My discovery of massage therapy’s healing powers resulted directly from trying to break a friend’s ribs. I was taking my first kickboxing class, and Hugh, a two-year veteran of the sport, encouraged me to try my roundhouse kick on him “a bit faster and harder.” Who could pass up such an invitation? Crouched down, I swivelled my body and, with venom, kicked the punching bag he was holding. It felt good. Next I went for the kill, and connected so high and fast that I ripped my hip muscles.
That was sixteen months ago, and while the muscle tears quickly healed, every time I worked out hard or got stressed out, my thigh and back muscles seized up. About eight months ago my chiropractor, concerned at how often my hip was being pulled out of alignment with my spine, suggested massage therapy for giving the muscles a much needed vacation.
The healing effects of touch have been celebrated since they were first documented some 2,000 years ago in the ancient Chinese text The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Today massage therapy is one of the most popular forms of unconventional medicine in the United States and massage therapists are licensed in roughly half the states.
Specific injuries aside, the greatest cause of muscle aches is everyday emotional stress. “What we don’t realize is that our tissues have a memory,” says Thomas Claire, a trained shiatsu therapist and the author of the massage-therapy book, Bodywork. “Our feelings get lodged in our muscles and tissues, and in turn, pain and discomfort result in disharmony in the body and the mind.” This conflict can be seen in both the way muscle pain in one part of the body can aggravate surrounding areas and the effects physical imbalance can have on mind and spirit. Massage therapy aims to return the body to balance and promote health and relaxation.
There are more than a hundred varieties of massage practiced in the United States, but they can be divided into roughly two main areas. The first is Western, or Swedish, massage, and it targets the body’s muscle and tissue structure. The second, Eastern massage, of which shiatsu and reflexology are the best-known branches, focuses on leveling the body’s natural energy..
The Swedish School is named for its nineteenth-century Swedish innovator, Per Heinrik Ling, who sought to relieve the pain he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. Swedish, or traditional, massage works the muscles to promote relaxation through the release of endorphins and enkephalins. Endorphins and enkephalins are the body’s natural painkillers, which are released during strenuous exercise and cause “runner’s high”. The recipient lay naked on a padded table and a towel or a sheet covers the person. Only the part of the body being worked on is exposed. The practitioner uses a series of five basic strokes, administered by the fingers, hands, forearms and elbows, with the help of massage oils or creams. Muscles are freed up throughout the body, increasing blood flow and helping the body purge toxins and deliver nutrients to cells and tissues.
Today many structural-massage therapists have customized the Swedish method with their own techniques. I visited a massage therapist named Arthur Tobias, who specializes in deep-tissue therapeutic massage. The session began with Tobias warming up my back and leg muscles with light hand massage through a towel. Then he focused on the major muscles in my back and shoulders with long, deep strokes of his forearm. The harder he worked my back muscles, the more I whimpered to myself in pain. I then melted into the table, as tension tingled out of my muscles. Aware of the discomfort in my hip, Tobias worked my lower back, butt and upper right leg, pinpointing the muscles that were contorted rock solid. After a one-hour session, my body felt completely relaxed and rubbery.
Unlike Swedish massage, shiatsu focuses on not only the physical makeup of the muscles and tissues but also the body’s energy system. Yes, energy system. As bizarre as that sounds to those of us firmly rooted in a Western way of thinking about the body, Asian medicine maintains that a life-force energy governs our health (chi in Chinese, ki in Japanese) that regulates the organs and protects the body from disease. According to shiatsu, ki exists in two opposite yet complementary forms, female and male, or yin and yang. Ki runs through twelve lines, or meridians, from head to toe. Each meridian shares the traits and supports the function of the major organ of the body after which it is named. Along these meridians lie energy access points, called tsubos, that shiatsu practitioners manipulate. The first tsubo on the kidney meridian is on the sole of the foot and is called “gushing spring.” By applying pressure to these spots, the shiatsu practitioner can address pains and ailments while working toward the greater goal of restoring balance to the flow of the body’s ki.
For my first shiatsu experience, I visited Thomas Claire. Wearing baggy clothing (there is generally no disrobing in shiatsu), I lay on a large white floor mat with a pillow propped under my knees. Using his fingers to apply short, direct pressure, followed by holding, Claire worked on my solar plexus, known as the hara in shiatsu, through which all twelve meridians run. Starting here, the shiatsu “giver,” as practitioners are called, can determine the strength and balance of a person’s ki and what work needs to be done. As I lay on the floor, Claire crawled around me, working pressure points all over my body and stretching my joints (especially my difficult hip) until my body abandoned its normal resistance and hugged the floor. After an hour on the floor, my face was flushed, as if I had done a full aerobic workout, but I felt a peace of mind that stayed with me for days afterward.
Reflexology draws on theories of the body’s energy flow similar to those that shiatsu does. In this mode of massage therapy, the feet are a map of the body as a whole, connected through the body’s ki meridians. Just as shiatsu reaches specific spots on the body, reflexology promotes relaxation and energy balance through stimulation of pressure points on the feet. Thus the toes link to the head and neck, and the heel to the pelvic area and the sciatic nerve.
Laura Norman is the founder of the Reflexology Center, in New York City, a preeminent teaching school of reflexology. A friend of mine named Amy Jamieson lives there and had Laura work on her. Norman had her lie face up on a reclined massage table. She washed her feet and then started to warm them for the session with long strokes of her hand. As Amy drifted off into a quiet reverie, Norman encouraged her to relax and clear her mind of the day’s stress. Not only did Amy physically relax during the session but her mind dug up and rid itself of problems she wasn’t even aware she was worrying about. In deference an old back injury that had bothered Amy for a while, Norman took time to put pressure on the tissue below her right ankle. Amy winced in pain as Norman put pressure on Amy’s foot, and only a quick bout of deep breathing prevented Amy from squealing in pain. However, by the end of the session, Amy was so mellow, she could hardly talk. The next day, Amy retained a deep sense of relaxation, even though her back and muscles felt as if they’d gone through a full workout.
In my search for immediate relief from hip muscle pain, the deep structural and localized Western massage had the most immediate effect. My muscles stopped having spasms and stayed loose for days after I went home. Massage therapy should not be judged as a quick fix. All disciplines are geared to helping the body over the long term. Unless someone is suffering from an illness or an infection that working the muscles can aggravate, such as cancer, massage therapy should bring relief.