What is Thai Massage?
Thai Massage, Thai yoga massage, and Thai yoga therapy are names commonly used in the West to refer to a traditional massage modality that is native to Thailand. It is known in the country of its origin as nuat phaen boran (“traditional style massage”) or nuat thai (“Thai Massage”). Based on a combination of influences from India, China, and indigenous Thai traditions, this art form has been handed down through the generations mostly via oral tradition, and is practiced today across Thailand in various forms. Thai Massage has now become extremely popular in the West, and has been among the fastest growing massage modalities in America over the past decade. Massage Magazine, Yoga Journal, and other industry-leading consumer and professional magazines have frequently featured Thai Massage in their pages. A complete Thai Massage incorporates a combination of acupressure and yoga-like stretching. Thai Massage is different from many Western forms of massage in that there is no oil used, the therapist uses a mattress on the floor (instead of a massage table), and the client remains completely clothed throughout the session. It is so different from what we typically think of as “massage” that it is often instead described as having someone “do yoga to you.” In modern Thailand, traditional massage is both a complex theoretical science and an informal art form practiced by men and women throughout all levels of society. At one end of the spectrum, Thai Massage is a medical discipline, part of a four-year traditional medical degree program. At the other, it is practiced in many villages by healers who have learned orally without much theoretical background, or informally among family members.
Thai Massage is directly related to yogic principles originating in India. It is also in many ways similar to Chinese massage techniques such as shiatsu and reflexology insofar as it is based on the theory of the flow of energy along lines or channels that run throughout the body. Thus, even when treating a disease or injury associated with a particular area, a therapist will typically work on acupressure points throughout the body. In Thailand, Thai Massage is considered to be energy work rather than bodywork. This is because the traditional Thai Massage therapist is guided not by anatomical structures or physiological principles but by following an intricate network of 72,000 sen (a Thai word meaning “pathways” or “lines”) throughout the body. Acupressure points are found along this sen, which is used by the Thai Massage therapist to stimulate or relax the body’s energy (lom), affecting the patient’s mind and body and promoting the natural healing process. The sen is of central importance to Thai Massage theory: even the yoga-like postures and another stretching that are an integral part of Thai Massage are considered primarily for their effects on the energy lines, and only secondarily for their ability to improve flexibility and strength. Thai Massage can be varied to suit a wide range of physical needs, is suitable for clients of all ages and abilities, and can complement any level of exercise or activity. Although this art form was not developed with modern medical influence, scientific research on Thai Massage has begun to demonstrate that this form of massage has measurable physiological benefits. Clinical trials have shown that Thai Massage can prevent bone degeneration, decrease stress, treat back pain, and contribute to psychological well-being. (See the current state of medical research on Thai therapies in the Thai Institute of Healing Arts’ interactive forum www.thai-institute.net.) In Thailand today, Thai Massage is used as a form of physical therapy to aid in the increase of range of motion and muscular strength. Areas of ongoing research include Thai Massage’s ability to improve circulation, flexibility, and muscle tone. This blend of acupressure and stretching is also said by its advocates to be especially beneficial for those who find themselves stiff, sore, and tired from overexertion in work or sports, or from arthritis or other disorders affecting mobility. Of course, therapists must recognize the limitations of Thai Massage, as well. In such cases as the disease of the internal organs, chronic injuries, and degenerative conditions, the effects of the massage are difficult to gauge. Within the Traditional Thai Medical approach to healing, the most important function of Thai Massage is to stimulate the body’s energy and natural healing process; thus, it may be a valuable complementary therapy alongside virtually any other form of treatment. It is unrealistic, however, to expect any massage to be a panacea, and even in Thailand, it is acknowledged that it is dangerous to rely on massage in lieu of proper medical attention. Although the benefits of Thai Massage are wonderful indeed, under no circumstances should massage clients with serious physical problems forego consultation and treatment by a qualified medical professional before embarking on a course of therapy involving Thai Massage.