Differences between Eastern and Western Massages from a Practitioner’s Perspective

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Differences between Eastern and Western Massages from a Practitioner’s PerspectiveAt the Bali International Spa Academy, often shortened to Bali BISA, one of the most common questions from prospective students is what massage modalities should they choose to study.  The answer of course lies within their individual philosophies about health and wellness.  We highly recommend that people contemplating which course(s) to enroll in, try those that appear compelling to feel which ones feel right to them.

The school is fortunate to have a team of Balinese trainers with vast international experience in popular spa offerings.  A great advantage is that they draw from their own Hindu-based spiritual values to enable a deep connection between the body and mind, as aspect which comes across in their teaching style.  From them we created sensible guidelines for those still searching for the right direction in their own wellness careers or simply for personal fulfillment. A fundamental start is appreciating the core differences between Eastern and Western approaches towards the achievement of health and happiness.

Massage has long been used to complement traditional medicine in healing the body and treating different types of chronic health problems, so it’s no surprise that both Eastern and Western massage types have roots alongside the medical science of their respective cultures.  For example, until recently many Westerners were skeptical about Eastern concepts about wellness, but this is changing quickly as appreciation for ancient principles about health and sickness rises, particularly by those dissatisfied with conventional Western medicine, and in some countries its very high prices.  Similarly, standard Western medical procedures are now viewed more seriously in the East to treat illnesses. In Bali, traditional healers known as balians are still sought after for various physical and emotional conditions, but they also now recognize the value of Western medical practices and advice.

People’s minds are now opening up to new concepts of wellness and bodywork, and how they can play an important role by;

  • Enhancing functionality of the body
  • Quicken the healing process after exercise or trauma
  • Decrease muscular reflex activity
  • Inhibit motor-neuron excitability
  • Making you more relaxed

As the current array of massage and bodywork applications is incredibly vast, it is essential to understand the underlying philosophical viewpoints guiding Eastern and Western approaches.


The Asian Mindset

Rooted in Long-held Health Traditions

Eastern Massage modalities are essentially about balancing and calming the flow of energy in the body. Unlike modern Western medicine, it has been practiced in different forms for over 5,000 years in many Asian countries.

Eastern trained practitioners will first make a diagnosis by examining the tongue and the pulse on three positions on the wrist. This allows a well-trained therapist to detect imbalances and disharmonies in various parts of the body in order to determine the root cause of the complaint, rather than directly addressing the symptoms as do Western trained practitioners.

asian-massageThey then primarily use vigorous techniques such as varied pressure, rocking, rolling and striking movements to stimulate and soothe areas of the energy paths throughout the body, commonly known as the “energy meridians”.   The terminology can be confusing as in traditional Chinese culture this is referred to as qi or chi, in Korean as gi, in Japanese as ki and in India as prana. However they all translate into the life force or energy flow that follows the body’s meridian paths.

By focusing on these life energy points, it is believed to leave the body and mind feeling more relaxed and revived, even though it can be physically painful due to the intense pressure on specific parts of the body.  For severe problems, the use of acupuncture needles is also common in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and this technique does not create the same intense pressure.

Another distinction is that Eastern health professionals view the body as one unified system incorporating the physical body, the mind and the spirit – which where the commonly used term holistic derives from.  Essentially the concept is to channel an individual’s inherent energy to integrate the body and mind for higher levels of consciousness and wellness.

Associated wellness techniques such as Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi are frequently combined with Eastern body massage, movement practices  and breathing techniques.

Conventional Western Wisdom

Based on Modern Science

A clear division is that Western medicine sees the mind and body as “split”, meaning two separate entities, whereas Eastern traditions view them as the same energy source.  The focus of Western massage is on the science of the human body’s anatomy, physiology and pathology, so they concentrate on healing the area where the pain is felt or disease is occuring.  This is a more segmented treatment strategy than the holistic approach found in Eastern cultures that involve healing based on energy flow and balance to attain integration of mind and body.

sport-massage-legIn terms of western massage, they generally promote relaxation, circulation, and motion in order to relieve muscular tension, particularly in the symptomatic areas.  For instance, if your back is sore, then this is the target of a Western trained therapist.

The fundamentals are the five key strokes of gliding, tapping, vibration, friction and kneading used in Swedish massage that is considered to epitomize the therapeutic benefits of Western style massages for immediate relief of aches and pains, plus general relaxation.

When standard western massage is combined with body work and movement therapy, the result is a myriad of wellness associated modalities such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Pilates, Hellerwork and the Trager approach.  These can help in controlling pains and aches, as well as aid in relaxing the body.

Popular Eastern and Western Massage Techniques

There are too many to cover in this blog, but a very useful resource is found here;


Below is a summary of popular massage types with a notation or which ones are taught at Bali BISA or can be learned in Ubud at various times of the year.


Tui Na – This form of massage is most similar to Western massage in that if focuses on the stretching and kneading of muscles. However, Tui Na differs from Western massage techniques in that its end goal is to relieve tension over a larger space of the body by focusing on the entire muscle. This massage is generally used in conjunction with other Chinese medicinal practices to treat the entire body.

shiatsu-massageShiatsu – Japanese originated Shiatsu’s conceptual foundation is that Qi or vital energy flows through the body and by using finger pad pressure, easy leaning of the elbows, simple rotation of the limbs with stretches and other massage techniques that the natural flow of energy returns to balance. This use of hand pressure and other manipulative techniques adjusts the body’s physical structure and its natural inner energies to help prevent illness, and maintain good health.

Ten day course taught at Bali BISA or can combine with A-Shiatsu in 15 day CIBTAC Endorsed Shiatsu program.

Ayurvedic Body Massage – Abhyanga massage is traditionally performed with medicated herbal oils chosen according to the patient’s Dosha. It uses long strokes, mainly with the full palm with all the pressure movements in the direction of blood pressure. Abhyanga is the treatment on the center of the body’s Panca Karma which is the “Belly”.

Five day course taught at Bali BISA or combine with Shirodara and Ayurvedic Body Scrubs and Wraps in 15 day Bali BISA or CIBTAC Endorsed Ayurveda program

Bali BISA student practicing Thai Massage with Herbal PacksThai Massage – The secret of Thai bodywork is that it enables skilled practitioners to press muscles and to balance energy levels. This aids flexibility and equalizes the muscles on both sides of the body. Similar to yoga in which the person does all the work, but Thai Massage provides all the same benefits without any exertion.

Five day course taught at Bali BISA or combine with Thai Foot Stick Massage in 15 day CIBTAC Endorsed Thai program

Balinese Massage – It consists of a combination of different techniques from various cultures that the Balinese people have adapted to create their own unique style that is now very trendy around the world.  From India, Ayurveda healing massage techniques with oils and herbs. From China, Buddhist came acupressure techniques. From Java, the traditional healing methods used in the royal palaces. More recently, foreigners introduced Swedish massage techniques.

Today’s version of Balinese massage incorporates 12 different techniques to make it both relaxing and therapeutic.

Five day course taught at Bali BISA or more intensive learning is available with 10 day CIBTAC Endorsed Massage program


Myofascial Release Massage – This works much in the same way as traditional Western massages in that its goal is to loosen and relax muscles by using pressure and gentle manipulation. Where this method differs though, is in the intensive stretching.

Courses available in Ubud area, check available dates at

www.betalisboa.com/immersions/myofasial-training or www.balispirit.com

trigger-point-therapyTrigger Point Therapy – This differs from other types of Western massage in that the receiver actively participates in the massage through deep breathing. It is based on the idea that a trigger point in one area of the body may cause pain in another area. By releasing tension in the muscles at the trigger point, you may be able to relieve pain in the corresponding area.

Swedish Massage – The most widely recognized and commonly used category of massage is the Swedish massage. It uses five styles of strokes; sliding, kneading, rhythmic tapping, friction and vibration/shaking.  For beginner spa therapist it is usually one of the first courses they undertake to learn massage fundamentals.

Five day course taught at Bali BISA and included in several CIBTAC programs.

deep-tissue-massage2Deep Tissue Massage – This type of massage focuses on realigning deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. Its movements are similar to that of Swedish massage, but they are more intense because they are meant to go deeper and reach deeper layers. Those who seek a deep tissue massage are often looking to treat chronic pain caused by tight muscles.

Sports Massage – Athletes and people simply suffering from overworked muscles from daily activities increasingly turn to skilled sports massage practitioners who intimately understand how to alleviate the stress and tension stored in tissues via massage to the over-all muscular – skeletal system and localized problem areas.  Regularly used, sports massage can also help prevent injuries.

Five day course taught at Bali BISA or supplement with complementary treatments in 10 day course.

Interested in Learning?  How to Move Forward.

Once prospective students determine which paradigm they feel more comfortable with by hopefully acquiring personal experience and being guided by their general beliefs about health and healing, Bali BISA provides recommendations on a suitable plan of study.

There is no reason why students cannot undertake courses in both eastern and western modalities as both are in high demand.  Being versatile has its career advantages as you can draw from a wider market.  Keep in mind through that it requires not only study and practice, but as we have pointed out in other blogs continuing education is also crucial to staying on top of your game.  Increasingly, people seek out therapists for more than just relaxation, but to resolve temporary to chronic health problems in conjunction with their primary doctor.  It would be worth reading our blog about complementary therapies.

This blog was authored by Penny Ellis, Founder of the Bali International Spa Academy (Bali BISA) located in Sanur, Bali.  She has 40+ years of spa education experience and enjoys sharing her knowledge with BISA students and tutors.  The school was the CIBTAC Centre of the Year 2015 and a Finalist in 2014.

Comments 1

  1. Good blog on sharing the difference between eastern vs western massages. I personally prefer deep tissue with Thai massages. Incorporating both together gets the best if both worlds! ❤

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