The Politics Of Massage:
Alternative Treatment Or Mainstream Therapy?
I tend to view massage therapy independently of broader categories
of therapy, healing or other restorative practices or systems.
I am inclined to do this because I am cautious about allowing
massage to be classified as a traditional therapy versus an
There are many practitioners who cringe when they see massage
therapy lumped in with "alternative" practices such as acupuncture,
chiropractic or naturopathic health. To some these smack of
quackery, fakery or, in some cases, lunacy. I believe that
this aversion to association with alternative medical practices
is extreme but I concede that a massage therapy purist could
develop such a phobia.
On the other hand, more open-minded massage therapists abhor
associating massage exclusively with clinical practices such
as physical therapy or other forms of rehabilitation. There
is some resentment towards the incorporation of massage therapy
into traditional medicine only because they feel that massage
may be viewed as simply a procedure. This view strikes me
as a bit vindictive but given the historical view of the mainstream
medical industry towards the alternative medical community,
some bitterness can be expected.
I would hate to see massage go the way of today's politics
which attempt to label every political view as either liberal
or conservative. Massage therapy is neither traditional nor
alternative. Frankly, traditional medicine is, in actuality,
an "alternative" to massage when viewed in an historical context.
The first documented description of massage as a technique
or therapy dates back to 3,000 B.C. in China. The Chinese
believed that all illness was due to an imbalance of "Qi"
within the body. The inequitable distribution of this "life
force" or "life energy" was blamed for all ailments and this
philosophy was absorbed and incorporated by Japanese Buddhist
monks into Japanese massage techniques. This eventually evolved
into the unique Japanese massage therapy called Shiatsu or
At the same time, similar approaches were evolving in India,
eventually becoming the practice of Ayurvedic medicine, or
the "arts of life," which also utilized massage as an instrumental
healing methodology. Greeks, Romans and even Native Americans
highly valued not just the therapeutic, but also the actual
healing value of massage. Hippocrates himself is quoted as
stating that "anyone wishing to study medicine must master
the art of massage."
But with the advent of the industrial age and the development
of modern scientific inquiry, massage was relegated to the
list of unenlightened, unsophisticated medical practices.
In my opinion, however, to dismiss the medicinal and restorative
benefits of massage was to dismiss the wisdom of the Ancients.
The lack of modern scientific diagnostic techniques and the
inability to examine the physical being at the cellular level,
forced the earliest physicians to take a macro view of the
person since a micro view was unavailable. That macro view
and the knowledge garnered through the ages is still the essence
of the practice of the ancient art of massage.
That is not to say that the more clinical modern approach
to massage is without merit. On the contrary, contemporary
research has validated many of the formerly unsubstantiated
claims of alternative practitioners. Scientific studies have
confirmed the effectiveness of massage in alleviating some
depressive symptoms, altering the immune system, controlling
pain and reducing stress. As stress is identified as the precipitator
of so many medical problems, physicians are less reluctant
to recommend massage as part of an overall regime to address
So I echo the plea of Rodney King when he asked, "Can't we
all just get along?" Massage does not need the blessing of
the medical establishment to claim its place among the healing
arts, thank you. Nor is it the exclusive therapeutic domain
of the alternative community. I am comfortable with claims
that massage can benefit the whole person and I welcome the
recognition of the scientific examiners who methodically study
the benefits of touch for healing. But I intend to plant myself
firmly in the middle and surrender to no particular ideology
of massage therapy. I endorse massage for what it does.
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