Mind-Body Research and Massage

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, pioneer in mind-body researchMind-body healing has become widely accepted in public awareness! (Even if it hasn’t made it to your doctor’s office yet.) That is largely due to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research. Early in his career, he studied Zen Buddhist meditation and Hatha Yoga. He then adapted them to a scientific context for research. He has been publishing books since 1991.1 He is a Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS).

In 1979, Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMMS. Then, after publishing many papers and two popular books, in 1995 he founded the Center for Mindfulness. UMMS offers classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the 8 week course, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).3 Over 20,000 patients have taken those classes. Patients report improvement in stress, illness, and anxiety. They learned to find self-compassion, emotional balance and mental peace. They decreased their need for pain medications, and increased their coping skills.4 Doctors note improved brain function and immune function.

Those classes are not limited to Massachusetts. They have been taught at over 720 medical centers, hospitals, workplaces, and health clinics around the world. In fact, Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have released the study of mind-body outcomes from the dubious realms of doubt and disdain. As Bob Stahl of UMM Center writes, “Mindfulness has joined the mainstream in the West.”

mind body elements always present in massageHow does mind-body relate to massage?

This acceptance of mind-body practices has planted the seed for another way to understand how massage benefits people. Apparently, we don’t just release muscle tension (see Chronic Pain, Mindful Massage). We also affect the nervous system and brain. David Lauterstein, massage educator and author of The Deep Massage Book says informed touch can reach the core of a person’s being. Research has shown a synergistic effect between mind and body, between our thoughts, emotions, and our health.6

Touch Research Institute

The Touch Research Institute of Miami has conducted over a hundred studies on massage therapy since 1992. Fifty of these have been since 2010! They have shown massage reduces pain, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, they show massage improves relaxation, sleep, immune, and cognitive function. The studies cover various health conditions, and range from pre-term infants to the elderly. Many of these studies reflect the mind-body component of the therapeutic relationship, without identifying them explicitly. TRI and other massage research has been a key component of increasing use of massage by the public for purposes of healing.

Mindfulness in the Patient/Practioner Relationship

Heal Thy Self bookSaki Santorelli is a colleague of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s at U of Mass Medical School, and encourages mindfulness by medical doctors. In his view, relationship is a primary, not secondary influence in healing outcomes. In Heal Thyself: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine, he asks practitioners to look within for what needs healing, and see how that is mirrored by clients.

Practitioner self-awareness as a component of mindful relationship with clients is problematic for research. Relationship is key to what takes place in the most profound moments of therapy–whether talk therapy or bodywork. Research that meets high standards of evidence-based practice often can be sterile, and not an accurate reflection of the benefits from real-world client-practitioner relationships. Massage involves us as whole human beings, both as giver and receiver.

Where is this going?

More than 70% of U. S. doctor visits to primary care physicians involve stress-related factors. Stress-related conditions respond well to mindfulness practices. Also to massage.6 Massage therapy visits total over 115 million in 2012 in the U.S. Other use of integrative medicine with mind-body components is also growing.7 There is greater recognition that we create health problems by how we think or worry. And, on the horizon, is a growing acceptance that we can reverse them by changing how we use our minds, and nurture healthy relationships with our bodies.

Massage and mindfulness are not on the fringe anymore. But can massage and mind-body research join forces for more powerful and meaningful outcomes in our practices? Research will lead the way. Please feel to call with any questions 503-708-2911.


1. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s first book has been revised: Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. He has also written, co-authored or edited: Wherever You Go, There You Are, and other books on mindfulness; The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation; Everyday Blessings, the Inner Work of Mindful Parenting
2. Wikipedia on Jon Kabat-Zinn
6. Massage Today: Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy Helps Treat Substance Abuse
7. In 2006, 19.2% of American adults and 4.3% of children aged 17 and younger had used at least one CAM mindbody therapy