All of the mental, emotional, and physical patterning from our lives is stored in the cells of our body, contributing to the tension that we feel in our neck and our jaw, the tightness in our low back, or the pain that we feel in our knees. Practices that help us process a lifetime of “stuff” and move it through our physical and energetic bodies are essential.
Therapeutic touch helps remove blockages, but touch in and of itself is healing to the nervous system, as evidenced by the fact that this is a major ingredient in caring for healthy babies and children. The human touch of all types is important for soothing stress, creating an experience of social connection, and more.
When we engage with massage therapy, we’re touching layers of our being, including the mind, musculoskeletal system, emotional body, nervous system, energetic and meridian system, lymphatic system, and more, which is why it has the potential to impact us on so many levels. Whether we are on a healing journey, or just trying to find balance and avoid injury, massage and bodywork play a role.
Consider this: On the one hand, in this day and age, movement and fitness are an important part of people’s healthy routine—and that’s a great thing. On the other hand, we’re exercising with more frequency and intensity than we ever have and doing so well into middle and old age. As a society, we are living longer and need our musculoskeletal systems to maintain vitality without injury.
This is all wonderful, but even our fitness routines create a certain amount of muscular tension in the body, and our longevity requires a maintenance plan to minimize pain and optimize function. Particularly during middle and old age, massage therapy helps address the pain and tension brought on by the patterning that comes from stress, all of life’s experiences, and our increased levels of exercise.
I frequently get calls from clients who say, “I’m forty-five, and I’ve been exercising five times a week my whole life. Now, all of a sudden, I have back tension and my legs feel stiff.” When I learn they’re going to spin class five days a week and sitting at a desk the rest of the time, I’m not surprised they feel tense and tight. A hard workout is great, but it’s not enough to counterbalance the number of hours we likely sit, nor does sitting at our desk, in the car, or anywhere else provide the recovery our body needs.
Massage therapy and bodywork are powerful components of an optimized experience of our body. We need to rest and restore our muscles to continue to expect them to perform and produce so consistently. Massage therapy can impact everything from pain reduction and pain management to mobility, flexibility, the drainage of our lymphatic system, and the release of muscular tension.
After a workout, a sport, or a competitive race like a marathon or triathlon, massage therapy effectively relieves extreme muscle soreness that can otherwise show up later on, and it helps refill our well and lessen fatigue after exertion and vigorous exercise. In addition to physical benefits, massage impacts the mind, too, because as we have discussed, the mind and the body are intricately connected.
Massage therapy stimulates pressure points that lead to increased vagal activity, which decreases the stress hormone cortisol and increases immune activity. Massage therapy also increases the feel-good neurotransmitters that thwart the experience of pain and improve sleep. Massage has even been found to be supportive of the management of hypertension, autoimmune disorders, and the process of aging.
Massage is therapeutic touch and a legitimate bullet point on the self-care practice list. I understand massage therapy can seem like a luxury because of the cost involved, but it can be an essential practice for those who expect a lot from their bodies or those who are suffering in some way. When done consistently, massage therapy can act as a mirror for the body, much like meditation can do for the mind.
We see how our musculoskeletal landscape changes and evolves, and we can catch imbalances before they bloom into injuries. We see where the body is holding tension and address it consistently. Massage and bodywork are productive and reflective. For example, a therapist can give feedback about where we’re particularly tense or have a limited range of motion.
Having that information informs our behavior, like what muscles we choose to stretch in the morning and how hard we exercise that week. In this way, it’s an active and interactive part of the self-care experience in addition to being an opportunity to receive and refuel. In terms of injury prevention, just as the aches and pains increase as we age, our risk of hurting ourselves does as well.
The consequence? When we get hurt, we are thus unable to exercise, and we end up being ten times worse off than we would be had we simply been a little more mindful, moderate, and balanced in our overall approach to self-care. Coming to understand the tendencies in our body enables us to behave accordingly so we can sustain a consistent routine without aggravating a predisposition to an injury.
Massage therapy, along with the practices in the other pillars, is key because it helps us get perspective on where the body is, what it needs, and what it can do without, like that one last mile in a long run. For example, when we meditate consistently, we wake up in the morning and sit in our skin. We attune our minds to see where we are mentally, emotionally, and physically. We notice the days we feel tired or anxious or inspired.
The consistency of meditation practice provides context for the day-to-day experience of ourselves in that practice. Something similar happens with massage therapy and all kinds of bodywork. If we get a massage once a week, that weekly check-in with our body delivers a huge amount of information. This information provides context to the larger landscape of our physical needs and experience.
Massage is an opportunity to plug into and connect to our bodies. It reminds us to feel. In general, all massage is good for pain reduction, circulation, and reducing inflammation. Besides, a sixty or ninety-minute block of time unplugged is extremely valuable to our high-performing clients who struggle to slow down. Massage downtime enables them to turn their gaze inward, 99 percent guaranteed.
The external stimuli will be blocked out, and they’ll be forced to be in their skin—a very healthy practice. It’s nurturing to be on the receiving end of touch and energy. So many of us are constantly in output mode at work, with our families, and with social interactions. Receiving refuels our tank.
Stuck in Pain
Simon is the third generation to manage his family’s automotive business. Guided by a personal trainer, Simon’s workout consists of kickboxing, boxing, and combat sports that are physically and mentally intense. When we met, it was clear he was strong, but his body was so rigid that he was in constant pain. Even walking was uncomfortable.
The muscular tension showed on his face, and while he could box, he had limited mobility and could barely raise his arms over his head. To begin, we recommended massage therapy, but Simon wasn’t consistent in his practice. He would call when he was in a crisis and get a random massage or two or three. He’d loosen up and feel a bit better, but then he’d go back to doing his intense workouts and training.
Inevitably, he’d call us a couple of months later in the same situation. He admitted that he felt mentally and physically stuck at times because of the pain like he was in a holding pattern. He explained that sometimes it felt like the physical discomfort evolved into mental discomfort, and they would feed off one another in a cycle of tension.
While the fitness and boxing were meant to be a release, somehow he felt more tightly wound as his body braced itself in the climate of chronic pain. Finally, we convinced Simon to incorporate weekly Thai bodywork sessions. Thai bodywork takes place on a mat on the floor, not on a massage table. The practice blew Simon’s mind because it enabled him to increase his mobility and release a lot of muscular tension and pain.
In Simon’s mind, equally as significant as the pain reduction was the impact Thai massage had on his performance in his different athletic endeavors and personal training. What’s more, he felt that the bodywork was opening his mind as it was loosening his body. Simon experienced the quality of ease on a mental level that he had trouble describing but insisted it was all a result of his weekly bodywork.
He told me that he would sometimes feel tears running down his face in the shower after the sessions and didn’t know why, but it felt good. I don’t think Simon was expecting bodywork to be as impactful as it was. He thought of it as a remedy for his physical pain—which of course it was—but he wasn’t in touch with how stressed he was.
It was only in sessions when his muscles started to soften, and he alleviated some of the tension in his body, that he started to experience a bubbling of emotional release. As long as his body was contracted and stuck—no matter how many glasses of scotch he had—he wasn’t able to access the fluid and spacious emotional state of being. His contracted body limited his experiences on many layers.
Consistent bodywork was the key to unlocking Simon’s body and opened the door for him to recognize some of the emotional patterning and stress he was experiencing, which of course also contributed to the rigidity of his body. He realized that not only was massage helping him feel less pain and perform better at his sports, but it was also literally making him feel happier.
For example, Simon said that he never had the patience to sit with his babies and read stories at night. He’d lie in bed and read to them, but it was hard because he was so wound up and in pain. On the evenings that he would get his massages, he felt like he was a better dad, more able to be relaxed and present with his very young children. Eventually, this spread to all the evenings and became the new status quo.
Types of Bodywork
Bodywork encompasses a wide range of ancient and modern therapeutic touch practices that include massage therapy, Shiatsu, Thai massage, Rolfing, assisted stretching, reflexology, even Reiki. There are more than three hundred methods of bodywork, and I’ve included a handful here that I’m most familiar with and that we use consistently at Namaste.
Massage therapists often use several different types of massage and bodywork modalities in a session to meet us where we are on both a physical and energetic level. They may address muscular tension, our fascia, and/or our lymphatic system, calling upon different skills and techniques. The massage therapist may also look for energetic blockages or explore where we are holding emotional stagnancy.
Then they’ll work to open up the flow of energy. Many think we get bodywork to release muscle tension, but to truly benefit, we have to consider why our muscles are tight in the first place. The source of muscular tension can vary and usually is connected to some sort of physical injury or repetitive stress, mental state, or emotional experience. Energetic blocks result, which impacts everything. Using bodywork techniques to release patterning touches the physical, energetic, and emotional planes, moving toward the source of the issue and relief.
Thai bodywork is otherwise known as “lazy person’s yoga” and can be a great solution instead of yoga if we physically can’t practice, if we don’t like to practice, or if we crave more passive stretching and touch. Thai bodywork essentially provides the benefits of massage, yoga, acupressure, and energy work—all rolled into one. It’s a combination of passive and somewhat more active stretching, facilitated by a bodyworker and their own body as a tool.
Thai bodywork is like a dance. The practitioner uses their hands, their feet, their limbs, their whole self, and their focus to manipulate our body into different positions that will support a release. Thai bodywork is great when we’re dealing with a lack of flexibility or range of motion that is contributing to tension or pain in the body. Similar to acupuncture, it focuses on the meridians in the body. A session typically lasts ninety minutes and is done on a futon mat on the floor. Both giver and receiver wear loose, comfortable clothing.
Shiatsu is an ancient Japanese bodywork technique that’s the massage version of acupuncture, as its foundation is in traditional Chinese medicine. Similar to Thai bodywork, Shiatsu can address back and neck pain, digestive problems, fatigue, and sleep issues, and it calms the autonomic nervous system, which decreases feelings of stress. Shiatsu works on the meridian system, which is a huge number of invisible pathways or lines of energy that run throughout the body.
Shiatsu practitioners tap, knead, and stretch pressure points along the meridian lines, with less focus on the assisted stretching and mobility work that happens in Thai bodywork. Shiatsu powerfully clears energetic blockages and stimulates the body to find balance. In a meditative state, the Shiatsu practitioner learns what the recipient’s body needs by gathering information through their hands, paying attention to the recipient’s circulation, and finding blockages or areas of weakness.
The practitioner can stimulate specific meridians, cultivating balance as well as improving the circulation of blood and lymph. The meridians tap into many layers of wisdom in the body, and this work is understood to tone the internal organs and strengthen the immune system when done consistently. It is a wonderful adjunct to acupuncture treatment as it builds on and supports the same approach.
Similar to Thai bodywork, there’s no oil, and it’s performed on the floor on a futon in loose, comfortable clothing. Like pranayama, yoga, and other forms of massage and bodywork, Shiatsu opens up the vital energy channel—the chi—in our body. When we unlock the chi or internal life force, a feeling of vitality ensues from the inside out, letting go of everything we don’t need as well as creating an opportunity to infuse and inspire our body and our mind with a newfound flow of vitality.
Certain forms of bodywork such as Shiatsu are meditative and energetic. While being on the receiving end of these types of bodywork leaves us feeling restored, we aren’t taking energy from the massage therapist. The massage therapist is acting as a channel to enable us to activate our internal energy. It’s like a jump start when a car battery dies; we need the other car’s battery to activate ours, but once it gets activated, we don’t need the other car anymore.
Bodywork based on ancient practices like Shiatsu or Thai massage awaken our life force and fuel us for a healthier journey. In addition to acting as a channel, a skillful bodyworker, whether they’re practicing Shiatsu, Thai bodywork, or another form of touch, is both listening to our body and giving at the same time. They’re learning from what our body is communicating nonverbally, sensing patterns or any areas of disharmony.
These bodywork practices we’ve discussed are meant to alleviate stress and tension in the body and restore balance. They approach it from slightly different angles and philosophies, but for the most part, the goal is very similar. In the big picture, certain bodywork practices are Eastern-based and others that are Western-based. Some of the newer practices are influenced by both East and West, and as we discussed, many practitioners incorporate different techniques into a single session to best meet a client’s needs.
Deep Tissue Massage
Unlike Thai bodywork and Shiatsu, deep tissue work comes from a Western perspective. Deep tissue massage is done on a massage table without clothes and with massage cream or oil. People frequently use deep tissue massage for low back pain or neck and shoulder pain. Strong pressure is applied in slow strokes to release layers of fascia and muscular tension.
Fascia is the connective tissue surrounding the muscles, and oftentimes the fascia holds a lot of constriction. Unlike Thai bodywork or Shiatsu, deep tissue massage focuses primarily on the large muscles. Besides muscle release, according to studies in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, this powerful technique has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and improve mood.
Sports injuries are likely the number one reason people request deep tissue work. Others crave the intensity and the sensation of deep tissue work, which is sometimes painful in a therapeutic way. For these people, I believe the intensity helps them drop out of their minds and into their bodies because the sensation is so strong that they can’t be anywhere else. Many clients feel so bombarded by stimulation all day long that they experience deep pressure as a way to captivate their full attention and land into the present moment.
Swedish massage is a common, traditional Western therapy, with its primary intention to relax the entire body. The technique uses long, fluid strokes to increase the level of oxygen in the blood, improve circulation, and provide muscular relaxation and release. Similar to deep tissue massage, recipients are naked, on a table, with cream or oil.
Swedish massage is much gentler than deep tissue and focuses on the superficial muscles as opposed the connective tissues. Swedish massage can also serve as a foundational practice from which a massage therapist can create a prenatal experience, utilize deep tissue technique in select areas, or even introduce tools like hot stones.
Reiki is a Japanese energy system and technique based on the idea of the unseen life force energy that flows through everybody. In Japanese, “rei” means high intelligence, and “ki” is energy, like chi or prana; Reiki, then, is the combination of a life force guided by a higher intelligence. It is usually done by placing hands on or slightly above the recipient’s body. People seek out Reiki for a very wide range of reasons, as the energy activates a relaxation response and promotes healing. When this life force energy is low or depleted, sickness or stress can more easily penetrate us.
A Reiki practitioner goes through a series of initiations with a Reiki master, which are called attunements. Those attunements are said to open the practitioner’s channel for them to be a clear conduit for the actual energy work. The practitioner passes life force through their hands onto another person. To tap into this energy, oftentimes the Reiki practitioner will utilize or visualize ancient symbols that have the potential to unlock that flow.
Craniosacral therapy is a subtle, gentle, but powerful treatment utilized by massage therapists, osteopaths, and chiropractors primarily. Generally done on a massage table without oil or cream, it uses gentle touch to shift and manipulate the skull or cranium, the spine, and parts of the pelvis to treat disease by supporting the body’s healing capabilities. It is understood to impact the central nervous system by affecting the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord to treat dysfunction and relieve pain.
People seek this form of therapy for a wide range of reasons from autism to Alzheimer’s, and from back pain to migraines. It also is helpful for good old-fashioned stress and anxiety. There are many skeptics out there when it comes to craniosacral therapy, but in my experience, I have heard reports from clients claiming lovely relaxation to total transformation and pain relief. I have also personally benefitted from the power of this work.
Lymphatic drainage is a popular and somewhat trendy form of medical massage that supports the movement of the lymph fluid around the body. Lymph fluid is a combination of water, waste products, proteins, and other immune system components.
Lymphatic drainage is known to have aesthetic and detoxification benefits as it removes toxins from the tissues and supports conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, hormonal imbalances, digestive problems, headaches, and more. These health conditions can interrupt and stagnate the flow of lymph fluid through the body, causing buildup and swelling called lymphedema.
Manual lymphatic drainage massage is performed without oil or cream on a massage table, naked, using a variety of motions to stimulate the lymph system. All told, bodywork provides a channel for us to connect with ourselves, tap into the primal healing power of a human touch, and gauge our mental and physical state. In the next chapter, we look at relationships with others as a form of touch and connection.