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Oriental Massage Versus Western Massage

copyright 2008 by Milica Barjaktarovic  

 

My training is in shiatsu, thai massage, and Hawaiian lomilomi. I have never even seen Swedish massage until I attended the massage school (to get licensed in Hawaii) and later worked in a spa. I went to shiatsu school In New York City with many students of Swedish Institute, because their program did not teach them how to move properly and they came over to learn that. I dabbled into rolfing on my own and was rolfed. The first time I practiced western techniques is during Waslaski's orthopedic massage class. 

First, let's describe them all these techniques. Full description is in another article. In short, shiatsu works by balancing the energetic meridians, by pressure and stretching. Usually hands, thumbs, elbows are used to press in in certain spots, and the spots follow along certain lines. Thai massage works by stretching and pressing the meridians, it is "assisted yoga" and looks quite acrobatic. In both cases, the client is clothed. There is a whole science behind the meridians, for example acupuncturists use the same teachings. Lomilomi can have many forms, some use oil and some don't. Some lomi looks like chiropractic adjustments. The form that I know is oil over bare skin. It looks like flowing sweeping motions from the trunk to the extremities, with stretching, and all over. All Oriental massages start from, or at least address, the abdomen. Shiatsu calls it "ampuku", lomi calls it "opu huli". 

Swedish massage is oil over bare skin, and consists in kneading, pulling, rubbing, towards the heart.  I have not seen Swedish massage with any stretching, and/or abdominal work. I suspect there must be some; that most therapists just took Swedish 101 and never learned any advanced techniques. 

A Western practice that is amazingly effective is osteopathy. Osteopathy SHOULD be a form of bodywork practiced by medical doctors. So, it is much more than just massage therapy and bodywork, one needs to be an MD, and I am mentioning it here just for completeness. European osteopaths are amazing bodyworkers and can work with anything - muscles, connective tissue, organs, spine, ... American osteopaths often have no special hands-on skills and are just like regular MDs, or maybe can adjust the spine like chiropractors. Too bad! 

 

So, having experienced it all, what are the impressions?

The first impression that strikes me is movement. Oriental massage is like a dance, like tai-chi in motion. It is done in an incredibly fluid, graceful way. The therapist experiences great health benefits. My shiatsu teacher says that an average Swedish massage therapist lasts only 3 years on average, because of poor body mechanics while working, and misuse of hands. I can totally see that! I took a 3-day medical Swedish massage class and my hands were hurting, for the first time ever. The hand moves that such therapy requires are brutal on the therapist, to plainly put it. For example, petrissage (kneading) is a torture. I cannot see anyone doing that for 8 hrs per day and staying healthy. Also, the proper body mechanics, the movement while massaging, is mostly absent. Swedish massage is quite stationary, for both client and therapist. So, when I see images of Western therapists in pants with belts, I cringe. My entire training was done in a martial arts outfit, so that we could move freely. Not being able to move, not being able to stretch the client, to me, is plain nonsense. Just massaging the muscles and not stretching the client is not good enough. All joints have to be stretched for better circulation. 

A huge problem with Western massage is the massage table. Swedish massage is from Sweden, where it is below 50F (or 15C) for most of the year, and typically below freezing. Northern European climates are rough.... Since cold air is heavy, it falls to the ground. People solved that problem by raising everything off from the floor. So, they invented tables, beds, chairs, ... Which is fine - for Sweden. Come to tropical Thailand, or Japan, or Hawaii, the floor is the most comfortable and logical place to be. Sitting in chairs leads to tight neck, lower back ache, stiff joints, and all kinds of problems. If it saves you from catching cold, it is worth it. But in warm climates, it is NOT worth it. Oriental massages are done on a futon, on the floor. 

Westerners can cringe about the floor idea, because Westerners walk in their homes with their shoes on and think of floor as dirty. However, Orientals take their shoes off and keep the floor clean, and sit on it. In Japan, the whole life is on the floor: sleeping, eating, sitting. The tables are low so that one can sit on the floor and use the table. 

Unfortunately, the whole world is infected with the Western idea of living so most USA clients will associate massage with a massage table. Ouch for the therapist, sorry to the client. This is where the education is necessary.

Shiatsu, thai massage and original lomi is done on a futon, Working on the floor is wonderful for the therapist AND the client, because it is easy to use body weight. No muscle strain.... The therapist has their own workout while working on the client. The client can be stretched much more. So, the client is more comfortable. A futon is big enough to move the arms and hands all over. I love it. Clients love it. 

Massage table is a contraption conducive to getting low back pain. It makes maneuvering around the client and stretching them difficult. In short, the therapist can barely use their body weight and must use muscle force. Ouch. Also, massage tables are narrow, and anyone but a very small person can never fit their hands totally and must keep them on the table. Also, it is not possible to spread the hands around and stretch them, they would hang off the table and cause pain. 

 

Massage table is useful only in several cases:

  1. the client is muscular and MUCH bigger than me. For example, over 6 feet and or over 200 lbs. A big athlete needs a lot of pressure to even feel the massage, and it is easier to give it to them when they are on the floor and I can use my full body weight. 

  2. the client is somehow incapacitated and cannot go down on the floor - e.g. low back pain, obesity, old age, severe arthritis, etc. 

  3. the client has terrible time with their neck on the floor, i.e. cannot keep it sideways for too long, and really needs the face cradle provided by tables. Usually a pillow under the chest helps with this, but then the pillow can interfere with working on the back and it is better not to have it; but then their neck hurts. (From the face cradle, their sinuses can get clogged, their breasts can hurt, or their abdomen, but that is another problem.)

  4. the client has mental block to anything unfamiliar and maybe it is better to use their discomfort level for the healing and not use it up on grumbling about "the floor thing."

I prefer to have both table and futon, explain them both, and ask people what they would like. Some Westerners will try the futon and find it good. Some will try it and opt back for the table the next time. Orientals usually choose the floor. 

 

In terms of techniques, there are some fundamental differences. Shiatsu and thai massage work with the electrical system of the body, just like an acupuncturist would, as well as joints. Lomilomi focuses more on muscles and joints. Swedish massage, seems to me, focuses on the lymphatic system and some muscles. Some lighter western modalities, like myofascial release, and some heavy duty ones, like rolfing, focus on the releasing and melting the connective tissue. 

In my experience, all those techniques sort of overlap... For example, if I connect the "dots" on a shiatsu meridian, I get a lomi stroke... 

Western modalities have some techniques, like rolfing, which can be pretty brutal on the hands and require really knowing what you are doing or else. Those techniques can be very effective and work very quickly, no doubt, but are risky. My shiatsu and lomi teachers have practiced full time for more than 30 years, all day long. I do know a rolfer who practiced for 30 years, but he worked only a few hours every day - he could, because a rolfing session always cost double than "regular" massage, probably because of hand overuse. 

I must say that I have to use lomilomi and some rolfing techniques to really change the tissue besides the spine. Nothing works like shiatsu to straighten the spine, because one can press between the vertebrae. In more "meaty" parts, like ... tights, or forearms, or neck, Shiatsu can relax the tissue, but it doesn't fundamentally change it, at my level of skill. Lomi is useful over skin to melt the tissue and then stretch it out. 

In lomilomi, tissues are worked from the trunk to the external. In Swedish massage, that is a heresy, because veins have valves that let blood only go back, so if you press forward, it is possible to damage the valves, so panics my medical massage teacher. Hogwash, says my lomilomi teacher. He says that in Eastern treatments, we work towards the extremities in order to bring fresh blood supply there. Well, lomilomi works, no question about it, and nobody is complaining about bursting veins. So much for that. 

Some Western modalities are pretty cool and unique, like craniosacral therapy. It works with the sack that the brain and the spine are in, and the fluid inside the sack. It is very gentle and extremely effective technique. It is good as the last polish, when all other tissues have been released.  

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All images and text Copyright 2007, 2008 by Milica Barjaktarovic.   

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