Origins of Deep & Swedish Massage

Prior to acknowledging the origins of these two styles of massage, let’s address the question of the difference between them. To briefly and very generally summarize, Swedish massage focuses on improving circulation of blood and lymph and relaxing the “superficial” muscles. Deep Tissue massage focuses on the “deeper” layers of connective tissue – to loosen muscle tension and relieve stress.

Some of the earliest indications of these styles being used for their various benefits mentioned above are found in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Far East. More recent history of their use in the Netherlands in the mid 1800’s through the work of a practitioner named Johan Georg Mezger. Mezger is notable for organizing and describing the specific set of massage movements we know today as “Swedish” (effleurage, petrissage, kneading, etc.). Roots are also found in the mid 1800’s and into the1900’s in Canada. One example is Dr. Therese Phimmer’s book “Muscles – Your Invisible Bonds”. This book established the techniques and guidelines for what would become Deep Tissue Massage. Although deep tissue massage came to the United States in the 1800”s, it wasn’t well known until Dr. Phimmer’s book was published and her work was recognized.

Origins of Esalen Massage

Esalen massage originated at the Esalen Institute. Founded and located in Big Sur California in 1962, this residential community and retreat center focuses on humanistic alternative education.  An offshoot of Swedish massage, Esalen massage’s philosophical approach differs from Swedish, largely due to the influence of the early Esalen leaders, Charlotte Selver and Bernie Gunther and their studies and teachings of “Sensory Awareness”. This approach involves a particular quality of touch and presence by the practitioner that communicates an interactive experience. Over fifty years, Esalen massage has evolved and changed in many ways and yet, philosophically, it remains the same.

How Does It Work?

SWEDISH – utilizes a variety of movement techniques: effleurage (long, light, soothing, gliding strokes), petrissage (gentle lifting and squeezing of the tissue), friction (long, slow, firm, or rolling/circular movements), percussion (rapid alternating movement with both hands, tapping, hacking, cupping, slapping, tapotement for stimulating), kneading (rolling, squeezing or wringing tissue and muscles and dropping back into place – a form of petrissage), and vibration (rapid back and forth shaking or trembling). Swedish also includes passive and active joint movement, stretching and bending joints. All of this is aimed at affecting change in the anatomy, and physiology, as well as de-stressing.

DEEP TISSUE – consists of stretching the connective tissue that surrounds, penetrates, and supports the muscles, bones, nerves, and organs. It works down into the deeper layers by the use of fingers, thumbs, fists, elbows, forearms, and sometimes implements. It focuses on “breaking up” knots and releasing muscle spasms resulting in greater freedom of movement.

ESALEN – this style of massage often incorporates a variety of elements from the practitioner’s repertoire of learning. He/she might combine parts of Swedish, Deep Tissue, Shiatsu, Trager, Craniosacral, etc. However, one of the key differences that can set Esalen apart from Swedish is that it is “less energetically focused”. In this context, to be less energetically focused is to say that it is aimed at creating a level of deep relaxation that’s based in a meditative approach. The therapist begins, first, clearing their own mind and energy, getting centered and present in the moment. Next, the therapist will strive to bring in a quality of touch that communicates respect, trust, sensitivity, and nurturing. Oftentimes, a single stroke in a session may be longer, more flowing, and have a greater sense of contact with the client’s body as the therapist utilizes the entire arm, not just a thumb or hand. During the session, the therapist will hold any intentions set forth by the client at the start. In other words, if the client expressed the desire for a healing, that is held in the foreground; if he or she expressed feeling exhausted and only a need to be rejuvenated, that is held in the foreground. The therapist sets aside any predesigned judgments about how they might “fix” the person or problem. The massage is not goal oriented, but instead is an opportunity to balance the client’s energy, nurture each in a way he or she needs, and bring in a deeper level of relaxation. It is an interactive experience on an energetic “level” that fosters well-being and connectedness. 

HOT STONE – a specialty massage. The therapist works with smoothed, (preferably) “Basalt”, stones that have been heated and serve as either extensions of the therapists hands , or may be placed onto the body as the therapist works other parts.

 To Learn More



SWEDISH – works to increase circulation of blood and lymph. Consequently, Swedish helps to clean and nourish skin, soft tissue, muscles, and joint areas. It also works to relax and lengthen the superficial muscles and aids in stimulating the natural peristalsis in the intestines.

DEEP TISSUE – works on the deeper layers of muscle and fascia. It works layer by layer addressing those that have formulated into “knots” and contractions, resulting in more flexibility, more suppleness, a greater range of motion, and the possibility of improved posture. Like Swedish, it increases circulation – but more so to the targeted areas. Deep tissue stretches tissue and releases toxins that become trapped in adhesions. In addition it can provide relief from pain and stiffness that is associated with injuries, spasms, and more.

ESALEN – gently helps the client to become aware of holding patterns. Initiates self-discovery through touch, breath, feedback and reflection. Awakens clients to the tight places in body, mind, and spirit. It assists as a catalyst to change and generates a deep level of relaxation.

HOT STONE – the heat generated from the stones can create an even deeper relaxing state, but also, can help to warm up tight muscles so that the therapist can work more deeply, more quickly.


It is best to either abstain from massage or check with your regular physician when any of these are present: fever, infectious disease, cancer, broken bones, high blood pressure, HIV, hernia, osteoporosis.