By Bob Haddad
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2004.
The healing art known as Nuad Boran (meaning “ancient massage”) began to evolve more than 2,000 years ago in present-day Thailand. What is today called Thai massage or Thai yoga massage is an ancient healing system combining acupressure, energy balancing techniques, Indian ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures.
The founding father of Nuad Boran is an ayurvedic doctor named Jivaka Kumar Bhacca, who is revered to this day throughout Thailand as the “father of medicine.” Born in India during the time of the Buddha, he is mentioned in a variety of ancient documents for his extraordinary medical skills, for his knowledge of herbal medicine, and for having treated important people of his day, including the Buddha himself.
Traditions in Thailand were passed down orally among the common people, but the royal court kept ancient reference texts on the subject of Nuad Boran. Sadly, most of these were lost when Burmese invaders destroyed the old capital of Ayuthaya in 1767. Remaining fragments of the texts, however, were commissioned to be redrawn as stone etchings by King Rama III in 1832. Today, more than 60 such epigraphs showing treatment points and energy lines are on public display at the famous Wat Pho temple complex in Bangkok.
The theoretical basis for traditional Thai healing is rooted in the belief that all forms of life are sustained by a vital force (lom) that is carried along invisible energy pathways (sen) running through our bodies. This energy force is extracted from air, water, and food, and it is believed that disease and dysfunction come about when energy becomes blocked along these pathways. Accordingly, Thai massage’s intent is to free this trapped energy, stimulate the natural flow of life force, and maintain a general balance of wellness.
Through assisted yoga, the body is able to be moved in ways that are difficult to attain through normal exercise and individual practice. Relaxed, deep breathing helps to bring about proper balance and a peaceful state of mind. The practice of Thai yoga massage is also a spiritual discipline since it incorporates the Buddhist principles of mindfulness (breath awareness) and loving kindness (focused compassion). The benefits of all these techniques, when shared by practitioner and client, help to bring the treatment session to a focused and profound level. The result of a full-body Thai session is often an exciting and powerful mind/body experience, bringing both the recipient and the practitioner to greater states of physical and mental well-being.
Despite its popular name, Thai massage is not massage as it is known in the West. Sessions are carried out on a floor mat in comfortable, loose clothing, and no oils or lotions are used. There is constant body contact between the practitioner and client, but instead of rubbing on muscles, the body is slowly and firmly moved and compressed to relieve tension and to clear energy blockages. The practitioner uses thumbs, palms, hands, elbows, knees, forearms, feet, and toes to create a dance of movements on the body of his client. In this process, blockages are freed, internal organs are toned, and energy is balanced.
Traditional massage in ancient Siam was carried out in village society and also in the royal court. While masseurs in the royal courts were only allowed to use their hands, villagers also used feet, elbows, knees, and forearms to manipulate the bodies of their recipients. In Thailand today, most massage practitioners utilize multiple body parts to achieve the desired effect. The Southern style, with its renowned learning center at Wat Pho in Bangkok, is characterized by point pressure along the energy lines and a deep “plucking” or “flicking” with the thumbs and fingers in order to stimulate energy flow. In Northern-style Thai massage, practiced in and around Chiang Mai, the therapist uses gradual pressure on the energy lines, gentle rocking movements, and deep stretching postures.
Because of its closeness to yoga, and the calming, restorative effect it brings about, the Northern style is often favored by Westerners, and it is this style that has been enjoying increased popularity around the world in recent years.
The Value of Studying in Thailand
Many would argue there can be no real substitute for learning an indigenous practice in its place of provenance. Accordingly, the overall result of studying Thai massage in Thailand takes on a more complete dimension. In addition to the outstanding cultural activities and incredibly delicious food, there are literally hundreds of storefront businesses offering Thai, oil, and foot massage, and the average visitor can experience massage on a regular basis at prices that are extremely affordable by Western standards.
Today in Chiang Mai, there are an increasing number of schools and individuals offering lessons in Thai massage, taught in English. Most provide courses in small group settings that last from five days to two weeks. There are also extended-stay programs for more serious study and advanced teacher training. Most schools are independent organizations, and a few of them are certified by the Thai Ministry of Education, whose officials, not unlike our restaurant health inspectors, arrive unannounced to conduct reviews.
Visiting Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a beautiful, vibrant city easily accessible from Bangkok and other Asian cities by several air carriers. Flying from Bangkok costs approximately $100 roundtrip, and there are many daily flights on Thai Airways. If you’re intent on going overland from Bangkok, it is eight hours by bus and 12 hours by train. The old city’s fortified walls, its moat, and the many glimmering Buddhist temples evoke a mystical and ancient past, but this city is also thoroughly modern. There are a wide variety of hotels and guest houses to suit every budget.
For those with limited resources, as little as $5 to $10 (U.S. dollars) per night will get you a simple, clean room with shared bath. For a room with air conditioning, TV, and private bath, expect to pay between $10 and $20. And for $25 to $35 per night, you can stay in a 4- or 5-star luxury hotel. For starters, visit www.thailandhotels.com, www.hotelthailand.com, or refer to the accommodation sections of popular travel guides. Many hotels have discounted Internet rates, so you may want to book your first few nights that way, and then see if you like the place enough to continue staying there. If not, simply move to a new hotel.
Recommended Learning Centers in Chiang Mai
There are quite a few Thai yoga massage learning facilities in Chiang Mai, each with a slightly different slant.
Shivagakomarpaj Thai Massage School — Old Medicine Hospital
The Old Medicine Hospital has been providing instruction in traditional Thai massage for more than 40 years and is considered one of the most important learning centers for this ancient healing art. The school is certified by the Thai Ministry of Education, and many of the current Thai massage masters in Chiang Mai and elsewhere have studied here at one time or another. The 10-day introductory course (approximately $100) is offered twice monthly, usually beginning on the first and third Mondays of each month. Studies are based on traditional Thai massage theory (classroom study), technical instruction, and practice. Students are required to receive a Thai massage from a staff member, and written and practical examinations are part of the course of study. Teacher-to-student ratio is good, and graduating students speak highly of the program and its methodical, well-supervised approach.
The current website is only partially in English, but reservations can be made in advance by e-mail or phone, or you can simply go there a few days before the start of a new session and register in person. Four photos and a copy of your passport are required for registration. Upon successful completion of coursework and exams, certificates are awarded at a special ceremony before a shrine of the Father Doctor Jivaka, in whose name the school was founded. In addition to the standard two-week Thai massage curriculum, a Thai foot massage course is also offered every weekend (approximately $50).
TMC — Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai
TMC opened its doors in 2001 with the goal of providing high-quality instruction in an environment conducive to learning. Along with the Old Medicine Hospital, TMC’s two school locations are among a handful of Thai massage learning centers whose curricula are approved by the Thai Ministry of Education. The facilities are bright, clean, and cozy, and the two separate locations are away from the hustle and bustle of the city center. Transportation to and from your hotel is provided, as well as a free daily lunch on the premises. Instruction is serious in approach and includes classroom study, practical training, and written and practical exams. Students practice on their fellow students under direct supervision, and the teacher-to-student ratio, at approximately 1 to 6, is good. The introductory course is 30 hours (approximately $100), and there are two other levels, each also lasting one week. The three weeks can be done consecutively, or you may study only one or two weeks, and then return at a later date to complete the remaining segments. Certificates are awarded for each week-long course.
TMC also offers several other courses including Basics of Thai Massage (18 hours, three days, approximately $40), and Thai Foot Reflexology (12 hours, two days, approximately $75). For serious and ongoing students of Thai yoga massage, there are extended-stay programs of 300 to 600 hours for those who wish to become Thai massage teachers.
Asokananda — The Sunshine Network Institute
Asokananda (otherwise known as Harald Brust) is one of the most important teachers and researchers of Thai yoga massage today.
He was the first to write about the practice of traditional Thai massage in any language other than Thai, and his books and energy line charts are required reference for any serious student and practitioner of this healing art. His Thailand research center is in a hilltribe village a few hours north of Chiang Mai, where various courses in massage and spiritual pursuits are held by a dedicated group of personally-trained teachers. The center is run by Asokananda’s partner and her son; three vegetarian meals are served daily. Accommodations in the village are quite rustic and early morning meditation and yoga are held before study and practice.
The 12-day Thai yoga massage training in the village school costs approximately $250, including transportation, food, and course materials. Due to Asokananda’s busy international teaching schedule, however, you may be more likely to catch him in Europe or New Zealand (check websites for teaching and travel schedule). His classes outside of Thailand maintain a community and spiritual approach, accommodations are to Western standards, and courses are priced according to local arrangements. For more advanced study and teacher training, a curriculum of 750 hours is available at his center in Rotorua, New Zealand.
A new school, Chiang Mai Sunshine Massage, is being established in the city based on Asokananda’s teachings and style (see websites for details). New sessions begin every Monday, and the cost is approximately $150 for a 10-day (60 hour) class.
Lek Chaiya — Nerve Touch Massage School
Lek Chaiya is well-known for her wonderful personality, her background in Thai herbalism, and her extensive work in Thai massage. Now approaching 70, “Mama” Lek is teaching less, but her style is carried on by a small and devoted staff of teachers. The Nerve Touch method draws on Southern-style “plucking” along energy lines, but also incorporates Northern-style stretches and application of hot herbal compresses. Students and teachers prepare the herbal packs onsite, using an all-purpose combination of eucalyptus leaves, kaffir lime, lemongrass, fresh ginger, camphor, and other herbs. The hot, steamed herbs are intoxicating and extremely relaxing, and the compresses loosen up joints and muscles for easier manipulation.
Classes are held Monday through Saturday, and students can study this technique for three, four or five days, beginning practically any day of the week. This school is an informal place, classes are generally small and well-supervised, and the cost for the program is approximately $120. There’s also an evening schedule from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (six days, 24 hours), and Thai foot massage workshops are offered during days or evenings (15 hours, approximately $100).
Loi Kroh Massage School
Loi Kroh is mentioned here because of its unique approach toward learning. A small facility on central Loi Kroh Road, it offers individualized, one-on-one instruction in Thai massage. There are three small rooms, each with two floor mats and a divider curtain. The Loi Kroh routine is based on Northern-style Thai massage, and each student studies with one instructor for three, four, or five days (20 hours total; approximately $115). There is a one-day course for tourists looking for a basic understanding of Thai yoga massage, Thai oil massage, or Thai foot massage (six hours, approximately $40) and a foot reflexology course (three days, 12 hours, $100).
If you’ve already studied Northern-style Thai massage at another school or with another teacher, and you want to practice your moves or get individualized instruction to review a specific routine or to correct your body mechanics, private lessons are available for approximately $6 per hour, with a discount for 10 hours or more.
Moi Ban Chan Kom, Chakamnol Soi 2, Hang Dong
Pichest Boonthume is a Thai massage master who teaches to small groups at his home in Hang Dong, about 15 kilometers south of Chiang Mai. Studying with Pichest is best suited to existing practitioners of Thai massage, as his style of teaching is based on honing precise body mechanics and sharpening the intuitive aspects of Thai massage that usually come only after considerable practice. If you already practice Thai massage, are willing to make a several-week commitment, and can commute daily to Hang Dong, the results of working with him can be long-lasting. Morning prayers are held before class, followed by discourse on spiritual and bodywork-specific issues. Call first (early morning is best) to request admission. Classes begin every Monday, and the cost for five days of study (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) is $100.
Don’t be Fooled
Don’t be fooled by teachers or schools that offer “certifications” for practicing or teaching Thai massage in your country of origin. To date, the Thai government has certified only a handful of institutions in Chiang Mai, though some may give the impression they are approved. Some schools even grant “teacher training” certificates after only a few weeks of study, the very idea of which is absurd. Even if you study at a Thai government-approved school, it still doesn’t magically qualify you to open a professional practice as soon as you return home. As with any discipline, it takes years of study and practice to learn how to perform a good Thai massage, and even then, there’s always something new to learn. Most serious practitioners and teachers continue to study with their mentors over a period of many years.
These days there are a growing number of people claiming to practice or teach Thai massage who haven’t studied for more than a few weeks or months and perhaps haven’t ever trained in Thailand. The word “Thai” has become a trendy marketing tool, and in the United States and elsewhere it’s easy to find people teaching “Thai yoga,” “Thai table massage,” “Thai shiatsu,” and other homespun routines that are non-existent in Thailand and may deviate from traditional Thai healing practices.
In most countries around the world, there is no standardization or licensing protocol for Thai yoga massage. To further complicate matters, local legislation in many countries prohibits the practice of any form of bodywork therapy without having studied an approved curriculum for Western massage. So before you study anywhere, check into the teacher’s background, learn about the institution, ask lots of questions, and speak to students already in attendance to get their feedback. Most schools in Thailand will allow you to visit the facilities and view a class in session before you register. You should also avoid pre-paying for more than one week or one level of Thai massage training. Instead, experience the coursework and teaching style at that school first, and then decide if you wish to continue there.
Traditional Thai massage has been alive and well for more than 2,000 years, and when performed within its originally designed parameters, it is extremely effective in restoring health, reducing stress and pain, balancing energy, and bringing about states of peace, relaxation, relief, and rejuvenation. After so many centuries of localized development, traditional Thai massage has burst out of its place of origin and is now enjoying increased popularity around the world. Let’s embrace and respect this dynamic healing art, learn it within its traditional framework, and foster the ancient wisdom inherent in its practice.