In touch with the benefits of massage therapies
When Michelangelo proclaimed that “to touch is to give life”, he wasn’t just waxing lyrical. Touch was integral to the medical revolution founded by Hippocrates in 400 BC. Michelangelo’s 16th-century musings were merely a recital of ancient history. (He was a tortured poet anyway whose skills lay elsewhere.)
So, when we lovers of massage head to spas for touch therapy, we are simply confirming our attunement to this ancient wisdom. Until the 1950s, before the pharmaceutical age, it wasn’t unusual for hospital patients to receive daily massages to aid recuperation. Today, we can thank resorts and spas for picking up the baton, as it were, creating restful and meditative spaces with beautiful surrounds, scents and ambience.
Touch appears to be a universal quality that spans time, culture and our own DNA. What is our immediate reaction when we want to comfort or soothe someone? We touch them. Across the globe, we can delve into local history, witness and still experience the rich variety of ancient healing practices.
Australia’s Aborigines used massage to cure ails, relieve pain and to rejuvenate. In India, the holistic system of Ayurveda has been around since 1800 BC; it’s a prac- tice that focuses on diet, exercise and massage for good health. In the southwest of the country, amid Kerala’s lush landscape, visitors can rebalance at specialised Ayurveda resorts.
Legacy exists from the ancient Western world, too. When Greek gymnasiums were established, they offered wet-steam and dry-steam rooms, hot baths and massage services. Romans took it to a new level by adding even grander architecture and including indulgent food and wine. They made capital of natural hot springs wherever they could across the empire. Around AD60 they established the city of Bath in England, where the term “taking the waters” was adopted to describe thermal spa immersion. Germany’s version was Baden-Baden, a mineralrich spa town in the Black Forest.
Elsewhere, bathhouses flourished in the Aztec, Egyptian and Mesopotamian empires. While China developed its own massage therapies coupled with herbal remedies, Japan incorporated bathing in geothermally heated mineral springs, or onsens, into their way of life.
Cultures across the Pacific Islands incorporated oils from perfumed tropical plants and flowers. Hawaii’s traditional healers, or kahunas, used the sweet-smelling liquid of the Polynesian ginger plant as a lubricant for lomilomi massage, now popular with tourists in destinations well beyond, say, Honolulu or Maui. Melanesians in Fiji adopted coconut oil, and no doubt Captain Cook enjoyed the scent of the gardenia-like tiare flower as local practitioners helped ease his rheumatism when he visited French Polynesia in 1769.
During the 19th century, more structure and techniques were developed and provided in health resorts and sanatoriums, where often the wealthy could retreat from the world for tailored programs of diet, exercise, massage and fresh air. Today, the ubiquitous massage style offered in most resorts and spas is Swedish. The technique was developed in Europe in the 19th century and exported to the US to be taught in massage schools from the 1920s to 70s, establishing it as the world’s classic massage, wherein all parts of the body are oiled, stroked and kneaded.
Science is finally catching up to the virtues of massage. Various studies have shown the practice enhances alertness, slows the heart rate, decreases stress hormones, relaxes us, relieves stiffness and pain in joints, soothes tired and sore muscles, and improves sleep. What a blessing is our devotion to spa therapy. Our bodies are programmed to want this natural healing. In our touch-deprived society we probably crave it even more. For we are at the mercy of physiology, too. Touch sends signals to the reward system of our brain, activating the release of endorphins. Bliss arrives. Like a drug.