History of Massage - How it began and how it has evolved

Katerina – Soma co-owner/ Massage therapist

How it began..

In India, where it was regarded as a sacred form of natural treatment, massage therapy has a history that stretches back to 3000 BCE (or earlier). Massage treatment was a method handed down through generations used by Hindus in Ayurvedic “life health” medicine to treat wounds, ease pain, and both prevent and treat illnesses. Ayurveda advocates think that when a person is out of tune with their surroundings, illness and disease result. It is thought that massage will help the body regain its physical and natural equilibrium so it can cure itself.

Around 2700 BCE, as culture and history developed, massage therapy made its way to China and Southeast Asia. The techniques of ancient Chinese medicine, martial arts, and the spiritual yoga training of Buddhists and Taoists were combined to create Chinese massage techniques. Their approaches shared many characteristics with those of the Native Americans, who held that illness was brought on by an imbalance or a lack of energy in various routes. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine, which the ancient Chinese wrote, is now regarded as a standard in massage treatment alternative medicine (acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal therapies).

From India to China, Egypt and Japan

The practice of massage therapy was documented in Egyptian tomb paintings about 2500 BCE. The development of reflexology, which includes applying pressure to specific spots or zones on the hands and feet to bring about healing, is attributed to the Egyptians, who also contributed their own bodywork techniques to this combination.


Shiatsu, which was later called  “anma,” was first introduced to Japan in 1000 BCE by monks who were studying Buddhism in China. This method aims to promote natural resistance to illness by regulating and strengthening organs by harmonising energy levels through the stimulation of pressure points.

Massage in Ancient Greece and Roman Empire

The Greeks and Romans were influenced by the Egyptians and employed massage therapy in various ways. Athletes in Greece between 800 and 700 BCE employed massage to prepare their bodies for competition, and physicians frequently combined massage with herbs and oils to cure a variety of illnesses. Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine,” used friction, a massage method, to cure physical wounds in the fifth century BCE. He was also the first to recommend a combination of massage, a healthy diet, exercise, fresh air, and music to correct health imbalances—a remedy that is still used today.

Galen, a Roman physician, replicated Hippocrates’ theories on how to cure wounds and ailments by using massage treatment to emperors in the first century BCE. Rich Romans might have massages at home, but the common populace would gather at the baths for “spa” treatments and full-body massages to promote circulation and loosen their joints.


A Swedish and a Dutch physician

Up until the 17th century, when modern medicine was altered by new pharmacological and technological discoveries, massage therapy was becoming less and less popular in the West. However, a lot of doctors could see how massage was good for their patients’ health.

Swedish physician, gymnast, and instructor Per Henrik Ling developed the Swedish Movement Cure in the early 1800s as a means of treating chronic pain. It was the foundation of what we now know as Swedish massage, a form that incorporates stroking, pressing, squeezing, and striking. It was more like medical gymnastics than massage therapy.

In contrast to Ling, who incorporated massage into his motions, Johan George Mezger, a Dutch physician of the 19th century, is credited with incorporating practices still in use today:

  • Effleurage, which uses long, gliding strokes from the extremities inward at various levels of pressure
  • Petrissage, a technique that is rhythmic and may include kneading, skin rolling, lifting or a push-pull movement
  • Tapotement, a beating/tapping administered with the side of the hand, a cupped hand or fingertips used in Swedish massage
  • Friction, a technique that is physically demanding, consisting of deep, circular or crosswise movements with the thumbs, fingertips, palms or elbows, designed to penetrate deep tissue

From 1700s until today..

The earliest massage therapists date back to the 1700s and were known as “rubbers” (women employed by doctors to cure orthopaedic issues using manual rubbing and friction). But by the 1850s, Ling’s “medical gymnasts” were using movement and manipulation to accomplish the same objective. They received thorough instruction in anatomy, physiology, hygiene, pathology, and movement perceptions, which they put into practice in clinics and hospitals.


The term “massage therapist” gained popularity by the late 1800s. These medical professionals received Mezger-style soft tissue manipulation training. 

In the early 1900s, there was a rise in demand for massage therapists. In the 1930s, Swedish massage had advanced, and physiotherapists who utilised it in routine care contributed to the development of massage therapy into a recognized and respectable branch of medicine.

As people made the decision to live better lifestyles and favoured more holistic approaches to healthcare, pain treatment, and regaining and keeping healthy bodies, massage therapy underwent a transition between 1970 and 2000. Many people today are aware that massage is good medicine.

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