By Sonia Osorio
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2000.
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 that 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 that 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.
The Lotus Palm Tradition
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 percent 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 percent on the lower body and 50 percent 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. This mindfulness 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.