Thai massage is rooted in Shamanism, Ayurveda, Hatha Yoga, and Chinese medicine. 2500 years ago the indigenous practices included Yam Keng, which is a type of massage where the practitioner would put her/his feet in a flame and use their feet to spread oil on the receiver’s body. From about 200bc-200ce Theravada Buddhism came into practice and stories of Jivaka (the father of Thai medicine and the celebrated healer of Siddhartha) circulated. Ayurveda came into existence 300ce until 500ce, which incorporated the four elements: wind, fire, water, and earth. The elements are still fundamental to modern day Thai massage. From 600-1200ce Hatha Yoga came to Thailand, which focuses on the subtle energies within the body (the chakras) and the use of poses to affect those energies. Finally Chinese medicine came into light for the Thai around 700ce. Chinese medicine focuses on the pathways of energy, or the meridians. All of these different modalities influenced the Thai’s own understanding of medicine, but ultimately Thai medicine is autonomous. Thai massage as practiced today was officially standardized in the 1960’s.
Thai massage is one of the aspects of Thai medicine, which is a part of the external or energy branch. The others include the internal, which is treated by herbs and diet; and the spiritual branch, which is focused on Buddhism and Shamanism. The internal branch is the objective, measurable part of Thai medicine because it is associated with the physical body. The spiritual branch is subjective because it’s an individual perception. The external or energy branch connects the internal and spiritual. So, if one of the branches is out of balance, all are out of balance. The Thai believe in treating all three branches in order to heal a person.
Each branch of Thai medicine has a doctor or someone who is proficient in that branch. So, the external branch has the Mo Boran who is a traditional Thai doctor. He/she will tell the patient what herbs to take, what to eat, and inspects the body. Then the patient is referred to either a Buddhist Monk or a Shaman. The patient will see a Monk for an objective perspective. For example, if the patient is having a hard time quieting his mind for sleep the Monk may recommend meditation. A Shaman would be referred if the patient is thought to have a an upset spirit; the Shaman will channel the spirit and cast it out. Finally the patient will see a doctor of Thai massage to keep the energy moving and work through any pain to release stuck energy. The Thai hospital, where this practice takes place, is a common place the Thai go when they are sick because the Thai look at most ailments as “lifestyle” and really only use Western medicine for emergency care and infectious disease. Other times they believe symptoms from things like cancer to less serious ailments, like colds, are from lifestyle ailments. A traditional Thai hospital is used daily until the person recovers. This isn’t to say drop all of your doctors and only go about healthcare the way the Thai people do, but this is an interesting perspective and one that I believe should be examined. There are plenty of links to cancer not being 100% genetic and actually being environmental and even related to diet. There is plenty of research linking Type-2 diabetes to diet, exercise, and so on. So, maybe if we, as westerners, were given more control over our health we might be healthier and even happier.
Thai massage is a great way to facilitate self-healing because of its use of acupressure, compression, joint mobilization, and stretching; it gets one’s energy flowing. So many of us have stuck energy within our bodies that it causes pain, tension, and even illness. For example, a client comes in saying he has headaches, I automatically start to ask what his daily life looks like–how much water is he drinking per day, is he eating headache-inducing foods (red dye #40, sugar, caffeine), where else does he feel tension (neck, shoulders, pecs, back), what are sleep patterns like, what is activity level like? Then, once I have a good idea of his lifestyle I can get him on the mat and focus on those areas to release that stuck energy.
Sometimes for a client, Thai massage can feel very intense. Thai massage isn’t one for relaxation, it’s the type of massage people get when they want to really feel results within a day or two of receiving the massage. This isn’t to say Swedish or Western massage is “worse” or “bad,” rather Western massage serves a different purpose (this is a topic for next week). Thai massage opens up the body and helps with healing, especially when used along with diet, exercise, meditation, and overall well-being. I’ve had many clients come in feeling a lot of pain in their backs but then after an hour to an hour and a half they leave virtually pain free. Of course, this is their body healing. A massage therapist is simply the facilitator in using Thai massage (and even Western massage) to move energy and open up cells, muscles, etc. Thai massage along with good diet and spiritual practice (be it meditation, religion, or simply connecting to yourself) gives a person power over their own health and works to heal one’s body. Thai massage can be used weekly or monthly to help heal the body, and then maintain that good-flowing energy to avoid pain and tension.