From Swedish to Shiatsu: Defining Popular Massage Modalities

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You may look at a spa menu and feel confused at the many modalities listed. What to choose?   What do they even mean? In this post, I aim to briefly highlight some of the differences and similarities between a few of the most popular bodywork modalities out there.

Swedish massage is perhaps the most well known type of massage. It is a flowing massage aimed at improving circulation and relieving muscular tension. In this style, all strokes flow towards the heart. Swedish massage is very relaxing, and depending on the practitioner, is usually experienced as a medium-light pressure. The therapist will use a blend of broad strokes, known as “effleruage,” kneading (a.k.a. “petrissage”), friction, compression, and the famous “tapotemont” (chop chop!).   Swedish is usually the first massage modality that students learn in massage school.

DT massage

Deep Tissue massage targets specific muscles, and is characterized by deeper, slower pressure. There is a common misunderstanding that deep tissue is painful. A lot of people still think “no pain, no gain.” When performed correctly, deep tissue should not be intensely painful. The therapist will palpate the muscles to determine treatment, and usually focuses on slow, deep strokes. The purpose of Deep Tissue is to free up the layers of fascia (connective tissue surrounding muscles), and release holding patterns in the muscles. The result can be alleviation of chronic pain, and greater range of motion. Deep Tissue is a method that can be easily integrated into a Swedish-style massage.


Craniosacral is a subtle, yet potentially powerful form of bodywork. It consists of long holds using very little pressure. The practitioner is listening for the rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid as it is pumped up and down the spine. There is the belief that the cranial bones have their own rhythmic movement, or “breath,” which can become stuck due to trauma. The aim is to subtly shift the cranial, spinal, and pelvic bones to allow for a more free expression of the cranial rhythm. If you are drawn to this work, I highly recommend seeing a Doctor of Osteopathy, or someone who has a great deal of training in this modality.

Shiatsu is a clothes-on style of bodywork originating in Japan. The main intention of Shiatsu is to balance the energy meridians of the body (same as acupuncture meridians). This is done through thumb and palmar compression, rotation and stretching of the limbs, and some rocking. It is very relaxing to receive, as the movements are rhythmic and soothing.

lomi lomi 1

Lomi Lomi, or Hawaiian massage, literally translates as “to chop up.” Characterized by fluid, rhythmic movements done with forearms and hands, it is a profound healing art. Traditionally the knowledge was passed down through a family lineage. Today, this increasingly popular form of massage is available worldwide, largely due to the teachings of Auntie Margaret Machado. Your experience of lomi lomi will vary greatly depending upon who is your practitioner. Some will incorporate Hawaiian chants, and breath (ha).   There is a lot of cross-over of technique used in lomi lomi- some are very similar to Swedish, while others are much like Shiatsu or Deep Tissue. Lomi lomi is a beautiful experience. When performed with loving intention by a knowledgeable therapist, it can be a profound healing experience.

Sports Massage is aimed at athletes for the treatment and maintenance of muscular health using manual massage techniques, stretches, and joint mobilization. If performed pre-event, a fast-paced massage gets the circulation going, and helps muscles perform better overall. Post-event, sports massage can target specific injuries.


Thai Massage is similar to Shiatsu in that it is done on the floor, with clothes on. The therapist stretches you in various positions, and uses compression, rocking, and friction to ease tension. My description of Thai is that it’s like having yoga done to you. It feels amazing, and can be very deep.

Hot Stone Massage is an incredible experience. Round, smooth stones are heated and applied to the body in a Swedish-style massage. The stones become an extension of the therapist’s hands, and the heat from the stones penetrates the muscles, allowing them to deeply relax. An experience not to be missed!

Four-handed Massage is also one to put on your bucket list! Two therapists work in tandem to create an amazing sensory experience. It is the ultimate in stress-relief to have many areas of the body worked on simultaneously. The thinking mind can finally shut-off, creating a powerful, deep level of relaxation.

There are many, many more modalities to talk about and explore.  I hope this list was helpful to you!

By Brenna Moore, Licensed Massage Therapist, Kona, Big Island of Hawaii

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