Body and Energy Therapies 101: Types of Massage and Their Benefits

There are a bewildering number of body and energy therapies available at this time. Let’s sort them out a bit by getting down to the basics. Most people seek out body or energy work because they desire healing or transformation of some kind. My dictionary says that the word “heal” is derived from the obsolete version of the word hale, which means whole. The dictionary definition also includes words like reconcile, mend, harmonize, purify, restore vigor, and effect a cure. The implication is that if healing is a return to a state of wholeness, then dis-ease is a state of restriction, deficiency, disruption or disharmony. The deepest healing, or return to wholeness, occurs when our vital life force energy is allowed to flow easily through all aspects of our being without impediment, in an integrated fashion. This flow and harmonization of vital life force can be therapeutically supported through touch, intention, movement, breath, and energy awareness.

On the physical level, massage is an excellent example of this. Most people are aware that massage therapy and bodywork can positively affect sore muscles and aid in stress reduction, but few realize that massage can actually play an important role in fostering and maintaining good health. For example, it is believed that ischemia, or decreased blood flow to an organ or tissue, is a major factor in chronic pain referral patterns. The gentle stroking movements of massage improve the circulation of blood, thus bringing fresh oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and reducing ischemia-related pain. In addition, massage inhibits pain through deep relaxation of the muscular and nervous systems, and the release of neurochemicals such as endorphins. It is believed that massage causes an actual interruption of the transmission of pain impulses to the brain as the pleasurable sensations of massage travel along a faster nerve pathway than the slower pain impulses.

The benefits of massage extend far beyond pain relief. Massage detoxifies the body by hastening the removal of metabolic waste and strengthens the immune system by stimulating the circulation of lymphatic fluids. It helps to make the body more flexible and mobile by lengthening muscle fibers and freeing restrictions in the connective tissue. Special massage techniques can encourage respiratory drainage and ease digestive problems. Massage has been found to be effective in the treatment of insomnia, chronic headaches, TMJ and carpal tunnel syndromes, fibromyalgia and many other conditions. Massage impacts many of the body’s systems and is therefore not appropriate in some situations. An example of this would be a severe heart condition where increasing the blood circulation would place a burden on the already stressed heart. Your massage therapist may ask you to consult with your doctor if there is any question of possible detrimental effects.

The main point here, however, is that the healing benefits of massage arise from a process that gently facilitates the movement of stagnant energy in the system. In a different fashion, this is also the underlying premise of the various energetic healing modalities. It is important to understand that we are essentially spiritual beings, or stated another way, we are energy fields that are experienced as physical bodies, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and so on. Reiki practitioners, shamans, and other energy workers do not work on the physical body, but on the energetic field that permeates and surrounds the physical body. The physical is viewed as a reflection of what is happening at the energetic level. Emotional, physical, and spiritual traumas that are held in the energy field block the flow of vital life force, and are reflected quite clearly in all sorts of dis-harmony and dis-ease. The clearing of energetic blockages may facilitate healing at many levels, and support a whole range of transformative processes.

With these concepts in mind, here is an overview of a few selected approaches to healing:

Circulatory (Swedish) Massage is what most Americans think of as massage. It involves long smooth strokes directly on skin which has been lubricated with oil. A primary benefit is that it enhances the circulation of fluids in the body – thus the name “circulatory.”

Traditional Thai Massage is a beautiful and elegant healing modality dating back 2,500 years. Thai Massage is done on a mat on the floor, and consists of slow rhythmic compressions on the muscles, gentle rocking, deep flowing stretches (similar to assisted yogic asanas) and thumb presses on specific energetic pathways.

Tui Na is based on the 2000 year old theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It utilizes the Yin/Yang and Five Element Theories, and applies specialized hand techniques to the body’s primary energy pathways (known as meridians) and the acupoints.

Neuromuscular Therapy is utilized for pain due to injury, overuse or postural imbalances. Therapeutic treatment involves improving circulation to ischemic tissues, finding and deprogramming the referral patterns of trigger points, and addressing soft tissue involvement in nerve entrapment.

Sensory Repatterning is an unique style of bodywork that involves artfully moving a client’s passive body through its range of motion by utilizing a combination of rocking, cradling, undulating and slow motions. The resulting kinesthetic sensations encourage the client to let go of muscular restrictions and become aware of limiting holding patterns.

Breathwork utilizes the concept that the breath is intrinsically connected to the flow of vital life force, and is a primary vehicle for energy movement. Breath is a key component in yoga, tai chi, qi gong, rebirthing, and many other healing systems.

Reiki is a specific method of accessing and facilitating universal healing energy for one’s self and others. It does not involve physical manipulation of the body. Reiki energy is initially activated through an attunement process.

Shamanistic practices, such as “soul retrieval” may assist in energetically recovering and reintegrating aspects of one’s essential self that have been lost or separated as a result of pain or trauma.

Sound and vibrational healing is based on the concept that everything is fundamentally vibration. The power of sound is used to focus energy and create resonance in the system.

Each practice has its own merits. It is suggested that some exploration and experience with several different therapies may be useful in finding what is most appropriate in individual cases.

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