Thursday, July 2, 2009

Historical, cultural and philosophical approaches to massage

Fundamentals of Massage

By Sam Steven

Describe the development of massage practice
Describe different cultural and philosophical approaches to massage

Task 6 – Historical, cultural and philosophical approaches to massage

Massage therapy has been a constantly developing practice for many years and from many different origins. Beliefs and ideas from many practitioners and cultures have influenced massage practice. They have all contributed to the current techniques and beliefs which are applied in modern practice.

The most primitive indication of massage is of European cave paintings which illustrate massage or touch for healing purposes dating back to around 15,000 B.C. The earliest reference to massage documented in writing was discovered in China around 1400 B.C. (Chizhik)

Below I will illustrate some of the influences which have helped develop massage practice to how we know it today.

Comparison of the development of massage in the eastern and western traditions

The development of massage in the eastern civilization has stemmed from Asian and Indian cultures with documentation of its existence dating back to 1400 B.C. As described by Myers (2008) much of the focus of this style of massage is by using the natural flow of the body’s energy system - or CHI as it is known - as the source of health. Any illness is considered to be caused by a disruption in the energy flow. Massage techniques such as acupuncture and Shiatsu were developed and are still practiced today with this focus.

The development of massage western civilization has incorporated more of a physiological foundation, focusing more on the body in a physical approach. With the influence and beliefs of many of the individuals below, massage in western civilization has developed significantly.

The role of Hippocrates, Galen, Ling, Metzger, Kellogg, Vodder, Travell & Cyriax in the development of massage in the western tradition

In ancient times, priests and shamans who believed that illness was abnormal and was due to a supernatural force, would massage from the centre of the body outwards through the limbs with the belief that this directional technique would eradicate any illness away from the body.

Hippocrates, (460-377 A.D.) a Greek physician and considered to be the first person to study massage therapy scientifically (Therapeutic Massage). His ideas are thought to have changed the way in which massage is applied. Hippocrates believed contrary to the ideas of the priests and shamans, that illness had a natural cause and that by using strokes toward the heart, wastes would be flushed out of the body.

Galen (129-199 A.D. )was also a Greek physician reiterated many of Hippocrates beliefs in terms of direction of massage. He also added that a variation of strokes and directional techniques should be applied. "The rubbings should be of many sorts, with strokes and circuits of the hands, carrying them not only from above down and from below up, but also subvertically, obliquely, transversely and subtransversely ... But I direct that the strokes and circuits of the hands should be made of many sorts, in order that so far as possible all the muscle fibers should be rubbed in every direction." (Chizhik et al.)

Henrik Ling (1776-1839 A.D.) combined ideas from several massage and exercise techniques including gymnastics to develop the form of massage that would later be developed into ‘Swedish Massage.’ He was not trained in medicine which led to confliction towards his ideas. Eventually however Ling’s theories were accepted and have been accredited for developing passive movement and exercise into what we now practice as “range of motion or stretching” techniques. (Fritz)

Dr Johan Mezger (1839-1909) of Holland, simplified existing techniques and categorized them into what we now know as ‘Swedish Massage.’ Mezger is responsible for presenting massage therapy as a form of medical treatment. His techniques developed into the French terms; “effleurage, petrissage and tapotement.”(Fritz)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1953) “had some eccentric ideas and methodologies including that almost all illness originated in the stomach and bowels and virtually all disease was caused by sexual intercourse.” (NNDB) He wrote many books about health and firmly believed and presented massage and hydrotherapy as beneficial forms of medical treatment.

In the 1930s Emil Vodder, a Danish physician, developed a light form of massage which focussed on the lymphatic system. This technique is still used today and is known as manual lymphatic drainage.

Dr Janet Travell discovered trigger points in 1942 and has written several books about the theory behind trigger points and the treatment of them.

James Cyriax was the son of Edgar Cyriax who was an advocate of Henrik Lings Swedish movement, and published many books presenting the benefits of this treatment. James was an orthopaedic surgeon who developed transverse friction massage. He identified pathologies relating to pain caused by soft tissue dysfunction.

Comparison of Maori massage with western massage

Mirimiri is a traditional Maori form of massage which incorporates a range of different techniques based on holistic, physical manipulation, energy and herbal medicine. “Literally translated it means to massage flesh, bones, tissue, blood, and then move any issues that may need clearing.” (Maori Healers)

It focuses on physical health, spiritual health, family health and mental health to identify “the core of the problem” (McQuillan) and to heal appropriately. It is similar to principles of eastern massage in that there is a great deal of holistic and spiritual focus. Western massage principles as mentioned earlier, are more focussed on the physical aspects.

The massage scandals of the 1800s and their impact on the massage industry

During the late 1800s the integrity of massage therapy in the medical field was hit with a number of scandals.

The consistency in quality and the standard of massage was questioned leading into a further investigation about the level of education and qualifications practitioners were obtaining. There were patterns of increasingly high fees, dishonesty, stealing, corruption and unethical practice. Massage was being taught by unqualified teachers to students without academic pre-requisites. Prostitution was associated with massage therapy with the introduction of ‘massage parlors’ – essentially brothels. This association is still evident in the modern interpretation of massage today.

Organizations were established to re-identify massage therapy as a reputable form of medical treatment: Massage could only be taught in approved schools by qualified teachers, the level of training was inspected and examined and honest qualifications were awarded. However the effects of some of these scandals are still recognized today as influential associations with massage therapy.

The development of professional massage in New Zealand including MINZI, NZATMP, TMA & MNZ

In 1985 Bill Wareham called a meeting for all massage therapists working in the Auckland area in order to create a standard for which therapists could be recognized. The focus was to develop sufficient education for massage therapists, teachers, and annual conferences designed for further learning and development. From this the Massage Institute of New Zealand (MINZI) was formed. (McQuillan)

In 1989 Jim Sanford felt the need for a nationally recognized professional association for massage practitioners and developed the New Zealand Association of Therapeutic Massage Practitioners (NZATMP). The focus of this association was to identify and create education standards, and to promote massage therapy with a reputable and professional image to the New Zealand public. In the late 1990s the NZATMP changed its name to the TMA (Therapeutic Massage Association) and redirected its focus towards supporting the qualified massage therapist. It provides a standard for education and qualification to which the registered therapist can be identified. (McQuillan)

Massage New Zealand was formed when the MINZI and TMA amalgamated to “promote the ongoing development of massage in New Zealand.”(MNZ) They continue to provide a standard for education and qualification for massage practitioners and provide representation of those who are registered and a network by which qualified massage practitioners in New Zealand can be recognized.

Contemporary Massage

Contemporary massage has developed from a combination of traditional techniques and physiological theory. (McQuilllan, D). It incorporates a range of techniques depending on the physiology and pathology of the client and also the focus of the therapist.

Currently, massage therapy is again growing in popularity. The establishment of associations and organizations which represent massage therapy have restored its integrity as a form of medical treatment. There are growing opportunities for learning and its education and teaching standards have increased significantly. The awareness amongst the public is growing and it is becoming accepted by a range of other health care professionals. (McQuillan 2009)

A discussion of how the following philosophical approaches to massage (body, body-mind, body-mind-spirit) relate to the historical and cultural contexts discussed

The approaches to massage vary between different cultures and practitioners. These differences are representative of the development of massage therapy over many years and the influential beliefs and ideas that certain individuals or have added. The ‘body’ focus of massage and ‘body-mind’ approach are representative of western and traditional massage principles which focus primarily on the physiological and physical aspects i.e.; the body, and mind representing psychological focus of healing. Traditional massage had a big focus on physical and emotional / spiritual aspects. Eastern massage as well as Maori massage practices have more of a body-mind-spirit focus which incorporates a combination of physical, emotional, spiritual and holistic approaches.

In summary, massage has been practiced in many forms for thousands of years. There have been many influences in the way it has developed and plenty of different approaches to how it is applied depending on the cultural, personal and even geographical ideologies involved. The most important aspect I believe is that massage is continued to be promoted by practitioners and organizations that represent it with the integrity it deserves.


Carlson, S. (1996). Hippocrates and Massage History. Retrieved June 29 2009 from:

Chizhik, Y. Massage History. Retrieved June 28 from:

Fritz, S. (2009). Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage (4th Ed.). Missouri: Mosby Elsevier.

McQuillan, D. (2009). The roots of massage therapy. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago Polytechnic.

Maori Healers (2008). Maori Healers. Retrieved June 30 from:

MNZ (2009). Retrieved 1 July 2009 from:

Myers, T. (2008). History of Massage. Retrieved June 29 from:

NNDB (2009).John Harvey Kellogg. Retrieved July 1st from:

Therapeutic Massage. Retrieved June 30 from:


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