What’s the Difference Between European and Asian Massage Therapy?
If you’ve looked into getting a massage, whether it was a one-time occurrence or a regular part of your health and wellness routine, you probably were given a variety of choices. Some of the most common massage techniques include Swedish or “classic” massage in addition to Chinese, Japanese, and Thai massage. Often these kinds of massage therapy are lumped into two categories: Asian or Eastern versus European or Western massage therapy. It might be hard to believe that two places that seem so far away from each other are capable of developing similar traditions. It’s a bit of a coincidence, but it’s a beautiful and unifying reminder of the human condition: one that seeks peace, positivity, and internal contentment. Those are the foundational principles of massage therapy in general, and from these roots many varying branches have grown.
Massage therapy techniques developed independently in different parts of Asia (“Eastern”) and Europe (“Western”). While it’s true that both of those continents have many more variations of and deviations from their general principles, they each were founded based on two different schools of thought. Asian massage therapy focuses on energy flow throughout the body and restoring balance and harmony between those energies, whereas Western massage therapy is more focused on concepts of anatomy, physiology, and strength. As a result, Asian massage uses a variety of different strokes that focus on distributing and directing energy through pressure, rolling, even striking, using various parts of the body – hands, elbows, knees, and feet – to apply these strokes, where most Western massages utilize gentler, gliding, or kneading strokes. Some Western techniques commonly apply heavier pressure through tapping or percussion, but it is best known for its long, slow, smooth strokes.
In both cases, the idea of using physical touch to promote healing and well-being derived very early in ancient civilizations. The oldest recorded forms of massage stemmed from Asia, or more specifically, India, about 3,000 BCE. Massage was passed down orally throughout generations and was believed to be of godly origin. Natural scientists and seers were the first to develop a series of touch-based therapy to heal imbalances between the individual and their environment. Eventually, these beliefs began to spread and then take on new forms throughout China, Japan, and even Egypt.
European massage developed much later, around 800 BCE, with the first records of massage coming from Greece, where ancient athletes would use massage as one technique to keep their bodies in prime physical condition before competing in rigorous sporting tournaments. Soon herbs and oils were incorporated into the routine, possibly contributing to the widespread use essential oils today, as people also noticed their skin conditions improved after using these oils. Soon, friction and rubbing were incorporated as well, and the massage traditions spread to Rome, Sweden, and eventually even the United States.
Based off of their body stroke styles, these two forms of massage have distinctive missions. Asian or Eastern massage tends to focus on so-called energy meridians, lines that trace through the body. Stimulating and soothing points along these energy lines will help good energy to spread to other sites. However, Western massage focuses largely on realignment and relaxation, restoring balance to other systems of the body – such as the nerves and the digestive system – by first focusing on the musculo-skeletal system. Each of these forms of massage have unique associated exercises or wellness techniques. Eastern massage is often practiced in tandem with meditative techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong, while Western massage combines stretching and breathing with more rigorous workouts in pilates.
While both types of massage allow you to feel relaxed and revitalized, they take different routes in approaching this goal. Eastern massage involves focusing energy flows and achieving a balance of energy in the human body and the human mind, while Western massage just focuses on different areas of the body. The manifestations of these principles are evident in the different approaches Eastern and Western massage techniques take when it comes to diagnosing or identifying problem areas. A Western-style massage therapist would examine the tension and pain in the body and identify their causes before deciding how best to proceed. An Eastern-style massage therapist would take the pulse of the wrist at three different positions and also examine the tongue, looking for physical symptoms of energy imbalance.
The bottom line is that no one technique is superior to the other. In fact, you might find that experiencing a variety of different techniques stemming from different countries (or even continents) puts you in your best physical and mental shape. That’s part of the beauty of massage therapy: that it offers such a wide variety of different specializations to meet a variety of different needs. Even though massage developed in different places, at different times, and with different techniques, the goal is ultimately the same: to restore strength and balance to the body, mind, and soul.