Which Bodywork Style Suits You?

Advice for Newcomers

By Cindy Williams

It’s been a long, intense week. You have strict deadlines at work, you need to help with your daughter’s science project, and your spouse is out of town on a business trip. Frazzled and near your wits’ end, a friend suggests you get a massage. She knows a great massage therapist and will even babysit for a couple of hours, so you can give it a try. But you’re a newcomer to bodywork, so you may be thinking: “How will I know what kind of massage to get? What if I don’t feel comfortable? Do I have to remove my clothing? What if I just can’t relax?”
These are common questions for those new to massage, but there’s no need to worry. Let’s begin by outlining the most common types of massage, and the benefits of each, so you can feel more confident choosing the best option for you.

Western Massage Styles
Swedish Massage
Dating back to the 1800s, Swedish massage is the most widely known style of Western massage. If in doubt about what massage to choose, Swedish is a great place to start.
Massage practitioners use a combination of strokes: friction, gliding, kneading, squeezing, tapotement, vibration, and wringing. The pace may be fast or slow; for example, if deep calming of the mind is desired, a slower pace is used than in a massage where the goal is stimulating circulation. Practitioners generally use light to moderate pressure, but deeper pressure can be used if necessary or if you prefer it.
Swedish massage is performed with the client partially or fully disrobed, and draped with a sheet or towel. Although only the part of the body being worked on is uncovered, some people are not comfortable unless they are fully clothed—in this case, it is best to consider a different type of bodywork such as reflexology, shiatsu, or Thai yoga massage.

Deep-Tissue Massage
Deep tissue refers to specific techniques that are used to access deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It is commonly used for injury rehabilitation and pain management. This is not applied as a full-body massage, but only on or near areas of adhesion, compromised range of motion, or chronic tension.
“No pain, no gain” is not a wise mind-set to have when choosing this modality. There may be discomfort, but there should not be pain. If the massage hurts, the body will resist too much for the work to be effective. Myofascial release, neuromuscular therapy, and trigger point therapy are widely used deep-tissue approaches.

Aromatherapy Massage
During an aromatherapy massage, essential oils are either blended with the massage oil or applied directly onto the skin to promote various states of well-being. Essential oils enhance the inherent benefits of massage. They are potent, so if you have a history of skin sensitivity or reaction to strong scents, inform your massage therapist.

Hot Stone Massage
Heated stones can also be incorporated into massage for maximum relaxation. Stones are warmed to a comfortable temperature and applied with gliding strokes. Stones should never be left on the skin without a sheet or towel as a buffer. Children, elderly people, and pregnant women generally should not receive hot stone massage, and neither should anyone with acute inflammation, diabetes, neuropathy, pregnancy, or skin sensitivity.

The principle of reflexology is that the entire body is reflected in zones on the hands, feet, and ears, and that by applying pressure to a specific zone in those places, there will be a direct effect on the corresponding organ, system, or area of the body. If you prefer to not receive touch on your entire body, reflexology is a perfect option.

Eastern Massage Styles
Shiatsu is a Japanese form of bodywork performed with the client fully clothed. Like other forms of massage, shiatsu’s benefits include calming the nervous system, improving range of motion, and relieving tense, stressed muscles. However, unlike Western massage approaches, traditional shiatsu is performed on the floor on a padded mat. Pressure is applied using fingers, palms, and thumbs in a rhythmic sequence to open up lines of energy called meridians that, when congested, can cause illness and disease.  

Thai Yoga Massage
Originating in Thailand, this style of bodywork is often referred to as “lazy man’s yoga.” Clients do not need to be flexible, or be a yoga practitioner, to enjoy this deeply restorative style of bodywork.
Like shiatsu, traditional Thai massage is performed on a padded mat on the floor with the client fully clothed, although modern Thai massage can be adapted to a massage table. Slow, deep compressions and passive yoga-like stretches are applied to the body, matched to your breathing, to open lines of energy.

Medical Concerns
So, are there any reasons you shouldn’t try a massage? What if you have a medical condition?
Many diseases are the result of stress, which makes massage a powerful tool for promoting positive change to just about any condition. From simple relaxation and tension reduction to anxiety, inflammation, injury, and insomnia, massage can provide much-needed relief.
But massage is not always for everyone. If you have advanced osteoporosis, broken bones, infectious disease, fever, some skin irritations, or varicose veins, massage should either not be performed or should only be applied to unaffected areas of the body. It is essential to have a thorough discussion about your health history with your massage practitioner before the session. Tell your practitioner everything that’s pertinent, including medications you are taking, surgeries you’ve undergone, and accidents you’ve been involved in.

Communication is Key!
Ultimately, the single best way to ensure you receive the right massage for you is to discuss your comfort level, goals, health history, and sensitivities with your massage practitioner. Communicate your comfort level with touch and disrobing, so you can relax. Massage can be as simple as rubbing the hands and feet with the client fully clothed, while still providing great benefits. Any massage can, and should, be tailored to you. After all, this is your time!
Whether you are recovering from injury or simply looking for some bliss in the midst of life’s harried pace, open communication with your therapist throughout your session will ensure a delightful, comfortable, and beneficial experience. Enjoy!

Cindy Williams has served the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor since 2000. She enjoys the challenge of blending structure with creative flow to provide balance in her classroom, bodywork practice, and life.