Body and Soul
Massage and bodywork modalities: An overview of different approaches…

In previous articles we followed the history of massage and bodywork from 7000 BCE on into the 20th Century, when many different bodywork techniques and modalities were developed all over the world.

Any attempt to categorize these modalities needs to be approximate, since most bodywork techniques affect the body in various ways, frequently employing different elements, and therefore overlapping into more than one category. In order to create a starting point, I have arranged groups of different families of modalities according to their main focus or methods.

Swedish modalities

Probably the most widely recognized and commonly used, Swedish massage is taught in many massage schools as a basic foundation from which to build with more specialized approaches. While considered by some to be more gentle and superficial, the techniques vary from light to vigorous, and include a combination of long gliding (effleurage), kneading (petrissage) and friction strokes, as well as percussion (tapotement) and assisted movements that can be mixed and matched to adapt to the client’s needs during the session, creating a fluid, relaxing, lymph and circulatory-enhancing massage session that optimizes joint range of motion, and fosters a sense of well being.

Examples would be relaxation, health maintenance or Esalen massage.

Deep-tissue modalities

Deep-tissue massage focuses on the deeper layers of muscles, and is especially suited in relieving more severe tension and adhesions in muscle and connective tissue, or “fascia.” Deep-tissue modalities are typically applied slowly and deliberately, and often use sustained and firm tissue manipulation, precise directional pressure, and cross-fiber friction (strokes that travel perpendicular to the muscle fibers). It should not be misunderstood to mean massage that is performed only with intense deep pressure throughout an entire session. In fact, some schools of thought include subtle energy modalities like craniosacral work in this category that can affect very deep tissue layers with hardly any pressure at all.

Other examples of deep-tissue modalities are cross-fiber techniques, connective tissue or bindegewebsmassage (connective tissue massage in German), myofascial release, and Pfrimmer deep-muscle therapy.

Neuromuscular modalities

Neuromuscular modalities engage the relationship between the nervous and muscular systems to create reflex responses. Since the activity of the muscular system depends largely on the nervous system, we can change muscle length and kinestethic perception by using this physiological relationship of muscles and nerves. Techniques of these modalities often employ active and passive or assisted movements. Examples would be the St. John method of neuromuscular therapy, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), trigger point therapy, or reflexology.


integration modalities

Structural and postural integration modalities generally focus on realigning the body to relieve pain from postural compensations. The term structural integration was created in the 1930s by American biochemist Dr. Ida Rolf, who maintained that when one part of the body is out of balance or misaligned, the rest of the body attempts to compensate until the entire structure is weakened. By manipulating the myofascial tissue (connective tissue around the muscles), often in a 10-session series, each building on the previous one, practitioners assist the body to reorganize, lengthen and integrate itself into wholeness. Some postural Iintegration modalities also combine massage with a re-education of the body through movement and awareness, to maintain change. Rolfing and Hellerwork are examples, as well as spinal touch and Aston patterning.

Oriental/Eastern approaches

In traditional Eastern philosophies, life force energy, or Qi (“chee”), travels along pathways called meridians. For the body to maintain good health, a balanced and unrestricted flow of Qi is thought essential, whereas any disruptions or blockages to its flow can cause disharmony not only in the physical, but also the emotional body. Many Oriental bodywork modalities therefore work on restoring and maintaining proper flow of Qi in order to support all organs, tissues and functions of the mind-body-spirit. Techniques use external, visible applications of pressure and hands-on manipulation from gentle to vigorous (qualifying them as bodywork modalities), as well as internal energetic manipulations (where they overlap with energy modalities) that are less visible but can have profound effects on a person’s well-being and health. Shiatsu, acupressure, Jin Shin techniques, Tui-na and Thai massage are just some of these wonderful holistic approaches.

Energy modalities

Just like the above-mentioned modalities work with the flow of life-force energy through the body, so do modalities like polarity therapy, therapeutic touch, craniosacral or Reiki (“Ki” being the Japanese equivalent of Qi). Most energy modalities use very light touch or off-the-body applications to balance the human energy field.

Movement modalities

These bodywork modalities use movement (amongst other approaches), to re-orient the body for more optimal function. Examples are Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, and Trager work.

We will explore some of the above-mentioned modalities in more detail in future articles, as well as modalities for special populations and circumstances that are not included here.

Information for this article has been drawn from multiple sources, including American Massage Therapy Association’s glossary of bodywork modalities, Mary Beth Brown and Stephanie Simonson`s “Introduction to Massage Therapy,” as well as the author’s personal records.

Ata Susanne Morse has been a certified massage therapist since 1996. She has a private practice — Massage and Bodywork — in Moab, 435-260-2874; e-mail: [email protected]

ByBy Ata Morse