A good massage can alleviate pain, improve relaxation and increase energy—but most people don’t know that these benefits only touch the surface of all that massage can offer.
Many countries consider massage to be a form of medicine. In China, hospitals prescribe massage and acupuncture alongside IVs and modern medication. Asian bodywork is aligned with Asian medical theory, making it a personalized and highly effective treatment.
Incorporating Asian massage modalities into your practice will give you a more rounded approach to client concerns. Instead of addressing one problem, for example, you can determine what pattern of disharmony may be at the root of that problem.
Here we’ll look at acupressure, shiatsu, chi nei tsang, Thai massage and tui na, and at how these Asian massage modalites can help your clients—and your practice.
“Asian bodywork adds more tools to your tool belt,” explained massage therapist Elisabeth Kraycik, of San Diego, California, as of this writing, who practices tui na, Thai massage, shiatsu, Jin Shin and chi nei tsang.
“Every massage therapist is required to have an understanding of anatomy, but with a background in Asian bodywork, you will understand how each anatomical part of the body relates to one another, not only physically, but also energetically.”
A State of Balance
Asian bodywork embodies the thought process of traditional Chinese medicine, a form of Asian medical theory, which is based on an understanding of the relationship between a part and the whole.
Traditional Chinese medicine holds the belief that everything in the body is connected by a person’s innate energy, or qi.
Unlike a diagnosis that focuses only on a particular symptom such as a headache or back pain, the traditional Chinese medicine practitioner will evaluate a variety of a client’s details, from digestion, sleep patterns and eating habits to emotional well-being and previous injuries, before devising a treatment plan. Massage therapy is oftentimes part of that treatment plan.
Traditional Chinese medicine views health as a state of balance—balance within the body as well as between the body and the environment. A disease is looked upon literally as a dis-ease, or something that is out of balance and causing discomfort, that, if left untreated, can lead to disease.
Each emotion is correlated with an organ and organ system. A dis-ease can be caused by an unchecked emotion or physical trauma, such as an injury, that results in a stagnation of qi in the corresponding system.
“An example is if someone is under stress, maybe from a new job, there could be problems that you wouldn’t notice if you were just looking at it structurally,” Kraycik explained. “It can be more than neck or back pain.”
“If that new job stress is present, it can cause internal disharmony in the liver system, resulting in flank side pain below the ribs,” she added. “Pain isn’t just related to a physical activity or issue, but to the mind,” said Kraycik.
A large component of traditional Chinese medicine is the study of hundreds of points, known as acupoints, on the human body, each corresponding to a particular organ system or channel of energy, known as meridians.
In acupuncture and acupressure treatments, each point is carefully chosen to correspond with the other points to address the issue at hand. Acupuncture involves the application of fine needles to specific acupoints based on the patient’s diagnosis.
Acupressure involves the practitioner’s fingers pressing on acupoints on the skin’s surface to stimulate the body’s natural self-curative abilities.
Asian bodywork incorporates this same knowledge of points, balance and energy into the art of massage.While Asian bodywork is derived from traditional Chinese medicine, each Asian massage modality employs different elements of the medicine in different ways.
Shiatsu: Shiatsu is a Japanese massage that employs acupoints during the abdominal, or hara, diagnosis, during which the massage therapist presses on a variety of anatomical locations (points) in the abdomen that correlate to specific organ systems.
A point indicating excess qi will often feel hard, meaning there is stagnated energy relating to the organ system that corresponds with that point.
For hard points, the therapist will press straight into the point with vertical pressure until she feels it tingle or warm, as this is a signal to the therapist that the qi is becoming more balanced.
A point indicating deficiency, or weakness, will feel soft, which may mean the organ system is lacking energy.
The purpose of the massage session is to increase the flow of energy, helping the qi to be equally distributed throughout the body, thereby eliminating the symptoms concerned and possibly preventing their recurrence.
Once the points in the abdomen and their respective conditions have been identified, the therapist will know what parts of the body need the most attention.
Shiatsu employs a lean-on, pressure-umbrella principle, which often involves vertical pressure applied to the body with the therapist’s palm at a 90-degree angle. It is a relaxed and noninvasive pressure with the therapist shifting weight to allow the force of gravity to interact with the body.
Chi nei tsang: Chi nei tsang is similar to shiatsu in that it also involves the hara. Chi nei tsang focuses on the abdomen for the duration of the massage. Asian bodywork therapist Osi Livni, of San Diego, as of this writing, specializes in chi nei tsang.
She described it as “a relaxing, nurturing abdomen massage. It rejuvenates all the body systems, addressing specific health challenges as well as balancing the body, mind and soul.”
According to traditional Chinese medicine, emotions are centered in the stomach, lending new meaning to common phrases such as “gut feeling” or “I feel nervous in the pit of my stomach.” Chi nei tsang focuses on harmonizing the energy in the entire body by clearing physical and emotional conditions associated with imbalances of the internal organs.
Thai massage: Thai massage also focuses on clearing negative energy. Developed in India 2,500 years ago, Thai massage made its way to Thailand where its Ayurvedic techniques and principles gradually became influenced by traditional Chinese medicine.
Thai massage is performed on a floor mat and consists of deep, rhythmic pressure that stretches the entire body. Utilizing the sen lines of the body (which are comparable to the meridians of traditional Chinese medicine), the practitioner releases “sick wind,” or stagnant qi, from the body to resolve specific problems.
Tracie Livermore owned, as of this writing, a massage practice in San Diego, and specializes in Thai massage, tui na and Jin Shin Acutouch. She said 90 percent of the massage she performs is Thai massage.
“It’s often called the lazy man’s yoga because it can accomplish many of the benefits of yoga, but it allows the [client’s] body to be passive during the stretches,” Livermore said. “At first, I didn’t plan on going into sports massage, but once I began practicing Thai massage, a lot of athletes sought me out.”
Thai massage can loosen muscles, open joints and move energy in a way that even the most active people can’t do without assistance, allowing them to go that extra step in their stretches.
“Thai massage is gentler than other forms of massage, and yet has a big effect,” Livermore explained. “It’s ideal for [clients] that I can’t perform deep-tissue massage on, such as anyone with a serious injury or fibromyalgia.”
In addition to expanding her practice to athletes, Livermore found another ideal candidate for Thai massage. “It’s wonderful doing Thai massage with pregnant clients. It’s like prenatal yoga for their bodies,” she said.
“It helps get the hips open and ready for birth, and can also significantly loosen other muscles that may be overcompensating during pregnancy, like those in the chest and back.”
Muscle compression and joint mobilization are used during Thai massage, and acupressure provides a specifically Asian-medicine aspect. Thai massage is performed while the client is fully clothed in loose garments, an attractive aspect to pregnant women who may not want to deal with a drape.
Tui na: Tui na massage also incorporates acupoints and is performed regularly in Chinese hospitals. Dating back to 1700 BC, tui na is one of the original forms of Asian bodywork.
While many techniques of tui na, such as gliding, kneading and rocking, are similar to Western forms of massage, the intent of tui na is more than therapeutic.
This massage utilizes hand techniques to restore correct anatomical musculoskeletal relationships and neuromuscular patterns, and to increase the circulation of blood and qi to remove biochemical irritants.
One of tui na’s advantages compared to simpler forms of massage is its ability to focus on specific problems like sciatica, arthritis and muscle spasms, as well as chronic conditions like insomnia, constipation and migraines.
Glossary of Asian Bodywork Techniques
Acupressure: In acupressure treatments, each point is carefully chosen to correspond with the other points to address the issue at hand. Acupressure involves the practitioner’s fingers pressing on acupoints on the skin’s surface to stimulate the body’s natural self-curative abilities.
Chi nei tsang: According to traditional Chinese medicine, emotions are centered in the stomach, and chi nei tsang focuses on harmonizing the energy in the entire body by clearing physical and emotional conditions associated with imbalances of the internal organs.
Jin Shin Acutouch: This powerful, hands-on work is performed through a pattern of gentle touches that increase the energy throughout the body and promote healing.
Thai massage: Performed on a floor mat, Thai massage consists of deep, rhythmic pressure that stretches the entire body.
Tui na: This massage utilizes hand techniques to restore correct anatomical musculoskeletal relationships and neuromuscular patterns, and to increase the circulation of blood and qi to remove biochemical irritants.
Shiatsu: This Japanese massage employs acupoints during the abdominal, or hara, diagnosis, during which the massage therapist presses on a variety of anatomical locations in the abdomen that correlate to specific organ systems.
Asian Massage In Your Practice
Each form of Asian massage is designed to not only correct a current problem, but to prevent it from recurring. Asian massage addresses a wide range of health issues that might not otherwise be addressed by massage.
This is one of the reasons massage therapists are interested in becoming skilled and certified in Asian bodywork.
“It expands your practice, because not only can you treat structurally, but also mentally and emotionally,” Kraycik said.
Typically, massage therapists address clients’ aches and pains, but with proper training in traditional Chinese medicine, this can expand to address such conditions as digestive problems, gynecological issues or insomnia.
There are specific protocols, or guidelines, to address internal problems people may be struggling with, and those protocols are further individualized for each client.
“Anything you can do with acupuncture, you can do with acupressure, which is used in many forms of Asian bodywork,” Kraycik added.
Learning traditional Chinese medicine-influenced massage modalities can open your massage practice to a new demographic of clients. Asian bodywork is well-suited to sports clients, and several of the modalities provide a gentler approach for clients with chronic conditions, pregnant women and those with serious handicaps.
Asian massage allows massage therapists to perform a new level of healing.
“I started off doing classic Western massage and it was very good, but the therapeutic level jumped considerably when I added the Asian modalities,” Livermore said.
“There is more you can do with traditional Chinese medicine. You learn how to work with energy and it’s so tangible, it helps me work in a directed fashion with clients’ energy levels.
“All massage aims to do this, but these modalities are focused on it,” she added.
Kraycik points out an added bonus: You will never get bored in your practice, she said.
“It’s nice to have so many modalities at hand,” Kraycik added. “You suddenly have the ability to see things from a different angle.”
With an Asian influence added to your massage, you will be able to anticipate problems before they begin. It’s possible to save your clients from future pain to which they may be particularly vulnerable.
You will have insight into the relationship between each part and the whole, allowing you to address a much wider range of problems with more success.
About the Author
Deb Davies, L.Ac., is a health care practitioner with more than 20 years of experience, specializing in women and children’s health. She has earned certificates in massage therapy, oriental body therapy, holistic health practitioner and acupuncture from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
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