By Leslie Gilbert Elman
I’d been told that if you want to know about Swedish massage, Hans Axelson is the man to ask. His massage school, Axelson’s Gymnastiska Institut, trains about seventy percent of the massage therapists in Sweden. That’s why I found myself navigating the snow-covered streets of Stockholm in January, seeking wisdom at the source.
Tall, lean, and youthful-looking, Axelson doesn’t have the robust look of an American fitness guru. He has something better: genuine conviction about his work. He opened his school in 1962 and he continues to champion massage in all forms. (Thanks in part to Axelson’s efforts, children in many Swedish preschools are taught to massage each other to foster calmness in the classroom.)
As we sipped cups of strong Swedish coffee, Axelson explained that Sweden has been associated with massage since a gentleman named Per Ling began teaching therapeutic massage in Stockholm in the early 1800s. His school became so famous that doctors came from overseas to hear what he had to say. They were the ones who dubbed Mr. Ling’s technique “Swedish massage.” However, the Swedes call it “classical massage,” and they never claimed they invented it.
Nevertheless, we have Mr. Ling to thank for making massage accessible to the modern world. He codified and systematized theories and techniques handed down by the ancients and made clear, scientifically, that massage has therapeutic and curative benefits. In effect, Axelson has taken up that mantle and his influence is felt virtually everywhere there is massage in Sweden.
Axelson’s Gymnastiska Institut graduates about 500 massage therapists a year. Many of them go to work for Swedish corporations, where they provide massages for employees. (Just imagine!) Others go to spas or into private practice. Some pursue specialties like canine and equine massage.
The Axelsons technique focuses on soft tissue and muscle. Students learn to detect problem areas by touch and to use stretching and selective pressure to relieve tension. If you’re game, you can let them practice on you. On selected days, Axelsons students offer 45- to 60-minute massages, under instructors’ supervision, for about $20.
Across the street from the school’s main building is Axelsons Shop, where there’s an excellent selection of massage oils, including the orange and peppermint-scented classical oil the school uses most.
I experienced my first “classical” massage at Sturebadet, an elegant day spa in central Stockholm. Originally opened as a public bath in 1885, Sturebadet burned to the ground 100 years later. It was rebuilt at a cost of almost $100 million and reopened in 1989. Now blond wood carved arches outline the area around the central pool. Decorative marble and tile work recalls Sturebadet’s history as a Turkish bath. And above it all, a vaulted glass ceiling provides soft, diffused lighting.
Sturebadet offers fitness facilities and classes including everything from cardio and step to Afro Power Dance and Nia, a mix of yoga, tai chi, martial arts, and dance. There’s also a healthy café and about fifty treatments on the menu. But I was there for an authentic Swedish massage, and it was better than I could have imagined.
Malin, an Axelsons graduate, led me to a treatment room and asked me to choose a massage oil from the selection of Kerstin Florian products that Sturebadet prefers. I picked the Energizing oil with eucalyptus because it was a gloomy, gray winter morning and I needed an eye-opener.
Working with care and knowledge, Malin found knots I didn’t know existed, but that affected my aching muscles at the core. Her massage strokes were insistent, not impatient. I never had one of those “Argh!” moments, even when she hit the beleaguered muscles in my forearms. “That’s computer arm,” she said, kneading firmly but gently. “Everyone has it.”
On the list of my best massages of all time, Malin ranks in the top three. Her hands were wise; demonstrating what Axelson meant by identifying problems by touch. Even the massage table was great, with armrests below the tabletop so my arms didn’t dangle uncomfortably when I lay on my stomach. I was beginning to understand the power of a country where massage is more than an indulgence; it’s a part of life considering that I was in the heart of Scandinavia, I didn’t expect my next massage encounter in Sweden to be so, well, Asian. But that’s what I found at Hasseludden, an extraordinary Japanese-style spa about thirty minutes outside Stockholm.
When I arrived, all the guests were carrying around their belongings in rattan baskets like a society of Japanese laundresses. They were also dressed in long, blue and white robes decorated with the Japanese characters for luck and happiness. “Where can I get one of those?” I wondered. Moments later, I was presented with my own yukata (robe), slippers, and a black bathing suit – all mine to keep. Then, I was directed to the Japanese baths where, in slow, ritual fashion, I washed and prepared for relaxation.
Hasseludden is all about training the mind. You won’t find aerobics and fitness cycles here. Instead, outdoor hot pools overlook the evergreen forests and the sea channel beyond. The indoor swimming pool has a surface as smooth as glass. And the exquisitely designed Japanese-style guest rooms are a haven for couples who nip away from the big city for a weekend of sensory reconnection. It’s all beautifully meditative.
Fittingly, I was scheduled for a Shiatsu massage. Peter, who I later learned was from Kenya, met me in the lounge as I was finishing a soothing cup of green tea. We went to a large room with four futons placed on the floor. I lay on my stomach, wrapped in my yukata. Another therapist and guest were starting at the same time, but it didn’t take me long to forget they were there. Silently and reverently, Peter performed the Shiatsu massage. His skill and his manner showed a dedication to the art of massage that I had never experienced before.
Later, I thought about how Peter left Kenya eight years ago at age 25 to study massage in Sweden. To me, he truly was a massage pilgrim. And I imagined he’d found a spiritual home in Sweden, where massage is a profession in every sense of the word.
Axelsons Gymnastiska Institut firstname.lastname@example.org 011 46 8 5454 5910
Axelsons Shop email@example.com 011 46 08 690 96 60
Sturebadet www.sturebadet.se 011 46 8 5450 1500
Hasseludden www.hasseludden.com 011 46 08 747 61 00