Say the word "massage" and most people imagine a person lying naked beneath a sheet while a spa worker slathers her in oil, New Age Peruvian flutes trilling quietly in the background. And though many massages are like that, there are innumerable varieties that are completely different: myofascial release, reflexology, lymphatic drainage, structural integration, shiatsu, Swedish. (New Age music seems to be a constant in almost all forms.) I'd had a few massages before, mainly at my gym, but I wanted to know what the more esoteric varieties involved and whether they could improve the mild low-back pain I'd suffered since college.
According to The Bodywork and Massage Sourcebook, there are five loose categories that the various forms of massage fall into: 1) integrating your muscles and learning to move your body; 2) gentle touching with profound results; 3) releasing particular points of stress; 4) massaging stress away from your muscles; and 5) healing with energy. I tried one from each group—except healing with energy, which includes things like Reiki. (Since there's no actual touching, it doesn't count as massage in my book.) Caveat: I relied on a single experience and took it to be representative of the whole, which is, of course, unfair. But no actual customer is going to base her idea on massage any differently.
Rolfing ($100 for an hour)
What It's Like
The idea of going to a stranger's office, stripping naked, and getting vigorously worked over—I was familiar with Rolfing's reputation as seriously painful—was a tad intimidating. So I was glad when Jamie, the certified advanced Rolfer I'd found through a friend, said I'd remain clothed in shorts and a tank top.
Before starting, Jamie explained to me what he was going to do: Release adhesions in my fascia. What's that, you say? Fascia is the tissue that covers your muscles, and Rolfers believe it gets tight in places over time due to stress and gravity. So he dug in between muscles and rubbed places where he could feel that the fascia was not moving properly, returning it to its proper supple state. The session itself focused almost entirely on my shoulders, upper back, and arms, which is standard for the first session of Rolfing. (They encourage you to do a series of 10 sessions, with each session focusing on a different area of the body.) It really felt like he was moving muscles around—he'd go in very deep in the backs of my arms and under my shoulder blades, pushing quite hard. This digging around was somewhat painful. Not awful, but painful.
Afterward my body felt significantly different. I felt like I could breathe deeper and like I was standing straighter. My head wasn't sinking into my neck as much as it usually does. I left the office feeling like my body had been changed, and the sensation lasted a few days.
What It's Supposed To Do
Also known as "structural integration," Rolfing is "a system of deep muscular manipulation and movement education" that reduces the "rigidity and tightness of the body's soft tissue," according to The Bodywork and Massage Sourcebook. The 10-session course not only frees up your fascia but works toward integrating all the muscles in your body and improving posture.
Low. According to Dr. Rosenfeld's Guide to Alternative Medicine, an excellent book for separating the wheatgrass from the chaff, a UCLA study showed Rolfing to have many tangible benefits, such as a greater range of motion and better posture.
Craniosacral Therapy ($80 for one hour)
What It's Like After the intense prodding and muscle manipulation of Rolfing, this was unexpectedly mild. My practitioner, Nicholas, worked out of a room in the back of his home decorated with acupuncture charts and books with titles like Visceral Manipulation and The Thorax. I'd found him through the American Massage Therapy Association's very handy "Find a Massage Therapist"page.