The Ancient Art of Massage

The next time you call the spa to schedule an appointment with your massage therapist, consider this: you are continuing a tradition that dates back to at least 2,700 B.C. The ancient Chinese practiced the art of massage as they dealt with everything from labor pain to paralysis. That’s right, long before Lamaze became the rage, women in labor received massages to ease the pain.

In fact, massage is thought to be one of the earliest forms of medicine. Indians used a technique called Ayurveda to treat those in pain. In addition to hands-on treatment, Ayurveda incorporated a variety of spices and aromatherapy oils believed to possess healing properties into their technique. Imagine feeling ill and knowing that massage would be part of your treatment plan. The idea alone is enough to release dopamine, the “feel good” hormone in your body.

Massage is referred to in 30 different chapters of the Huangdi Neijing, a compilation of Chinese medical knowledge compiled between 722-481 B.C. Each reference to massage explains how it should be used to treat specific conditions or ailments. Like herbal remedies or exercise programs, massage was simply part of the action plan for wellness.

Buddha’s physician, Jivaka, described a system of healing that combined acupressure, reflexology, and yoga. Around the same time Hippocrates wrote, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing.” These men were not some fly-by-night hucksters, but renowned intellects of their time.

Perhaps it is the primal urge humans have to be touched. Maybe it’s the benefit of increased circulation through the rubbing of the skin. Whatever the reason, massage was a tool in medical treatment long before China established a department of massage therapy in 581 A.D. By the way, it was also in 581 A.D. that a doctor first introduced massage therapy as one weapon in fighting childhood diseases.

At one time it was fairly easy to learn the art of massage. Having grown up with massage as part of their everyday life, children observed their parents and physicians, then duplicated the techniques on their own children. It was considered a cornerstone of wellness, a natural way to achieve full health.

Gradually, over time, massage therapy has taken a back seat to other health management options, even earning a reputation as an “alternative” treatment. Rather than being heralded as one of the earliest, most fundamental physical remedies available, massage is considered an “add-on.”

How odd this concept would surely seem to our ancestors who used massage throughout life — from soothing a fussy baby to helping an aging relative with arthritis. Maybe, just maybe, the brightest thing we can do as we tend to our own health is to go back.