May 5, 2016

Could Swedish Massage Have its Roots in More Ancient Healing Modalities?


Embracing Eastern and Western Massage Therapy

As I reflect on my work as a massage therapist and ashtanga yogi, I am struck by the many similarities between modern-day massage therapy practices (Swedish massage) and more ancient traditions of healing touch such as ayurveda massage, shiatsu and the practice of yoga.

Looking back to the roots of Swedish massage and the roots of ayurveda and shiatsu, and Ashtanga Yoga, I see many points in each practice where the physical intention mirror one another. Specifically, that each discipline focuses on circulating blood flow and oxygen throughout the body as a way to restore balance and increase chi or prana (life force).

According to Susan Salvo who wrote one of the most widely used texts on massage therapy, the modern era of therapeutic massage stems from Pehr Henrick Ling, a Swedish practitioner of massage therapy (1776-1839). Ling developed a series of passive and assisted movements he called “medical movement.” In other words, Ling uses movement to enhance physical wellbeing. Interestingly, Lings’s medical movement techniques seem to be focused on twists, back and chest openers. I have to wonder…

While traveling outside of Sweden, did Ling study Shiatsu yoga or Ayurveda?

Where Ling went during his seven year training period is not documented anywhere, but we know he came back to Sweden in the 1800s and developed the system of “movement cures.” These movements resemble some primary yoga postures such as upward facing and downward facing dog. Other massage techniques designed to open the muscles of the back, and relax soft tissue are the same as basic shiatsu techniques.

For example, a light gliding nerve stroke and abhyanga share similar qualities. Swedish petrissage, which focuses on the lifting of soft tissue, compression and release, mirrors the shiatsu practice of thumbing and palming where pressure is applied with the “mother” hand and “child” hand following meridian lines as a way to increase blood flow and oxygen throughout the body.

Without a doubt there is so much more to all the disciplines that separates them from one another, but at the very core, the basic strokes and techniques all seem to converge.

As a therapist, of Swedish massage and several Eastern modalities, I was struck by Pehr Ling’s assisted and passive movements that he called “medical movement,” or more commonly known today as Swedish massage. Ling developed a complete system to stretch muscles, circulate blood and oxygen throughout the body and restore homeostasis to the body and mind. Not so different from yoga, shiatsu and ayurveda massage.

Could Pehr Henrick Ling have been influenced by Shiatsu or yoga?  I wonder.

Like shiatsu, yoga, Ling’s system of Swedish massage focuses on eccentric concentric contractions with a primary focus on the muscles of the back. Similarly assisted and passive forms of massage date back to 3,000 BC when Chinese records and paintings reveal the practice of touch as therapy. Then as early as 1,800 BC it is documented that massage becomes a part of the Hindu tradition known as Ayur-Veda. The same patterns of active and passive movements for healing can be traced further to 100 BC (Michael Tarver The History Of Massage Therapy).

Documentation of touch as therapy enters a dark period, then resurfaces in 1316 in the first modern treatise on anatomy written by Mondino dei Luzzi. From there, the lineage of therapeutic touch surfaces throughout the Western world in various manuscripts and images.

What I find fascinating as a practitioner and regular recipient of massage, are the common patterns of healing that traverse all practices both past and present.  What this speaks to is a greater connection between all the disciplines which I believe benefits us all.

What I have realized is that although licensed in Western massage therapy, the patterns of movement and specific touch techniques across the Eastern and Western systems incorporate the same principles of moving energy through the body as way to restore health and balance to the mind and body.

So, when my yoga teacher preaches that yoga is simply “Western gymnastics” I am inclined to add that yoga, Swedish massage, shiatsu, ayurveda massage (Abhyanga), and yes Western gymnastics are systems of movement that that all share the same roots dating back to the first documented practices of healing touch over 3,000 years ago.

Did the father of Swedish massage know this? I bet he did.



Author: Ramona Bessinger

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr


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Ramona Bessinger