Expert Advice

How Do I Choose the Massage That's Right for Me?

Here's how to navigate today's complex spa menus.

How Do I Choose the Massage That's Right for Me?
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Therapeutic or relaxing? Until recently, those were your only options when choosing a massage off the spa menu. These days, you need a whole new vocabulary to find a treatment you'll really love. "Swedish massage—or variations on it-used to be the standard," says Anne Williams, L.M.P, C.H.T., a Colorado-based licensed massage practitioner, clinical hypnotherapist, registered counselor and massage textbook author. "Now you see everything and anything on spa menus: shiatsu, lomi lomi, abhyanga. If you're a massage connoisseur, that's a great thing because you don't have to travel the globe to get these services." But if you're a bodywork newbie, making a selection can be overwhelming. Here's a guide to help you make your way onto the padded table that’s right for you:

Swedish Recent studies have found Swedish massage (characterized by moderate pressure and long strokes that run along the grain of the muscle) to be not only relaxing, but also deeply healing. "We've been able to demonstrate that it helps with depression, pain syndromes, immune problems, diabetes, cancer and even HIV," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The key to this kind of healing effect? Stress reduction, Field says.
Choose it if you're chronically wound up and need full-body relaxation, or just want to feel deliciously pampered. If you're a beginner, start here, says Williams.

Deep-tissue A results-oriented massage, deep-tissue work incorporates penetrating kneading techniques, cross-grain strokes and trigger-point releases. "Deep-tissue massage really gets into the belly of the muscle and addresses the muscle attachments," says Charlotte Prescott, director of spa and fitness for Canyon Ranch Miami Beach in Florida. "Some people find it painful, but it's very therapeutic."
Choose it if you have areas of chronic tension or muscular injuries.

Shiatsu This Japanese modality works with the body’s energetic meridian system. Therapists use their fingers and hands to apply massage and acupressure, and may incorporate gentle stretching.

Thai You keep your clothes on, lie on the floor and let your therapist work your body through a series of stretches designed to release muscular tension. "It's like lazy man's yoga," says Angie Parris-Raney, R.M.T., a massage therapist in Littleton, Colo.
Choose it if you want to feel invigorated. "When my Thai massage clients get done, they're ready to go home and clean the house," says Parris-Raney. "It charges you up."

Craniosacral therapy A form of Ayurvedic bodywork, abhyanga works to correct imbalances in the doshas (the energies that govern life). Therapists use herb-infused massage oils and apply them using strokes properly paced for your dosha (vata, smooth and slow; pitta, slow and precise; kapha, vigorous).
Choose it if you're feeling frenzied (vata imbalanced), fried (pitta imbalanced) or sluggish (kapha imbalanced). "It's a good choice to balance mind and body," says Prescott.

Lomi lomi This traditional Hawaiian massage includes long, flowing, rhythmic strokes and forearm pressure. The idea is to help release emotional tension stored in the musculature and invite good feelings; the treatment is often described as "loving hands."
Choose it if you are game for an adventure. Lomi lomi is like a dance; the practitioner’s hulalike movements around the massage table assist in the flow of energy.

Craniosacral therapy Developed by a chiropractor, craniosacral therapy employs ultra-light touch to help balance pressure in the spine between your cranium and sacrum (hence the name). It facilitates muscular release by working directly with the nervous system.
Choose it if you have headaches—the modality is widely used to treat migraines—allergies, sinusitis or you’re totally stressed out. "Without a doubt, craniosacral is the most relaxing treatment you can get," says Moon.

Reflexology Reflexology holds the belief that each of the body's organs corresponds with an area on the bottom of the foot. Therapists apply pressure to the feet to create changes in the body.
Choose it if you have a health issue. A complement to standard medical care, reflexology can provide relaxation and improve blood flow, which can help reduce pain for a number of ailments.