Massage is not just a luxury. It’s a universal instinct. Since the beginning of time, mammals have known that rubbing a sore limb alleviates pain. The act of applying this touch to others in pain was a natural progression. Since the power to heal was considered a godly virtue, massage therapy began as a spiritual practice.
The earliest references to massage date back to 2700 BC, and were discovered in the Yellow Emperor’s Book of Medicine from China. Chinese massage techniques were based on the philosophy that pain and illness result from imbalances in the pathways that map our physiological systems. The method blends the expertise of physicians, martial artists, Buddhists and Taoists.
In around 1000 BCE, Japanese monks came to China to study Buddhism. The monks observed the Chinese massage methods, and brought them back to Japan. They created their own version of Chinese massage called anma, which eventually evolved into the massage technique knows as Shiatsu. Whilst Shiatsu differs from Chinese massage, it adheres to similar principles. Shiatsu practitioners use their method to balance and elevate energy levels, which in turn enhances immunity.
Hippocrates (460–337 BCE), known as the Father of Medicine, was an enthusiastic advocate of massage therapy. His writings refer to massage as friction or rubbings. For example, in one of his passages he notes that“Rubbing has the effect [of] relaxing, constricting, thickening, and thinning.”
During this period, the Greeks were quite proud of their athletic traditions. As such, they required highly skilled physicians, who prepared the athletes for competition. After an athletic event, the doctors would massage the athletes, in order to alleviate pain and prepare them for the games of the next day. Years later the Greeks started using massage to treat intestinal ailments.
Meanwhile, in the Far East, the people of India were also using massage for healing. They called it shampooing. When Alexander the Great passed through India in 327 BCE, his soldiers brought the methods back home. Indian massage technique was gradually integrated into Greek, Roman, and Turkish traditions.
Galen (131–201 CE) was the physician of choice for the Roman gladiators. When the Roman nobility learned of his talents, he became the massage therapists of the Roman emperors, including the might Julius Caesar. The general Roman population also enjoyed the benefits of massage. Masseurs at the public baths would perform massages, then rub scented olive oil into their client’s skin. As the Roman Empire began its downward spiral toward chaos and depravity, the public baths devolved into venues for promiscuous behavior. In 325 CE, Emperor Constantine condemned public bath massages, saying that they represented hedonism, not health.
After the Fall
Ironically, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian church returned to the tradition of massage as a sacred practice. The women of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance became the healers and massage therapists, as did the nuns who cared for the sick. Massage therapy had come full circle!