The mindfullness of touch
Bangkok, Thailand, a city famous for its exotic offerings, is also the site of Wat Pho’s Traditional Medical and Massage School – a center for the teaching, research and practice of the Thai healing tradition. It is a school unlike those seen in North America. At Wat Pho, massage and medicine are taught in a Buddhist temple – the “Wat” – adorned with filigreed designs and garden statues of figures in various postures dating back to the 16th century. It is here, in these forms and in this temple, that we find both an ancient art and an age–old philosophy.
What is thai massage?
Wat Pho is Thailand’s most famous monastery, dedicated to preserving the art of traditional Thai massage. Epigraphs detailing energy lines in the body, which Thai massage addresses, are etched in stone here. Until very recently, classical Thai massage was transmitted from master to master within a temple environment as part of a spiritual discipline, although variations on the massage were practiced within Thai families as a healing folk art.
Thai massage is, in fact, one of the ancient healing arts of traditional Thai medicine (along with herbal medicine and spiritual meditation). It is a full–body massage, performed on a floor mat, with both parties in loose, comfortable clothes. It incorporates t’ai chi moves, rhythmic motion, palming and thumbing along energy lines (sen lines), gentle stretching and the conscious use of breath. The practitioner uses her hands, feet, arms and legs to guide the recipient into various yoga postures, while remaining focused on their own body–center.
This combination of movements and focused awareness creates a slow, flowing “Dance” around the recipient’s body. “Thai massage is a well–respected and proven healing art that’s quickly gaining popularity in the West because of its meditative approach and its application of yoga’s well–established benefits”, said Kam Thye Chow, founder of one of the first North American schools of Thai massage in Montreal, Canada. Chow, originally from Malaysia, has taught classes worldwide and written books on the practice of t’ai chi and massage. He views Thai massage as having far–reaching applications, and refers to the technique more accurately as Thai Yoga Bodywork because of its varied influences and appeal. “Yoga practitioners are finding it adds a whole new dimension complementary to their practice. Nurses, physiotherapists and massage therapists are adding to their training with this technique. Also, the gentle opening and stretching of the body provided by the massage has improved the performance of athletes, martial artists and dancers”, said Chow.
Thai massage has been described as assisted Hatha yoga. During a session, the practitioner pays careful attention to the recipient’s level of flexibility and breath as they gently move the individual into different poses. Each pose is designed to open up the body and allow energy to flow freely along the sen lines (72,000 of which have been mapped out, although 10 major ones are focused on Thai massage). This “Opening” increases joint mobility and flexibility, improves circulation, tonifies organs, and relieves muscular and emotional tension.
Energy in motion
Working the energy lines is the basis of Thai massage. Thai medicine is based on the belief there is an intrinsic life force or energy (prana) that circulates within the body. To create health and vitality, it is essential to allow this energy to circulate freely. When prana is blocked or restricted, sickness or disease results which can manifest physically, emotionally or even spiritually. The main purpose of Thai massage is to clear such blockages and allow energy to flow along the sen. Although not based on the Chinese meridian system, the sen energy system is very similar.
By working the body physically and energetically, Thai massage produces a highly therapeutic effect which helps relieve common conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, headaches, digestive difficulties, menstrual and menopausal problems and stress–related conditions, as well as providing an overall sense of relaxation which helps people to deal better with emotional issues.
Though very dynamic, Thai massage is deeply relaxing, enabling the body and mind to rebalance naturally. As with any yoga practice, blood and lymph circulation are increased and internal organs are stimulated, all helping to strengthen the immune system, rebalance the endocrine system and clear toxins from the body. In addition, the variety of stretching and joint isolation exercises helps to increase joint mobility and flexibility. Since the technique respects each person’s body type and level of flexibility, Thai massage is ideal for many individuals.
Synchronizing movement and breath
The stretching and energy line work in Thai massage is important in helping to lengthen muscles and make them more flexible, supple and less prone to injury, while joints benefit from a greater range of motion. Stretching also increases capillary density, thereby helping to address icshemia and promoting the release of lactic acid. This is particularly important in our culture which tends to emphasize more aggressive muscle movements resulting in the production of large quantities of lactic acid in the muscle fibers. In addition, studies have shown that stretching can raise the temperature of a tendon, which can have a protective effect via increased skeletal muscle tensile strength. The stretching in Thai bodywork also releases endorphins, further promoting a relaxation response.
Conscious use of breath has been proven to reduce both physical and emotional tension. In Thai bodywork, practitioners learn how to make clients more aware of how they use their breath and of areas of tension where the breath is impeded. As well, practitioners themselves are trained in how to use their own breath to facilitate transitions between postures, work with different body types, and to calm and synchronize their breath with the client’s for deeper concentration and awareness.
Thai bodywork’s emphasis on body awareness has also helped practitioners avoid many of the injuries common to bodyworkers today. Since the massage focuses on both the practitioner’s and client’s body, it allows for a session that places comfort and safety first. The importance of self–care is emphasized and integrated with the notion of creating a smooth, flowing session incorporating natural transitions that avoid straining either the practitioner’s or the client’s body. These transitions, based on the practice of t’ai chi, are essential to what Chow refers to as the “Dance” of Thai massage – the flowing movement and regular breath, the sense of moving from one’s center and using one’s weight vs. strength to avoid joint pain or injury. In this way, Thai bodywork respects the body’s natural rhythms – both external and internal.