Massage and the study of massage is actually one of the most profound professions and realms of study that there is. So this article is a kind of corrective, that helps you see what is truly so inspiring and fascinating about learning and practicing massage therapy.
My background before I got into massage was music composition and philosophy. So I see massage therapy as essentially combining, in a fascinating way, what Aldous Huxley called the “non-verbal humanities” with applied science.
The study of massage can provide such deep insight into both the art and science of being human that students often say what we’re learning here is something everyone should know, not just therapists.
First of all, there is the hands-on knowledge of anatomy and physiology. The Bible said man is made in God’s image and there is no doubt that the human body is wondrous. In massage we get to know, not just abstractly, but through touching – the structure of the bones and joints, the structure and function of the hundreds of muscles that enable us to move. We learn how our heart and circulatory system delivers blood and nourishment to every cell.
We learn how we convert our food into nourishment. We learn how our brain works! Lots of times, I tell students that the human brain is such a complex instrument, such an incredible vehicle for intelligence, memory and emotion, that there should be a license required to have one! A car is much less complex, frankly much less dangerous and also much less fun than the human brain! There is no excuse not to know, appreciate and, through knowledge, learn how to even better operate the vehicle for life that is your brain.
The human body/mind is miraculous. And as a therapist one of the things that astonishes me is seeing how people do not know how miraculous they are. It is part of our job as therapists to non-verbally remind the person what a miracle their embodied life is. When we really feel and appreciate what a rare gift it is to be alive, that is the beginning of true, conscious health!
How does massage help with this? Well here is where the art and science combination begin. Because the quality of touch is something that, like improvised music, depends on rhythm. And the pressures we choose get finely modulated in response to the individual. And the styles of massage – there are over a hundred – also are chosen uniquely for each individual.
There is sports massage, there is Swedish, orthopedic, deep massage, shiatsu, Thai massage, Chair massage, Zero Balancing, massage that affects posture, massage for special populations such as pregnant women, people with cancer, infant massage, massage for seniors, massage for animals! There are hundreds of styles of massage and hundreds of varying populations that need the specific benefits these many styles of bodywork provide.
How can this unique form of healthcare affect so many populations so powerfully and positively?
We need to realize touch is the first sense to emerge in the embryo; touch happens as early as 7 ½ weeks!
Touch is the foundational sense for our sensory world. So when we want to affect a person in a fundamental way, touch is incredibly powerful; it is the first tool we should use.
Touch starts with the skin. Our first sense, our first knowledge of the world, comes from the skin.
When we first touch, the skin sensors for light touch, pressure and temperature immediately become activated. Deep to the skin are the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
With deeper touch and stretches, we begin to affect the body’s proprioceptive sense. This is a part of the brain that tells us how much tension or looseness there is in the body and where it is, and so gives us an overall sense of where and how we are in space. This is critical for balance, for all coordinated movement, and for protecting the body as we move about.
Touch, because it is so fundamental, also affects our emotions. Chronic tension comes from chronic stress. Chronic stress has become almost an epidemic in our society.
People are worried about their jobs, about their appearance, about the environment, about their relationships, the future, about so many things! This anxiety gives rise to held tensions in the body that affect our structure and ultimately affect the very function of our physiological systems. Because excess stress activates the “sympathetic” side of the autonomic nervous system – the flight or fight response. When fight of flight predominates in your life this can end up having dramatic consequences on the heart, breath, digestion, elimination, immunity. Ultimately stress affects every cell of the body through the responses of the endocrine system.
Massage therapy by initiating the opposite response – the rest-and-repose response, called the “parasympathetic” side of the autonomic nervous system – helps remedy the bad effects of chronic and acute stress. It helps interrupt the so-called pain-spasm-pain cycle. You might call it the pleasure-relaxation cycle!
Relaxation and pleasure are some of most important ingredients of health. This is perhaps where people start seeing massage as weird. Pleasure connected to health?
Well, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the experience of the opposite of pain is fundamental to the experience of health. Who doesn’t want to feel well? What does feeling good really feel like? We begin to see – the effects of massage are indeed dramatic antidotes to dis-ease and displeasure people carry in their bodies and minds. The only sensible response to the epidemic of stress is to spread the knowledge and experience of what health feels like. It feels good! Should this be a surprise to anyone?
So massage affects every organ through the nervous and endocrine systems. It affects the skin, muscles and bones through deeper work. It effects our emotions, helping us to feel good and let go of the fight-or-flight response. It even affects the mind, because so often our thoughts are responding to our emotions. So greater emotional balance will promote more productive and peaceful use of our minds – for instance instead of focusing too much on what makes us anxious or angry.
So studying massage amplifies all of these benefits even more for the students, than our clients. Because here were come back to the effects of learning in the non-verbal humanities. When students are in school, they do a tremendous amount of work on each other.
In our program our students receive about 75 massages over the course of their training. And these are supervised by insightful teachers – so both the superficial and deeper benefits of massage are assured in this work and learning. I have to tell you – no one can receive 75 massages over the course of a year or less and not experience changed life! And a profound form of learning – conjoined with the experience of massage is the scientific knowledge of the body and mind that students gain from their academic studies.
You begin to see I hope that this study and this practice is something we think everyone needs to have. The art and the science of massage has been carrying this tradition of insight and compassion for thousands of years. But it’s been just in the last 50 years that the education has caught up with the practice, that science has begun to show us the details about what touch does to the body and the mind, that the profession of massage, as one of the most fascinating and powerful forms of healthcare, has come to the light of day.
This wonderful art and science, the benefits of which we hope all of humanity could receive has become a fundamental and revolutionary part of the new healthcare – reminding us that TOUCH lies at the foundation of our sensory world, our movement, our posture, our emotions, our very peace of mind.
Massage Therapy brings something to healthcare that one simply cannot get any other way.