By Denise Michelle Nix

Part of being fit and healthy is being kind to your body—listening to it when it tells you it's hurt and caring for it. Sure, if you twist your ankle doing P90X® or pull a muscle pushing yourself to your limits during an INSANITY® workout, you'll go see a doctor. But sometimes your body talks to you in a much quieter voice, asking for care and attention you didn't even know it needed or could benefit from. This is where massage can become a valuable recovery tool. Whether you're seeking to relieve an injury, focus your mind, or work on flexibility, there's a type of massage suited for you.

Besides just feeling good, studies show that massage can help bring relief from stress, manage anxiety and depression, reduce pain and stiffness, control blood pressure, and boost immunity. Massage therapy goes a long way toward preventing pain and injury, too. According to a 2003 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, subjects who received 20 minutes of massage 2 hours after exercising a muscle had significantly less soreness 48 hours later than subjects who didn't.

The different kinds of massages and their benefits are not always so obvious just from what's on a therapist's shingle or the menu at the most luxurious day spa in town. We've asked Los Angeles–based acupuncturists and massage therapists Tanja Degen and Hillary Wollman to break down the eight most popular kinds of massages and demystify what sometimes seems like a most mystical experience.


In Western massage practice, the experts agree that the Swedish massage is the basis for all others. It's meant as a relaxation massage, says Degen, an instructor at the California Healing Arts College. "It's your most common type, and it can be firm, moderate, or light pressure." she says. Long, gliding strokes on the skin, usually with the aid of massage oil, promote circulation and bring stress relief not only to tired muscles, but to the busy mind.

Deep tissue/sports

A deep tissue or sports massage builds on the techniques of the Swedish massage—but takes it further. "It's more of a focused, individualized discipline targeting different areas for deeper relief," Degen explains. While Swedish massage is relaxing, it doesn't have any therapeutic effect on the muscles the way a deep tissue or sports massage does, she says. The slow stroke technique, usually with a bit less oil, is designed to increase range of motion and loosen up tight muscles.


You've probably seen this form of on-the-go massage therapy at the mall or street fairs. Clients sit fully clothed, facing the back of a special chair as hands, fists and elbows work their backs, necks, shoulders, and heads. "It's therapeutic and convenient for someone who doesn't have a lot of time, but still wants the benefits for what massage can provide," says Wollman, owner and operator of Bliss Acupuncture. While a therapist performing a chair massage is more limited in terms of range of motion and depth, the convenience factor makes it popular. Wollman often performs chair massages in the business setting for companies who want to give their employees a nice way to de-stress.


Shiatsu massage, commonly referred to as acupressure, is the basis for traditional Eastern medicine that dates back to ancient times. "It actually works with the body's meridians and energy flow," says Degen, explaining that meridians are the channels through which energy flows in the body. Where there's a block in a meridian, a therapist applies deep pressure, promoting circulation, relaxation, and both lymphatic and hormonal health benefits.


Also a part of Eastern practice, Reiki concentrates on the body's energy as well, but can be done either deeply or more subtly, says Wollman. In Reiki, the therapist places hands on the different energetic systems of the body, including the crown of the head, brow, heart center, and abdomen area. It's gentle touching that allows an exchange of energy between the practitioner and the patient. Reiki may not always involve massage. Wollman incorporates it into the end of her practice. "It helps close the session, almost like saying good-bye to the body without just leaving. It seals in the benefits of what just happened," she adds.


Incorporating warm, smooth stones into the practice is a great way to loosen up sore or tight muscles and heal injuries, says Wollman. "It is so delicious. It's very sensual and the heat of the stones is very penetrating." The therapist either places the stones on key points of the body, allowing their weight and heat to penetrate, or uses them to go deeper with strokes and penetration. The use of the stones increases circulation and has both calming and sedating effects. "For someone who is fitness-oriented and on the go, it is great," Wollman adds.


In reflexology, the hands and feet are the focus, with the idea that all the body's systems are represented there. "You can activate different points on the foot that then help the body's ability to function better," Wollman says. For example, people who have problems with their digestion or intestines can often find relief through reflexology. Another benefit is that it is a convenient therapy, because no oils or lotions needed and the patient can stay clothed if he or she chooses.


Thai massage is the ultimate combination of Swedish or deep tissue massage, with some yoga-like qualities thrown in. In a Thai massage, therapists use practically their entire bodies to massage and stretch their patients. "It's a very active approach to getting things healed in the body," says Wollman. "It's active, but relaxing." For athletes especially, Thai massage helps with flexibility and range of motion. "You have to kind of know that you're gonna be almost thrown all over the place and have the practitioner on top of you," she adds.

Wollman and Degen agree that everyone can find the massage therapy that works best for them. The key, Degen explains, is to communicate with the therapist before the session begins, discussing problem areas and the level of firmness desired. Both note that some people may be hesitant because massage can be such a personal experience, especially when your clothes are off. Most therapists, they say, will accommodate their practice to fit a client's comfort level.

The health benefits of this type of holistic medicine are bountiful, and it's an easy way to care for your body. "There are no (bad) side effects," Degen says. "And it feels great." Wollman adds that the strengthening and focus that massage brings can have far-reaching effects, especially for fitness buffs. "It can calm the mind in a way that can enhance better focus," she says. "It's something passive, but it helps support your game."