The offering of massages at spas and healing centers these days is extremely diverse—and goes far beyond just the usual Swedish or deep-tissue, incorporating techniques from all over the world. If you’re feeling adventurous, or your regular massage just isn’t cutting it, here are four popular styles to consider. These herald from diverse places such as Hawaii and Thailand, and target everything from specific physical pain to emotional wounds.
Who is it for?: Sometimes called “yoga for lazy people,” Thai massage is particularly good for those who don’t get enough movement during the day (for example, are stuck at a desk) or who want greater range of mobility and flexibility, says Miri Nakamura, CMT, PhD, who is the owner of Ritual Body Therapy in Oakland, California. It’s also great for people with insomnia and depression, she adds, because of the slow deep pumping of the muscles and the sen lines that create deep relaxation. And since you remain clothed, it’s also perfect if you are self-conscious about being undressed for a massage.
How does it work?: Thai massage incorporates stretches, compressions, thumbing, rocking, and percussion. It is normally done fully clothed, traditionally on the floor with a mat, though some places offer it on massage tables where the practitioner will actually get on the table with you. Thai massage is extremely rhythmic, as each technique is typically done in moves of three, and the repetitive rhythm helps calm the central nervous system (think of a baby being rocked to sleep). It has its own energetic system comprised of sen lines, which are pathways in your body where your breath flows. One of the goals is to relax the muscles with deep compressions and eventually to work on this energetic system to release anything blocking your life flow.
Who is it for?: If you are on a self-healing journey, according to Nakamura, and you want to heal yourself by invoking the higher power and ask for help from your ancestors and your guardian deities, this is it. Filled with compassionate touch and loving intention, Lomilomi massage is good for people suffering from grief or loneliness and those seeking an overall relaxation of the mind.
How does it work?: Lomilomi is not just a “massage,” for it is a sacred ritual that is still practiced today by native healers in Hawaii, explains Nakamura. The session usually begins with a chant and the setting of intention. It is an oil-based modality, and the client is undressed on a table with minimal draping, often a towel. The main techniques, as described by Nakamura, are comprised of flowing and circular movements (picture ocean waves) using forearms, elbows, and hands, and these movements are often two-handed. One hand can be circling the abdomen while the other sandwiches it by stroking the lower back. This two-handed movement truly distinguishes Lomilomi from the other modalities and creates a sense of holistic integration. Unlike Swedish, which divides up the body, Lomilomi movements can go literally anywhere in a single broad stroke—across the body from left to right or all the way from head to toe, and can even include massaging the front and back of the body at the same time. The result is a beautiful dance that puts the person back into his or her body.
Who is it for?: Craniosacral therapy (CST) is excellent for anyone suffering from anxiety, migraines, TMJ, chronic lower back pain, or head injuries, as well as for anyone who suffers from fear associated with past trauma (for example, if you were in a car accident and still feel scared when getting into a car). It’s incredibly effective for any pain relief and can prolong that relief longer than most modalities. If you are tired of getting a massage where the healing effect lasts only a short time, give this a go. Even if you are one of those “I only like deep pressure” people, set your doubt aside, says Nakamura.
How does it work?: Craniosacral therapy is a light touch modality that directly works with the central nervous system and removes blockages so that the cerebrospinal fluid can flow again without any inhibitions. The name is derived from the fact that your entire spine, from the cranium (skull) to the sacrum (tailbone), represents the body’s access point to the central nervous system. Derived from osteopathy, CST is based on the concept that cranial bones move in a rhythmic manner as the cerebrospinal fluid moves along the spine. The therapist feels for this craniosacral rhythm from head to toe to determine where the rhythm seems blocked and weak and then releases whatever is restricting the flow. CST directly targets the source of the pain, not the symptoms (where you feel the pain). It is called “therapy” because it locates where your body is holding onto trauma (emotional or somatic), and by helping release the trauma, it shifts your body from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” Most people go into a trance state because the body experiences such profound healing.
Who is it for?: Ayurveda is a 90-minute meditation for the body. If you feel like your heart is not very open, you are somehow energetically blocked, or you are emotionally or physically fatigued all the time, Nakamura recommends this massage to reopen your chakras (energy centers of your body) and remove the toxins from your body. The key word here is “purification.”
How does it work?: Ayurveda is an ancient form of medicine or science, and its massage is a treatment for the individual’s holistic wellness. In the initial session, Nakamura says, the practitioner may offer an assessment of your current state of health. Your birth type, or dosha, will be determined after a series of questions and by taking your pulse. The practitioner will then perform the massage, commonly opening with a prayer/chant. Ayurveda is a very oily massage (more so than Swedish or Lomilomi) because the special oil blends themselves are part of the treatment. They are normally heated and infused with herbs and function to calm your system, as well as having antioxidant properties. The warm oil also represents the love and compassion of the practitioner, which you are supposed to absorb in the session. The work itself aims to open up channels to let your energy force (prana) and blood flow through long strokes. It works with marmas, key points on the body similar to acupressure points, and chakras, the seven energy centers along the length of your body.
No matter which massage you choose, Nakamura emphasizes, it’s the therapist-client match that matters most. “When I ask my clients why they come back, their answer is, ‘I trust you and jibe with you,’ not, ‘You do great Thai massage techniques.’”
For more information on medicinal massage, try Healing Massage, by leading massage practitioner and international teacher, Maureen Abson.
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