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

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