Massage vs. Bodywork

Knowing the World of Healthy Touch Possibilities

By Cindy Williams

If you are familiar with massage and other hands-on therapeutic work, you may have heard the term bodywork but been unsure what it is and what makes it different from massage.
Recently a friend of mine, who is a long-time, regular recipient of various forms of massage and bodywork, came to me exclaiming, “I finally get it! I finally understand the difference between massage and bodywork!” Until now, she was among the many who weren’t sure what was what.

Defining Factors

In order to effectively differentiate the terms massage and bodywork, let’s compare and contrast definitions offered by experts in the field.  


• “A system of structured palpation or movement of the soft tissue of the body.” (
• “The scientific art and system of assessment of and manual application of certain techniques to the superficial soft tissue of the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia and other structures that lie within the superficial tissue.” (Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage, 5th edition)
• “Manual manipulation of the soft tissues of the body for the purpose of establishing and maintaining good health and promoting wellness.” (Salvo, Massage Therapy Principles and Practices, 5th edition)


• “Various forms of touch therapies that may use manipulation, movement, and/or repatterning to affect structural changes to the body.” (
• “A term that encompasses all the various forms of massage, movement, and other touch therapies.” (Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage, 5th edition)
• “A generic term used to describe any therapeutic or personal self-development practice that may include massage, healing touch, movement, or energetic work.” (Massage Therapy Principles and Practices, 5th edition)

From these definitions, we can distill the follow points:
1. Massage is manual manipulation of the soft tissues of the body (in other words, direct physical contact).
2. Bodywork can involve manual manipulation of the soft tissues of the body; however, it is a broader term than massage, encompassing more types of contact than direct soft-tissue manipulation.  

The Bodywork Smorgasbord

What exactly are these other types of contact? There are well over 250 recognized bodywork modalities, or approaches, that can be utilized to promote therapeutic outcomes. Therapeutic change can result not only from direct manual manipulation of soft tissue, but also from working with a client indirectly. Here are a few examples.

Movement Therapy

This form of bodywork is based on the idea that over time we learn how to move in a particular way because of habitual, repetitive actions of daily life. These patterns can cause restrictions that often result in discomfort and pain. The aim is to restore function by increasing self-awareness of what you do every day, how you move, and choosing new ways of moving that are healthy. Often a session has little to do with the therapist touching the client, but rather observing and instructing new movement patterns. Examples include Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, and Aston-Patterning.

Energy-Based Therapy

This form of bodywork is based on the belief that there are energy fields that flow within and around you, and that blockages or imbalances cause disease and dysfunction. Balanced energy promotes physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Techniques can be applied with hands on the body, off the body, and even from a remote location using intuitive intent. Examples include reiki, therapeutic touch, and polarity therapy.

Sound Therapy

Sound has been used for centuries as a tool for promoting physical, mental, and emotional wellness.  This type of therapy rests on the notion that our bodies contain energy frequencies that can become imbalanced or go “off key.” The vibrations that are created through the medium of sound can realign these energies, in some cases by entraining brain frequencies. Therapists can be trained in the use of instruments (such as singing bowls, tuning forks, gongs, flutes, piano, guitar, etc.), singing, moving to the beat of music, or simply listening to specific types of music for the purpose of healing.

The list goes on. Other forms of bodywork include aromatherapy (invoking the sense of smell), hydrotherapy (using water at various states and temperatures), acupressure (stimulating points in hands, feet, or along energy meridians), and spa therapies (use of mud, clay, seaweed, or peat). All have a therapeutic benefit for mind, body, and/or spirit without the requirement of manual tissue manipulation.

Go on a Mission

As you can see, massage is but one facet of the multifaceted world of bodywork. To thoroughly set your understanding in stone, inspire yourself to go on a mission of trying at least three forms of bodywork you’ve never experienced! It’s a great way to expand your horizons while also solidifying your understanding of what’s what with massage and bodywork.  

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.