Our journey starts at around 3000 BC in the two epicenters of the world, Egypt and China. Back then, these were the two most advanced empires in the world, each with its own incredibly complex and impressive medical and scientific practices.
We have records of massage practices in the tombs of Egypt, and hints of reflexology being used on patients. In China, we have written accounts from about 2700 BC of massage therapy as a medicinal practice that seems to have come from Chinese Buddhist and Daoist medicinal practices.
We want to take a step back for a moment and talk about ancient religion. It wasn’t as separated from daily life and other fields as it is today. The popular conception of religion is to view it as being against science, but back then, religion was science. They didn’t really have a different name for them. Treating the body was essentially treating the soul.
So medicine was practiced by the faithful. In Egypt, their Gods played a role in every aspect of life. In China, they had an entirely different view on religion. Many didn’t have Gods. Buddhism is an atheist religion and the point of Daoism is that it lacks an agent controlling change. Instead they have the path to nirvana and the Way. In this way, they viewed all life experiences as spiritual encounters and melded it with medicine almost completely.
At around 1000 BC, Japanese and China are in closer communication. Japan already received Buddhism from China (who received it from Tibet and India), and as part of their cultural exchange, Buddhist monks start bringing Chinese medicine, including massage to Japan. This gave rise to the Japanese Shiatsu massage.
From Egypt, the practice of massage spreads to ancient Greece and is used to heal soldiers. It’s then spread to the Romans, who were good about creating practices that would stick throughout Europe’s history. Similar to Egypt, the Hellenistic religions treated massage as purely medical.
It’s fascinating to think about where massage came from and how it was used. The ancient era was where most of our habits were formed, and you’d be surprised at how much information we actually have about this stuff. European massage eventually turned into Swedish massage in the 19th century and the practices started to meld together as the world got smaller.
When you get a massage, you know that you’re experiencing a 5000 year old tradition.