Spirit Magazine , September 1996

While the spirit of massage has often been misrepresented, it is in fact one of the oldest healing arts, an extension of the natural instinct to rub, hold or rock any part of the body that hurts. Our word 'massage' is probably Arabic in origin. Although difficult to date exactly, earliest references to massage are believed to appear in a Chinese text in around 3000 BC. Massage was used by physicians in ancient Greece and Rome to promote health, relieve pain and improve athletic performance. Massage also features in Ayurvedic medicine, a system originating in India around 1000 BC. Chinese, Egyptian and Indian texts all recommend the use of massage for healing, and while it is hard to be precise about what form these massages may have taken, references to 'stroking with the palm of the hand' and 'rubbing' suggest something very similar to what we know as massage now. Nearer our own time, one of the biggest influences in the West came from the Swede Per Henrik Ling. At the beginning of the nineteenth century he developed a system of exercise and massage, now known as Swedish massage, which is what would probably first come to mind when most people think of this.

Many different types of massage have now evolved and developed. Whatever the orientation, most forms will have basic principles in common, and in practice may combine similar elements while working with a particular emphasis or objective in mind. As a general guide, a sport or sports injury massage helps to warm and tone muscles to prevent injury or help the body recover when injury has occurred. Remedial massage also deals with chronic conditions and injury. Therapeutic massage can help minor ailments and stress - related conditions, holistic massage may involve mental and emotional considerations and healing techniques. Beauty massage is concerned primarily with the effects of massage on the skin. Aromatherapy massage combines massage with the specific use of essential oils. Acupressure and shiatsu can also be included under the general umbrella of massage, although these are oriental disciplines based on different diagnostic principles, involving the use of pressure on specific points, usually applied through the clothes.

Massage involves applying various strokes to different parts of the body. Strokes can be divided into differing pressures which have differing functions. The lighter strokes include those at the beginning of the massage, for example effleurage, where the hands glide lightly over the skin, relaxing the surface of the muscles and beginning the relaxation process. Medium pressure strokes, for example kneading, work into the muscle tissue, to stretch and relax and help muscle drainage. Deep pressure strokes, such as friction, penetrate more deeply into the muscle layers. These strokes can be used very precisely, and are also used to massage the fibrous tissue around the joints. Most massage uses oil, usually a good vegetable oil such as grapeseed or sweet almond, which is primarily used to help the hands glide over the skin. Pure oils are beneficial in themselves, and essential oils may then be used to enhance the massage. The oils are used in a general sense, rather than to treat specific conditions.

The questions is: does massage work? The benefits can be enormous, but firstly it's important to understand that massage does not actually do anything to the body, but rather provides the stimulation for the body to function normally. The body is dynamic, health is not to be taken for granted and life is fragile. The body is constantly adapting to changing circumstances in order to maintain the optimum balance for survival. One of the effects of massage is to stimulate the circulation of the blood. In cases of bruising or swelling, an increase in circulation to the surrounding area speeds the healing process and also acts as a pain reliever. Massage also aids the flow of lymph. The lymphatic system, which helps to drain tissues and filter impurities from the blood, has no pumping system of its own and greatly relies on tiny massage - like movements of the skeletal muscles to stimulate its flow. Lymphatic drainage is of great importance to the effective functioning of the immune system.

The action of massage helps lactic acid drainage and to reduce muscle contraction. When muscles feel 'tight' and unable to relax in the normal way, this means an increase in resting tone. In some cases the body is being kept on almost continual alert. Where muscles are unresponsive and lacking sensation, massage can help soften tissue and bring back natural feeling and response. Muscle contraction also affects the movements of the joints, which has an effect on general flexibility. Remaining in a state of tension obviously requires a lot of energy and places a strain on the system as a whole.

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of massage is the effect it has on the nervous system. Massage acts on the central nervous system directly, helping to create a state of relaxation throughout the body. The nervous system is the means by which we interact with the outside world. The functioning of the nervous system has enormous implications for the way we relate to our surroundings and the amount of information we take in.

Relaxation strengthens the immune system and studies have also shown that people who are unhappy are more vulnerable to illness. Massage can be extremely useful as a means of learning how to relax, and of registering tension and strain at an earlier stage. Massage also helps increase body awareness, focusing the mind within the body. The relationship between giver and receiver, practitioner and client is extremely interesting. Through touch they connect non - verbally, and their interaction has a strong influence on the healing process. Minor ailments such as digestive problems, skin complaints, headaches and sinus problems can be relieved by massage, while a positive input also produces a more positive self - image.

Everyone knows massage feels good, even though they may not know the reasons why. However, it is this very 'feeling good' that makes massage so special. The simple act of touch has enormous impact, particularly in societies which are not touch - orientated, where people actually go to very great lengths to avoid it! Massage can be used to heal emotional scars, and return a natural sense of confidence and well - being.

The basic strokes of massage are natural movements and impulses. Self - massage and partner massage involve techniques that are easily learnt and can provide enormous benefits on a day - to - day basis. While care should always be taken, remember that massage involves heightened sensitivity on both sides. For simple relaxation and communication, massage is an enjoyable skill for which most of us have a natural aptitude.

Susan Mumford, 1996