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Is Deep Massage or a Light Touch Better?
The deeper the better, right? When it comes to massage, it’s a common misconception that if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not therapeutic.
Interestingly, Ayurveda offers a series of light-touch massages that have passed the test of time. New science tells us that while there are surely benefits from deep muscle massage, there are also benefits from light touch massage that may far outweigh the benefits of deep massage!1, 2, 4 Surprising, right?
Massage, specifically lighter-touch massage, can boost oxytocin: the body’s longevity, love, and bonding hormone.1, 2, 4, 5 Such massages, according to Ayurveda, were not once a week or once a month events—they were daily throughout one’s life.
In India, getting a massage starts on day one. Mothers have been giving babies very light touch massages for thousands of years. Kids start giving themselves daily massages at early ages, and continue as a lifelong practice.
In fact, it is common in India to talk to an 80-year-old and find out that they have done a self-massage every day of their life—that’s pushing 30,000 self massages!
In the West, daily massage is just not on most people’s radar—at least not yet! Recently, researchers have found that certain types of massage can trigger the release of many beneficial brain chemicals. The results are so compelling that you may just run home and start a self-massage practice today!
Bonding through Touch
Touch, whether it be a handshake, hug, or peck on the cheek, has long been an accepted medium for social bonding. Primates spend a lot of time touching, grooming, and rubbing against each other to maintain social bonds, decrease stress, and make up after a quarrel.
Touch has also been linked to healing. Laying on of hands has been described in many traditions as a form of healing. While the mechanism for this healing has yet to be fully understood, much has been written about the healing power of touch.
In Ayurveda, light touch directly corresponds to the element of air and an energy called prana or vayu, which is defined as life force. Sushruta Samhita, a main Ayurvedic text, states: “Vayu [directly linked to light touch], which courses through the body, is self-begotten in origin and regarded as identical to eternal life or God Itself.”
In Ayurveda, each of the five senses is understood to be an avenue of consciousness and a vehicle to elicit self-healing. Touch, as a means of moving prana, is used in massage, marma point therapy (massage of special body points of concentrated life force), and feeling the pulse (as used in pulse diagnosis).
There are many ways to move prana. When we move our life force through massage, yoga, or breathing, it flows first into the body and then into the mind, bringing balance and calm to both and enhancing self-awareness. Only when self-awareness is cultivated can the system fully recognize underlying problems or imbalances and elicit appropriate responses to heal them.
Light touch, in particular, as a means of moving prana, is considered an effective tool of self-awareness and a trigger for a potent healing response.
Now let’s look at some of the latest research Western science has regarding light touch.
Lately, researchers have set out to discover if the physiology of touch could explain why people with healthy social networks typically enjoy less sickness and longer lives than those without social networks. It seems that healthy social networks may play a role in buffering stress and boosting immunity.
For example, prior studies have shown that people with hypertension and depression improve with massage therapy. Massage appears to decrease cortisol, a disease-producing and degenerative stress hormone.1 It also increases dopamine and norepinephrine, which boost mood, reward, pleasure, and wellbeing.1 Massage has also been found to boost immunity and killer T cells in AIDS patients.1
In a recent study in Alternative Therapies,1 95 subjects had their blood evaluated for the following chemicals before and after a 15-minute massage:
- Oxytocin: bonding and anti-anxiety hormone
- ACTH (adrenocorticotropin): hormone that increases with stress and decreases with relaxation
The primary target of this study was to evaluate the release of oxytocin following a massage.1, 4 Oxytocin levels increased 17% in the massage group and decreased 9% in the resting group. The stress hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropin) increased 30% for the resting group and decreased 20% for the massage group.
Oxytocin has been shown to increase with feelings of trust or empathy. It is the giving hormone, released during acts of appreciation, gratitude, emotional connection, and giving touch.5 Laboring mothers secrete large amounts of oxytocin at birth, which triggers an oxytocin surge in the baby and dad as well, fostering the initial family bond.
See also Learn Marma Point Scalp Massage
Benefits of Oxytocin1, 4
- Fosters social bonds
- Extends life in cancer patients
- Reduces cravings for sweets
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Increases sexual potency and desire
- Reduces cortisol
- Boosts immunity
Light Touch vs Deep Pressure Massage
A previous study yielded even more dramatic results: light touch massage yielded a 27% increase in therapeutic oxytocin and a 24% decrease in the stress hormone ACTH.1
In another study comparing deep tissue with light therapeutic massage, there was no statistical difference when treating low back pain.3 Think about that: deep tissue massage worked no better than light massage for those with lower back pain!
In my opinion, this is another example of the wisdom of Ayurveda. Thousands of years ago, when the Ayurvedic healing system was designed, it incorporated many modalities employing touch. As I mentioned, the vast majority of Ayurvedic massage is done with light touch.
Ayurveda is set on creating a safe platform from which the body, mind, and spirit can do their deepest healing. Whether in regard to diet, exercise, lifestyle, detox, or the many touch therapies, the goal is always to first establish a balanced body and then to move towards inner silence and awareness. This platform of heightened awareness facilitates the free flow of prana and vayu, which is a requirement for Ayurvedic self-healing.
Want to start earning the benefits of light-touch massage? Try the two below!
Light-Touch Ayurvedic Massage Techniques
- Abhyanga, Daily Oil Self-Massage. Learn how here.
- Garshana, Ayurvedic Lymph Massage. Learn how here.