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Make mine a massage: how the power of touch can give you better health

Ruth Styles

6th March, 2012

Not just a luxury, massage can reduce stress, tension and immune system baddie, cortisol. But not everyone can afford a weekly back rub so the Ecologist joined the students at Neal’s Yard Remedies to find out how to do it DIY style

I’m in a small, spartan room above Neal’s Yard. It’s a classroom and inside is a crowd of eager students drinking in the words of the teacher at the front of the room. But this isn’t an ordinary lesson. It’s a massage class. So why is everyone here? For some, it’s all about learning a new skill. For one Japanese student, it’s about being able to give her hard-working husband a soothing back rub at the end of the day. But for the rest of us, it’s about wellness and getting the chance to channel the benefits of regular massage into better physical and mental health.

Despite forming a central part of some of the world’s best-known holistic health systems including Ayurveda, massage is often seen as an indulgence; something to do as a treat or while on holiday. But that is selling it short and underestimating its benefits. A 2010 study at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that far from being a just pleasurable luxury, massage had a quantifiable effect on the health of the participants. Key findings included significantly reduced levels of blood cortisol and of neuro-hormone arginine vasopressin. What’s more, the study found, deep tissue massage also resulted in higher levels of disease-busting white blood cells. So is massage the natural remedy we’ve all been looking for?

‘Massage is all about making someone feel better,’ explains Elaine Tomkins, Neal’s Yard Remedies massage expert, masseuse and teacher at Neal’s Yard’s one-day massage courses. ‘Using essential oils as part of it helps to make it a multi-dimensional experience and without doubt, the oils will help accelerate the healing process.’ And she’s not alone in her belief in the therapeutic powers of massage and essential oils. ‘There have been many studies carried out on the benefits of massage for stress relief and anxiety,’ says Renée Mann of the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association. ‘I wouldn't go as far as to say it can replace other available remedies but it can work alongside. Your first port of call should always be your GP to rule out any serious damage,’ she continues. ‘After that, a massage can be used to alleviate minor ailments.’

Back in class, we’re learning about the different properties of the essential oils available and what they can do for your health. Elaine shows us geranium, an antibacterial oil that can help ward off PMT, deal with cramps and even sort out shingles. Frankincense too, says Elaine, is a wonderful natural healer, adept at sorting out wounds, stiffness, aches and even arthritis. Then it’s on to bergamot, sweet-smelling neroli, orange and my personal favourite, jasmine. Each has its own healing powers, whether relieving stress or providing a mood boost. So where does massage come in? ‘The impact of touch is enormous,’ says Elaine, and there’s evidence to back up her claims.

Marasmus, a serious condition that affects around 50 million children in the third world (according to WHO figures), is partially linked to lack of touch. A study comparing children growing up in orphanages to children growing up at home found that the lack of loving contact had a telling impact on marasmus rates.  While most of us aren’t at risk of marasmus, loving family or not, the study neatly illustrates the effect that touching can have on your health. ‘Our bodies contain chemicals like [stress hormone] cortisol, which over a long period, can build up,’ continues Elaine. ‘Too much cortisol affects the immune system – the links between cortisol and disease are huge – and massage helps to lower it. It really is the key to wellbeing.’ ‘In Ayurveda, we encourage everyone to self massage on a daily basis,’ adds Renée. ‘It helps create a general feeling of wellness and studies have shown it to help improve sleep quality.’

Essential oils explained, we’ve moved on to the basics of massage, starting with a simple hand rub. Working in pairs, Elaine takes us through the essentials of hand massage starting with wrists and forearms before tackling knots and stiffness. Even in a classroom, it feels amazing and I’m half asleep by the time my partner has finished with my hands. But there’s no rest for me: now I have to return the favour. Surprisingly, giving a massage is almost as lovely as getting one; the rhythmic motions calming, while the bergamot essential oil blend fragranced the air under my nose. You begin by gently stroking up and down the arm, gradually increasing the pressure as you move up before softly gliding back down. Next use your thumb to unravel any knots, before returning to rhythmic stroking. ‘Rhythm is absolutely key,’ advises Elaine.

Turn the arm over and repeat, before putting the arm at a right angle and giving the muscles a gentle squeezing. ‘Not too gentle though,’ adds Elaine. ‘Arms can take quite a bit of pressure.’ Next give each finger a little squeeze, then turn the hand over and use your thumbs to massage the palm. Use a firm, slow pressure, then stretch the palm out. To finish, turn the hand back over, do a couple more gentle strokes up and down the arm, then gently slide hands off. Banishing muscle tension and knots, giving and receiving a hand massage also helps tackle stress, leaving you relaxed and calm. Whether you’re a believer in holistic health or not, there’s no denying that massage is an effective stress buster, and in today’s busy world, that’s an excellent reason to try it.

For more information about Neal’s Yard Remedies and the courses offered, see www.nealsyardremedies.com. The next one-day massage course takes place in May.

Inspired? Then try one of these

Shirodhara
An ayurvedic massage that involves gently pouring a liquid (usually oil) over the forehead to stimulate the third eye. Ayurvedic practitioners use it to treat a whole range of ailments, ranging from eye diseases to neurological disorders, psoriasis and insomnia, but thanks to the extended head massage involved, it’s also brilliant for banishing stress.

Kundalini
Part of the tantric repertoire, Kundalini helps to unblock your chakras (energy points) and set you on the road to emotional wellbeing. It’s also believed to increase sexual energy, so choose your spa carefully in order to avoid any nasty surprises. London spa Gielly Green offers Ila’s take on the treatment minus anything unexpected. A slow 90-minute back massage, it’s incredibly soothing and helps to release any lingering tension.

Thai
Not, as commonly believed, an exercise in self-inflicted pain, Thai massage is an oil-free massage that involves plenty of stretching and firm rhythmic pressure. While hands are used most of the time, therapists also use their feet, and yes, will walk on your back. Great for dispensing with knots and stiff muscles.

Aromatherapy
One of the commonest types of massage, this is the sort to expect at Neal’s Yard. While techniques vary, all aromatherapy massages will include essential oils tailored to suit your state of mind and health requirements. Although essential oils are generally safe, some aren’t suitable for pregnant women, so check with your GP first.

Hot stone
A pleasurable alternative to deep heat treatments, hot basalt (lava rock) stones are placed along the back where the heat penetrates to deeper tissue and releases muscle pain and tension in the process. The stones are often coated in oil and used as a massage tool as well as a source of heat.

 

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