The Ultimate Guide to Massage Styles Around the World (From Ayurvedic to Watsu!)

Consider this your spa menu dictionary.

If there’s one thing a true vacation cannot be complete without... it’s a great massage. Nothing signals relaxation and switches the brain to me-time mode like an afternoon at the spa. The best part? You can find a masseuse almost anywhere in the world. Of course, their techniques differ dramatically depending on where on the globe that massage table is set up. To a great extent, the destination has a lot to do with the type of treatment you’ll receive. Behold, these are the types of massages around the world. 

Luisa Anderson, regional director of spa for Four Seasons (at Bali, Maldives, Langkawi, Thailand, Vietnam), advises always going local. “I think you should always try the local, absolutely. It’s crucial. I never go to Thailand without a Thai massage.” Likewise, in French Polynesia it’s wise to go with Lomi Lomi, “the Rolls-Royce of massage,” she says. And in Bali one should opt for a Balinese massage. After all, Anderson says, the island’s therapists are the best in the world, with a natural sensuality in their hands.

Once other tools are introduced things can get even more confusing: tuning forks, hot and cold stones, herbal poultices (bundles of fresh herbs and spices that get pounded onto the body), teak hammers and chisels, and bamboo are just a few of the things that can supercharge an experience, depending on where you are. To help navigate the dreamy waters of the glorious global pastime, Anderson and Traci Trezona, the spa director of Cal-a-Vie Health Spa, walk us through the massage modalities to know.

Ayurvedic

Originating in India, Ayurvedic massage techniques can vary dramatically. The Udvartana treatment, meant to break down fat and stimulate circulation, is a massage using herbal powder with a lot of friction, says Anderson.

Others involve lots and lots of herbal oil. A major difference, says Anderson, is “with Ayurveda and Lomi Lomi they work the whole length of the body rather than isolating parts like Balinese, Swedish or any European massages.”

Balinese

"I would call the Balinese very heart-centered naturally, and it’s very rare that you find a Balinese who can’t massage," says Anderson of the omnipresent method the Indonesian island is famous for. She finds Balinese therapists the best because of their awareness of spirit (perhaps due to their Hindu beliefs and daily rituals), which improves treatment delivery. Technique-wise, it’s medium to strong pressure with lots of kneading. "They like using their thumbs as well,” says Anderson. “It’s an all-around great massage and it’s got everything — you can’t go wrong."

Bamboo

This technique is native to China, and incorporates bamboo stalks of varying lengths and diameters to provide deep-tissue work. This work promotes, according to Trezona, “circulation, sensory nerve perception and lymphatic drainage, and provides a deep sense of relaxation and well-being.”

Kodo

A traditional Australian Aboriginal technique that is rhythmic in nature and designed to realign energy flow. (“Kodo” means “melody.”) Though rare, the method developed by a tribe of Aboriginal elders uses a combination of pressure-point manipulation, gentle stretching and spiraling movements with Li’tya oils.

Lomi Lomi

Although commonly associated with Hawaii, Lomi Lomi actually came out of Polynesia, says Anderson. It’s also found in New Zealand and, yes, those far-flung American islands. For the spa director, it’s the Rolls Royce of massage. The modality addresses not only light lymphatic and deep sports or tissue work, but also the more spiritual aspects. "The therapists themselves are almost trance-like, and there’s a lot more freedom to it so I believe it stirs up all the cells in the body and allows them to settle in a new way," says Anderson.

Russian

Says Anderson, “They have these sticks that they beat the body with, and it’s really good, really stimulating.” Perhaps surprisingly the vigorous, ache-relieving technique often performed inside a sauna feels great, she adds.

Swedish

Funny enough, says Trezona, “In Sweden there is no such thing as Swedish massage. It’s known as ‘classical massage.’” The primary goal of this popular and ubiquitous modality is relaxation, and Trezona says it’s also beneficial for increasing the level of oxygen in the blood, decreasing muscle toxins, and improving circulation and flexibility while easing tension. 

Thai

One of the oldest-known forms of massage is Thai, which originated more than 2,500 years ago and began as a Chinese healing art performed by Buddhist monks in monasteries.

Says Trezona of the ancient healing system, "it combines broad and targeting acupressure, stimulation and manipulation of energy lines called Sen, along with assisted yoga postures. [You’re] compressed, pulled, stretched and rocked in order to clear energy blockages and relieve tension." Anderson’s a fan of the Thai toxin massage that uses a teak wood hammer and chisel to tap rhythmically down the meridians — "it sort of vibrates into the body, it’s lovely." She also points out that the southern part of Thailand is more physical body focused, while the north has a more spiritual bend.

Tibetan

In Tibet book one of the native massages using an oil blend with five local ingredients pertaining to Tibetan medicine (similar to Ayurveda). “They do a lot of tapping along the meridians rather than on pressure points,” says Anderson, adding they also use stones, so you’ll see therapists wearing aprons that hold the stones — “it’s very cute and very particular to Tibet.” 

Watsu

Developed at Harbin Hot Springs, California, in the early 1980s, this unique specialized therapy is super gentle, with elements of stretching, massage, joint mobilization and shiatsu, performed in warm water (its name is a blend of “water” and “shiatsu”) to relax the muscles. “Moments of stillness alternate with rhythmical flowing movements that free the body in ways impossible on land,” says Trezona of the weightless technique.

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