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Updated: Dec 6, 2021

I often call what I do “bodywork” rather than “massage,” mainly because the training I have is rather niche, the tools I work with are a little out-of-the-box, and my primary focus is on resolving specific health complaints. That being said, it is not easy to describe exactly what is different between massage and bodywork, and many practitioners who call themselves massage therapists also do bodywork. Many bodyworkers also do massage. A better way of comparing massage and bodywork is to clarify some aspects that normally distinguish the massage and bodywork cultures.

Amongst the general population, “massage therapy” is a much more widely used and understood term, and massage exists in a more prevalent and standardized educational form compared to bodywork. There are a number of established trade schools across the United States that teach a broad foundational curriculum for gaining skill and competency in manipulating soft tissue – either to achieve a therapeutic outcome or to just to make someone feel better – and these schools are where the majority of folks who work on soft tissue (and usually call themselves “massage therapists”) emanate from. In the State of Wisconsin, most graduates of these schools need to pass a licensing exam that confirms they have achieved a minimum understanding of anatomy, physiology and kinesiology of the body, amongst other things, in order to perform skilled touch therapy. In the arena of massage therapy, it is common for practitioners to work with a menu of styles (Swedish, deep tissue, sports, etc), and the client’s preference for a specific style of touch usually becomes the focal point of the work delivered.

Practitioners who call themselves “bodyworkers” usually come into practice from more obscure, oral traditions of training that extend from a lineage of practitioners whose life work specialized in a specific system or methodology of treating and/or healing the body through manual or energetic means. While the style of touch is important in bodywork as well, there is less emphasis on touching to create a pleasing effect for the client and more emphasis on the methodology as the means to achieving a specific therapeutic goal, such as a state of “no pain” or trauma release. These lesser known bodywork systems usually teach an approach that goes beyond just working with soft tissue and structure, but considers the emotional and energetic aspects of the person being worked on as well. Most of these methods teach a more intuitive way of working with the body that does not always follow an A-B-C logic and instead develops the practitioner’s confidence to follow instinct on where, when and how to touch. Some of these bodywork modalities are part of larger systems of understanding human health and functioning, like Chinese medicine and yoga. Some examples of bodywork include: tui na, shiatsu, reiki, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, craniosacral and myofascial release. Practitioners who do exclusively one or more of these forms of bodywork are exempt from needing a license to practice in the State of Wisconsin, although many do go to school to become licensed massage therapists in states with licensure requirements.

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