In touch with the ben­e­fits of mas­sage ther­a­pies

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ROB DUN­LOP

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.

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