Flashback Friday: Massage

Is it better than sex and drugs?
Flashback Friday: Massage
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From the November, 1979 issue of High Times comes Ron Rosenbaum’s sweeping survey of the massage world.

First of all, let me assure you that High Times correspondent Glenn O’Brien is a man of good taste and judgment. So when he said what he said—however astonishing it sounded at first—I had to take it seriously.

We had been talking on the phone one day about the depressing shortage of good herb when Glenn began raving about a massage he’d gotten the day before at a Japanese health spa called Osaka.

“Was it really that good?” I asked him.

“The best,” he said. “I’m still feeling great from it. It’s not generally recognized,” he added, “but massage is better than sex and drugs.”

This startling statement immediately raised two important questions in my mind. First, was it true? And second, could I convince High Times to pay my expenses for an intensive inquiry into the question?

The answer to the second question is self-evident. As for the first—Is massage better than sex and drugs?—let’s begin to consider it.

But wait, I can hear some of you saying. Where does this guy get off thinking he is qualified to answer a question of such sensitivity and central importance?

Fair enough. Without wishing to appear immodest I can say I have some credentials as a connoisseur of sensual pleasures.

For instance, in New York City I have for some years been known as the foremost connoisseur of cheesecake, the ultimate sensual dessert ever since I stunned the city’s sophisticates by declaring uncategorically that the cheesecake served in a then obscure Brooklyn restaurant was in fact the best in the world. That lone judgment was subsequently ratified by a panel of no less than 12 so-called food experts in a blindfold tasting.

Nor have I been a stranger to the pleasures of massage. If I do not hold the world’s record for number of massages received by a single human, I certainly qualify for consideration in the number of massages begged for—a trait that has caused no little strain upon past relationships with women who were the recipients of constant wheedling, pleading, rub-my-back requests accompanied by all sorts of flimsy excuses such as “sore muscles,” “back sprains,” et cetera.

Without attempting to be modest I would say that just as I’ve been gifted with tastebuds of extraordinary sensitivity and acuity, so too have I been blessed with a finely tuned nervous system that has unique and exceptional abilities to appreciate the sensual subtleties of a good massage. That’s a line I’ve used, anyway.

Aside from the informal at-home massages, which have occasionally blurred over the borders into sex and drugs, I have, in my endless search for the perfect rub, researched a wide spectrum of formal paid massages from professionals.

Now, I would like to make clear for the record that these were massage massages, not massage-parlor “massages.” That is, they were rubs for sensual and healing purposes and not sexual stimulation. Among the highlights of my massage career have been:

—a Swedish-style rubdown by a 300-pound graying black masseur employed by an after-hours bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas

—an acupressure massage from an American disciple of Watari Ohashi, the Japanese shiatsu master

—a combination chiropractic and California-style massage from a faith-healing chiropractor in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

—a polarity pressure massage from a naturopathic healer in New York City

—an hour-long foot massage from a specialist in reflexology, or foot healing

—a facial and head massage in a barbershop in the Denver airport

—a full-scale Esalen-type massage from a California graduate of that school who warmed her scented almond oil with a candle flame before applying it

—a vigorous pounding at the hands of the Russian masseur at the now defunct Luxor Baths in New York City.

There is, you see, a big difference between a back rub and a massage. It’s the difference between someone handing you a puff of a joint and someone guiding you on a full-fledged LSD trip. Both feel good, of course, but massage is a systematic application of a particular principle of physical pleasure for a larger purpose than merely making you feel good. A systematic massage is a method of putting you into an altered state of consciousness, a trance that arises from the physical body but puts the consciousness into a healing trance as well. Massage, like sex and drugs, is a means of consciousness expansion.

As good as sex and drugs? Well, consider the fact that, almost without exception, wealthy and powerful people in Western society have a personal masseur or masseuse on hand at all times. Rockefeller, Nixon and Kissinger all shared the services of an osteopath named Dr. Kenneth Riland, who spent much of the Nixon administration traveling with them (to China, the Mideast, etc.) and giving them adjustments and massages. Everyone important in Hollywood and at the top levels of multinational corporate power has a masseuse or masseur, whether a live-in or someone from a health club or the house-call circuit. A powerful woman in New York publishing confesses that for years she refused to get out of bed in the morning until the great Watari Ohashi himself came to her apartment and gave one of his energizing and soothing acupressure massage treatments.

Why is this? What is it that they all know and you can’t afford?

Could it be that massage is not merely a luxury but, like sex and drugs, a necessity, perhaps an unrecognized necessity, something essential to human dignity, a constitutional right guaranteed by the pursuit-of-happiness clause? But a necessity that has hitherto been the private preserve of the privileged because of the prohibitive cost of regular professional massagers. But before we get into the question of whether society has a responsibility to insure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to such an essential of life (welfare massage parlors?), let us look further at the reasons why massage must be considered as central to the human condition as sex and drugs.

Massage Theory

Are you familiar with the recently developed “receptor” theory, the theoretical tool responsible for the immensely important discovery of endomorphins, the brain’s own self-generated opiates?

Scientists investigating the power of the addiction heroin creates discovered that the molecular structure of opiates permits them to lock into unique receptors on the surface of the cortex, which gives them direct access to the pain centers of the brain. Why were these receptors there on the brain in the first place? Not just waiting around for millions of years of evolution before junkies appeared on Times Square to shoot heroin into them. No, scientists reasoned, there must be an internally produced body chemical that fits into those receptors and has similar powers of pain abatement and euphoria as externally introduced opiates. With this clue they looked and found the endomorphins, miraculous substances far more powerful than heroin, manufactured within the brain and released in times of pain, fatigue and stress.

Now let’s apply the insights of receptor theory to the phenomenon of massage pleasure. By this logic the elaborate pleasure-response receptor apparatus is not there for fun, it’s there for function, and most likely a specific neurochemical function: massage pleasure produces a chemical change within the neural pathways that serves the survival of the organism. I would suggest that it is a healing function. While the endomorphins act to block pain, stress and fatigue, the massagozymes, or whatever chemicals are released in the pleasure pathways, serve to heal the ravages of stress and fatigue.

Stress is an internal chemical response to external threats; hormones and neurochemicals produced by stress prepare the body for adaptive reactions—fight, or flight from the threat. The problem for civilized man is that the by-products and reactions created by stress—tension, high-pitched nerves— persist long after the threat has disappeared, causing discomfort and damage to the body’s systems.

But pleasure too is a neurochemical phenomenon. We wouldn’t be able to feel pleasure were it not for the internal chemistry of the sensors within muscles. By systematically awakening and stimulating the pleasure response, flooding the system with pleasure-chemical by-products, fixing the receptors with benign rather than ravaging by-products, massage serves as a healing antidote to the ravages civilization wreaks on the soma and psyche of humans. Perhaps in time the actual pleasure chemical evoked by massage will be isolated and sold over the counter. Then massage will be a drug (although I doubt if the psychic component to touching could be replaced by a pill). Until then, let’s look at the various forms in which the state of massage bliss can be reached by hand (and foot).

Basically, all massages can be divided into three means to that end: muscle-pressure pleasure, nerve-pressure pleasure and skeletal-pressure pleasure.

Muscle-pressure massages can be divided into two groups—the traditional and the neo-California varieties. There is an important difference. Most traditional muscle massages grew out of gym and athletic culture. They usually followed vigorous workouts or steam baths and were designed to stimulate and reinvigorate tired, worked-out muscles. The techniques usually involved vigorous pounding and cool, astringent liniments or wintergreen-based oils designed to stimulate the circulation and bring blood to the surface of the skin. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, there are places known as “after-hours bathhouses” that open up at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. It’s where the good ole boys go after their Saturday-night binge to get in shape to take the family to Sunday-morning church services. You bathe in the reputedly medicinal mineral bath until you feel all the poisons drawn and sweated out of your organs, then you proceed to the massage room, where a 300-pound masseur who looks like a black sumo wrestler pounds the rest of your sins out of you on the massage table.

Before long the pounding and poking proceeds beyond pain to a feeling of well-being and stimulation, but there is still a bit of puritanical purgation involved. The same was true for the Russian-type massage I received at the now defunct Luxor Baths. Abbie Hoffman introduced me to the place after a phone phreaks’ convention. ‘‘It’s where the garment-center executives go after they see their mistresses and before they go home to the suburbs for the weekend,” he explained. There was an aromatic Russian-pine-oil steam bath followed by a vigorous pounding by a villainous-looking, muscle-bound masseur who reminded me of Oddjob in Goldfinger. This guy had steel fingers that jabbed muscles until I felt invigorated from the rigors of self-defense as much as anything. The paunchy wisecracking businessmen who lined up for these ministrations seemed to get into the pain of it—massage as penitence, if Abbie was right about their before and after activities.

Swedish massage, perhaps in keeping with the more peaceful and pleasure-oriented nature of its country of origin, is less bellicose than the Russian, Finnish and Turkish varieties. It’s more systematic, scientifically designed to replenish and reinvigorate muscles by stimulating surface and deep-blood circulation. It’s more health oriented than purely pleasure oriented but doesn’t have the macho need to prove it’s not pleasurable, like the other ordeals by massage. The Swedish system believes in deep stroking of the muscles rather than pounding, believes in harmonizing the impulses of the nerve, muscle and circulatory systems into integration. And while traditional macho massages concentrate on the back, the Swedish system incorporates the front, the head, the feet, the hands, the whole body. Still, the Swedish massages I’ve received were all at gyms or athletic clubs, and they all used mineral oil or wintergreen or some cooling lubricant for the rub.

Many of the muscle-stroking techniques used by practitioners of Swedish massage are to be found in the repertoire of neo-California techniques, but there are essential differences: the philosophy and the warm oil.

Beginning with the most important difference, warm oil is the key to the enjoyment of the neo-California muscle-pleasure massage.

Anointing the skin with warm oil before beginning allows the fingers and hands to escape the resistance of friction on the skin and penetrate to direct communication with the muscular sheath beneath the skin. If you’ve never been massaged with oil, you’ve never really been massaged; you’ve just had some back rubs. With the oil the fingers and hands are in effect massaging you at a whole level deeper than skin-deep. They are working inside the body rather than outside. The feeling of finger and hand gliding along the two long muscular sheaths that line the sides of the spine, for instance, is an electrical sensual delight so astonishingly pleasurable that most people can’t help moaning at each stroke.

Each stroke is a kind of sensual brushstroke that cumulatively paints, sculpts, articulates a whole new body of pleasure, lining the body with an intense neon glow of pleasure that fits like a glove. It is in every sense of the word consciousness expansion. Internal consciousness expansion.

As for the philosophy of this pleasure aesthetic, the neo-Californians reject the athletic, ascetic, almost puritanical mystique that surrounds the Swedish techniques they use and endow them with shameless sensuality. Pleasure is not considered a side effect of a basically medical-health procedure, but pleasure itself is medicinal—and even if it weren’t, it’s still not bad by itself.

It was during a warm-oil massage in the private home of an attractive young California masseuse that I was able to define the difference between sensuality and sexuality.

It was a situation that might in another context—in a massage parlor, for instance—seem to have sexual implications. I was lying unclothed in a dimly lit warm room having my body oiled and stroked by an attractive young woman. And yet the pure muscle pleasure was so great, so absorbing, so satisfying, that if I had been offered the choice, I would not have wanted the massage to stop for sex. I would not have wanted the massage to stop for anything. Sexual pleasure is, as the jargon calls it, goal oriented—it seeks, builds up to a climax, after which desire is diminished for a time. Massage pleasure on the other hand seems to be limitless in its capacity to continue to satisfy; it does not need to build, complete and renew itself; it is complete in itself at every moment. In addition, massage pleasure is totally self-serving. Sexual pleasure requires in most cases at least a minimal attentiveness to another person, while with massage the pure pleasure of your own being is undistracted by concern for the pleasure of others. In this particular massage situation I realized that whatever fantasies might flirt through my brain, there would be no temptation to act upon them. Sex would interrupt the massage.

Now let’s talk about nerve-pressure pleasure. Surprisingly to many initiates, Oriental massage in its philosophy makes no pretense about sensuality. Also surprisingly, considering the popular notion of Eastern philosophy (cosmic flow and all that), Oriental massage does not involve flowing strokes. Shiatsu massage, for instance, is a system of pinpoint pressure on specific points applied with Western precision.

Western massage applies flowing strokes to a static body. Oriental massage conceives of the real body as an ethereal aura of flowing energy activated by pressure at static points.

Let me tell you about my shiatsu experiences. It was at the dojo of Watari Ohashi, the shiatsu master first responsible for translating the highly complex system of 190 pressure points (or tsubos) into a widely available American instructional book, that I was led into a small square room by a young American disciple of the master and asked to remove all but my underwear (the Japanese seem to be more prudish than the Californians about totally naked massages, so make sure to wear a pair when you go for your shiatsu treatment) and to lie down on one of those crunchy tatami mats.

There was no oil applied. There was no rubbing, squeezing, stroking. There was only one kind of touch used: strong, direct, perpendicular pressure applied to a point on the body with the ball of the thumb.

It was not at all what I expected. In the first place, it was only intermittently pleasurable. The Oriental system of pressure points does include some of the what might be called “joy buzzer” pleasure-center points on the body, and when the methodical thumb reaches such a point it can be memorable. But however much you might want it to, the thumb never lingers on these or any points for the purpose of pleasure. It probes deeply into the point—one, two or three times, for periods of seven to ten seconds each—and then moves on to the next point, which may not feel so good. In fact some of these points can be genuinely painful, and the shiatsu practitioner tended to linger on these rather than the pleasurable ones. That’s because, in shiatsu, pain at a specific point can be a signal that one of the “meridians” of energy flow from a particular organ or system might be blocked at that point, and deep and painful pressure may be necessary to break up the blockage and restore the free flow.

Sometimes there is an unusual mixture of pleasure and pain unique to the shiatsu experience. When the thumb pressure is deep and strong enough it may go through a muscle painfully at first but then reach a deeper well of powerful pleasure responses beneath the muscle, on the underside of the muscle, where it’s joined to the skeleton. You have the strange and indescribable feeling at those times of sensing that underside of the muscle for the first time and of actually feeling your body, at points, from the inside out.

The whole thing took an hour as the shiatsu practitioner probed points along each of the 12 meridians, sometimes following a line down the back or across the calf in sequence, sometimes moving from one point on, say, the knee, where blockage had been sensed, to another distant point on the same or related meridian way over on the opposite elbow. Each pressure sequence was meant to be diagnostic, curative and stimulating. After getting used to the intermittent pain, I began to enjoy the sense of thoroughness and balance, but it was by no means a hedonistic experience during the actual treatment. Only when I got up and got dressed and ready to leave did I begin to realize the transformation in my condition.

An incredible sense of physical wellbeing unlike anything I’d experienced before. Serene. Deeply serene. Balanced, centered so thoroughly it was only then I was aware of how unbalanced and off-center I’d been throughout my previous existence on earth. It was for me a genuinely unearthly sensation. Ethereal pleasure at its best, more “real” than the mystical calm of a deep mescaline meditation.

The foot massage. The foot itself is one of the last refuges of puritanical shame in American culture. While most Americans will not show the slightest embarrassment at allowing anyone to do anything to their sexual organs these days, for some reason there still is some embarrassment involved in admitting to and indulging in the sensuality of the foot.

Okay, it does seem a bit incongruous that that most workmanlike drudge of all body parts can also be one of the most sensually sybaritic, but it is a fact of physiology that the concentration of nerve endings on the foot is very high. And it is a fact of sensuous apprehension that there are more diverse and extraordinary pleasure responses available from pressing, rubbing, stroking and tickling the foot than from any other nonsexual organ. (Although some foot-massage fanciers claim that the pleasure they get is so intense it is sexual.) In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, characters introduce themselves by lying down and pressing the soles of their feet together, thus, they say, mingling their souls in a profound way. There is much truth in this fantasy, try it, and you’ll understand the special physical and psychical communion that foot pressure can induce. Better still, go to an expert and get yourself a full-scale foot massage, as I did.

I found this out from a foot masseuse named Batja Kates. In deference to the lingering puritanical notions that cling to our sensibilities about the foot, I will not describe the detailed squeezing, pinching, knuckling, stroking ministrations she performed, nor will I attempt to express the inutterably exquisite pleasures that accompanied these actions. Just to give you an idea of the intensity possible I will say that the sensations aroused were as close to a psychedelic experience as any nondrug-induced pleasure has been for me. It might not have been better than sex, but in the terms of the O’Brien scale it’s at least as good as drugs.

And now that we are on the subject of feet and the O’Brien sex-and-drugs equivalency theory, the time has come to discuss the massage experience offered at Osaka, the Japanese health resort that was the source of his rapture.

Ever since I’d moved to New York City I’d heard about places where, for a fee, Japanese women would massage your body by walking on it with their bare feet. The people who’d had the experience talked about it with a certain unmistakable look of bliss on their faces, but I was never sure whether it was some kind of kinky diversion or a genuine massage experience. Well now I know, because they did it to me at Osaka.

The first half of the massage doesn’t prepare you for what’s to come, although it’s quite exciting in itself. First there’s a sauna and shower, following which a dignified Japanese woman in her mid 30s leads you to a room with a tatami mat. It was not until later that I noticed the metal bar hanging from the ceiling above the mat.

The massage that follows actually falls into two distinct parts, each a unique experience. The first half was what I’d call an ideal synthesis of Eastern and Western techniques, combined for the purpose of reaching a level neither alone can offer. The woman made use of the deep, long, muscle-contour strokes of the Western repertoire and punctuated them, so to speak, with single-point thumb pressure at key acupressure points. Frequently the long strokes were not done in the most sensual possible fashion but in the most penetrating style, using the knuckles to drive down and ride along the skeletal ridges beneath the muscle. While California massage paints a muscle-pleasure body with lush sensuous strokes, and Oriental acupressure does a kind of connect-the-dots pointillist portrait of nerve pleasure centers, this Osaka eclectic method, to continue the artistic metaphor, was less a painting than a sculpture of the structure of the body through deep skeletal-pressure pleasure.

It was a revelation to feel how many nooks and crannies of sensual pleasure lurk along the bony outlines of the tibia and femur. The method was particularly good for revealing the subtle seats of pleasure latent in the joints and connections between skeletal parts—the shoulder capsule, elbow, ankle and knee all can be knuckled and probed by knowledgeable hands to discourse volumes of pleasure and at the same time articulate sensually a whole new apprehension of the way we fit together and move at the most basic level. It was like learning to feel your body from the inside out, starting from the very deepest structural level.

Just as I was savoring my newfound consciousness of myself, the dignified Japanese woman who was working on me leaped into the air above me, caught hold of the metal bar suspended from the ceiling and—partially hanging from it—began walking on my back.

It was strange but not as strange as it sounds. It was all in the way she walked. Not tromp tromp crunch crunch with all the weight of each foot coming down flat on the spine—even though she weighed not much more than a hundred pounds, it would have been painful or dangerous that way.

Instead, what she did was something extraordinarily skillful, almost a dance. Holding onto the ceiling bar with both hands, she would suspend her weight from up there, drop it down on one foot with toes clenched, dig the front part of the foot into my back almost as if stepping down on it, allowing the weight to press through the muscles to the skeleton, but at the last moment lifting her weight and shifting it up to the bar and down to the other foot with another clench step. Each time there was a quick buildup of pure pleasure, then pure pressure to the point where it felt like it was going to be too much, and then sudden release as another step down the back was taken. And in the short space of time each foot made contact with the back, the toes would probe and dig for the skeletal pleasure to be found beneath the musculature, once again defining the body structure not just along the back but up and down the thighs and calves, even the soles of the feet, leaving footprints of pleasure everywhere she stepped. In doing so she demonstrated that the foot was not only an underrated receptor of pleasure but an incredibly skillful and precise instrument of giving pleasure.

The foot treatment lasted nearly a quarter hour and built to a nearly crushing crescendo. As she began her final runs up and down the side of my spine, I felt she was letting more and more weight into her steps until it began to verge into painful pressure. I began to tense up and worry that my ribs would be cracked. I felt my brain being mashed into my spinal column, but she seemed to know exactly what she was doing, so I tried to treat my fears as an LSD panic and just relax and go with it, as they say. In fact, what seemed to be happening was trippy in an interesting way: my superficial consciousness was being trampled back down into my body through my spinal cord; I was for a time experiencing the kind of “ego death” and union of consciousness with the body that psychedelics can give. It wasn’t exactly consciousness expansion—you might call it consciousness compression, in fact—but some of the effects were similar.

When it was over I noted that I didn’t feel the same serene harmony I’d felt after my shiatsu treatment. I felt less ethereally blissful than pleasurably physical — almost exhausted with pleasure, as if all the neurochemical pleasure enzymes had been wrung out of my muscles, leaving me drained and happy, as if I had just come from some combination of ordeal and orgy. Worth the trip.

Is it better than sex and drugs? At its best I’d say massage pleasure can be equal to the former, better than the latter, though probably no match for the peak combinations of the two. Nevertheless it is my feeling that some combination of all three (if not at the same time, then in various combinations) is essential to health and human dignity. Write your congressman.

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