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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Western Bodywork

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

One thing I find fascinating is how closely mirrored the history of Eastern Bodywork and the history of Western Bodywork are.

Western Bodywork has its own interesting history that didn’t necessarily include “energy work” like Eastern practices, but it often didn’t have the strict scope of directly relating to physical muscle treatment either. The roots of Western bodywork trace all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Hippocrates (the figure cited as the “father of modern medicine”) and Galen (who traveled to Rome to spread his methods) were Greek physicians that practiced and wrote about massage as a part of medical practices. The Roman empire fell right before the Middle Ages during which almost all knowledge of ancient healing practices were lost. Following the Dark Ages, the period known as the Renaissance, featured a renovation and reinvestment in medical practices, ancient writings resurfaced, and interest in ancient manual healing practices was renewed. In the 1800s, Massage was included as a part of the “Medical Gymnastic” or “Movement” treatments. This is often cited as the “birth” of Swedish Massage and attributed to Per Henrick Ling. Medical Gymnastics however also included exercise protocols, dietary practices, and treatments that might look more like physical therapy along with Swedish Massage.

In 1851, Dr. Mathias Roth published the first book in the English language on the Swedish Movement. English Nurse, Florence Nightingale (credited with creating modern nursing practices), included massage practices in her school for nurses. During World War I, injured soldiers would receive massage and bodywork in Army hospitals- this would further lay the groundwork for the emerging profession of Physical Therapy. However, by the 1950s, advancements in medical methods including tools, medication, and surgical techniques led to massage being used less and less for health and medicinal purposes. It is around this time that the cultural image of massage became to be considered purely for the purposes of relaxation or luxurious pampering. In the 1960s and 1970s, Massage also found kinship with the counterculture social movements which is where Western practitioners were introduced to Eastern bodywork practices. What I personally consider the start of contemporary massage therapy is right where East and West began to blend. The 1990s saw a boom in popularity and the first sparks of attitude changes in regards to massage therapy. There were and continue to be massive efforts to rehabilitate the profession of massage therapy and gains have been made by those who came before me for acceptance by the medical professions (including massage now being recognized as healthcare vs. personal care)!

Can you identify similarities in the histories I’ve laid out between Eastern and Western bodywork and massage?

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB

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