of Thai Massage
Wootton, PhD, LMBT
As with any form of
bodywork, there are different versions or styles of Thai Massage which
emphasize different aspects of the work. Some people claim there are two
styles in Thailand: Northern style and Southern, though they are hard
pressed to define the difference. In my experience, that is not a useful
distinction. I encountered several styles just in the north and styles
in the south that look like the north and vice-versa. But now with the
burgeoning of spas and massage schools in Thailand that cater to
Westerns, Thais are standardizing a version that they think we
Westerners want schools with set curricula, so now there is a Thai
Massage school on every street corner in Chiang Mai. Of course
traditionally, Thai Massage was NOT carried on for hundreds of years by
schools or printed texts, but passed down in the oral tradition from
master to apprentice. There was great variety around the country (just
as there was more variety in the forms of Buddhism and meditation
practices before the central government took over.) Even after the
establishment of two now-famous schools, Wat Po in Bangkok and Old
Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai, that is NOT where most Thais learn the
trade. There is some difference between the official styles taught in
those two schools which is probably why westerners think there are just
those two styles, but it is more complex. There are these school
versions and also the various folk versions, and now a farang
(what Thais call westerners) version.
Add into the mix, the American penchant for throwing several things
together, making up a cute name, and marketing it, and there is now an
explosion of Thai-like bodywork forms out there, in addition to the ones
that claim to be “authentic” Thai.
Elements of Thai Massage.
So how can we identify, classify, or evaluate what
people are doing with Thai? I propose that we talk about the various
elements that practitioners might include or emphasize in what they do.
Then we can more accurately and usefully make comparisons. Here are the
elements I know:
Stretching and range of motion:
This is the most characteristic and observable element of Thai that all
practitioners do. There is not a standard set or sequence of these
moves, but when comparing any two Thai practitioners, at least half the
moves would be similar, though maybe not in the same order.
Practitioners regularly trade moves and invent variations. So listing
moves and sequences is interesting but not a good way to define a style
because there would be as many styles as there are practitioners. There
is however a useful difference in the manner of doing the moves which
the other elements below will identify.
As mentioned, the collection of moves used in Thai has always changed.
One source is borrowing from other modalities. Thai culture has always
been very adaptive. When they see Westerns doing something they like,
they incorporate it, putting their own spin on it. Even though Americans
like to call Thai Massage “Thai
Massage”, yoga asana practice was NOT practiced in Thailand until
recently when Thais saw Westerners doing it. Thai Buddhist monks do not
do yoga. So the moves in Thai do not come directly from yoga asanas as
Americans now know it.
But ironically, now the collection of Thai moves – and the way they are
done – is being influenced by a re-interpretation of the moves by
Western yoga practitioners. Practitioners who were trained in yoga
asanas before coming to Thai naturally interpret the Thai moves in light
of their yoga training and make the moves look more like yoga than they
originally were. So a new style is emerging in America that turns Thai
into “yoga massage” and even into a form of “assisted yoga”.
2. Whole-body & four
This is another unique characteristic of Thai Massage that we can expect
of all practitioners if they are really doing Thai. They will not just
do one part of the body but treat the whole, usually from feet to head.
And usually in more than one position, preferably all four: supine,
side-lying, prone, sitting. There is a difference in the order of
positions worth noting. One style is to do each position in order,
finishing with one position before going to another. Another style is to
start in one position, e.g. supine, and at some point change to another,
e.g. side lying, and then return to the first position.
There are interesting variations in preference for using one position or
another to treat a certain part. For example, some like to treat arms in
supine position while others treat them in side lying. This is simply a
difference in preference rather than style since practitioners probably
know how to treat the arms in both positions but prefer one.
3. Sen line treatment (energy
lines or meridians):
Probably only half
of practitioners do this, so it is a good distinguishing element for
defining a style. There are differences as to where the sen run as well
as a variety of ways of treating them. Some use a light touch and others
are more forceful, but they would have in common the characteristic Thai
way of treating the whole line rather than just specific points. This
distinguishes Thai from Shiatsu. So specifically treating sen lines in
some way can distinguish one style of Thai Massage from styles that do
not treat sen lines.
4. Jap sen:
We can expect all practitioners to do ‘palming’, ‘thumbing’ and
‘compression’ and to use feet as well as hands and occasionally elbows,
knuckles, and knees. But one technique is only done by a minority: It is
a cross-fiber technique called in Thai jap sen, literally, “pluck the
line”. Some call it “nerve touch.’ When it is used extensively over the
body throughout the treatment, it is a defining characteristic of one
style of Thai Massage.
Practitioners generally make a respectful gesture before giving a
treatment called wai, and many will say that Thai traditionally
incorporates metta “loving-kindness”, but very few actually do metta
meditation throughout the treatment and make the whole treatment into a
meditation. How much emphasis is given to the spiritual aspect and how
meditative the treatment is for both client and practitioner is a less
observable element but can have a huge effect on the experience and on
the healing effect of the treatment.
6. Subtle energy work:
Treating the sen is
a form of energy work which involves physically touching the body. But a
few practitioners do more subtle energetic/spiritual work aimed at
affecting the over–all flow of energy/prana/chi around and through the
person or sending it to certain areas. It may involve projecting energy
through their hands or with their breath or some other mental/heart
action. This is not as observable as the sen work, but one definitely
feels something else is going on beside the physical work.
7. Breath work:
A few practitioners use specific breathing techniques along with each
move to facilitate the delivery. This is barely observable, but it can
make a big difference in the quality of the touch and effectiveness of
8. Pace & rhythm:
There is a big difference in pacing among practitioners. Some work
quickly/vigorously doing multiple repetitions of moves and compressions
up and down limbs. Others move slowly, deliberately, stopping and
holding moves. For many, the treatment is a collection of individual
moves chosen to treat the particular client’s conditions, the focus
being on each move. Others deliberately use the rhythm and sequencing of
the moves to create an effect as part of the effectiveness of the
treatment. So there is a style that is fast & energetic and a style that
is slow & methodical and a style that is rhythmically flowing.
Thai Massage gives
practitioners a lot of leverage as they use their whole body, so they
can easily apply a lot of pressure in their touch and movements.
Probably the majority of Thai people who do Thai Massage use that
leverage to the maximum and work with the notion of “no pain, no gain”.
But a few masters use a light or gentle touch that never-the-less has a
deep effect. Often accompanying this gentle touch will be more use of
energy work and rhythm to make the effect deeper. So there is a gentle
style of Thai that differs noticeably from the common forceful style.
10. Herb packs:
Thai does not use oil as in Swedish, but one style does use steamed
herbal packs to accompany the work. These can be applied before or
during the rest of the treatment, somewhat like hot stones are used.
Most Thai treatments increase flexibility and as a consequence of this
opening one often experiences more energy. Traditionally in Thailand,
relaxation, as Americans have come to expect it from massage, was not an
intended effect. The treatment was considered like medicine, and pain
and bad taste were accepted as part of traditional medicine. But in the
hands of some masters, Thai can give deep relaxation and even impart a
psychological sense of well-being. So I think there is a style or manner
of doing Thai that actually aims at deep therapeutic relaxation and
feeling of nurture and well-being in addition to the usual flexibility.
12. Western Physiology:
Another influence that is changing Thai Massage today is western massage
technique with it focus on anatomy and physiology. In Thailand and other
Asian countries there was NO science of dissecting the body and naming
the muscles. So the moves in Thai Massage were not originally thought of
as effecting specific named muscles in the way western massage
therapists are trained to think. But now when western massage therapist
learn Thai they naturally want to know which muscles each move treats
and which moves will treat specific muscles, like the Piriformis. So now
Thai moves are getting adjusted to target certain muscles as western
anatomy identifies them. This does make Thai more precise from the stand
point of physical anatomy. But it also keeps the focus on the physical
level and can make the treatment mechanical. So a style of Thai is
developing that is more physiologically focused and “correct” that might
eventually be called “Medical Thai Massage”.
13. Foot Thai:
In America when peanut sauce is added to any dish it gets the label
“Thai” in the menu (even though peanut sauce is rarely used in Thailand
and there are so many more distinctive elements in Thai cuisine).
Similarly, use of the feet in doing bodywork seems to make it “Thai” in
popular thinking – and the more use of feet, the better, or more “Thai”.
Thai massage does use feet, but not more than hands are used, and it is
certainly not about doing everything with the feet. (Thai culture is
sensitive to the showing and use of feet, so there is a polite limit to
how much feet would be used in Thai massage.) There are other modalities
of bodywork that use feet more than Thai, such as “Barefoot Shiatsu.” So
there is some confusion as to the origin of so much foot work, whether
it is from Thai or other modalities or just practitioners making up
things to do with their feet. But it seems that a new style of bodywork
is developing that makes feet the main thing, replacing hands, and this
style may get labeled “Thai”.
14. Table Thai: The massage table
is a western invention. A traditional Thai house has very little
furniture and almost everything is done on the floor. And they prefer it
that way. There is a simplicity and even elegance to sitting and doing
things on the floor – which is of course kept clean, as shoes are left
at the door. Giving and receiving Thai massage on the floor has a
certain feel, groundedness and connection that is missing on a table.
However, it is possible to do a variation of at least half of the moves
on a massage table, and western therapist can easily incorporate many
Thai moves and elements into the other modalities they do on a table.
That could be called “Swedish with Thai flavoring”. It is also possible
for Thai practitioners who do the regular floor Thai to transfer their
work with some adaptations to the table. In this case the intention is
to do Thai, but adapted to a table. “Table Thai” will not have the same
quality as Thai on a mat, but it could be called a new version of Thai.
After receiving a number of treatments
from a variety of practitioners, one does have the impression of
qualitative differences. Some treatments are very physical with a lot of
movement and forceful pressure while others are more gentle with perhaps
fewer movements but the sense that more is going on at an energetic
level. So there is a range from the very physical to the meditative or
Using the above elements we can now identify what makes the difference
between various styles, and we can see that many variations are
possible. It would take a big chart to show all the possibilities. The
main ones are these:
A. Physical or yoga style: elements 1, 2, 9(forceful)
B. Physical plus sen work: elements 1, 2, 3
C. “Jap Sen”: 1, 2, (3), 4, 9(forceful)
D. Meditative energy work style: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8(rhythmic flow),
E. Herb packs can be used with any other style but is common with “Jap
F. A variation to any style can be made by changing the pace & rhythm
(8), or the pressure (9), or adding Jap sen (4), meditation (5), breath
work (6), or herb pack (10)
Individual background & experience:
In the end, no matter what style a Thai practitioner is originally
taught, what one gets is an individual who comes to the work with a
particular background that effects the way they see, understand, and
apply the Thai modality. Furthermore, the experiences they have with
their clients will also shape the way they practice Thai and can change
their whole approach.
We can learn a set of moves in school, but then it is our clients in
actual practice who teach us what we can and cannot do with those moves
and sometimes stimulate us to adapt or invent moves. Our experience with
our clients – what issues they bring to us and what we find works and
doesn’t work with them – is our biggest teacher and shapes the personal
style we develop.
For example, a young Thai Massage therapist who comes to Thai with a
strong background in yoga asanas and whose clients are mainly young
yogis and athletes will have a very different approach to Thai Massage
than an older therapist who has a strong background in Buddhist
meditation and whose clients are middle aged and older with serious
conditions. Speaking personally as the second person in that example, my
style has changed over 20 years to become more gentle and simple with
more emphasis on energy work. I’m learning to be more efficient in my
moves to achieve a deeper effect with a lighter touch or when needed to
use stronger pressure without hurting myself in the process.
There is a natural tendency, born of necessity for bodyworkers as we get
older to “work smarter rather than harder”. This is true for Thai people
as well. I was impressed by the older masters I knew in various fields,
music, crafts, farming, construction, and sports, as well as bodywork to
have an elegance, gracefulness, efficiency in the way they did
everything. To me, when that style is applied to Thai Massage it becomes
a smooth flowing dance.
So, there is NOT one original, authentic Thai Massage (Nuat Boran). And
I’m not sure how appropriate it would be for Americans anyway. In
Thailand there is no boundary line between Massage Therapist,
Chiropractor, MD, and Pharmacist, and therapists there do not have to be
as safety conscious as we do. On the other hand, in the ancient
tradition, one apprenticed to a master for a lot longer than therapists
go to school here, and teachers were true masters with a lifetime of
experience. But unfortunately that system is gone now in Thailand and
Westerners are now the driving force in the continuation, development
and change of Thai Massage.
I hope this attempt to identify elements and styles of Thai Massage
shows how rich with possibilities the Thai modality is. I believe good
Thai practitioners should be adaptable and be able to use effectively a
number of different techniques so they can adjust to the various needs
of different clients. We should be able to shift between firm and light,
between vigorous and soothing, to give the stretches a young athlete
needs and to wisely select and sensitively apply moves appropriate to an
older client with back problems. There is enough variety within the Thai
family of styles to fit most conditions if therapists will learn them.
This attempt at describing the varieties of Thai Massage is still a work
in progress. But let this be a stimulus to your own observation and
exploration of Thai Massage.