers, spa director at L’Auberge de Sedona. By stimulating these points, therapists are able to treat the whole body and bring it into balance.

Good for: “Almost immediately, most clients notice the benefit of full-body relaxation,” says Powers, “but research shows that reflexology is also effective in treating conditions related to stress, and can help reduce pain and soothe anxiety and depression, and work as palliative care for people with cancer.” Try: The al fresco “Feet in the Creek” treatment at the Spa at L’Auberge de Sedona ($135) starts with the client wading into Oak Creek, followed by an “earthing” session that ends with reflexology.

Watsu A mash-up of the words “water” and “shiatsu,” Watsu is an aquatic massage that takes place in a saltwater pool heated to 98 degrees. Featuring a series of stretches and gentle, rhythmic motions as the therapist cradles and pushes the clients weightlessly through the water, Watsu—with its floaty, dream-like feel—is known to create “a womblike experience,” explains Abril Gruber, spa director from The Spa at Rancho Valencia, San Diego, CA.

Good for: “Watsu is perfect for elderly clients, excellent for treating chronic pain, and a wonderful experience for women who are pregnant,” Gruber explains. Try: The Watsu service at The Spa at Rancho Valencia ($165) is popular with mothers-to-be.

Sandra Ramani

Sandra Ramani

Senior Contributing Editor at Organic Spa Magazine
In addition to serving as OSM’s Senior Contributing Editor, writer/editor Sandra Ramani covers travel, wellness, and lifestyle topics for such publications as Travel + Leisure, Robb Report, Premier Traveler, AFAR, Bridal Guide, Elite Traveler, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. She is also the author of “Day Trips from Dallas / Fort Worth,” now in its second edition. Recent assignments have found her sleeping in the Sahara, hopping helicopters in New Zealand, and making this new friend in Bali.
Sandra Ramani

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