Manual Therapy for the Body and the Mind

Deep Tissue Versus Relaxation Massage; Shades of Grey?

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Natick Deep Tissue Massage | Wayland Deep Tissue Massage | Turtle Dance BodyworkI’ve worked on a lot of different bodies over the years, and am always interested to see people’s interpretations of what “deep” work is. Two people come in looking for a “deep tissue” massage, the first asks me to back off almost immediately, while the other asks when the deep stuff begins.

In my training, I have always understood that deep work involves accessing the layers of tissue right down to the core. In some instances, this might involve applying an elbow with a good amount of pressure, while in others it might be a matter of applying a stretch to the surface and letting the body soften around the stretch. Applying several strokes to the same muscle in the direction of the muscle fiber, commonly known as “stripping”, is a fantastic technique for creating change in the tissue, and can be effective with more or less pressure, depending on the individual client’s musculature, “stuckness” and physical response to the work.

Which brings me to my understanding of the fundamental difference between deep tissue and relaxation massage. Deep work has an intent behind it of creating change in the soft tissue, that being muscle, tendon, connective tissue (fascia) and ligament, an approach which could be characterized as “outside-in”. Relaxation massage tends to be more superficial, in that its intent is to calm the nervous system and relax the mind, more of an “inside-out” approach.

Of course, relaxing the nervous system in effect creates change in the soft tissue, just like deeper work, with its starting point of creating physical change tends to relax the nervous system. The conceptual differences become fuzzy, particularly when considering the individuality of each body, and even the response of the same person from one session to the next.

In the end, when I work on a person, I try to accommodate what they need at that time, and let the distinctions of “deep” versus “relaxation” find their own common ground.

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