Understanding Massage Therapy Through a Taoist Idea

In my new book due out October, 2009, Massage Therapy: What It Is and How It Works by Cengage Learning, one of the things I do is develop an idea called “The Three Paradigms.” It was borne out of long, deep discussions in which I partook in 1990 as an original member of the Job Analysis Advisory Committee (JAAC), formed by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). The JAAC ultimately led to the formation of the first National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) and I served on that board as a founding member for almost five years. At that time, we presented the essential conclusions of our discussions in a brief article entitled, “Three Paradigms, Five Approaches” in the Massage Therapy Journal, Summer 1991. It was co-authored by Carl Dubitsky, OBT, LMT, Patricia Benjamin, PhD, Raymond Castellino, DC, RPP, Jeffery Maitland, PhD and myself, Steven Schenkman.


Almost twenty years later, based on my own experience, observations, and thought and after years of further dialogue and discussion, I have greatly expanded on that initial idea in my book. I have always found “The Three Paradigms” so central to understanding the scope of massage and yet no one ever took them and ran with them. That’s one of the things I try to do in my book. For years I’ve discussed them and often used them as the foundation of lectures and classes I taught.


For the purpose of this blog, I wanted to briefly touch upon an aspect of “The Three Paradigms,” which opens up an important way to understand and view the entire field. When correctly understood, these three paradigms provide comprehension and insight into the full scope of massage therapy practice and its many positive, healthful benefits and outcomes. They are as classified as follows:  1) Relaxation and Stress Reduction, 2) Remediation, Therapy and Pain Relief and 3) Holistic or Integrative. These Three Paradigms together form an overlapping continuum of potential practice and treatment beginning at the most basic levels of touch, leading to the most comprehensive and advanced levels of therapeutic treatment and holistic care practiced in bodywork today. The idea of different paradigms in massage therapy is one that is intimately bound to the length and depth of successful education and training, continuing education, professional development and the extent of a therapist’s practical experience.


In Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy, there is a fundamental principle that reflects and gives explanation to the inner process of what takes place, either consciously or unconsciously, during the process of learning and becoming a massage therapist. It is the principle of “Li (pronounced lee)” precedes Qi (pronounced chee).” It means that Li, the underlying notion or the idea of any ‘thing’ must first exist before it becomes manifest into material being through Qi, — the energy or vital force used to bring it into reality. In short, — idea precedes manifestation. For example, before a skyscraper can be built it first comes into existence as an idea in the mind of its architect who then puts all the detail down on paper to create blueprints of the building. The blueprints are then brought to life through the energy or Qi of the builders who turn it into a three dimensional physical reality. So in a sense the Li of anything is really like an invisible blueprint. This parallels very closely how in massage therapy the depth, quality and the extent of how ultimately what manifests through a massage therapist’s hands will be a reflection of how well they have developed the “Li’s” of understanding their paradigm of practice and the particular bodywork or massage therapy modality used to facilitate that practice.


As massage therapy students evolve into professional practitioners, they absorb and then integrate their training and practical experiences into a kind of ‘blueprint of understanding.’ With the right attention and efforts, this understanding grows into a comprehensive framework or paradigm that equals the efforts practitioners have made to embrace their education and hone their technical skills. In the end it’s the clients and patients who become the fortunate (or unfortunate) recipients of the paradigm of practice that emanates as intention (or LI) through their massage therapist’s hands.


Discussion: I would love to hear more of people’s thoughts on this important idea of the direct connection between the depth and quality of practitioners’ understanding of their work and how it impacts their level of competence, excellence, sensitivity and palpatory skills and the overall results of their treatments in whatever of the Three Paradigms they practice from.


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