Monday, July 4, 2011

Treatment with Hot or Cold Stones – Part I: Background and Overview

Today when you open a magazine on Spas and their aesthetics, or a massage therapy magazine addressing and informing the professional rather than the potential client, you cannot avoid noticing at least one, or more likely several ads that feature a female beauty lounging on her tummy and chest, while displaying a number of (in most cases black) round stones on her immaculate back, lined up along the spine.  Yes, treatments involving hot or cold stones are very, very popular.  Little does it matter that most of these glossy photos create a false, even dangerously misleading first impression.  No indeed, you cannot put heated basalt stones of the size shown in the images on someone’s bare back.  These poor women would get burned and jump off the treatment table; later they would probably proceed to call their lawyer and sue for damages.  Yet, despite this little image incongruity the fact remains that almost anywhere in the world hot stone therapy and hot stone massage are becoming some of the most requested treatments, with many establishments listing it on their menus specifically as one of their few ‘signature’ treatments.  Even among the equipment we sell at Aithein, as well as among the courses that we teach, hot stone equipment and hot stone massage are among the top selling items.

There must be reasons for this, both in terms of therapeutic effectiveness and thus appeal, as well as in terms of a deep, almost primeval resonance in the human mind. 

Stones are ancient.  The Native American tradition speaks of ‘our grandfather rocks’ and uses volcanic rocks in their prayer lodges, falsely labeled sweat lodges.  Naming them sweat lodges is deceptive simply because the outer purification that these lodges afford to the body (very much like a sauna) is secondary to the spiritual purification, which is the lodges’ main purpose.  The grandfather rocks are treated with respect.  They are like living beings.  They are our ancestors, because rocks were formed long before the four-legged creatures and humans walked on mother earth.  Rocks have a long memory.  They sing when they are red hot and cold water is poured over them; then, in response the humans in the lodge sing their traditional songs and prayers.  The grandfather rocks purify the ceremony’s participants with hissing sounds and unspoken messages; their own songs uplift them so that spirit can soar like an eagle.  While in the sweat physical, psychological, and spiritual impurities are released.  

Even a hot stone massage when properly executed can have an element of deep spiritual connectedness, which is one of the reasons for the treatment’s popularity.  There is a deep yearning in everyone to be connected and connect to their own lives, to their own nature – and thereby connecting to all of life around them.

The other reason of course is the therapeutic benefit of a hot stone treatment.  Tania Hodder, a hot stone therapist from Australia summed this up to the point, “This effect is due to the fact that ‘heat is healing’ and when you have a hot stone therapy treatment the emanating heat from the stones is gently, yet continually penetrating into your muscle fibers and literally melting away layers of tension… As tension is the root cause of illness, when tension is alleviated, the body quickly returns to its natural state of wellbeing, promoting a sense of inner peace in the recipient.”

Recently, I found hot stone treatments explained as a form of ‘Geo-Thermo-Hydro Therapy’.  First I thought that the author just wants to be cute by creating a mouth-full of a word like this.  But then I saw the logic behind the idea.  Hot stone therapy involves what used to be known as the four great elements of Earth, Fire, Water and Air. 

‘Geo’ stands for earth, the hot basalt rocks or cool marble stones.  Lava stones such as basalt also are imbued with strong magnetic properties, which may assist in opening, clearing and balancing the energy channels in the body.  ‘Thermos’ stands for fire, or heat, as ‘hydro’ represents water.  The ‘hot heat’ of the basalt stones encourages the exchange of blood and lymph and provides a soothing heat for deep tissue work, which due to the warmth will be received as less invasive and also less painful.  The ‘cold heat’ of the marble or moonstones for example can reduce inflammation, by moving blood out of the area.  Naturally, water is used to either heat (the basalt stones) or cool (the marble or moonstones).  The unifying element is the air both in the form of the breath of the client, integrating the treatment into his or her bodymind, and in the breath of the therapist, which by the nature of its flow sets the tone, the rhythm for the treatment.  When the elements are in harmony, the ancients said, so is the body; so is the mind.  ‘Geo-Thermo-Hydro Therapy’ is but a new word for a time tested overall therapeutic concept; which is why it works.

Often, we also hear of ‘Japanese Hot Stone Massage’ because the technique of Anma or traditional Japanese hot stone massage is the form that is most often taught in today’s bodywork and spa courses.  However, there is nothing originally Japanese about AnmaAnma most probably originated in the great amalgam of Himalayan culture (of tribal northern and northeast India, Nepal, Tibet and western China).  It is about 7000 years old, and only in the 1300s of our common era was it imported and blended into what is now known as ‘Japanese’ culture.  Yet it is also true that the Japanese systematized and perfected the art.  They have maintained it so that we can learn it and use it now.

The art of Anma bodywork with hot stones is a whole new subject in and of itself.  To learn it takes time and devotion.  However, to conclude this brief overview we can state that mainly three types of massage techniques are applied in traditional Japanese hot stone treatments:

  1. Light stroking – the therapists slides the stones over the body in either up and down, or circular movements
  2. Kneading – this is the favorite anma technique; the therapist engages the tissue under the stone through rotating and kneading movements to effectively remove muscle tension
  3. Vibration – the therapist uses vibrating and shaking movements when treating sensitive areas in order to disperse the intensity of pressure; any vigorous shaking also shakes the toxins out of the body




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