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 Slim in 6® 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, yearning for care and attention that you didn't even know it needed or could benefit from. This is when a massage becomes a valuable recovery tool. Whether you're seeking to relieve an injury, focus your mind, or work on flexibility, there is a type of massage suited for you.

Not only do massages feel great, studies show that massages can help bring stress relief, manage anxiety and depression, reduce pain and stiffness, control blood pressure and boost the 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 therapy 2 hours after exercising had significantly less soreness 48 hours later than subjects who did not.

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 to demystify what can sometimes be described only as a mystical experience!
  1. Swedish: 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 adds. 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.
  2. 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 is relaxing, it does not have any therapeutic effect on the muscles like a deep tissue or sports massage does, she added. The slow stroke technique, usually with a bit less oil, is designed to increase range of motion and loosen up tight muscles.
  3. Chair: 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 [a] 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 of it makes it popular. Wollman often performs chair massages in the business setting for companies that want to give their employees a nice way to de-stress.
  4. Shiatsu/Acupressure: 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 lymphatic and hormonal health benefits.
  5. Reiki: Also a part of Eastern practice, Reiki also concentrates on the body's energy, 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 massaging. Wollman incorporates it into the end of her practice. "It helps close the session, almost like saying goodbye to the body without just leaving. It seals in the benefits of what just happened," she added.
  6. Stone: Incorporating warm, smooth stones into the practice is a great way to loosen up sore or tight muscles and heal injuries, Wollman says. "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. It increases circulation and has calming and sedating effects. "For someone who is fitness oriented and on the go, it is great," Wollman adds.
  7. Reflexology: In Reflexology, the hands and feet are the focus based on the idea that all the body's systems are juxtaposed 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 with no oils or lotions needed, and the patient can stay clothed if he or she chooses.
  8. Thai: Thai massage is the ultimate combination of Swedish, or deep tissue massage, with some yoga-like qualities added in. In a Thai massage, the therapist uses practically his or her entire body to massage and stretch the patient. "It's a very active approach to getting things healed in the body," says Wollman, "It's active, but relaxing." Thai massage, for athletes especially, 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 therapy can be such a personal experience, especially when your clothes are off. Most therapists, they said, 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, especially for fitness buffs, the strengthening and focus that a massage brings can have far-reaching effects. "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."