Massage & relaxation guide: It's so relaxing, how can it be doing us good?

Several years ago, my wife suggested I go for some massage treatment. I thought I had been dealing with my bad back with the utmost stoicism, but the flat we lived in had thin walls and the neighbours had apparently begun to pass comment about the continual screaming.

I started visiting a sports masseur in deepest south London. He practised in a strip-lit environment that had something of a police station interview room about it. During treatments he played music. Not tinkly, new age music but music he liked - most memorably, James Brown's 1986 album, Gravity.

While Living In America blared frantically from the speakers, my masseur kept up a ceaseless monologue, bitterly bemoaning the crumbling state of his marriage which, to hear him tell it, was like a cross between an Ingmar Bergman film and the battle of Stalingrad.

Afterwards I would reel out into the street, pummelled, 50 quid poorer, ears ringing with a unique but disconcerting soundtrack - tales of meals conducted in curdling silence and shattering rows in Ikea, punctuated by sundry grunts and cries of "good GOD!" and "HIT me!" from the Godfather of Soul.

For a few weeks, it was a close-run thing as to whether he would fix my back before he gave me a nervous breakdown. Worse, the situation was my own fault. I had deliberately eschewed any massage therapist who I felt smacked of inessential blandishments or new-age trappings. I didn't want to appear as if I was indulging myself in pampering or realign-my-chakras hippydom, so I went with a no-pain-no-gain guy who, when I mentioned aromatherapy, had reacted as if I'd suggested he put on a frock and enter the Alternative Miss World contest.

My behaviour might well have been evidence of the slightly peculiar attitude the British have towards massage. For years, it came with negative connotations attached. It was either something grubby - a euphemism for all kinds of nefarious sexual activity - or else it had an astringent and masochistic air about it, in which someone burly and foreign relentlessly pounded your puny British frame, possibly before setting about it with a bunch of twigs.

The first image of massage is long gone. Every town has a spa called something like Mirage or Tranquillity, and none of them seem to be the subject of innuendo suggesting that beneath the scented candles and apparently bottomless supply of ghastly pan-pipe CDs lurks a broiling stew of licentiousness.

But if the image of the burly foreigner beating the living daylights out of their hapless customer has vanished, there's still a sense that we refuse to believe anything relaxing and pleasant can possibly be doing us good.

We view massage either as a luxurious treat akin to getting a facial or a manicure, or a medical necessity like physiotherapy: we don't view it as something fundamental to our physical or mental wellbeing. There's a tendency to regard the people who do it regularly with mild suspicion: if they're not waving crystals, they're probably ladies who lunch filling their days with inessential pampering, or the kind of metrosexual narcissist who also goes in for having their bum waxed.

In truth, massage shouldn't be seen that way at all. The point of this guide is to promote it as an everyday thing, not a once-yearly luxury - something you can easily work into your daily routine.

The techniques on offer demonstrate that it's not an arcane and mystical art, but something straightforward, easy to learn and accessible to anyone. You don't have to be a sybarite or a narcissist. You don't have to realign your chakras. You don't even have to like being touched by other people: any haptephobes reading this will doubtless be delighted to learn that there are techniques for self-massage on offer. It could convert anyone to the pleasures of massage - even someone whose first experience was a deeply traumatic business involving a bloke with a crumbling marriage and James Brown on auto-repeat.

· Alexis Petridis is the Guardian's rock and pop music critic

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