To understand where Thai massage is today, we return once again to its origins – specifically, to the founder of Thai massage, Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, a personal physician of the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. Thai massage, in fact, developed within the environment of Buddhist temples, reflecting the spirit of metta (unconditional love and compassion) and vipassana (moment–to–moment awareness). As a practical application of these two forms of meditation, Thai massage emphasizes that, in its deepest essence, the massage is a meditative healing experience for both the recipient and the practitioner. Sessions in Jivaka’s time were known to last several hours as part of a regular, spiritual practice. Chow saw the importance of bringing the practice of Thai massage back to these more spiritual roots, though he also understood the need to develop a form of massage specifically adapted to Western bodies and needs.
“In Asia, people are generally smaller, more flexible and often squat or sit cross–legged on the floor”, he explained. “Also, people in Thailand spend a lot of their working time in fields or doing some other form of manual labor. For this reason, Thai massage there focuses 75% on the lower body and legs. In the West, people sit more, and their bodies are generally taller and heavier. In addition, they spend more time at desks and computers. Also, because of the nature of our lives in North America, lengthier yoga–massage sessions are no longer practical”. Chow decided that Thai massage in the West would need to divide its focus equally: 50% on the lower body and 50% on the upper body, within a 60 to 90 minute session, vs. the typical two–hour (or longer) sessions in Thailand.
“When I first came to North America, one of my teachers told me that any session less than two hours could not be called Thai massage”, Chow said. But, after practicing and teaching in the West for five years, I’ve realized that it’s better to teach an art that people can practice. It’s the quality of the massage that matters, not the quantity”.
Another factor was that, although Thai massage is readily available in Thailand today for as little as $6 in many massage clinics and there are reputable schools teaching the technique, it is often seen as either a "service" along the lines of hairdressing, or as a thinly – veiled prostitution offering – either of which is not regulated in any way.
The massage clinics operate without specific guidelines, and quality and training varies from clinic to clinic and region to region. The norm in Thailand is to have mass massages in a single clinic with up to 20 recipients being massaged next to one another. All these factors led Chow to have his school recognized and accredited by a provincial massage federation in Canada, and gave him the impetus to develop the Lotus Palm method, which he teaches throughout North America, to bring Thai massage back to its spiritual origins and basis in traditional healing.
The Lotus Palm training is designed to merge Eastern practices with a Western approach to health and healing, while maintaining high standards of practice. In addition to the basic training, practitioners are encouraged to attend regularly scheduled and supervised workshops to ensure they maintain the massage’s proper form and that they are using their own bodies correctly to prevent strain or injury. The Lotus Palm approach also links Thai massage to the ancient Indian healing tradition of Ayurveda, providing a solid philosophical and theoretical basis to the technique itself.
Although it is called Thai massage, this bodywork has a therapeutic foundation in the Indian healing tradition of Ayurveda. Ayurveda comes from two Sanskrit words: ayur (life) and veda (knowledge). Together, these concepts refer to harmonious living and form a body of knowledge that acts as a guide to proper maintenance of life, explained Chow.
“The Ayurvedic approach to healing is still practiced in India and Sri Lanka and is receiving more recognition in the West for its ability to treat the body as a whole”, he said. “Within Thailand, the Ayurvedic link to traditional Thai massage has been all but lost, and is now reduced to pharmaceutical purposes only. The aspect of massage and bodywork is no longer emphasized. One of the aims of the Lotus Palm method is to bridge the practice of Thai Yoga Bodywork to its Ayurvedic roots. This does not mean that we intend to operate as Ayurvedic doctors, but rather to integrate some general principles within our work”. Chow likens this to shiatsu massage, where practitioners draw on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), though they themselves are not TCM doctors.
Ayurveda means “Science of life” and Chow said his aim is to simplify the concepts of Ayurveda and apply them within Thai bodywork. “It’s a beautiful healing and lifestyle tradition”, he said. “It’s a mirror of yourself, representing who you are and how you are. Ayurveda strives to bring happiness and balance by addressing all aspects of a person: Physical, mental and spiritual. This provides an opportunity and a method for positive change”.
Lotus Palm practitioners are trained to create a massage that incorporates an ancient tradition of health and well–being with modern medical knowledge. Practitioners can determine each client’s specific constitution and body type based on the Ayurvedic concept of the tridoshas – vatta, pitta and kapha – categorizations based on lifestyle, diet, emotional outlook, physical and emotional characteristics, etc., enabling the massage to be customized to each person’s needs. Specific yoga exercises are also recommended to the client to further address their dosha requirements.
Meditation of compassion
Lotus Palm training hails back to Thai massage’s Buddhist philosophy, teaching that the massage is a healing meditation where the giver learns to feel the recipient’s body as if it was her own. This deep awareness, incorporating the concept of metta and vipassana, reminds us that to touch another is to remember our connection to life itself, to a deeper source of being. Thismindfulness and compassion is at the core of Lotus Palm.
“Meditation is the practice of being fully alive in the moment and present to whatever it is we are engaged in”, said Chow. “It is essential for the Thai Yoga Bodywork practitioner to be in a meditative state while working. This helps them to be more centered and clear–minded”.
To massage with clarity and the intention of kindness and compassion is believed to benefit both the giver and the receiver, allowing the life force to flow unobstructed between both. Such a practice cultivates a discipline of both internal and external awareness. You listen to yourself, you listen with your hands, and you hear the body and spirit in each moment.
Chow regularly leads participants in his classes in a chant: “Om Mane Padme Hum” – A Tibetan mantra reflecting the spirit behind Thai Yoga Bodywork and the Lotus Palm method. Its translation: “May the jewel in the lotus shine forth this light of love and compassion to unite all existences as one. May all beings be happy”.
In that mantra, we are taken back to the wat, to Thai massage’s temple origins, and to the sacred nature of this practice: that to touch another is to reconnect to our bodies and to ourselves, to our true essence in the moment. In so doing, we are reminded that this awareness and compassion can be extended beyond a massage session and reach into the moments that constitute our daily lives.