What is Holistic Massage?

The following article by Andy Fagg, originally published in Massage World magazine, gives a more detailed insight into the world of holistic massage:

Part 1: What is it?


Many massage therapists describe their work as holistic massage. Yet this term is often used in a vague and woolly way, which can prove damaging to the reputation of massage therapy as a whole. Even the constitution of the Massage Training Institute (MTI) blandly defines holistic massage as nurturing touch involving the whole person. Other sources talk of holistic massage affecting all levels, including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

It is difficult to take exception to these worthy phrases – but what do they actually mean? As a client looking for a holistic massage, how can I be sure that I will get the massage I want and need, both in terms of the quality of the experience and the range of techniques used? As a practitioner, how can I be sure I will attract the clients I want to work with? We all need to understand what we mean here.

I believe the term holistic massage conceals a rich complexity of work. Many massage therapists and teachers work in this manner, upholding a long tradition of high quality and sensitive touch therapy. I seek here to fill out this picture of what holistic massage is, both in a historical and present day context. I hope this will provoke a debate in the massage community. Only by clarifying what it is we do can we stand proudly for the standards of that work.

What is the Whole in Holistic?

I like the word holistic, although recognise that many people object to its holiness; indeed, I know some practitioners who insist in spelling the word wholistic. To my mind, the significance of the word whole in this context is that I not only work with the whole client but also I bring the whole of myself to the massage situation. Massage in essence is about sensitive communication through the medium of touch. At the moment of placing my hand on a client’s body, a range of physiological responses can occur, affecting the skin, the sensory nerve receptors, the muscle tissue, the circulation of blood and lymph, the ease of movement of joints, the digestion and so on. My skill as a holistic massage therapist, varying the depth, speed and intention involved in the touch, helps to determine which response occurs.

Yet there is great deal more than this. Our emotions are body felt sensations. Consider when you have experienced familiar feelings such as anger, fear, shame and joy. Each of these is fundamentally a physical response and experience as result of the situation you were in. When I touch your body, I am literally in touch with your Hands holding headfeelings. Also, our bodies embody our conscious and unconscious belief systems about ourselves. If you believe yourself to be a confident, outgoing person, you will carry yourself in a certain way, your muscles will develop particular patterns of tension and relaxation and you will present a particular appearance to others. If you believe yourself to be insignificant and unimportant, the posture and muscle patterning will appear very different. Whatever your self-belief, when as a holistic massage therapist I touch you, I am literally touching your view of yourself and the feelings that help to maintain that view. Of course, that view is likely to be the product of all you have experienced to date – so that when I touch you, I am in touch not only with who you are now but also with all of your personal history to that moment.

In that moment of touch, not only are all your physical and emotional responses present, but so are mine. I cannot help but bring to the massage situation my physical symptoms, my feelings and experiences and my personal history. As a holistic massage therapist, my professionalism means that I will take care of myself elsewhere, but also that I may draw on my own history as appropriate in order to assist your individual process. It means that I may develop an expertise in working with particular clients because their experiences and needs relate to my own. So the range of possible responses in a particular session is enormous, bringing together the rich complexity of who you are, who I am and how we connect through the medium of touch.

As human being, we are physical entities. Part of the deal of the human condition is that each of us has a body! Yet we have a culture and generations of conditioning that try to marginalise the body, teaching us to be ashamed of its size, shape and functions. Many of us are not properly embodied. We have been taught by families, advertising media, partners and our own inner critics that our bodies are not good enough. The role of the holistic massage therapist is both radical yet simple, namely enabling people to live fully in their bodies. That’s it! My work in essence is as simple yet profound as helping others to celebrate their physicality.

Historical/Cultural Considerations

Our approach to holistic massage today can be seen as a natural evolution from different massage traditions in both eastern and western cultures, over many years. Specific influences from the 20th century include;

  • the development of Swedish Massage by Heinrich Ling;
  • the growth of the personal development and human potential movement. In particular, the meditative style of massage developed at the Esalen Institute in California is often seen as the birthplace of present-day holistic massage;
  • a growing awareness of stress as a major factor in health and illness;
  • the growth in complementary therapies generally;
  • the influence of physically based personal development disciplines such as yoga, Tai Chi and martial arts;
  • increasing demands for massage therapists to adapt to a clientele in varied states of health, physical fitness and emotional stability;
  • the growing importance of practitioner self-awareness as an integral part of the massage, drawing here on therapeutic models such as counselling and psychotherapy.

Fundamental to my work as a holistic massage therapist is my ability to adapt and respond to the unique needs of each client, to customise my treatment accordingly and also to take proper care of myself.

Part 2 – How to do it

Process not Routine

Holistic massage should be seen as a nurturing process of touch and response. The key here is to adapt the treatment to each client’s unique needs, physical characteristics and personality. I often explain that I massage people, not bodies – that I do a massage with someone, rather than doing it to them. For example, I will adopt a very different approach to a client who approaches me in order to work through the trauma of a history of sexual abuse to one who simply wants her stiff shoulders eased after spending too long in front of the computer screen.

As a holistic massage therapist, I engage with each client, assessing needs and including physical, mental and emotional factors. I then make an appropriate selection from a wide repertoire of possible techniques, customizing the treatment to meet those needs at that particular time. This process is creative, sometimes unexpected and does not follow standard routines. I need to be guided by principles of sensitivity, awareness, knowledge and professionalism.

In many ways, holistic massage is about setting an atmosphere, creating an energy, being in a particular vibe. The way in which the massage is approached is as important as the techniques themselves. Of course, techniques matter too and may be drawn from a wide area. For instance, holistic massage may include:

  • classical Swedish techniques such as effleurage; petrissage, kneading, friction and wringing;
  • percussive techniques such as hacking, cupping, pummelling, plucking and brushing;
  • gentle hand holds, drawing on healing traditions and an awareness of the human energy field. This may extend to working off the physical body in the human aura;
  • deeper pressure techniques; such as neuromuscular technique (NMT);
  • passive joint mobilizations and stretches, such as muscle energy technique (MET);
  • appropriate techniques from related bodywork traditions such as cranio-sacral therapy and shiatsu.

An important feature of this approach is the ability to track through from a theoretical knowledge and understanding of anatomy, physiology and pathology to the practical realities of each client’s symptoms and responses – and how therefore to adapt one’s massage. In other words, the really skilful holistic massage therapist will understand the body’s structure, function and malfunction, know how to assess the effects on a particular client and the consequent links to massage technique. The article by Darien Pritchard and Su Fox in the February issue of Massage World explains this much more fully.

Role and Qualities of the Practitioner

The holistic massage practitioner is a facilitator through touch, working with and guided by the client. To quote Deane Juhan (ref 1):

63770_3528_1_M009Touching hands are…like flashlights in a darkened room. The medicine they administer is self-awareness. And for many of our painful conditions, this is the aid most urgently needed.

This contrasts with other massage approaches, which may seek to sort out the client, regarding symptoms as problems to be fixed. Such a reductionist approach treats the body not the person, offering massage as a bio-mechanical intervention within a medical paradigm that is becoming increasingly outmoded. For instance, the growing scientific evidence for mind-body medicine or psychoneuroimmunology (ref 2) supports the importance of relaxation, stress reduction and emotional factors as fundamental to understanding and healing dis-ease.

In addition to technical skills, the role of the holistic massage practitioner must require self-awareness, since depth of contact with oneself is a prerequisite for depth in the therapeutic relationship. This self-awareness might be physical, through exercise, dance, yoga or tai chi; emotional through counselling or psychotherapy; or spiritual through meditation practice. What matters is that holistic practitioners are committed to working on their personal process, in order to enhance their work with clients. In the Massage Training Institute all practitioners must maintain continuing professional development (CPD) through supervision and further training courses and cannot renew their annual registration without this.

Attention to personal as well as professional development by the practitioner means that during sessions s/he can be more present and grounded. Quality of touch becomes the interface at which the practitioner and client meet. There can be a deeper level of communication beyond technique, offering clients opportunities for change through greater awareness. Also, through effective body use whilst massaging the holistic massage practitioner both looks after his/her own physical well being and also brings into the session qualities of grace, fluidity and rhythm.


Holistic massage can lead to a variety of outcomes; depending on the needs of the individual client. (ref 2). They can include:

  • physical improvements such as relaxing tight muscles, improvements to circulation, nervous function and joint mobility; this can ease many short and long term ailments, such as back pain, arthritis and insomnia.
  • reducing stress, one of the main causes of disease in Western society. As well as addressing stress factors, holistic massage can facilitate the switch between sympathetic and autonomic nervous systems, hence allowing both body and mind valuable recuperation time (refs 3,4,5).
  • emotionally, massage can provide the caring non-intrusive touch clients have often longed for; this can soothe the busy mind, reduce stress and enhance self esteem.
  • at a deeper level still, massage can release the personal history stored in body tissues; this can lead to powerful changes in our energy and provide a vital and chemical ingredient in each persons process of growth.

Of course the key here is to work with each client and the agenda they bring. Some simply wish to have their tight shoulders relaxed, whilst others might use massage for much deeper personal growth.


The holistic approach to massage therapy can touch an individual’s whole being – physical, mental and emotional. It holds the possibility of reintegration, is person centred and is guided by principles of sensitivity, awareness and quality of touch. These enable the holistic massage therapist to work with clients, applying techniques and skills in an appropriate manner. At an organisational level, the MTI is one organisation with a well developed, thoroughly thought through approach to holistic massage.


  1. Job’s Body (Deane Juhan) – Station Hill Press. Page xxix.
  2. Medicine Hands – Massage Therapy for People with Cancer (Gayle Macdonald) – Findhorn Press. Pages 23-48.
  3. Job’s Body. Pages 322-325 and 340-343.
  4. Outcome-Based Massage (Andrade and Clifford) – Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins. Pages 77-80.
  5. Molecules of Emotion (Candace Pert) – Simon and Schuster. Pages 240-244.

Copyright Andy Fagg 2002
Published in Massage World magazine 2002/2003

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