Most Swedes never hear the term “Swedish massage” until they reach American shores. And there’s a reason for that.
“Swedish massage” is not called “Swedish” in Sweden - back home the term for the same type of massage is “classic massage.” The problem with the term “Swedish” arises when many books on massage mention Per Henrik Ling as the father of Swedish Massage. He was not. History tells us, rather, that Ling was the father of Swedish Gymnastics, something quite different. Nevertheless the topic of Swedish Massage intrigued us, especially as we continue to see ads for Swedish Massage together with the Swedish flag, enough for us to investigate. Here is the real story.
The boy from Ljunga
Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839), was a Swedish gymnastic practitioner who was born in Ljunga, in the south of Sweden. Ling studied theology in Lund and Uppsala, traveled abroad for several years, and it was on this trip he met Ming, a Chinese martial artist and expert in Tui na, a Chinese hands-on-body treatment. Ming and Ling became fencing and exercise partners in Copenhagen. When Ling returned to Sweden, financial difficulties and joint injuries left him rheumatic. He remembered Ming’s teachings and took the time to heal himself by applying these pressing-pulling and squeezing exercises. It helped and Ling was soon appointed fencing master at Uppsala University. He attended classes on anatomy and physiology and went through the entire curriculum for medical training. He then elaborated a system of gymnastics, exercises and maneuvers, and divided them into four branches, (1) pedagogical, (2) medical, (3) military and (4) aesthetic. These carried out his theories and would demonstrate the required occidental scientific rigor to be integrated or approved by established medical practitioners. In 1813, after several attempts to interest the Swedish government, Ling at last obtained their co-operation, and the Royal Gymnastic Central Institute for the training of gymnastic instructors, was opened in Stockholm, with himself as principal. In 1835 Ling was elected a member of the Swedish Academy, and that same year he became a titular professor. He died in 1839.
Dr. Mezger and the birth of Swedish Massage
Neither Ling nor any of his close assistants left any detailed written accounts of their treatment, but it seems the origins and greatest influences in Ling’s work came from his friend Ming. It is Dutch doctor Johan Georg Mezger (1838-1909), who is generally credited as the man who adopted the French names to denote the basic strokes of massage as we know them today. For some reason he called it Swedish Massage, as a tribute perhaps to Ling, although Ling’s system at the time was known as the Swedish Movement System or the Swedish Gymnastic Movement System. In later writings about massage, the French terms were attributed – wrongly – to Ling because of the same mistake. Today Swedish massage refers to a variety of techniques designed to relax muscles by applying pressure to them against deeper muscles and bones, and rubbing them in the same direction as the flow of blood returning to the heart. The word massage, by the way, is French and means “friction of kneading.”