Created | Updated Sep 7, 2010
After a hard day fighting stressed-out executives, soulless co-workers and brain-dead bosses, nothing feels better than a nice, soothing massage. Massage is a millennia-old technique, similar to acupressure, of using pressure and motion to relax muscles. Like acupressure and acupuncture, massage as a science probably has its origins in China. However, it is now practiced in all parts of the world, and is recognized as a legitimate medical art by all.
How it Works
When we exercise, our muscles hurt. They literally tear themselves apart and rebuild stronger connections cell by cell. The reason we do not feel this is because our brain releases certain chemicals to mask the pain. These chemicals, notably the endorphins and serotonin, are what are responsible for the 'runner's high' we feel after a good workout. However, we often feel tired and strung-up from a hard workout, and our muscles still hurt. Because of this, it is often difficult to truly relax.
Massage is nothing more than a way of fooling our muscles into believing that they are working out. The forced movement of muscles causes the brain to release serotonin and endorphins to cover the pain of muscle building. However, there is no pain so we get the 'runner's high' for free. Also, because the muscles are not actually working, they do not secrete lactic acid; lactic acid is a byproduct when one does vigorous exercise. It is not the lactic acid that makes the muscles bulk up but the exercise that one does. Therefore, our muscles actually become more flexible after a massage. Nonetheless, the most important part of a massage is the relaxation factor.
Massage techniques are many and varied. However, some techniques may cause injury unless performed by a trained, professional masseuse, so take care when trying out anything new, and make sure to never overdo anything.
Kneading consists of using the fingers and ball of the hand to squeeze a good-sized portion of muscle, and slowly let it slip out. To get a good feel for this, grab your partner1 and gently knead his/her shoulders from behind. If you are pinching, you are doing it too hard. Don't try to pick up the muscle, just let it mush around. This technique works best on places with a good hand-hold, such as the shoulders, arms or legs, but can be performed with care just about anywhere.
Tapping is not quite what it sounds like. It is pressing firmly2 with a fingertip for a moment, then releasing quickly. A modified tap works wonderfully on the back. Tapping works wonderfully on almost every part of the body, but best on the upper and lower back.
Rolling is like tapping in that it applies downward pressure. However, that is where the similarity ends. A roll is performed with either the palm of the hand or a clenched fist. The point of pressure is rolled around the outside of the hand in a circular motion, with firm pressure applied continuously to different places. To get a good idea of how this should feel for you, spin a penny on its edge. Notice how, right before it falls completely, it spins at a diagonal, with the point of contact moving around the rim. This is how the roll should feel. Rolling works best on the lower back.
The sweep is a long-distance technique. It involves pressing with the palm of the hand and sweeping this pressure up the body towards the shoulders. This is best started from the thigh to the shoulder. However, in the interest of modesty, it can be begun from the lower back almost as effectively. Always sweep upwards, never downwards.
While not exactly massage techniques, there are a few tricks that will also help your partner relax and feel ultra-good. For instance, back-scratching puts everyone in a peaceful frame of mind, and can be a good lead-in to the massage. Also, every form of life higher than a slug likes to be scratched behind its ears. Make sure to do this lightly and slowly, or else your partner will think of dogs.
Finally, if you really want squeaky little grunts of happiness, try rubbing the neck at the base of the skull on either side of the spinal cord really lightly. It's always nice to end a massage with this.
Things to Know
The most important part of massage is communication. Don't get so lost in what you're doing that you hurt your partner. Ask them to give you feedback as to what feels great, what doesn't, what hurts, and conform to their wishes. Remember, the point of a massage is to make them feel good, not you.
Second is the time factor. A good, in-depth massage should last about an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Of course, shorter pick-me-up massages are okay, but nothing soothes like the full treatment. If you did your job right, your partner should be still making little squirrel noises of happiness as you leave, and might even fall asleep. To rush a massage would be to destroy the effect.