Let’s talk about the first and the most basic benefit of massage – relaxation of tight and tired muscles.
When I discuss the relaxation effect of massage with my clients, I often detect a certain degree of doubt on their part. Judging from the questions the clients ask, they seem to be wondering: “Why do I need massage to relax? I can just lay down on my couch, put my feet up, and I am relaxed”.
If only it was that easy! In fact expecting your tense muscles to relax just because you told them to, would be the same as expecting your weak muscles to get strong, or your short muscles to stretch because you commanded them to be this way.
You see, our muscles, like other parts of our bodies, are controlled by the Central Nervous System. This marvelous system, although it includes the brain, does not really have “a brain”, in a sense that it is not capable of asking questions such as “why?” or “when?”.
So, when you come home after eight hours at work staring at your computer screen, followed by another forty minutes in the rush hour traffic, the tight muscles in your neck, your jaw, your shoulders and your back are likely to stay stressed and cramped for a while. The Central Nervous System, which kept them this way in a fight-or-flight response, does not understand that it is OK to let go. Why do you think we clench our jaw and grind our teeth in our sleep?
Meet Amar Bharati, an Indian holy man, who several decades ago raised his arm in a tribute to god Shiva and kept it this way ever since. Mr. Bharati has not yet made an appointment with me. The dried out tissues of his right arm are, of course, well beyond the capabilities of massage therapy, but it is instructive to imagine how things have developed for him from the beginning. When he started his salute, the muscles in his right shoulder and arm first got tight, them spasmodic with the central nervous system assisting him in his bizarre project and not asking “why?”.
Massage helps muscles relax in two ways:
Physiologically massage increases the flow of blood, lymph and oxygen. It also relieves pressure on nerves, reducing pain, and promoting muscle healing. Also, the nerve cells in the skin signal the brain to release feel-good chemicals, called endorphins, which reduce the levels of stress hormones and increase the sense of well-being.
Psychologically, the purposeful touch of a therapist communicates to the Central Nervous System that you are in a safe place. Your boss is not breathing down your neck, you are no longer carrying this heavy backpack on your shoulder, and it’s OK to relax.