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Soul Workout - The art of Chinese massage decoded

Soul Workout - The art of Chinese massage decoded

Kneading dough and massage have striking similarities: Both require hand techniques and a touch that is strong yet effortless to produce the best results.

The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Chinese all have a long recorded history of the diagnostic and curative properties of massage. The stiff joints of both emperors and pharaohs were regularly relieved by massage. Chinese archaeologists have found references to massage on oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen) dating back to the Shang dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC). The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, a text compiled by unknown authors during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C) and considered to be the earliest surviving canonical text on Chinese medicine, recommends, among other things, that "breathing exercises, massaging the skin and flesh, and exercises of the hands and feet as an appropriate treatment for paralysis, chills, and fever."

Most of us are aware of the positive healing effects of touch when we receive a hug or embrace. It helps the body's immune system, reduces stress and rejuvenates the spirit. When your local foot reflexologist soothes your tired feet by first soaking them in hot water, then giving them a hardcore sole workout, you also feel rejuvenated. Those among us who regularly have our feet pampered at foot massage centers around the country will no doubt be familiar with those large glossy color prints on walls showing in minute detail how each organ of the body is connected to a specific reflex point on each foot through an intricate web of nerves. These nerve centers are hypersensitive. Massaging specific reflex points on the foot that cause discomfort reveal much about our state of health and our internal organs.

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, the etymology of the word "massage" in English comes from the Latin massa (dough), from the Greek maza (barley-cake), perhaps related to massō (to knead). There is often the assumption that there are equivalences between languages, that we can match words, ideas, and idioms across languages. That is to say, we can render the English "massage" and the Chinese equivalents anmo and tuina as "the rubbing and kneading of muscles of the body with the hands to stimulate and rejuvenate the body." But the differences are very much in the hand techniques.

Textbooks on Chinese massage generally list between 30 and 70 hand techniques known as shoufa. You could drown in an ocean of terminology, but explaining the literal meanings of these terms in English gives us at least a rudimentary idea of what is going on when a masseur kneads our joints and skin into some kind of pliable dough mix. One technique is called gunfa, literally "roll method/ technique," in which the back of the hand is rotated rapidly back and forth over the skin, often described as having one's skin "kneaded" by hand or with a rolling pin.

Anmo literally means "to press and rub," while tuina means "to push and grasp." The term anmo has a longer history in China, while the latter first appeared in texts on using massage to treat infants and young children during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). These compound words are broken down according to specific hand techniques. Zhu Ming, a Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine Professor explains: "In anmo, there is anfa [press technique] and mofa [rub technique]. Similarly, in tuina, there is tui [push technique] and nafa [grasp or hold technique]." All these methods use acupressure (a combination of acupuncture and pressure) to stimulate reflex points on the body to remove blockages or stagnant qi to increase the body's energy flow, reduce stress, and to promote health and harmony in the body.

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