Is Thai Massage really a Massage?

The answer is yes, Thai Massage really is a massage…AND it is so much more. It is an entire healing arts system which combines many elements. Let’s look at the specifics.

Typical Western massage definition

Most people reading this will be from western countries where massage is generally defined like this: Someone is lying undressed on a massage table, and a therapist is using oil directly on the skin to apply kneading or stroking techniques. Compared to this scenario, Thai Massage doesn’t really look like a massage since it is done fully dressed, on a floor mat, and without any oil.

Some jurisdictions, both in the US and in Europe, treat Thai Massage differently along with other Asian modalities like Shiatu, Tui Na, or yoga therapy. As an example of this statement, here is the one sentence in the Massachusetts law: ” Asian Bodywork Therapy that does not constitute massage as defined in this chapter.“

What does Thai Massage consist of?

So what makes Thai Massage so different? Actually it contains many elements which are clearly massage, even by western standards, like kneading, rolling, or pressing muscles. However in addition to those massage elements, it contains several other elements which are what makes it unique. The best known ones are the many stretches which Thai Massage is famous for. Many people are even under the impression that Thai Massage consists only of stretches. However this is not true. It is possible to do a session which contains mostly stretches, but it is just as possible to do a session which contains hardly any or even no stretches at all.

You will find many elements in a Thai Massage:

  • Massage (kneading, pressing)
  • Yoga (applied stretches)
  • Acupressure (there are specific pressure points in Thai Massage as well)
  • Chiropractic (several spinal twist techniques produce releases which are similar to Chiropractic releases, however with less sophistication)
  • Reflexology (most sessions start with foot massage, and there is a Thai reflexology system as well)
  • Energy work (Thai Massage along with most Asian healing art systems is based on the concept of balancing and improving energy flow in the body)
  • Trager (some  Thai Massage practitioners, like myself, use rocking motions which are similar to the ones which are used in Trager)
  • Physical Therapy (Thai Massage uses many body manipulations which are similar to the ones that are used by physical therapists to rehabilitate movement restrictions and increase range of motion)

 

As you can see, “massage”, as defined in the western world, is only one element in the Thai Massage system. There is a lot more to it.

Can Thai Massage be labelled correctly?

“Thai body work” would be a limiting description, since body work doesn’t include energy work.

Even “Thai Yoga ” is a limiting description since this implies that the passive stretches are the main element, which is not correct.

So what’s the correct or best name? There is no agreement. Some people call it Thai Massage, some Thai Yoga Massage, some Thai Yoga Therapy, some stick with the Thai name of Nuad Borarn, and some created their own names like Soma Veda Thai Yoga.

This is in contrast to Swedish Massage, which is always called Swedish Massage, or Shiatsu, which is always called Shiatsu.

What is Thai Massage?

It is massage, and so much more. It is an ancient healing arts system which has been used in Thailand for hundreds of years to help people with their various ailments.

Luckily there are other elements in Thai Massage to accommodate every kind of person, and every degree of intensity. In the hands of an expert practitioner, a session can be gentle or strong, faster or slower, challenging or relaxing, intense or trance-inducing.

Thai Massage can literally be done an ANY kind of person regardless of age or degree of flexibility, provided the therapist has learned more than a one-size-fits-all sequence. This is unfortunately often the case during short training courses.

For a good, flowing, and effective session, all four elements have to be combined.

Thai Massage element #1 – Massage

It is called Thai Massage, after all. There are many techniques like pressing, leaning, rolling, rocking, squeezing and circling which are used by the therapist.

Thai Massage element #2 – Energy line work

Or sen line work, as it is called in Thailand. This is much less esoteric than it sounds. Unlike Reiki, for example, which uses only the energy element, Thai Massage uses actual physical massage movements which are done along those energy lines. 

To the untrained eye, it all looks like massage, however the physical massage techniques follow the path of the sen lines. This is quite different from the western model where the therapist works on anatomical components like muscles, ligaments, and joints.

In the western model the focus is on the anatomy, whereas in the eastern model the focus is on improving energy flow in the sen lines. This is a fundamentally different concept.

Thai Massage element #3 – Stretching

This is what this system is famous for and where the name Thai Yoga Massage is derived from. The stretches are clearly related to yoga asanas. This is not surprising since this healing art has its roots in India’s yoga system.

The fallacy is to think that Thai Massage is mostly a system of stretches. This is incorrect and only a partial picture.

Thai Massage element #4 – The real art of it

The fourth element is what ties the other three together and makes them work harmoniously: sensitivity, feeling and intuition. This is especially important in Thai Massage. For example the sen lines are not just a mechanical technique. They need to be felt and sensed in order to be effective.

Or take the elbow or knee work of Thai Massage. Imagine a practitioner sticking an elbow in your back without sensitivity or feeling. This can get painful or even brutal pretty fast, and that’s why this modality sometimes has the reputation of being a painful system.

Therefore feeling and sensitivity are absolutely essential for both stretching and sen line work as well as for all the massage techniques.

You might say that this is necessary for all massage systems, and this is correct.

However it is even more important for Thai Massage since it deals directly with energy lines, it uses often massive stretching techniques, and it uses elbows, knees and feet. So the risk of overstretching or using too much pressure is greater in Thai Massage than in most western modalities.

Feeling, sensitivity and intuition are the elements which connect the first three elements of in a harmonious way. They create a flowing and artistic way which combines massage moves, energy line work and stretches into a beautiful and highly effective healing arts system.

Thai Massage in the Western world

There is no one right or wrong way. This is is an ancient system, but it is still evolving, especially since its introduction to the western world. There, it has been:

  • Combined with other therapies
  • Adapted to a westernized approach
  • Modified by individual practitioners who created their own styles
  • Used by yoga teachers to enhance their classes

Which one is the right way? The way that makes clients feel better and that helps improve dis-ease conditions.

Which conditions can Thai Massage treat? 

If you google “benefits of Thai Massage” you will get thousands of hits with lists of conditions which Thai Massage is supposedly good for. Even in Thailand, I have seen extensive lists of treatable conditions. You find these in Thai Massage schools, Thai Massage shops, traditional Thai medicine clinics, and spas.

That’s the theory. However the truth is that Thai Massage doesn’t treat or heal anything – it’s the practitioner who does that. I have received plenty of sessions where the therapist knew all the moves, all the techniques, all the sequences. But at the same time the most important element was missing. There was no energy in the session, there was no heart and soul in the treatment, it didn’t flow, it felt mechanical, and I could feel that those therapists just did their jobs – nothing more.  In such a session very little, if anything, gets treated or healed. It’s not the technique that heals – it’s the human being who gives those techniques the quality of healing.

I have also received many sessions where the therapist knew all the moves, techniques and sequence, AND had a “magic touch”, a compassionate attitude, a finely tuned sensitivity for my needs, and a creative way of working that was just right for me. After such a session I always feel like I am walking on clouds, my head is clear, I feel balanced and peaceful, my energy feels light and I can just feel the healing benefits.

The truth is that those lists with conditions which Thai Massage can treat are only as useful as the therapist who is implementing them. Thai Massage doesn’t treat – therapists do! Thai Massage techniques by themselves don’t treat anything, but therapists who are equipped with those techniques do.   At this point I am supposed to state that the therapist has to be well trained. Although it is certainly true that training and a good repertoire of skills are important, there is more to it than logging hundreds of hours of schooling. There is another factor involved.

The technical training is just not enough! There are some skills that can be learned, and there are some skills which only develop with lots of experience. Not every therapist develops those. For example you might give a top of the line Porsche to an old lady who just timidly drives to the grocery store every now and then. She has a great tool, but is not using it’s full potential. You might give the same car to a business man who uses it every day to go to work, attend meetings, or visit clients. He uses more of it’s potential but not all of it. Then you might give the same car to a race car driver who knows how to squeeze every ounce of performance out of this vehicle. The tool was the same in all three cases, but the full potential was not realized by everyone.

Thai Massage is somewhat similar. Some people just learn a basic mechanical sequence of techniques and never go much beyond that. Some people learn as much as they can about Thai Massage. And some people are inspired to be real healing artists with a great touch, wonderful energy, and a finely tuned sensitivity which works like a sixth sense to find and treat problems of their clients.

 

Conclusion

Yes, Thai Massage is a massage…and so much more.

If you want to try the art of Thai Massage in an effective and convenient way, please come in for a taster or full body Thai Yoga Massage session.

Love, Steve