The Swedish Movement Cure

By Judi Calvert, LMP
October 18, 2010

The Swedish Movement Cure

By Judi Calvert, LMP
October 18, 2010

As we continue on our journey to learn about the origins of Swedish massage after founder Peter Ling passed away in 1839, we have several people to thank for continuing his work.

One of Ling's pupils, a professor Branting, was his immediate successor, taking up the post of director of the Royal Central Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm. He lived at the Institute for 40 years and was largely responsible for publishing Ling's theories.

During that time, many doctors studied at the Institute for the required two to three years, after which they brought Ling's teachings back to one of the 30 institutions worldwide that taught his series of curative movements. Many subsequently published the results of their education in medical papers, adding their own research to create a body of work that shared a common origin.

One such student, Hartvig Nissen, wrote a book called A Manual of Instruction for Giving Swedish Movement and Massage Treatment (1889) because he felt that "a great many physicians, as well as others, consider this treatment to be a humbug, but this is due partly to prejudice and partly to their entire ignorance of the system."

Another student, Dr. George H. Taylor of New York, wrote an Exposition of the Swedish Movement Cure (1860). Taylor felt that it was critical to study anatomy and physiology in order to have a good understanding of the principles of the so-called movement cure, and that this common ground would bring together physicians of differing schools of thought.

Taylor analyzed Ling's movements with the goal of creating a combination that would meet the needs of the human body. He believed that numerous applications of the movements should be promoted as "a science and an art."

So what were the distinctions between the movements, gymnastics and exercises that Ling taught and those taught by his followers? Ling originally defined his movements as "every exercise of which the direction and duration are determined." Each movement is then, according to him, "an idea expressed by the body."

He broke his movements down into two categories: active and passive. Active movements involved voluntary muscular contraction on the part of the patient, whereas passive movements were performed by the "operator," who would manipulate the patient's tissue through stroking, kneading, pressing or percussion.

Nissen, Taylor and Branting practiced both active and passive movements, but each put their own spin on Ling's teachings. For example, one of Branting's biggest achievements was creating "Sitting Gymnastic Exercises," which students could perform between lessons without leaving their seats. The governments of Sweden and Norway used these movements in their public schools. Wouldn't it be nice if schools did this today? Sitting all day is so hard on children.

Taylor, for his part, gave examples of passive movements that included clapping, knocking, stroking, kneading, pulling, shaking and vibration. He further divided these into "quieting" movements of rotation and friction and "purgative" movements of kneading and pressing. These are the strokes used today when therapists perform Swedish massage.

He taught other doctors that Ling's movements were "mechanical agencies directed either upon the whole system or a part of it, for the purpose of inducing determinate effects upon its vital actions, and generally having reference to its pathological state."

Doctors at the time performed these movements to help cure many kinds of disease. Indigestion, "nervousness" and pulmonary consumption were prominent physical problems of the time, and doctors would recommend exercises to their patients instead of the drugs prescribed today. But it was an uphill battle. The general public was more interested in the development of chemistry and the "curative value of drugs," and doctors treating patients with Ling's movements had to repeatedly remind them that they had been successfully used for centuries.

Two such groundbreaking doctors were Dutch physician Dr. Johan Mezger and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of the United States. Kellogg was one of the first doctors to train nurses in Ling's teachings at his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where he had more continuous experience with the massage movement cure than at any other center in the U.S.

Mezger systematized Ling's active and passive movements into the classifications that therapists use today: effleurage, petrissage, friction, tapotement and vibration.

We have all of these doctors to thank for continuing the great work of Peter Ling and the Swedish Movement Cure. All of these men were true pioneers, and it is my hope that the therapists of today will honor them and never forget what they have done for the advancement of massage.


  1. Nissen H. A Manual of Instruction for Giving Swedish Movement and Massage Treatment. London: F.A. Davis Publisher, 1889.
  2. Taylor GH. Exposition of the Swedish Movement Cure. New York, 1860.
  3. Ostrom KW. Massage and the Original Swedish Movements 1918.
  4. Kellog JH. The Art Of Massage 1895.