7 Massages to Consider

If you’re already a fan of massage you know how wonderful it feels to have your muscles kneaded, stretched and relaxed in the course of a good rub-down. Many of us have our favorite—that Swedish, hot stone or deep-tissue treatment that we’re familiar and comfortable with. Especially if massage is an occasional treat, we understand why you might be inclined to stick with your tried and true. Of course, the options go far beyond the classics—and branching out a bit will open you up to the unique forms of pampering and healing offered by lesser-known types of bodywork.

Indulging your interest to try something out of the ordinary—whether just to mix things up or because of a health condition or injury—can be confusing if you’re not exactly sure what each new-to-you massage type entails. Your therapist can suggest something similar to a type of bodywork you already enjoy. If you know you like Thai massage, for example, Ashiastu, which we describe below, may be a good choice. Likewise, he or she can detail the specifics of totally different massages, if you want to step out of the box.

Here are just a few types of massage that tend to be outside of most people’s typical fare but have powerful benefits for body, mind and spirit:

To Relieve Stress: Craniosacral Massage (CST)

“Craniosacral massage relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets the mind and calms the body,” says Jordan Barton, L.M.T., manager of massage services at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “It puts you in a different space than a physical massage.” Practitioners release restrictions in the soft tissues that surround the central nervous system. CST is increasingly used as a preventive health measure for its ability to bolster resistance to disease. “Every modality of massage and every therapist brings something different to the table,” Barton says. “Craniosacral is a subtle and unique treatment.”

For a Meditative Feeling: Shirodhara

The ancient and complex healing system of Ayurveda originated in Asia thousands of years ago. “Some Ayurvedic treatments have a transcendent, meditative quality that brings you out of your body,” Barton says. One of the most popular Ayurvedic massage therapies is shirodhara, an herbal hair and scalp treatment that involves warm, nourishing oil gently streamed onto the forehead (see photo). Ayurvedic treatments incorporate some massage with herbal and aromatherapeutic elements. It is also common to use a Kansu balancing bowl, which is made of copper, zinc and several alloys. Each metal is meant to have an effect on different aspects of the body being treated; moving the bowl in circular motions on the feet, the therapist can draw the recipient out of their mind into a calm, gentle space.

To Be Transported by Scent: Aromatherapy massage; Abhyanga

The hallmark of both of these therapies is the purposeful use of evocative essential oil blends. “You can pick from different mixtures that relieve physical, mental and spiritual stress,” Barton says. An aromatherapy massage is an intense sensory experience that is a little bit like Swedish massage, but with scent added. The Ayurvedic abhyanga massage also uses scent and features smooth, long, fluid strokes. The latter may be especially ideal for anyone who wants a treatment that’s deeply relaxing but isn’t quite as physically manipulative as a Swedish massage.

For an Incredible Stretch: Ashiatsu

Ashiatsu loosely translates to “foot pressure” in Japanese. “It’s a barefoot massage that incorporates the front and back of the body,” Barton says. During an Ashiatsu treatment, you will be either seated or standing and your therapist will use her feet to conduct the massage. “Using their feet as extensions of their body, the therapists can give a very deep experience, especially in the back, glutes and hamstrings. If someone is looking for a deep therapeutic treatment and they want to try something new, this is a great way to expand their experience,” Barton says.

If You’re Dealing with Chronic Pain: Neuromuscular Therapy

Massage isn’t just for relaxation, of course; it can be an important part of healing from an ongoing health problem. That’s where neuromuscular therapy (NMT) can be useful, particularly for those dealing with some chronic conditions, including headache, sciatica and other issues that simply aren’t resolving with other approaches. NMT sessions use massage and stretching to relieve nerve compression, postural issues and pain trigger points; therapists may also provide nutrition at-home exercise suggestions. “It’s geared toward regular assessments of the client and ongoing treatment for chronic conditions,” Barton says.

For a Good Spring Cleaning: Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

“This is a very light, delicate type of treatment that stimulates the lymphatic system to help the cleansing and detox process in the body,” Barton explains. Therapists use light strokes to work on central areas of the body to open up the joint areas and allow the lymphatic fluid to flow more freely. Expect light pressure and longer fluid strokes, with less kneading, pulling and stretching, than in a typical massage.

Whatever type of massage you choose, be sure to communicate your preferences and goals for the session to your therapist. “Ours is an industry built on service and education,” says Barton. “Accommodating your needs is always at the forefront of our minds.”

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