Massage has been an integral part of the global healthcare system for centuries. Records from the 17th and 18th centuries for example indicate that Japanese massage therapists walked the streets, beating drums and playing flutes to attract clientele. At the time, training programs were also developed and licenses issued to professional massage therapists, who gained widespread public acclaim and respect.
Historical evidence also indicates the consistent use of public bathhouses, steam rooms, and hot springs by ancient cultures that used massage in conjunction with water therapy, for cleansing, purification and therapeutic purposes. Today’s modern day spa practices are based on this ancient knowledge, which has been passed down culturally from previous generations.
Although historical references indicate massage therapy has existed from approximately 2500 Before Common Era (BCE), tracing the history of massage accurately is difficult due to the vast variation in both historical recording methods, and massage terminology across ancient texts, which seldom used contemporary terminology or techniques.
Understanding the history of massage is important in order to determine how the ancient healing practice evolved across the world over time; and developed into a respected, evidence-based health profession today.
The Origins of Massage Therapy | The History Of Massage
The practice of touch as a healing method has formed a component of most cultures in the world throughout human history. Early civilisations used massage for healing injuries, relieving pain, and both preventing and treating illnesses. They also relied on massage and other forms of natural healing therapies to reduce stress, increase relaxation and improve sleep.
Some of the highly influential moments in the history of massage therapy across ancient civilisations include:
Ancient River Valley Civilizations (7000-1000 BCE)
The oldest civilisations were established on the banks of large rivers of the world, as permanent waterways provided enough resources to sustain large populations. There are four areas in the world where ancient river valley civilisations were established; these include: the Yellow River (Ancient Chinese Civilization), Indus River (Ancient Indian Civilization), Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (Ancient Mesopotamian Civilization) and the Nile River (Ancient Egyptian Civilization).
Archaeological evidence recovered at these ancient sites, indicates that massage therapy techniques were utilised for therapeutic purposes.
Ancient China | The History Of Massage
Some of the earliest records for the use of massage therapy practices were discovered in Yellow River Valley culture, or Shang China. One of the oldest Chinese scriptures – the Cong Fou – outlined in detail the use of controlled breathing techniques, medicinal plants, and a system of exercises for therapeutic purposes.
Nei Ching – one of the oldest medical references that still exists and is believed by many to have been written by the Yellow Emperor, included many topics and chapters on ‘moshuo’ (moh-SZH-woh) the Chinese equivalent word for ‘massage’. This term can be found in many other ancient Chinese texts and refers to the application of pressure utilising hands, to energise the body and/or treat various illnesses.
In time, Chinese massage and bodywork techniques were used in Japan by Buddhist monks, who modified the techniques into their own system and named it ‘anma’ – a style of massage now known as Shiatsu. Shiatsu involves stimulating pressure points of the body in order to raise their energy level. The goal is to increase the body’s natural resistance to disease.
Ancient India | The History Of Massage
One of the largest ancient valley civilisation sites discovered in the 20th century was the area of India (currently Pakistan) along the Indus River. It is believed that the practice and philosophy of massage therapy started in this part of the world before reaching China and Egypt.
In the Hindu religion and culture, massage was considered a sacred system of natural healing. Four original scriptural texts exist with references to massage techniques – the Vedas – include references to massage therapy and bodywork in many Ayurvedic references. Ayurvedic practice/treatment involves the use of meditation, relaxation, and aromatherapy to balance the body, mind, and spirit – believed to be the secret to maintaining health and preventing illness.
The area between the Euphrates River and the Tigris River is regarded as Ancient Mesopotamia (currently the Middle East). Archaeological evidence of ancient medical records, indicates that massage was used in this part of the world for healthcare. In Mesopotamia, priests as well as physicians practiced medicine and provided treatment for various medical and spiritual illnesses. Evidence also indicates that Babylonians had a strong understanding of human anatomy at the time, and also performed various surgical procedures.
The fourth ancient river valley civilisation known to utilise ancient forms of massage therapy was located on the Nile River, in the area now known as Northern Africa. Records indicate that massage was used as a treatment for health and healing. Among many inventions, Egyptians developed a complex system of writing text and communication with imagery- hieroglyphs – they also invented papyrus paper. Many of the ancient papyrus records discovered in Egypt indicate that priest-physicians used herbal salves, prayers, spells, and poultices for the cure of numerous health conditions. One of the passages found in the Kahun Papyrus for example, specifically indicates the use of massage for the treatment of leg aches. Ancient texts also indicate that Egyptians had a high knowledge of advanced medical practices and performed intricate surgeries.
The ancient Greeks used Eastern philosophies and practices of massage in their culture in approximately the eighth century BCE. Competitive athletics, cleanliness, diet, and exercise were all important aspects of Greek culture. In fact, the Olympic Games – which are still held every four years – were regarded as a religious festival. In order to make the athletes more competitive; physical training, exercise, and massage were considered an integral part of training and Greek culture. In fact Hippocrates – regarded as the ‘father of modern medicine’ utilised herbs and oils in combination with massage techniques to treat physical injuries.
Massage therapy was widely accepted by Roman society in approximately 200 BCE; however it was utilised as more of an indulgence than for therapeutic purposes. Galen – the famous Roman Physician who served numerous Roman emperors, used massage therapy to treat various diseases and illnesses. Galen followed the health research progress of Hippocrates, and stated that a healthy diet, regular exercise, rest, and massage form an integral role in restoring and maintaining a healthy body and mind.
The Renaissance (1450 – 1600)
The Renaissance period witnessed great progress in the health and medical fields, with a higher understanding of human anatomy and physiology developed during this time. Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical illustrations are a hallmark of this era.
In the 17th century, the popularity of massage therapy gradually declined. This is primarily due to the advances in the fields of pharmacology and medical technology, which eventually shaped modern Western medicine practices.
Foundation of Modern Massage
In the early 1800s, Per Henril Ling – the famous Swedish Doctor/educator/gymnast developed a method of movement called the ‘Swedish Movement’ which incorporated massage therapy with physiology and gymnastics to relieve chronic pain. This method involved utilising varied manual massage techniques to treat a variety of musculoskeletal issues. Ling’s system gradually evolved and laid the foundations to modern forms of ‘Swedish massage’ today. It is during Ling’s era that specific massage techniques were developed and implemented in the Western world.
In the 19th Century, a Dutchman named Johan Georg Mezger refined Ling’s Swedish Movement System, by defining massage strokes currently utilised in modern Swedish massage techniques. Georg Mezger’s definitions of the basic stroke levels and types (effleurage, petrissage, tapotement and friction) are the foundation of modern massage therapy today.
Throughout the early 20th century, massage therapy continued to establish a strong foundation for growth. Physiotherapists and other allied health practitioners in physical healthcare gradually formed professional massage associations, thereby promoting the legitimacy of massage therapy in healthcare settings. Moreover, the respect attained for massage therapy by the medical community was so extensive, it was successfully incorporated into World War One and World War Two soldier medical rehabilitation programmes.
The latter part of the 20th century witnessed a resurgence in natural healing methods. As a result, massage therapy re-emerged as a legitimate and respected form of alternative and complementary medicine in today’s healthcare system.
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The History Of Massage