Chinese massage therapy: what is it and why you should try it

Some years ago, long before I was even considering becoming a TCM practitioner myself, I was receiving acupuncture treatments for PMDD. Apart from the regular sessions with my very own Vlad the Impaler aka Transylvanian acupuncturist, he sent me a list of things I could do myself to speed up the recovery process. Amongst them was one that read: “Treat yourself to a massage every week or every fortnight.” I thought: “Massage? No thanks!”

Truth was the only form of massage I knew was the kind of hard kneading and poking my now ex-husband insisted of giving my shoulders and upper back and I hated every minute of it.

A year later, life decided to take a different turn for me and here I was, in another country, mending my broken heart and picking up the pieces of my life with the loving help of my new partner. I had been passionate about traditional Chinese medicine ever since I was a child, so he encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a TCM practitioner.  I enrolled to study TCM and acupuncture. An inner voice kept pushing me towards Tui Na massage. I discovered a world I never knew existed. I understood why I was screaming in pain when my ex tried his best to relax my neck and shoulders. I became enthralled even more with traditional Chinese medicine for creating this wonderful therapy!

So, what is this Chinese massage therapy?

There are many terms that describe massage therapy in Chinese language. Two of them are: An Mo 按摩, which means “press and rub” and Tui Na 推拿, which means “push and grab”. These terms encapsulate most of what we now in the West know as Chinese massage. Its techniques may seem simplistic, and, most of the times, the Westerners are surprised how these simple, natural gestures can have such a tremendous effect. 

When we hit our head, our first reaction is to put our hand over the area and rub it to make the pain go away. When we have tummy pain or toothache, we press the area with our palms. When someone is upset, we rub and tap their back gently. We instinctively use certain gestures to alleviate pain or provide comfort. We try to calm or befriend a dog or a cat by stroking their heads. Plants grow better when their leaves are touched gently. Stones become shinier and warmer when rubbed. All creatures respond to touch, and touch can both soothe and nurture, energise and invigorate. 

What are the benefits of Chinese massage?

The main purpose of the Chinese metaphysical arts is to preserve balance in all forms and, when the balance is lost, to find means for that balance to be regained.

As part of the great and wonderful family of the Chinese metaphysical arts that stem from the Tao, the Chinese massage fulfils three essential roles, all equally important:    

  • cultivation and preservation of health
  • beautification
  • therapy or restoration of health

Health is a measure of balance: when we get ill, a sign of good health is when the balance is restored in due time and without significant consequences. In other words, health is not a static concept, but the fragile and beautiful dance we perform every instance on this planet in our eternal quest for balance.

Chinese massage as a tool for cultivation and preservation of health

In China, a timely death is regarded as one of the five blessings. Ageing is a natural process that cannot be controlled. How we age is something we can control. By adapting our lifestyle to our age, sex and needs, we can enjoy a good health up to the day we die.

One of the therapies that can assist cultivation and preservation of health is massage.  A good Chinese massage course will not only teach people how to become Tui Na practitioners, but will also teach them on how to cultivate and preserve their own health by using self-massage and QiGong techniques. Cultivation of health starts with ourselves.

By working on the pathways of the meridians, acupoints and sinew channels, Tui Na

  • improves the function of the internal organs
  • lubricates the joints and tendons
  • fortifies the muscles
  • improves immunity  
  • balances the mind  

We do not have to wait to get ill to enjoy the benefits of a regular Tui Na session. In fact, people who have regular massages and self-massages are less prone to health deterioration, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional health.

Health as beauty

According to the ancient Chinese principles, beauty is a sign of good health. A relaxed face and a supple body, combined with a positive attitude, are all signs of good health. This, according to the principles of Chinese metaphysics, attracts wealth and prosperity, even a suitable partner. Beauty is regarded as free, natural flow of the Qi, it means a firm and lush skin, bright eyes that see beauty everywhere, a clear voice that sings and laughs like a clear jade bell, a content heart and a relaxed body.

Chinese massage as beauty therapy

  • improves the tone of the skin
  • helps the skin perform its essential functions of respiration and toxin removal
  • improves muscle tone  
  • accelerates metabolism
  • reduces fat tissues
  • optimises digestion

Tui Na as a medical therapy

Tui Na uses bodily manipulation techniques to fight against the number one enemy of health: stagnation.

The principle of free flow is one of the fundamental principles in traditional Chinese medicine and the rest of the Chinese metaphysical arts. The Qi must be allowed to flow freely to perform its functions and keep everything in balance. If the free flow of Qi is impaired, stagnation occurs.

Stagnation is the main culprit of any disease (dis-ease, lack of ease) and one of its main symptoms is pain: physical, mental, emotional.

By releasing the stagnation in the joints and muscles, Tui Na can improve the overall health of people suffering from a multitude of complaints:

  • arthritis
  • sports or repetitive injuries
  • muscular skeletal conditions
  • digestive disorders
  • gynaecological complaints
  • emotional distress

How does Tui Na work?

Traditional Chinese medicine operates with both matter and energy.

As a physical therapy, Tui Na uses a series of techniques to manipulate the physical body by means of acupressure, massage and stretching techniques. Physical manipulation aims to move the Qi and Blood so that the muscles, joints and tendons are warmed, lubricated and tonified.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, our physical bodies are vulnerable not only to the weather conditions or to other internal illnesses, but they can also store and become affected by our emotions and traumas.

At an energy level, the Tui Na practitioner guides the Qi using their hands and fingers into the acupoints and along the meridians to release and disperse stagnation or bring more energy into a specific area. In this respect, the practitioner’s fingers and palms act as acupuncture needles, guiding the Qi in order to supplement, reduce, or disperse the Qi in the affected areas. 

What to expect during and after a session?

Chinese massage sessions are versatile in many ways.

Because it was created to meet the needs of rich and poor alike, TuiNa can be performed with the person lying down on a plain blanket on the floor or in the field, seated on a stool or lying down on a nice and soft massage table.

Tui Na can be done with the person fully clothed, partly clothed or with no clothes on. Traditionally, the practitioner will use a white cotton sheet as a medium between them and the clients treated. TuiNa doesn’t necessarily need oils as mediums, they are rather used as aromatherapy, to increase the warming or the cooling effect of a treatment or to address a certain condition.

Depending on the aim of the sessions, the TCM practitioner will take a brief medical history of the client.

Because the techniques are designed to move Qi and Blood, TuiNa sessions may take only a few minutes in length, thus being much shorter than regular massage sessions. The sessions may last between 30 and 45 minutes.

Medical Tui Na

Medical Tui Na will take a full medical history and assess the best course of treatment for the specific situation. Most likely, the treatment sessions will also include cupping or moxibustion and therapeutic oil formulas.

The manipulations are performed exclusively within your range of mobility and comfort. While some areas might feel tender initially, you should not feel any major discomfort and the tenderness should subside.  

Expect a healing crisis after the first few sessions! This can be in the form of aches and pains becoming worse, emotional issues surfacing or feeling more tired than usual.  

It is essential that you communicate with your practitioner during and in between the sessions, even if you may think some of the symptoms and signs are irrelevant or embarrassing.

For optimum results, medical Tui Na should be performed once a week or every fortnight, with a course of treatment of 8 – 10 sessions, depending on the medical condition to be treated.  

Cautions and contraindications

As with other therapies, women who are pregnant or actively trying to conceive will receive special treatment.

Always inform the practitioner if you plan on donating blood before or after the session

Treatment will be denied to people who are

  • under the influence of alcohol, sleep inducing medication or recreational drugs
  • weak
  • very ill
  • with high fever
  • very tired
  • very hungry or fasting
  • very full (have just eaten a large meal)

Other cautions and contraindications are to be discussed with the practitioner, based on the full medical history and the type of medication and other forms of treatment received from medical professionals or holistic therapists.

It is advisable to allow the body to rest and work through the healing process before taking any other form of holistic or alternative treatments at least 24 hours before undertaking another session of any kind, including Reiki or spa treatments.

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