The healing art of massage: learn how to soothe tired and aching muscles and calm the senses with the gentle touch of massage

The healing art of massage: learn how to soothe tired and aching muscles and calm the senses with the gentle touch of massage

Clare Maxwell-Hudson

Learn how to soothe tired and aching muscles and calm the senses with the gentle touch of massage.

My personal motto is: “Life takes it out of you, but massage puts it back.” The basis of massage is touch–and to thrive, we all need the warmth and security touch engenders.

Massage is probably the oldest and simplest of medical treatments. Rubbing an aching shoulder or soothing a furrowed brow is a healing instinct common to all cultures. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose and loosen a joint that is too rigid.” This is the most fascinating part of massage: the same strokes can produce so many different effects. Brisk movements invigorate, while similar movements performed slowly can induce sleep. And, because massage is almost second nature, the techniques are easy to learn. The physical benefits of massage, such as improved circulation and relaxed muscles, and the psychological feelings of being comforted and cared for produce a sense of well-being that is surely unique.

Basic Massage Strokes

Once you have mastered the basic strokes, you can use them all over the body and tailor each massage to suit the individual needs of your partner. Before you start practicing a new movement, read through the instructions and concentrate on learning just a few strokes at a time. To avoid awkward twisting, face the area you are massaging and keep your back as straight as possible. Direct your strokes toward the heart, using your body weight to add depth.

Fan Stroking

Stroking movements are among the easiest and most calming to give and receive in massage, and you will probably return to them often to calm your friend and relax yourself. Use fan stroking to apply oil and to link different areas of the body–and when your hands are tired or you are deciding which movement to use next. Work smoothly and rhythmically. You can vary the length of the stroke, but keep the rhythm fluid.

1 Place your hands side by side on the body, palms down, and then smoothly and gently glide upward, leading with your fingers. Keeping a straight back, lean forward on your hands, using the weight of your body to apply a steady, even pressure through the palms and heels of the hands.

2 Fan your hands out to both sides of the body, reducing the pressure, and slide them down the sides, molding them to the contours of the body. Pull your hands up toward each other and swivel them around to begin the upward movement again. Repeat several times, covering the whole area.

Circular Stroking

In this variation of fan stroking, both hands work on the same side, one hand completing a full circle while the other makes a half circle, building up a smooth and steady rhythm. Circular stroking is particularly effective on large areas, such as the back, shoulders, and abdomen. Like fan stroking, it is good for linking different areas in a full body massage. It produces a continuous flowing effect.

1 Place both hands, fingers pointing away from you, on one side of the body about 6 inches (15 cm) apart.

2 Begin to circle your hands in a clockwise direction, starting with the left hand and following with the right.

3 As your left hand meets your right arm, lift your hand over, rejoining the body on the other side to finish the circle. Repeat several times, stroking firmly on the upward and outward movement, and gliding gently to complete the circle.

Thumb Stroking

This firm movement is particularly useful on small, tense areas, such as the top of the shoulders and the neck. Alter the pressure to suit your friend’s needs. If the muscles are very tight, begin gently, then stroke more firmly. To vary the effect, circle your thumbs, following steps one through three above for circular stroking.

With your hands resting on the body, stroke firmly upward and out to the side with your left thumb. Follow with the right thumb, stroking a little higher. Make the stroke smooth and repetitive, building up a steady rhythm.

Basic Kneading

In a relaxing massage, kneading should be fiat and smooth to produce an amazingly soothing effect. The movement is like kneading dough and is useful on the shoulders, back, and fleshy areas such as the hips. In Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, I learned to appreciate how soporific kneading can be when performed rhythmically. Normala, a Malaysian physiotherapist, taught me the value of counting “and one, and two, and three, and four, and five” over and over as I slowly kneaded. The repetition is very calming.

1 Place your hands fiat on the body with your elbows apart and fingers pointing away from you. With your right hand, gently grasp some flesh and release it into your left hand.

2 Let your left hand take the flesh and then release it into your right hand. Repeat several times, counting to keep your strokes rhythmic, like waves washing over the muscles.

Circular Pressures

Deep, penetrating circles are useful for exploring the state of the muscles and for combating tension. Apply the pressure gradually, beginning to circle more deeply and firmly, then slowly release and move on to the next area. For tight, knotted muscles, place one thumb on top of the other and lean into the body.

Using only a small amount of oil–too much will cause your thumbs to slide–place the pads of your thumbs on the skin and gradually lean into them. Press for a few seconds, then make small, penetrating, circular movements against the underlying muscle. Glide to the next area, and repeat the movement.

Static Pressures

Stationary pressures are extremely useful for releasing tension in the neck and shoulders, sides of the spine, buttocks, and soles of the feet. Ease into the pressure gradually and steadily, hold, and then slowly release-never poke sharply. Treat the body with care, making sure that your fingernails do not gouge the skin.

For this movement no oil is necessary. Place the pads of your thumbs on the skin and gradually lean into them. Hold for five to nine seconds, then release slowly and glide to the next point of tension. Imagine how it feels to receive the massage–this helps your hands respond to the arms you are working on.


For a heavenly sensation, rotate your knuckles on the shoulders, chest, palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and hips. You can work deeply without hurting.

Curl your hands into loose fists and, with the middle section of your fingers against the skin, ripple your fingers around in small circular movements. Vary the pressure by leaning into the movement with more or less body weight. Work firmly and evenly to cover the entire tense area.

Cat Stroking

This is one of the nicest stokes with which to finish massaging an area. If done slowly and rhythmically, it can soon send the recipient to sleep. Use a soft, gentle touch, and keep your movements smooth.

Place your left hand at the top of the area you are massaging and stroke slowly and lightly down the body, as if stroking a cat. Lift your hand off at the bottom of the area and return it to the start while the right hand begins the downward stroke. Repeat, making the return movement as smooth as the stroking.


Many people love just being held–especially on the head, forehead, and abdomen. Simple holds are relaxing, comforting, and as calming for the person giving the massaging as for the recipient.

Place one hand over the other and gently hold. Concentrate on your partner’s breathing and relax, releasing very slowly after one or two minutes. Never hurry this movement at the end of a massage: its effect will remain long after the massage finishes. If time is short, omit an earlier stroke rather than rushing this hold.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Saturday Evening Post Society

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