Take a deep breath and inhale the soothing aroma of lavender or the invigorating scent of peppermint. Close your eyes and allow your aching muscles to be rubbed and pampered as you enter a state of complete relaxation. No interruptions.
From the conventional Swedish style to the latest celebrity diamond trend (in which powdered, micronized diamonds and irons are placed on the skin to detoxify it), massage therapy is increasing in popularity across the board. While a single session may last from 30 minutes to several hours, the benefits of this centuries-old healing art are timeless.
Experts estimate that stress contributes to as much as 90 percent of disease, including high blood pressure, obesity and depression. The far-reaching effects of stress make maintaining relaxing habits a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. Massage therapists in New Orleans agree their healing hands can help manage stress.
"People seek out stress relief through massage therapy," says Nessa Mattea, a massage therapist at My Spa By the Park. "Most people don't get enough sleep. That creates tension in your body. Through massaging of muscles and relaxing of the body, there's a reduction of stress in your body and mind."
"The main thing that massage does to assist the body is relax you," says Christine Mencken Bostick, a massage therapist at Belladonna Day Spa. "We want to spend most of our time in a relaxed state. It's the opposite of the 'fight or flight' syndrome."
That syndrome occurs as an inherent response to stress. It prepares the body to fight or flee from a perceived threat or fear of harm. As a result, the body undergoes certain physiological changes: Adrenaline is released into the blood stream, the respiratory rate increases and blood is directed into the muscles and limbs. Research has shown that during massage therapy, the body shifts away from the fight-or-flight state and releases serotonin, the so-called feel-good chemical.
Massage therapy also stimulates movement of the body's lymph. The lymphatic system removes toxins, excess fluid and waste from the body and transports nutrients and hormones from the blood to various cells.
"Eventually, all the stuff from your lymphatic system drains into your blood flow," Bostick says. "Any time you get a massage, there's an increase in movement in the rate of lymph."
Depending on what a person needs or wants to get from a massage, there are a variety of techniques that can be employed.
These are some popular types of massage therapy.
• Swedish massage: "It's sort of what you think when you hear the word massage," Bostick says. The technique features long, flowing strokes over the entire body, and oil or lotion is applied.
• Deep-tissue massage focuses on the muscles below the surface and is particularly helpful for a person suffering chronic pain. "It's all about finding knots and sore spots and working deeply in one area," says Karen Adjmi, co-founder of Earthsavers. "Deep-tissue (massage) is done with a lot more pressure and is a lot more localized."
• Reflexology is a technique based on the theory that pressure points in the feet and hands correspond to various organs. A massage therapist manipulates these points to promote relaxation in other parts of the body, such as the appendix, tonsils and kidneys. "Reflexology is one of the oldest healing modalities," Adjmi says. "It's extremely effective and very therapeutic."
• Warm-stone massage employs heated salt rocks placed on a person's back, legs and arms. "We put oil on the stones and rub them over areas of the body," Mattea says. "This allows us to get deeper into the tissue. The warmth of the stones adds more relaxation than (massaging only with) hands."
• Thai massage therapy resembles an assisted yoga routine on the floor. Loose clothing is worn, and the therapist uses his or her hands, legs and feet to stretch the client's muscles in a rhythmic fashion.
Often, aromatherapy, a holistic approach to therapy that uses the essential oil extracts of plants and herbs, is a pleasant and effective addition to massage. Essential oils may be diffused throughout a room or diluted with other oil and rubbed directly into the skin. When inhaled, the essential oils activate olfactory nerve cells in the nasal cavity that transmit to the portion of the brain associated with emotions, memory, breathing, stress level and hormone balance. In this way, the essential oils may evoke a pleasant memory or create a calm feeling throughout the body.
Applied topically, diluted essential oils penerate the skin and are absorbed into the bloodstream, where their distinct healing properties take effect. From the energizing scents of citrus and eucalyptus, which relieves sinus and nasal congestion, to relaxing lavender, the essential oils used in masssage therapy are plentiful and potent.
Massages offer a range of physical and emotional benefits, incuding one Mattea believes is among the most important: "First and foremost, we get back in touch with our human connection. That alone can be so connecting and healing."