Terminology Explained

Therapeutic Western ("Swedish") Massage

Why "Western" ?

In underlying theory, therapeutic massage divides itself most broadly into two categories :  Eastern and Western.   "Eastern" massage is based on the Chinese medical system of energy flow - the "chi" in tai-chi - along meridians; meridians being those lines up and down the body we see on accupuncture charts.  Eastern massage modalities typically describe themselves in terms of freeing and balancing the chi. 

In contrast, western massage is based on the western understanding of anatomy and physiology; an understanding that is  largely the fruit of picking apart cadavers.   This tradition has yet to turn up a cadaver with a "chi" that can sit on a plate and tip a scale, and so chi is still not officially part of the picture.   The primary focus of western massage is on muscles and their surrounding connective tissue, called "fascia". 

But even though in theory western and eastern medicine seem very different - the one being concerned  with the "matter" of soft tissue and the other with the "energy" of the live system - in actual practice there is a lot of overlap between western and eastern massage techniques.   As a specific example, many of the trigger point release locations in western deep tissue massage happen to also be acupuncture/acupressure points, and meridians tend to follow nerves.   But in a more general example, as eastern medicine becomes more mainstream in the west, training in even the most western of massage modalities - like orthopedic massage - consciously includes techniques to enhance the flow of chi between therapist and client in a session.

Nevertheless, I refer to my own techniques as strictly "western", first and foremost because I have lifelong exposure to western medicine and only minimal exposure to eastern.  When I do massage my conscious thoughts are about muscles - their ways of moving or stabilizing the skeleton, and what I can determine about the health of the muscle through my own sense of touch.  Does the muscle feel dry and stringy, or well-fed and juicy ?  Does it feel chronically contracted, or chronically overstretched ?  What is the range of motion in the joint it serves ?  Is there a pattern of tightness or weakness across groups of muscles in this body that is causing suboptimal posture and performance ?   This is not to deny, however, that in my  less conscious thoughts, an intuition about energy flow and blockage could also be at work. 

Why is "swedish" in quotes ?

I say "swedish" because many people use this word to distinguish the classic spa massage -  "take off your clothes and get rubbed down with oil" - from other kinds of massage like "leave your clothes on, lay on the floor, and get walked on".   The kind of massage I give works best using oil on bare skin.  Private parts of the body are always covered under a sheet or towel.

The quotes are to distinguish my more general western massage from a specifically Swedish one.  True Swedish massage is the descendant of a regimen, popular in the fitness spas of the early 1900's though with roots in the gymnasiums of ancient Greece, of specific rubdown strokes, stretches, and joint manipulations.  These include the five famous strokes associated with classic massage :  effleurage (sliding), petrissage (kneading), tapotement (tapping), friction and vibration.  Present day western massage training in the US teaches these movements, but in the context of a broader approach that includes insight from other current bodywork disciplines.  The end result is less a regimen than a range of techniques from which to tailor the unique massage for the unique client.

And what is "deep tissue" ?

Like the term "Swedish", "deep tissue" these days is used very loosely.  In hopes of verifying that the massage I offer will be done with sufficient pressure, people will often ask if I do "deep tissue".  So even though this is a vague use of the term, I go ahead and write "deep tissue" in my ads, to reassure everyone in as few words as possible, that my massages are not fluff massages.  They are deep and focused.

The precise meaning of the term, at least in my own training, refers to a couple of specific techniques.  One of these is the "trigger point therapy", developed and made well-known by Janet Travell, that addresses referred pain via focused pressure at trigger points in culprit muscles.  The other is the clinical application of intense friction strokes at sites of muscle/tendon/ligament tearing to prevent overgrowth of scar tissue during the healing phase.  I have been trained in both of these techniques.