If there is one all-purpose balm for our long-suffering bodies, it's the caressing rub of hands on skin. Not only does massage feel good, but there's a whole scientific literature illustrating its benefits, which include reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, increased blood and lymph circulation, improved range of motion in the joints and increased levels of endorphins, our natural pleasure chemicals. If you're new to the experience, however, it can be challenging choosing from the wide range of options. Some therapies focus on correcting postural and alignment problems, others treat health conditions like migraines or PMS, and others simply promote general relaxation. Swedish massage is a good place to start if you're looking for general stress relief. It's also a good therapy for whiplash and tendonitis.
Massage can also have its emotional challenges. Lying, often face down, often naked, while a relative stranger touches you is a fairly vulnerable position to be in, and your tension may not easily melt away.
You can bet your second and third massages will be way better than your first.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"The classic Swedish techniques are very flowing. There's a kneading of all muscle groups. Swedish massage decreases pain. It's good for sprains and strains, whiplash, bursitis, low back pain in pregnancy. It decreases anxiety. Hemophilia is an absolute contraindication. So is severely high blood pressure." J ETTE HENRIKSEN, Swedish massage teacher, Toronto
"Every area of the feet corresponds to a body part. When I apply pressure to the feet, the corresponding body area relaxes and experiences improved blood and nerve flow. Data show that reflexology can reduce high blood pressure, regulate periods and lessen the need for medication. In Denmark and Germany, reflexologists work in hospitals. It can be great for digestive disorders, neck tension, carpal tunnel, addictions. Contraindications include aneurisms, inflamed veins, blood clots, conditions that require surgery and infections. It's more appropriate at certain points of cancer treatment than others."
PAM RUSSELL, certified reflexologist, Toronto
"In Structural Integration we use a very directed pressure, not like (other) massage, in which they rub over and over the same area. We're trying to move tissue. The goal is to create a more aligned and integrated structure in relationship to gravity. The only way to do that is to create more space so the bones have more room to shift into a new place. When space is created, a person becomes more aligned and balanced. It's helpful for back pain or joint problems. It improves breathing and circulation."
SHAWN AARONS, Structural Integration practitioner, Toronto
"In Systemic Deep Tissue Therapy, we do a lot of work around the pelvis and spine. It's a very active therapy. You must participate in the breathing and body awareness, (hold) awareness of where the therapist is working and actively try to release that area. It's very good for chronic back pain and postural deviations. Muscle has memory, so having someone work on your body can certainly be a trigger for emotional experience. It's contraindicated during flare-ups of arthritis or active cancer."
ANDREA BARTLIFF, registered massage therapist, Toronto
"Shiatsu can hurt; if someone is out of balance, some areas might be sensitive. I've had success with headaches, neck and back pain, premenstrual and gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue and stress. I don't treat people with very active cancer or AIDS -- an increase in circulation could spread the disease."
NADINE FELDMAN, shiatsu massage practitioner, Toronto
"Thai massage is similar to shiatsu in that there's a lot of pressing with the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, but (in Thai massage) the part being worked on is put into a stretch. The poses seem to come from yoga. If the limb is stretched, the meridians or energy channels are more accessible. One move that constricts the femoral artery is not used if someone has a heart condition. Good for athletes and dancers."
PIETER SOMMEN, instructor, shiatsu and Thai massage, NYC