The Ongoing History of Massage Therapy

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    The practice of using touch as a healing technique is one which goes all the way back to ancient history. Rooted in the medical traditions of several ancient civilizations, massage has long been appreciated not only for its powerful healing attributes, but also its strong meditative and relaxing effects. As a highly respected discipline of holistic medicine, massage therapy has gone through vast evolution and changes throughout its long history.

    Phase 1: The Beginnings

    Hand Therapy as we know it dates back several thousand years. Its true origins lie on the Indian subcontinent, possibly as early as 3000 BCE. Beginning as Ayurveda, a branch of traditional eastern medicine believed to be divine in origin, this practice was passed down from generation to generation, rooted in the utmost respect for tradition and mystic experimentation. Renowned for its powerfully contemplative and harmonious nature, Ayurveda spread quickly throughout India and South-East Asia.

    Phase 2: Chinese and Egyptian Developments

    The first written records of massage therapy have been found in ancient Egyptian and Chinese texts as old as 2700 BCE. It’s in this time period that “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine”, the timeless medical manual, was written in China. Although the book was translated in English only in 1949, it has gone on to become of staple not only of massage therapy, but other alternative medicine disciplines like acupuncture, acupressure and herbology as well. In concert with herbal remedies, massage was believed to be essential in restructuring the natural flow of energies circulating in one’s body. Furthermore, Egyptian tomb paintings dating back to 2500 BCE depict scenes of therapy, indicating that such practices were also part of their medical traditions. As pioneers of reflexology, Egyptian studies greatly influenced Greek and Roman healing customs.


    Phase 3: Japanese Discovery

    Starting sometime in 1000 BCE, Japanese Buddhist monks studying in China returned home having observed the peculiar, but effective touch healing methods employed by Chinese medical practitioners. Over time, Japanese practitioners developed their own methods, which created a unique technique that served as precursor to the modern day Shiatsu. Using pressure points around the body, traditional Japanese technique seeks to raise the energy level in patients, thus increasing resistance to illnesses and fortifying internal systems.

    Phase 4: Into the West

    Massage first emerged in the West around 800 BCE, deriving from early influence of Eastern spheres of thought on Greek society. Athletes, desiring at all times to keep their bodies in peak condition, immediately recognized the incredible benefits of touch therapy, and its popularity spread throughout the various echelons of Greek society as a result. In the fifth century BCE, Hippocrates, widely known as “The Father of Modern Medicine”, employed massage-like techniques prescribed as “friction” to heal certain bodily pains.

    Phase 5: Roman Experiments

    Many Roman physicians began employing Hippocrates’s principles around the year 100 BCE. In Roman society, Massage was commonly recognized as an essential pillar of healthy living, along with a nutritional diet, frequent exercise, and proper rest. As a result, massage practices became extremely popular, with many wealthy romans receiving performing physicians into their own homes, as well as others seeking their services in the numerous public bathhouses which were prevalent at the time. By the time of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in 336 CE, public bathhouses were banned by Emperor Constantine, who believed that therapies had become much more about “excess and pleasure” than “healing and meditation”.


    Phase 6: Massage Renaissance

    Massage therapy experienced a relative decline in popularity in the West during most of the middle Ages, only to surge back into the limelight in the 17th century. A prodigious amount of scientific and medical discoveries were made around this time period, which fostered a renewed interest in massage therapy. However, little evolution was observed as far as specific techniques and practices were concerned. It was only in the 19th century that radical changes in style and technique were documented. In the early 1800s, the Swedish physician and gymnast Per Henrik Ling developed the Swedish System, whose advances still define most of Western massage techniques to this day.

    Phase 7: Toward the Modern Age

    Into the 1900s, several new massage therapy techniques and practices were invented to deal with modern day troubles. Veterans from World War I who suffered from shell shock and nerve injuries were particularly good patients for massage therapy; as it turns out, the soothing and relaxing effects of hand healing was extremely beneficial to these suffering men. Despite these advances, massage therapy remained out of the limelight for many years, as it was perceived largely as a treatment option solely reserved to the wealthy. In the latter part of the 20th century, massage therapy became much more legitimate as a medical discipline, with most provinces creating licensing board and certification programs to govern the profession. The health craze of the last 50 years has been monumental in the rise of massage therapy: it is now considered a respectable form of alternative and complementary medicine.


    Regardless of practical evolution, massage therapy has always had one goal: To help others, by healing them physically and mentally. Due to its long and tenuous history, massage therapy remains anchored in tradition, with modern-day practitioners employing techniques that have been used for centuries. It remains an exciting mystery to see where it will go in the future.

    Do want to learn more about career opportunities in massage therapy? Are you interested in helping others via this fascinating profession? Click on the image below to learn more about the Massage Therapy Diploma program at ABM College!

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