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The Truth About Science Versus Feelings In Massage Therapy

A happy massage client

A good massage is a really enjoyable and beneficial experience. Why? There are two ways to explain this. The first one is often presented by the massage therapist profession, by the massage providers.

I happen to be part of this group, and I read a lot of what my colleagues have to say. However, in contrast to most of them, I live in Thailand and therefore have quite a different perspective.

Massage benefits in scientific terms

When reading massage articles on blogs or posts on forums, I cannot help but notice that many of the movers and shakers in our profession have a tendency to talk about the benefits of massage in mostly scientific terms.

In other words, massage does this to your muscles, it does that to your ligaments, it elevates levels of certain chemicals in your body, it increases blood flow, it has been scientifically proven that it does x, y and z, we need more research on all those things, we have to prove every perceived massage benefit scientifically, and the list goes on.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. All those physical and scientific facts, observations and correlations are true, and useful to know. I am grateful that we know so much about the body via scientific knowledge.

How was your massage session?

But, there is another side to the story. The side of the one who receives the massage.

Most people, when asked how their massage felt, would say “great”, “wonderful”, “relaxing”, “opening”, “heavenly”, etc. You might notice that all those responses describe a feeling. And what’s wrong with that?

Do your feelings matter?

It seems to me that the massage therapist profession as a whole feels more and more obligated to talk about their work in scientific terms. They often seem to be afraid to use any other language since “feeling” is not as valid and acceptable compared to all the scientific jargon.

The feelings are often relegated to a less important status, and the massage therapy profession is struggling to become acceptable to the scientific community.

Your sense of intuition, or your ability to read your client’s energy, is officially not an acceptable skill, although in actual practice it counts very much.

What is your scientific proof that you love your wife?

Luckily we don’t have to prove or scientifically demonstrate our love for our partner as a prerequisite for marriage. And we don’t have to explain the scientific benefits of intimacy to our spouse before making love.

So there are still some areas where feelings are considered perfectly acceptable without any scientific validation.

A different massage world

Here in Thailand massage is very popular and affordable. But hardly anyone talks about scientific observations. People are quite content with expressing their feelings about their experience. It is all less clinical, more exposed and public, more social and less serious.

You might see a row of massage mats lined up right next to each other on the sidewalk in the middle of a busy market. Thai Massage therapists and clients often interact socially, chatting about the weather, their family or their lives.

Nobody expects their Thai Massage therapist to be a walking encyclopedia of scientific benefits. Nobody would ever dream of suing their therapist, and nobody has to fill out any intake forms or sign anything.

Here getting a massage is not a major decision, involving online appointment booking software, credit card deposits, and cancellation fees. You just go to a shop and lie down on a mat.

Different perspectives and an open mind

So what’s my objective with these observations? Am I saying that Thailand is better than America in regards to massage or that there is something wrong with scientific facts?

No, that’s not what I am saying. I am not trying to judge or criticize any system.

What I am pointing out is that there are different perspectives in regards to looking at massage therapy. If you spend your therapist career in one particular environment, it is easy to believe that there is only one way, the right way, your way.

I am fortunate enough to have exposure to two very different massage environments and attitudes, the western one and the Asian one. I can see that the scientific model, if applied in excess, can strangle the beauty, the feeling and the magic of massage.

While being a valid tool, it should not be the main or only gauge for the effects and benefits of massage.

Feelings are very important in many areas of our lives

Feelings and emotions are perfectly valid in many areas of life, in our relationships with partners, friends, our children, in our spiritual outlook, our memories of beautiful moments, our experiences of watching great performances of music or dance, in our connections with our pets, or watching a sunset.

I would like to propose that the spirit of massage, it’s healing benefits and the many magical moments that the human touch can generate, is perfectly represented by our feelings, with science being in a supporting role rather than in the driver’s seat.

At least that’s my opinion. If yours is different or you have observations on the matter, feel free to leave a comment below.

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The autor, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the creator of 20 online Thai Massage video training courses. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for 19 years.

21 thoughts on “The Truth About Science Versus Feelings In Massage Therapy”

  1. Thanks for another enjoyable article. So true. When I teach massage therapists Thai massage, I sometimes have to work really hard on driving the point home, that the MAIN reason we do what we do, is to make people FEEL BETTER … and we do that, because it makes US feel better. So it always makes me smile when I hear it from the “serious” practitioners and teachers (all modalities), that theirs is a more “medical” or “scientific” or “therapeutic” approach, versus merely “relaxation or feel-good” type massages. How can relaxation or feeling good be anything BUT therapeutic? I might want to use your article in my training materials – giving you full credit and with your permission, of course.

  2. Deon your comment totally reflects my way of thinking. “How can relaxation or feeling good be anything BUT therapeutic?” EXACTLY!!! The question if a massage is therapeutic or relaxing does not make any sense. We all know that sleep, the most relaxed state, is the state where the body accomplishes most of its healing. So why do we relegate “relaxation” to a status below “therapeutic”?

    Of course you are welcome to use any article of mine.

    Thanks for your comment. I am always glad to hear from my colleagues, and I value your input very much.

  3. Hi Shama! thank you for writing this article.It made me think and smile! While the science of massage is interesting to learn and beneficial to know,it is only one facet of the jewel of human touch.I don’t need scientific facts to know how good it feels!I have had massages from professionals who had the technique and science facet down pat,but were not present at all,which to me,was not therapeutic.And, I have had massage from people who “didn’t know what they were doing” but were very present,that I have found profoundly therapeutic. Thanks for the great articles, Shama!

    • Heidi, thanks for your comment. Here is a personal observation. I happen to be married to a massage therapist. She is Thai, and she is the manager of a massage shop here in Chiang Mai. She is very popular. Her touch is wonderful, and clients request her all the time. She knows exactly how to work out knots and how to work intuitively and therapeutically.

      But – like most Thai therapists – she does not know the name of a single muscle, she has no idea about any scientific facts, and she would not understand why she should know about those things. And she is one of the best therapists in town.

      It is another world here, and it is just as valid as the western world, only with a different approach. I have received lots of great massages from therapists here in Asia, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with knowing all the theory, anatomy, and science of massage, in and of itself this knowledge does not necessarily make a massage any better.

      But intuition and feeling and empathy and experience do make a massage better. For me, the science and theory are a very useful addition to our craft, but a massage can be wonderful without any of them.

      It does not work the other way around. Like you say, all the greatest knowledge and science do not guarantee a good massage. So now since we have the facts straight, why then do we in the western world emphasize the scientific model so much although it is not even close to being the main contributor to a wonderful massage? Hmmm…

  4. Dear Shama~ Personally, I could care less about ANYTHING scientific! As a (stamped on the fore head) American, I’ve been cultured and conditioned to think (and worry) my way thru life. If the practitioner can not (maybe doesn’t know how to) connect heart to heart with me, there is no way I would be able to relax and receive a multidimensional body treatment and come away saying THAT was truly wonderful! Being a Hands on Transformational Energy Healer, I’ve received several attempts of deeply meeting me where I reside inside, and am still looking for that magical connection that only the Heart’s mystery can reveal when two or more are vibrating in unity… not just science & theory being massaged into/onto the body structure. It’s STILL all about Energy!! (and intent).

    • Phoenix, I feel the same way. For me massage has always been much more than a system of techniques. Massage without the energy component is really missing out on what you describe as a “magical connection.” I actually created an entire video training course just about this subject: Magic Touch Secrets For Massage

  5. Hi Sharma,

    I have just skipped through “wonderful head massage, and I am very interested. I do corporate seated massage at places of work, and would like to know if this massage can be incorporated into chair massage as this massage seems more beneficial. I look forward to your reply.

  6. Hi Terence, I assume you are talking about my “Heavenly Head Massage” course. This is not very compatible with chair massage. It consists of 4 sections:
    1. chest and shoulder massage – not good for chair massage
    2. neck massage – only a few techniques work in chair massage
    3. head massage – most techniques work in chair massage
    4. face massage – not good for chair massage

    Overall I would say that you could use maybe 25% of the techniques of Heavenly Head Massage for chair massage at most. It is really designed for a lying down type of massage.

  7. Wonderful article!!!! As always you are picking something what was on surface, but nobody talks about!!!! Being attentive to details people do not see the whole picture. You do!!!! That is why I glad you were my teacher…

  8. In your article you express exactly what I´m feeling about massage! Thanks for sharing it with us. As for me, a “good” massage just makes me feel happy!

  9. I really appreciated what you wrote about feelings,it brought me back to the very first massage i got 15 years ago when a well meaning friend bought me a massage, i really had no plans on ever using it, but the friend insisted on calling and booking it and the therapist came to my house,as her hands did their magic, I had the first experience of hands healing rather than hurting, soothing rather than striking and it was amazing. the massage released so much in that one hour. The first thing I thought when it was over was I had to do this for others. And so I started the process of becoming a massage therapist,and working with abused women. Your article reminds me why I did it.
    Thank you, Stephanie

    • That’s a great story Stephanie. It shows how touch can change someone’s life – it changed yours, and I am sure you are having a wonderful impact on many people’s lives.

  10. I have noticed that in American writing and on US forums the emotional, psychological and energetic aspects of massage therapies are either not mentioned or dismissed. You will find that Thai, Indian Ayurvedic and other energy-based therapies are popular in Britain, and I certainly teach about the energetic aspects to my own students. There is even a ‘scientific’ reason for this – if you look at the work of Dr Jung, he taught that Eastern philosophy and its therapies enable westerners to experience the lost dimension of our culture. This can be defined as spirituality, or the connection with ourselves or indeed as ‘individuation’ (Jung’s own word). So we can tie our beliefs to those of psychotherapy. I enjoyed this piece, so thank you.

    • Sarah, I like how you put it: “Eastern philosophy and its therapies enable westerners to experience the lost dimension of our culture”. I remember the hippie days in the 60s and 70s very well when eastern spirituality, yoga, and meditation made major inroads in the western world. Now in the last 20 years eastern therapies like Shiatsu, Thai Massage and Ayurvedic treatments have become popular as well. It’s a good development.

  11. Shama, I am in agreement with your observation on feeling. I have a client who insists that ber greatest benefit from my massage therapy is the great feeling it brings her.
    She was using chiropractor, physical therapy, and other treatments for back issues, until she discovered My massage table.
    She says she got back. Her family members have noticed a difference in her attitude, outlook, and participation in living life; not just being alive. She expressed how she feels good following a session with me. None of the other treatments did that for her. She makes Me feel good.

    • Thanks for this story, Tim. This is something which is often overlooked in massage therapy. It tends to get buried under the scientifically verifiable benefits, but I bet that many clients feel like the one in your story.

  12. After reading this article “feeling so good”, You’re not only teaching Thai massage, you teaching everything… need today lots of words…. Need more and more people like you to world, who speak to body, mind,and spirit. I can’t wait to read , your next article. Thanks Shama


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