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Massage therapy, with its roots deeply embedded in various cultures and traditions, has evolved over thousands of years into the modern practice we know today. The art of touch, healing, and relaxation has a fascinating history that spans across continents and time periods. In this blog, we’ll take you on a journey through the history of massage, exploring its origins, development, and cultural significance.

Eastern Approaches

Ancient Origins China

The history of massage dates back to ancient civilizations. In ancient China, around 5000 years to 2700 year BCE (Before the Common Era), massage was considered an essential component of their medical system. Chinese Taoist priest practiced “qigong” a meditative movement revealing and cultivating the vital lift force. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the principle that known as “anmo,” it was practiced to balance the body’s energy (qi) and facilitate the flow of vital energy. Similarly, the ancient Egyptians practiced massage as a form of physical therapy and relaxation, with evidence found in tomb paintings and writings.

India’s Influence

India, the birthplace of Ayurveda, contributed significantly to the development of massage. Ayurvedic texts, dating back more than 4,000 years, mention various massage techniques and their therapeutic benefits. Ayurvedic massage, or “Abhyanga,” focused on balancing the body’s doshas (vital energies) and promoting overall well-being.

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3000 years ago, around 1000 BCE, Japanese monks began to study Buddhism in China. They witnessed the healing methods of TCM and took them back to Japan. The Japanese not only adopted the Chinese style, but also began to add to it by introducing new combinations, eventually reaching a unique form called Shiatsu-“shi” meaning finger and “atsu” meaning pressure.

Thai massage

Traditional Thai massage, also called Thai yoga therapy, is a therapeutic style of massage therapy that dates back thousands of years. Its origins are unknown, but practitioners traditionally trace their lineage to Jivaka Komalaboat, also known as Shivago, who was personnel physician to the Buddha and renowned as a healer in Buddhist tradition. He founded Traditional Thai Massage (Nuad Boran). He based Thai Massage on a combination of Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions, including acupressure and assisted yoga postures. Rather than using oils, the massage recipient remains clothed, and instead of being rubbed the body is pressed, pulled, rocked and stretched. Thai massage, like most oriental forms of massage, combines massage, stretching, and what we now refer to as chiropractic manipulations into one treatment. This is just a small simple of the longer-standing Eastern massage techniques, but massage has also had a long history in the West.

Western traditions

Ancient Greece and Rome
The Greek Tradition

The ancient Greeks also valued massage therapy. Hippocrates, often regarded as the “Father of Medicine,” wrote extensively about the benefits of massage. He believed that massage could be used to treat a variety of ailments and injuries. Greek athletes also received massages as part of their training regimen.

Roman Adoption

The Romans adopted many Greek practices, including massage. Public baths, which were common in ancient Rome, often included massage services. Roman physicians like Galen further developed massage techniques and documented their therapeutic effects.

Middle Ages and Renaissance
Middle Eastern Influence

During the Middle Ages, the Islamic Golden Age saw the preservation and expansion of medical knowledge, including massage. Avicenna (Ibn Sina), a Persian polymath, wrote about the benefits of massage in his influential medical texts.

The Renaissance Revival

In the Renaissance period, the study of human anatomy led to a resurgence of interest in massage as a medical practice. Physicians like Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius documented the physiological effects of massage, paving the way for its integration into Western medicine.

19th and 20th Centuries
Swedish Massage

In the 19th century, a Swedish physician named Per Henrik Ling developed what we now know as Swedish massage. His system incorporated various techniques, including effleurage (long, gliding strokes) and petrissage (kneading). This laid the foundation for modern Western massage therapy.

Global Spread

Massage continued to evolve and adapt in various parts of the world. Japanese Shiatsu, Thai massage, and Hawaiian Lomi Lomi are examples of culturally specific massage modalities that gained popularity during this time.

Modern Massage Therapy

Today, massage therapy has become a widely accepted form of holistic healthcare, offering numerous physical and mental benefits. It has found its place in spas, wellness centers, and medical facilities worldwide, offering relaxation, pain relief, stress reduction, and improved circulation.

The history of massage is a rich tapestry woven from the traditions of numerous cultures. From ancient China and India to Greece, Rome, and beyond, massage has been a constant companion on humanity’s journey toward well-being and relaxation. Its evolution continues to this day, with practitioners and therapists providing healing touch to those seeking relief from the stresses of modern life.

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  2. Calvert, R. (2002). The History of Massage: An Illustrated Survey from Around the World. Healing Arts Press.
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