The Non-Swedish Origins of Swedish Massage by Terry McDermott
Here in America we like to classify things based on their origin. French fries, Chinese checkers, English muffins, Turkish baths, Danish pastries, Canadian bacon, etc. (Sure is a lot of food in this list!) For the most part, these items or practices did, in fact, originate in the country specified. But in the case of Swedish massage, the association with Sweden may be a complete misrepresentation of the true source of this therapy.
Swedish Massage is, by far, the most popular form of massage in the United States. This type of massage is intended to increase oxygen in the blood and remove toxins from muscles. This is accomplished by using a variety of techniques that apply pressure to surface muscles with movements that follow the direction of blood flow to the heart. The result is improved circulation, reduced stress, relaxed muscles, greater flexibility and improved overall health and wellness.
Traditionally, the development of the techniques of Swedish massage is credited to Pehr Henrik Ling whom Wikipedia, the online-encyclopedia, describes as a “medical-gymnastic practitioner.” Now I don’t know about you but the term “gymnastics” conjures some pretty specific images in my mind and none of them are medically related. Tumbling, balancing, swinging and sticking a landing are what comes to mind. But apparently gymnastics, in its past life, included a variety of disciplined activities intended to improve overall health and physical performance. These activities were actually quite similar to calisthenics and other exercise regimens practiced today and very little like gymnastics as we would interpret the term.
Pehr Henrik Ling was intellectually curious for all of his life. He was a voracious reader and developed a great appreciation for languages. This fascination with languages led to a desire for travel and Ling spent time sailing on Danish ships. It was on these ships that Ling was introduced to the sport of fencing. He found himself a quite adept competitor and soon his prowess was renowned. Eventually, he was invited to teach fencing at the University of Upsala in his native Sweden.
Now pay close attention because here is where things get murky. Apparently, at some point, Mr. Ling developed some rather painful joint malady. But he was quite a disciplined fellow and maintained a regular routine of fencing exercises. Over time, his joint problem dissipated and he attributed the “cure” to his fencing routines. This healing inspired Ling to bone up on anatomy and physiology and to give serious consideration to the relationship between health and exercise.
Around this time Sweden was recovering from a failed military confrontation with the forces of Napoleon. The military setback was a grave concern of the King of Sweden who began exploring methods of improving the prowess and effectiveness of the members of the Swedish military. When Pehr Ling got wind of this he arranged to see the King to present the techniques that he had been developing which Ling now referred to as “military gymnastics.” His techniques were primarily focused on fencing and marching activities.
At first Ling’s offer of assistance was rebuffed. But Pehr Henrik Ling was a determined character and he persisted in his efforts to convince the King and his advisors that his methods would be beneficial to the military. Finally, they relented and Ling was appointed the director of the newly established Central Institute of Gymnastics. Here Ling was able to put his methods into practice and refine his techniques.
Ling and his associates began to focus on the therapeutic benefits of the use of specific physical movements. Sessions with groups and individuals became more interactive as Ling and his team used their methods to address specific physical complaints. Particular attention was focused on the lever actions of joints and exercises were devised that applied resistance to the movement of these joint areas. “Military gymnastics” were now becoming known as “medical gymnastics.”
These techniques had little resemblance to massage as we know it today. While there was a hands-on relationship between therapist and subject, the activities were more like those used by physical therapists than massage therapists. Ling’s perspective on the practices he was developing was evolving and he began to consider the relationship between the physical and mental aspects of wellness, the mind/body connection, if you will. Certainly, this consideration is very much a part of Swedish Massage and other massage modalities.
But, in fact, Pehr Henrik Ling and his followers were not using or advocating massage as a therapy. Ling’s theories and practices were eventually refined and adapted and are the basis for much of techniques used by physical therapists as well as the aerobic, cardio-vascular and strength and resistance programs commonly practiced in gyms and health clubs throughout the world.
So where is the connection, if any, between Sweden and Swedish Massage?
Well, it seems that the methods advocated by Ling became known as the Swedish Movement System. As we noted earlier, physical movement was a principal component of Ling’s gymnastic techniques. It seems that descriptions of these movements and methods were interpreted by later readers to be similar to the five classic techniques associated with what we call Swedish Massage. They are, of course:
• Effleurage: Long, gliding strokes
• Petrissage: Lifting and kneading the muscles
• Friction: Firm, deep, circular rubbing movements
• Tapotement: Brisk tapping or percussive movements
• Vibration: Rapidly shaking or vibrating specific muscles
In fact, these particular techniques were developed and named by Dr. Johan George Mezger a Dutch physician. Apparently, when researching Pehr Henrik Ling’s techniques in later years, researchers noticed some similarities between descriptions of Ling’s techniques and the terms already in use as defined by Mezger. These terms were applied to Ling’s methods and, because he practiced in the decades before Mezger, he received credit for developing and naming these techniques. The Swedish Movement System somehow became known as the Swedish Massage System.
In Sweden, there is no such thing as Swedish Massage. This approach to massage is referred to as “classic massage.” If it were to be associated with any country, it should be referred to as “Dutch Massage” which, somehow, doesn’t have the same exotic appeal. Pehr Henrik Ling deserves a great deal of credit for the methods and techniques he developed and promoted. Swedish Massage, however, was not one of them.