The Art and Science of Massage

Massage is an ancient art. Though no one knows exactly when it became a formalized system of touch and pressure, several forms go back to at least 1500 B.C. in India. Often associated with spiritual practices and beliefs, the therapy itself is fully grounded in physiology.

Muscles of the type that respond to massage striated like the leg and back, rather than smooth like many organs are made of ‘ratcheting’ proteins. These molecules slide past one another when nerves are electro-chemically stimulated. The result is a contraction. But they can go ‘too far’ and become bunched, tense and knotted. Massage relaxes them.

Massage also improves circulation by freeing trapped blood, encouraging the movement of lymphatic fluid and bringing in fresh oxygen and nutrients. As the muscles refresh and relax, they lengthen, producing a pleasant sensation.

And that, after all, is the basic point. Massage feels good.

Apart from all the hard fact that a qualified massage therapist has to learn – anatomy and physiology, a half-dozen basic moves within one or more styles, proper stance, how to feel body conditions and more – their basic goal is to induce well-being. That well-being comes from relaxing muscles, relieving stress, restoring the body to a more optimal condition.

Along the way, and not coincidentally, the mind is relaxed, too.

Stress is a combined physical and emotional condition. Massage can work on both. By relaxing the body, providing a quiet hour of soothing physical work, mental tension can be relieved also. At the same time, being pampered is an excellent reward for enduring the ‘slings and arrows’ as Shakespeare put it.

There are, luckily for those seeking one, a dozen popular styles to accomplish that purpose.

The most common in the Western world is probably Swedish massage. The long, gliding, moderate pressure strokes are ideally suited to relax muscles and restore vigor. Shiatsu focuses more on specific areas with deeper pressure. Originally a Japanese style, it long ago moved into Western spas.

Mixed styles, such as sports massage, are common now too. An eclectic blend of Swedish, Shiatsu and anything else that accomplishes the purpose, it’s done in nearly every fitness club today. As a pre-event method of warming and relaxing muscles for optimum performance it’s stellar. As a way of healing over-strained muscles and restoring health afterward it’s equally helpful.

‘Newer’ innovations have entered the scene, such as the use of massage sticks, hot stone massage, fascia stretching or deep tissue work and others. ‘Newer’ is in quotes because these techniques are actually ancient, though in many cases they are only recently being incorporated into Western spas and massage clinics.

Hot stones are literally that – basalt stones that are heated and applied to various parts of the body, chiefly the back and legs. Massage sticks are smooth wooden instruments that can provide a pleasant aid to work certain areas. Deep tissue techniques work on very localized areas with firm pressure to relieve joints, release knots and other point problems.

But whatever the style preferred, and different ones are useful at different times, a massage fundamentally improves health, relaxes mind and body and provides a wonderful experience. That makes it both a fine science and a delightful art.

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