Most forms of massage focus on the physical body, the energy body or combine principles of both. Massage therapies that focus more on the physical body tend to favor stroking or kneading the muscles on superficial levels, and some applied pressure to deeper tissues. Both techniques release tension from the body, improve circulation and support the body in eliminating toxins and waste products that collect in the tissues and commonly fall under the categories of Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, sports massage and hot stone massage.
Massage techniques that developed in the East-China, Japan and Thailand, for example-provide many of the same benefits, but also focus on the life force energy believed to flow through the body. The philosophy behind these forms of massage therapy is that free-flowing energy results in good health and proper function of all the body's systems. If the energy is blocked or otherwise restricted, the resulting imbalance in energy flow throughout the body may lead to illness or disease.
Experiences with massage are as individual as the people who have massage therapy treatments. Each therapist, no matter which form they're schooled in, will also have their own unique approach to the work. Regardless, there are some general guidelines that will help you determine which form of massage interests you.
Swedish massage uses oil or lotion to reduce friction between the therapist's hands and your body and is performed directly on the skin. Best known for increasing the flow of oxygen to the muscles and tissues, this form of massage employs long, broad strokes on the superficial layers of the muscles. It's also favored by those seeking deep relaxation or repair of overused or injured muscles.
A specialized form of Swedish massage is pre-natal massage. By carefully positioning the body, gentle strokes and targeted touch techniques are used to relieve areas of the body, in particular the lower back, from the physical stresses of pregnancy. It's also proven helpful to reduce swelling or edema in pregnant women who experience this symptom. Not all Swedish massage therapists are trained in pre-natal massage, so be sure to seek a therapist who is specially certified or licensed in this form of massage therapy.
Deep Tissue Massage
With this form of massage, long strokes and frictions techniques that spread muscle fibers wide apart are used to access the deeper tissues in the body and rub them against both overlying and further underlying tissues. Deep tissue massage can be fairly intense and is often used to treat muscles that are extremely tight due to overuse or recovery from injury. By restoring a greater range of mobility to the muscles, deep tissue massage may result in improved posture by teaching back muscles not to contract. It's not uncommon to feel sore for a day or two after deep tissue massage.
Sports massage is a form of deep tissue massage that concentrates touch only on the part of the body that needs repair or strengthening. In that way, it's also an effective form of preventative therapy. The targeted tissues are worked deeply into the muscle grain and this friction between tissues helps break up scar tissue and stimulate the body's natural healing abilities.
Hot Stone Massage
A gentle, relaxing form of massage, hot stone massage incorporates the use of heated stones. These stones which are comfortably warm to the touch, but not hot enough to burn are positioned on areas of the body where treatment is needed or pressure points where the practitioner may perceive a block or restriction of energy in your body. The massage therapist will use the stones in place of their hands to apply pressure to or rub your muscles. People who receive hot stone massage report feeling of deep relaxation. If you want a lighter, gentler touch you may want to consider a hot stone massage.
Although it's not truly a form of massage therapy, you might see reflexology offers on the massage services menus of spas and salons. Reflexology is performed only the hands and feet and draws on the principles of acupressure. In reflexology, it's believed that the entire body's internal systems can be mapped to pressure points on the hands and feet. Reflexologists use these maps or charts as reference to determine where best to apply pressure based on your goals for the treatment.
Shiatsu literally translates to finger pressure and incorporates various principles from Traditional Chinese Medicine although as it continued to develop in Japan it became more focused on the physical body. Shiatsu is performed while the recipient is fully clothed, on a mat placed on the floor.
By applying pressure to specific points on the physical body that correspond to Eastern philosophies about how life force energy moves through the body, the primary goal is to restore energetic balance to the body. Shiatsu is also said to tap into the emotions and an emotional response like laughing or crying isn't an uncommon effect of the session.
Instead of deep kneading and friction techniques, shiatsu massage uses applied pressure from the fingers, knuckles, elbows, knees and feet along with gentle stretching to encourage better energy flow.
Thai massage is similar to shiatsu in that recipients remain fully clothed and the session is conducted on a floor mat. It also incorporates some of the energetic principles from Traditional Chinese Medicine, so it too, operates on the principle that obstructed energy and energetic imbalance leads to discomfort and illness.
Thai massage does not however, subscribe to the same system of energy lines that run throughout the body. Rather, thai massage has defined its own map of energy lines and uses touch techniques that draw from acupressure, reflexology and hatha yoga to restore energy flow throughout the body.