Massage Therapy Primer

Are you interested in getting a massage but not sure which will suit you best? Most methods of massage are exceptional stress-busters, but there are dozens from which to choose, each with its own healthful benefits. Here’s a quick guide to some of the most popular or helpful methods of this powerful healing experience.

Shiatsu, which translated from Japanese means “finger pressure,” is a good one to try if you are uncomfortable with disrobing. Since no oil or lotion is used, you remain clothed. It is based on the holistic Eastern medicine belief that illness is caused by an imbalance of energy, or qi (chi). Practitioners use finger and palm pressure on pathways of energy called meridians to remove the blockage and release the qi.

Shiatsu is said to be helpful for many ailments: Insomnia, back pain, PMS, stress, arthritis, digestive issues, depression and more. Check with your doctor before trying Shiatsu, as it might be contraindicated for certain people, such as pregnant women or those with osteoporosis.

Swedish massage is fairly gentle, so it is a great option for a “massage virgin.” The therapist manipulates the superficial layers of muscle and connective tissue using, for the most part, long smooth strokes. You can also expect kneading, tapping, friction, stretching and shaking movements. Oil or lotion is used.

Swedish Massage is a great way to increase the oxygen flow in the blood and help release toxins from your muscles. It benefits the nerves, muscles, glands and circulation, and it is one of the most common methods used in the US. Fun fact: It is not called a Swedish massage in Sweden; it is called a “classic massage.”

Deep Tissue massage is similar to Swedish, but with a much deeper reach that is helpful for those with chronically tense areas, such as necks, lower backs and shoulders. Chronic muscle tension or injury can cause adhesions in muscles, tendons and ligaments that result in pain, inflammation and restricted movement.

The therapist uses hands and elbows, directing deep pressure and manipulation to break down these adhesions. And yes, it can hurt. But I have had neck and back issues for years, and the first time I had a good deep tissue massage, I finally understood the meaning of the term, “hurts so good!” While it is not necessarily geared towards relaxation, the eventual relief of pain certainly contributes to stress relief. I highly recommend giving this a try if you have any kind of chronic stiffness or muscle pain.

Hot Stone massage is another style that is based on the concept that the qi must flow freely between meridians along our bodies for maximum health. Heated smooth flat stones, usually river stones comprised of basalt (high iron content and hold heat well), are placed on key points that help open up the meridians. Many therapists also use the stones in their massage movements; the heat loosens the muscles, allowing for a deeper manipulation.

This ancient method is a personal favorite, growing quickly in popularity in this country. A good hot stone massage promotes deep muscle relaxation, relieves pain, is utterly relaxing, feels amazing and, thanks to the balancing of the qi, a great mood lifter. I always walk away feeling not only relaxed, but peaceful and happy.

Yet another style that addresses meridians and energy flow is Thai massage, which dates back 2,500 years. You dress in loose clothing and rest on a comfortable mat on the floor. The practitioner manipulates your body into yoga-like positions, gently pulling, bending, stretching and pushing certain points and parts of your body.

The founder of this practice is widely considered to be an Indian Ayurvedic doctor, Shivaga Komarpaj, a friend and contemporary of the Buddha. Not technically a massage in the usual sense of the word, it is more properly called Thai Yoga Therapy. It is based on the theory that our bodies are infused with air, or “lom,” which is inhaled and travels throughout the body along 72,000 pathways called “sen” (meridians). The manipulations of the practitioner are designed to move the lom through the body and out the orifices. I found this experience to be fascinating and was surprised to discover which of my own sen were blocked.

Aromatherapy massage is another ancient method, although the term was not used until the last century. Before you begin, the therapist will discuss which physical or psychological issues you would like to address. These can be anything from fatigue, chronic pain and PMS to sleeping disorders, anxiety and skin conditions. The therapist then mixes the healing essential oils that specifically address those issues and usually applies them with a Swedish massage.

Some massage therapists offer aromatherapy as an add-on to your favorite massage. This will greatly enhance your massage experience both in results and enjoyment. In fact, often you can mix and match your treatment. I like a deep tissue, hot stone massage with aromatherapy.

When choosing a therapist or practitioner, make sure he or she is licensed, and don’t be shy about asking for their credentials. Thai massage therapists should be certified, and do check on their training and experience. A good therapist will tell you that, if at any time during a massage you feel uncomfortable or feel pain, you should let them know so they can adjust their pressure to suit your needs and comfort level. If, at the conclusion of your massage, you are not satisfied, please don’t give up! It may take some time to find the right therapist and method for you, but once you do, you will join the millions of people around the world who enjoy the many benefits of massage therapy!

toni munna

Toni Munna is a native Long Islander who is always on the lookout for products that fulfill their promise to firm, hydrate, slim, soothe, de-wrinkle, plump, relax, de-stress, and just generally make you look and feel better. She a firm believer that wellness enhances beauty and has been testing beauty products and reviewing spas for you since the fall of 2006. You can reach her with questions at