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Holistic Massage

by Sara Thomas & Lucy Lidell(more info)

listed in massage, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

The effects of massage are deep and far-reaching, for it works on many levels. Physiologically it helps the flow of blood and lymph in the body and aids the removal of waste from the tissues. It relaxes muscles and, depending how it is done, can either soothe or stimulate nerves. It can help to lower blood pressure and, by decreasing tension, it allows the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system to prevail, bringing a sense of peace, relaxation and ease to the body.

Holistic massage can also have a profound effect on us emotionally and spiritually. Feeling nourished and cared for creates trust and optimism and nurtures self-acceptance and body awareness. Through letting go and making a deeper contact with ourselves, we may also experience feelings of expansion and lightness of spirit and come into a state of heightened awareness.

What you can do at home

Getting started

Massage is a wonderful skill to develop, and not difficult to learn. You can master the basic strokes from a book – or better still, go on a massage course. But even without training, with a little time and willingness to experiment, you will soon find that you can bring comfort and relief to your partner, children or friends by simply using your hands intuitively. And on those occasions where no-one else is available, self-massage can be surprisingly effective.

There are no end of uses to which massage can be put. Apart from the pure pleasure of giving and receiving massage to relieve the stress and muscle fatigue all too common in everyday life, it is of immense value to provide comfort and relaxation during pregnancy and labour, for exam nerves, and in bereavement, recuperation and old age. To get started, you will need:
  • A room that is warm and peaceful, preferably softly lit, in order to provide a relaxing environment.
  • A massage table or a futon or other firm, padded surface, covered by a sheet or towel.
  • Towels to cover the receiver, and pillows to support parts of the body, if necessary.
  • Oil to enable your hands to glide smoothly over the body.
  • Short fingernails and clean hands, free of watches, bracelets and rings.

Working with feeling

It’s important to understand that massage is far more about feeling, awareness and sensitivity than about technique. It is a way of communicating through touch, rather than words. The hands become sensory organs, listening to the body, receiving its messages and responses in the form of tension or relaxation, quality of tone or vitality. The more you can be fully present with your hands, allowing them to relax, the more messages you will receive and the more healing you will be able to impart.

Giving massage at home, you will often want to work with oil directly on the receiver’s skin. But you can also do much to relieve pain or tension working through clothes, simply using the energy and sensitivity of your hands to feel into what the body needs.

Before beginning any massage, no matter how short, spend a few minutes grounding and centering yourself. Close your eyes and really feel your connection with the floor. Then take several slow, deep breaths into your lower abdomen, the seat of the “hara”, the body’s centre of gravity and vitality. This will help to focus you and bring you into the present moment, both of which are essential if you are to make proper contact with the receiver.

Everyday uses and applications

Since the majority of health problems are stress-related, massage is an incredible tool to have up your sleeve, both to prevent and to treat common ailments. When we get stressed, the “fight or flight” response is set in motion. Adrenaline released into the bloodstream raises the blood pressure and quickens the heart rate and muscles tighten to deal with real or imagined dangers.

Massaging someone on a regular basis can do much to counteract the effects of stress. You need to be aware of individual needs, however. Stress affects us all in slightly different ways. When massaging someone, ask the receiver to let you know where he or she is feeling tension or tightness and what degree of pressure feels most effective. Sometimes hands that just rest and hold with awareness can bring the greatest healing warmth and comfort.

If you are new to massage, the best way to build up confidence is by practising and experimenting. Using feedback from your receivers, just see what works best, which kind of strokes feel most soothing, how you can keep up a steady flowing rhythm. Be present and creative, and keep your mind focused on what your hands are doing.

What follows are some guidelines on specific strokes you can use with a few of the commonest complaints you will come across. But don’t be bound solely to these routines – be guided by what your hands feel.

Aching neck and shoulders: With the receiver lying face-down, use your whole hands to squeeze along the muscles on the top of the shoulders, working outwards from the neck. Circle with your thumbs on either side of the spine between the shoulder blades. Knead and stroke the back of the neck and press along the base of the skull.

This can also be done with the person clothed, leaning over a cushion on the back of a chair.

Backache: Try working up the long muscles on each side of the spine, using long gliding strokes, followed by circling outward with the palm of the hands. Then do some small, spiralling circles with the thumbs on specially tight spots. With one hand on top of the other, make slow deep circles over the base of the spine, the sacrum.

Aching legs: Leg-ache can often be a problem after long hours of standing or vigorous exercise. You can help clear lactic acid from tired muscles with long gliding strokes from ankle to top of thigh, using firmer pressure on the upstroke, lighter on the way down. Follow this with alternate draining strokes, pushing upwards in rhythmical movements using the whole of the hand.

Headaches: Spend a few minutes circling the temples and jaw muscles. Stroke out across the forehead, pressing around the eye sockets. Be guided by your partner. Try massaging the whole scalp with your fingertips to disperse pain and constriction in the head. As tension in neck and shoulders is often linked to an aching head, work there is also helpful.

Insomnia:  A massage done last thing at night, preferably with the receiver already in bed, can work wonders. Gentle, soothing strokes on the back, face or feet for as little as 15 minutes can create a state of relaxation that sometimes causes the receiver to drift off before you’ve even finished.

Menstrual pain: A woman can often experience relief from menstrual pain by having her lower back and sacrum slowly circled, accompanied perhaps by some gentle stroking over the belly. Allow her to be your guide as to pressure and location.

Cramp: Start by stretching the limb (i.e. suggest walking about if it’s cramp in the leg) and then thoroughly massage the muscle groups involved, encouraging them to loosen and release.

When to seek professional help

Physical problems

There are obviously times when it is inadvisable to use home treatment and you should consult a professional massage therapist, or indeed go to your G.P. Common sense should dictate not to work over broken skin, sites of infection, inflammation or swelling, or painful varicose veins. But you should also seek advice if you think the person might have a slipped disc, torn ligaments or tendons, or where there are any areas of acute pain.

Emotional problems

In the hands of a skilled practitioner, massage can also be of tremendous value in helping to relieve and resolve emotional problems, such as depression, poor self-esteem, eating disorders, and physical or sexual abuse. Painful experiences from the past are stored in the muscle tissue, causing energy blockages, tension and holding. By working sensitively on these patterns, the practitioner can aid the client’s own self-healing process, enabling suppressed emotions to be released and negative beliefs to be made conscious and changed.


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About Sara Thomas & Lucy Lidell

Sara Thomas has a background in psychotherapy and healing and has been teaching and practising holistic massage for over 20 years. She runs accredited professional massage trainings in London and is president of the Massage Training Institute. She is the co-author of The Book of Massage (Ebury Press) and author of Massage for Common Ailments (Gaia Books). For information on courses and treatments, call 0181 748 7529.
Lucy Lidell is a massage therapist, healer and writer. Co-author of the best-selling Book of Massage and Book of Yoga (Ebury Press) and author of The Sensual Body (Unwin Hyman), she is currently writing a book on relationships. Trained in a wide spectrum of massage and body therapies, healing, dreamwork and yoga, she runs a private practice near Stroud, Gloucestershire, specialising in emotional problems. For more information, call 01453 834701.           


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