World Wide Wellness: Getting Stretched, Pulled and Bent into Shape with Thai Massage
by Catherine Morris | August 11, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
If your only understanding of massage is that it involves soothing music, scented oils and a gentle back-rub then perhaps it's time to shake up that understanding. You should definitely think of including different forms of massage into your sphere of awareness. Thai massage is an ancient Eastern practice that's far from passive.
When you get a Thai massage you'll be bent, twisted, pummelled and stretched into shape, and somehow still walk away feeling relaxed and restored. Deeply embedded into the culture and history of Thailand, this unique therapy aims to align energy in the body, and has a host of benefits, from relieving stress and pain, to upping energy levels and athletic performance.
When Did Thai Massage Start Being a Thing?
Thai massage might be a recent trend in Western wellness, but it's far from modern in the East where it was first developed around 2,500 years ago. The father of Thai massage is thought to be Shivago Komarpaj, the personal doctor of the Buddha.
“Thai massage is an ancient healing art [with] a really long history. A lot of it has been passed down through words because there's not a lot of documentation. It is one of the three branches of Thai medicine – massage, herbalism and diet, and Buddhism and meditation,” says Thai massage practitioner Constance Au.
What Makes Thai Massage Different?
Au, who trained with various schools and teachers in Thailand before establishing her own practice in Vancouver, says Thai massage can be a form of 'metta' meditation—one of the core concepts of Buddhism focuses on goodwill, loving kindness, benevolence, and care for others.
The practice also has a lot in common with Ayurvedic principles and Traditional Chinese Medicine thanks to its holistic approach and emphasis on balance. Often described as 'lazy yoga', it's a very physical massage where the practitioner manipulates the client into different positions to loosen and work the body. Au explains–
“The practitioner uses their body to move the receiver's body; there are a lot of stretches and compression using acupressure points and movement. There is the belief that illnesses are caused by energy blockages within the body, so the intention of working on energy lines is to help remove blockages in order to promote homeostasis and good health. We use different parts of the body to work those lines–thumbs, elbows, knees.”
Why Should I Try Thai Massage?
Thai massage is rougher than your average massage, but don't be intimidated – Au says her clients find it a very positive and healing experience, and adds that it can easily be modified if needed. “I listen to people's bodies so I can do something more vigorous or more relaxing according to that person's preferences. If I know they cannot take the pressure, I don't push it. In any massage I do what's best for them.”
Au does caution that this type of physical therapy may not be appropriate for elderly people, those who have heart conditions, injuries, or those who are pregnant.
Studies show that Thai massage is particularly effective for back pain, joint pain, and stiffness. It's also proved its credentials as a stress reliever, energy booster and headache cure. If you're a runner or play sports, Thai massage can help give you an edge on muscle recovery, range of motion, increased circulation, and possibly even improve your overall performance.
What to Expect From a Thai Massage Session
Clients lie fully clothed on a mat on the floor while the practitioner works them over. In some modern Thai massage practices some therapists do use tables, but traditionally it takes place at ground level to give the masseuse space to work. As Au explains, it can also be a matter of safety for herself and the clients, “I prefer to do it on the floor because of all the movement. I can ground myself, and I have leverage. I don't want anyone falling off the table!”
Traditionally, the practitioner starts with the lower part of the body, but not always,
“A lot of times they start with the feet first, because traditionally Thai people walk a lot. Others start at the head because they believe energy leaves through the feet, so they work top to bottom. There is no right way, but it's traditional to start with the legs.”
Wherever the starting point, the masseuse clambers over the client to work their energy lines using hands, feet, elbows, knees and basically their entire body to stretch and contort the recipient—often providing a workout for the practitioner too. Au says, “I learn proper body mechanics so I am able to exert less energy myself. You use your core and your momentum. I can also stretch within the massage so it is good for me too.”
The Future of Thai Massage
As with any imported practice, the gap between traditional Thai massage and its western iteration is widening. Au, who teaches as well as providing, has noticed an uptick in interest since she first started her training in 2005.
She believes that the rise of yoga, combined with a general trend towards globalisation, has helped propel it into the mainstream—
“It is popular. Alternative medicine in general is more popular now. Once people experience [Thai massage], they get interested in it. I think that's why it caught on. Now that there is a lot of interest from western people, some teachers are integrating other knowledge so it is becoming more of a fusion. This has worked for so many years for Thai people that they are not going to change anything, but western people want to be innovative. There is a template, but there are lots of different schools and different vibes.”
Au has visited Thailand many times and is grateful to have the opportunity to share some of that country's unique culture through her work—
“Thailand is a wonderful, happy place. There is an energy to it. I don't know everything [about Thai massage] but I have the opportunity to share and perhaps help people. In terms of teaching, I can help people add to their tools and spark a bit of passion in them to assist others in their well being.”
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.