Background research

Over the past couple of years, I have been doing research on manual therapy throughout time and cultures. Presently, the most common forms of manual therapy we know in the West are physiotherapy, massage, osteopathy, and chiropractic. But there are many more forms being used currently in other countries, and there have been many different types since Man started wanting to treat disease.

In Europe, the first traces of manual therapy is found in Ancient Greece. Sea water was used for treating disease, by being warmed at different temperatures, applied to specific parts of body and accompanied with massage and drainage techniques. This is known as “thalassotherapy” still in use today.
In Ancient Rome, “balneum” were collective bathrooms for all social backgrounds. Around 25AC, larger complexes were developed: “thermum” with free sports facilities (weights!), large baths of carying temperatures, and massage tables. These massages were done using essential oils or lentil flour for the poorer. All these were closed when rising catholicism disagreed with the display of flesh.

These roman baths were inspired by the Hammams found in the Middle East. It was only by 600 AC that prophet Mohammed encouraged a religious signification of purification and Hammams were built in or near mosques. Massages were used, and steam rooms were developed. This practice of hamman followed the expansion of Islam, and there are still many similar facilities throughout North Africa, and all the way to China and North of the Indian peninsula. Even though Hammams were linked with the mosques, there were no restrictions on who could enter, and all religions were welcome.

Around the same period, in Scandinavia, sauna were thriving. Healers used saunas before, during or after massages. They also used herbs and incantations to heal the sick.

Asia has altogether different concepts of health and disease, and water/bathing is not used commonly. However there is a long tradition of hands on treatment: the principles of Asian Medicine are complicated, and I don’t have the pretention of knowing them all, but I can quickly run through the basic idea.

Health is based on the balance of body, mind and spirit. Each component is equally important to the general well-being of individuals, so doctors are concerned with all three.
The main principle is the free flow of energy. Energies freely circulate in the world, the animal kingdom and humans. This energy flows within us, and if it is balanced in all its aspect, the being is healthy and happy. However if the energy is blocked within us, or if there is an imblance, disease will develop.

In Chinese medicine, Energy (divided in Yin and Yang, the opposites) flows through meridians, of which there are many within the body; whereas Ayurvedic philosophy (India) believes energy is concentrated within the chakras, which are aligned on a vertical axis running straight through the body. These chakras can actually be linked to the nervous system, and its neurological plexi (sympathetic)

One of the application of Chinese Medicine, or Xi Gong, is Tai Chi Chuan. A choreography of movement made to release energy blocages, reinstate the yin-yang balance and therefore increse quality of life. Acupunture is another way of releasing these blocages.
Ayurveda’s most know application is Yoga. It is an integral part of Indian Medicine, as its practice stimulates Energy and health similarly to Tai Chi, even though in a very different way.

Thaïland, and its world famous Thaï massage (for the wrong reasons!), is based on Ayurveda, but was developed to help workers recover after days spent in rice fields. Massage is traditionally a family affair: people massage each other daily, before or after work for warming up or cooling down muscles.

Australia has a different story alltogether: Aboriginals are said to have arrived on the red continent about 60 000 years ago. Its people are divided in clans, which each have their medicinal particularities, especially since different climates and eco-systems influence medicine: by the disease that may develop, and the plants that are available for treatment.

As an example, I will describe the health system in the Walpiri communities (Northen Territory) as described by Dr Dayakan Devanesen on the Internal Symposium of traditional medicine in 2000.

Aboriginal culture is based on preventitive medicine, based on various basic principles including healthy eating, respect of others, respect of sacred rituals and a good psychological equilibrium. When someone is ill, they can chose to use one of the three branches of medicine. If that is unsuccesful, they will try one of the other two.
The first branch of Walpiri medicine is Ngangkayi, which is practised solely by men. They are healers, who use incantations or chants, massages and manipulations.
The second branch is Yawulyu, practised only by women, using chants and drawings, as well as massages using vegetal oils. This branch may also help with labour during birth.
The third branch is the use of medicinal plants practised by both genders.

Documentation on manual therapy and traditional medicine is hard to come by, and other countries hardly have any information on those topics. Without being able to find reliable evidence or bibliographical reference, some link reflexology (foot massage to treat disease) to the Incas of South America, Aromatherapy to Ancient Egypt. More research is needed to find out more specific information! (There is a hint as to what I’d like to do as part of my “Big Project”, which actually start with Australasia, but there is so much to research in America and Africa too! And when the money or petrol runs out (whichever comes first), I’ll focus on ancient European cultures)

In all cultures, in every country and throughout time, there are traces of manual therapy. Whether practised professionally or not, within all social backgrounds, and at all ages. Unfortunately, modern Westerners have lost this tradition. But the need for manual therapy is growing once again, as we see with the increasing popularity of osteopathy, chiropractice, massages and other “alternative” treatments!
So I will help the people of the West fulfill this need by bringing knowledge from Australasia back with me…

Tai Chi Chuan in China



2 responses to “Background research

  1. Pingback: The search for Bush Medicine… Port Keats « In search of traditional medicine in Australasia

  2. Korina

    would you happen to have any information on the image of the pottery artefact ?

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