Relax the Thai Way

Thai Massage Basics

By Rebecca Wilkowski

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/ Winter 2003.

Recent studies show consumers visit massage therapists 114 million times each year, spending $4 billion to $6 billion annually, thereby making massage one of the fastest-growing segments of holistic healthcare in America today. It can be found everywhere from day spas and chiropractic offices, to health clubs and employee break rooms. The massage explosion can be attributed partly to the growing population of tired and aging baby boomers, and partly to an increased awareness of the effects of stress and how massage can help.

There are many types of massage techniques available today — some newly created, others thousands of years old. Thai massage is one of the latter offerings.

Thai massage is an important component of a comprehensive, traditional system known as Thai medicine — a 2,500-year-old method of natural healing developed in the ancient kingdom of Siam, now modern Thailand. Traditional Thai medicine is composed of four major branches: Herbal medicine, food cures and nutrition, spiritual practices and the manual therapies of Thai massage, or nuad bo’rarn.

Examining the term nuad bo’rarn is helpful in understanding this type of bodywork. The Thai word “nuad” means to touch with the intention of imparting healing. The word “bo’rarn,” derived from the Sanskrit language, means something that is ancient, sacred and revered. Clearly, the intention is to describe something that encompasses a Western notion of massage, but extends far beyond a series of techniques applied to the surface of the body.

Influenced by the rich, ancient traditions of India and China, Thai medicine’s development and history are woven into the fabric of the spiritual tenets of Buddhism. Thai medicine was transmitted orally from teacher to student in the same way the treasured texts, or Sutras, of Buddhism were transmitted. Historically, the practitioners of the medicine were Therevada Buddhist monks who practiced their healing at the monasteries, or wats.

A key aspect of Buddhist philosophy that is expressed through Thai massage is the concept of metta. Translated as “loving kindness,” metta is a core component of daily life for each individual seeking awareness on the path described by the Buddha. The practice of Thai massage and other healing work is understood to be a practical application of metta.

Traditional Thai massage is based on an energetic paradigm of the human body and mind. Energy is thought to travel on pathways, called sen, throughout the body. Specific points of energy on these pathways are called nadis. Energy freely along these pathways as it blends accupressure and stretching, and facilitates balance and health.

Thai massage is an interactive therapy involving the gentle stretching of muscles with pressure from a practitioner’s palms, thumbs and feet. The recipient will usually wear loose-fitting clothing while lying on a cotton mat on the floor. No oils or lotions are used during the 90-minute session. In Thailand, it is not uncommon for sessions to last up to three hours.

In addition to stretching, Thai massage also emphasizes abdominal procedures called hara. These strokes are light, but deep. They’re often performed in clock-wise circles working from the outer to inner abdomen, ending at the navel. In Thai medical theory, all the major energy pathways of the body have their origins here. It is believed that the health and vitality of the eyes, ears, nose and mouth are dependent on the health of the abdominal organs and the unobstructed flow of bio-energy through and away from the abdomen.

Whereas most Western massage instruction begins with technical procedures and specific anatomical information, Thai massage instruction begins with the practitioner learning to work in a concentrated and meditative state of mind, fully present in each moment. It is believed this level of consciousness can then be imparted to the recipient through the practitioner’s touch.

The techniques of Thai massage are applied very slowly. It is impossible to work too slowly as long as there is some movement. The slowness of the practice facilitates the tendency toward mindfulness. Because many of the techniques require heightened flexibility of both the practitioner and recipient, the slowness significantly diminishes the chance for injury. With the practitioner working in such a way, she immediately becomes acutely aware of resistance and any discomfort for the client and is able to stop or amend the procedure before injury occurs.

Proper body mechanics are key in the application of Thai massage. Often referred to as “assisted yoga,” many aspects of a Thai session resemble those of yoga postures. While anyone can receive Thai massage, certain procedures should be eliminated if they are not appropriate for the recipient (i.e., certain stretches of the back and legs would be avoided for individuals with lumbar disc problems).

Thai massage has been utilized for centuries as an important healing tool in the treatment of a wide variety of ailments such as musculoskeletal problems, internal medical problems, neurological complaints and emotional distress. Its benefits include structural alignment, increased flexibility, and decreased muscular and joint tension. Even for a novice, Thai massage can provide a good opportunity to achieve a state of deep mental and emotional equanimity, profound stress relief and moments of sweet bliss.