“Thai massage” or “Thai yoga massage” is an ancient healing system combining acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures.
In the Thai language it is usually called nuat phaen thai (Thai: นวดแผนไทย; lit. “Thai-style massage”) or nuat phaen boran (Thai: นวดแผนugfgoโบราณ, IPA: [nûət pʰɛ̌ːn boːraːn]; lit. “ancient-style massage”), though its formal name is nuat thai (Thai: นวดไทย, lit. Thai massage) according to the Traditional Thai Medical Professions Act, BE 2556 (2013).
The Ministry of Health’s Department for Development of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine regulates Thai traditional massage venues and practitioners. As of 2016 the department says 913 traditional clinics have registered nationwide.
Traditional Thai massage uses no oils or lotions. The recipient remains clothed during a treatment. There is constant body contact between the giver and receiver, but rather than rubbing on muscles, the body is compressed, pulled, stretched and rocked.
The recipient wears loose, comfortable clothing and lies on a mat or firm mattress on the floor. In Thailand, a dozen or so subjects may be receiving massage simultaneously in one large room. The true ancient style of the massage requires that the massage be performed solo with just the giver and receiver. The receiver will be positioned in a variety of yoga-like positions during the course of the massage, that is also combined with deep static and rhythmic pressures.
The massage generally follows designated lines (“sen”) in the body. The legs and feet of the giver can be used to position the body or limbs of the recipient. In other positions, hands fix the body, while the feet do the massaging. A full Thai massage session may last two hours and includes rhythmic pressing and stretching of the entire body. This may include pulling fingers, toes, ears, cracking knuckles, walking on the recipient’s back, and moving the recipient’s body into many different positions. There is a standard procedure and rhythm to the massage, which the giver will adjust to fit the receiver.
Traditional Thai massage vs ancient Thai massage
There are two main variations of the healing art: a traditional form which can be found most prominently in Thailand, and an ancient form which is more common in Nepal and northern India. Although the two forms may appear similar to an observer, there are differences that will be felt by the receiver. Ancient Thai massage starts with meditation performed by both the giver and the receiver. The giver will then recite a special mantra.
The variations in the two styles can be attributed to the loss of ancient texts and teachings that occurred in Thailand during the numerous wars between Thailand and Burma, during the course of three centuries of the Burmese–Siamese wars. This loss of information gave rise to traditional Thai massage. The ancient style has no corresponding breaks in its historical lineage.
The founder of Thai massage and medicine is said to have been Shivago Komarpaj (ชีวกโกมารภัจจ์ Jīvaka Komarabhācca), who is said in the Pāli Buddhist canon to have been the Buddha‘s physician over 2,500 years ago. He is noted in ancient documents for his extraordinary medical skills, his knowledge of herbal medicine, and for having treated important people of his day, including the Buddha himself.
In fact, the history of Thai massage is more complex than this legend of a single founder would suggest. Thai massage, like Thai traditional medicine (TTM) more generally, is a combination of influences from Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian cultural spheres, and traditions of medicine, and the art as it is practiced today is likely to be the product of a 19th-century synthesis of various healing traditions from all over the kingdom. Even today, there is considerable variation from region to region across Thailand, and no single routine or theoretical framework that is universally accepted.
There are various styles of Thai massage with clear distinctions. The royal style (“rajasamnak”) historically is only used to treat the aristocracy and royal family. It is a very codified style involving acupressure on specific points and a clear distinction between giver and receiver. The popular-style (“chalosiak”) with its many regional variations, is what is commonly known as Thai massage. There is also the traditional regional medicine-style, which differs in content and practice, and is what would have been practiced by traditional doctors outside Bangkok in the past. Today, Thai massage is one of the branches of Thai traditional medicine now recognized and regulated by the government and is widely considered to be a medical discipline used for the treatment of a wide variety of ailments. On the other hand, Thai massage is also practiced and taught by a number of non-medical massage technicians in the spa and tourism industries. In North America and Europe, an increasing number of practitioners and teachers of Thai massage have emerged since the 1990s, most of them teaching the simplified officially sanctioned interpretation as found in the courses available to foreigners in Thailand.
A traditional massage practitioner is required to complete at least 800 hours training.
Wat Pho, the center of Thai medicine and massage for centuries, opened the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School in 1955 on the temple grounds, the first such school approved by the Thai Ministry of Education. Wat Pho offers four basic courses of Thai medicine: Thai massage, Thai midwife-nurse, Thai pharmacy, and Thai medical practice.
Thousands of students from around the world have studied at Wat Pho and subsequently gone on to work in massage, spa, and wellness centers in many countries. TMC is also one of the best schools in the north part of Thailand. ( Chiang mai ).
Mechanism of action
Generally speaking, givers of modern Thai massage operate on the hypothesis that the body is permeated with “lom”, or “air”, which is inhaled into the lungs and subsequently travels throughout the body along 72,000 pathways called “sen”, which therapists manipulate manually. This belief likely originating in Indian yoga, and was promoted by the government and schools, the sen being understood as either physical or non-physical structures depending on the interpretation. Traditional regional medicine, however, follows a different theoretical system, which involves the manipulation of the five body layers (skin, tissue, channels, bones, organs) to influence the relationship of the four body elements (earth, water, wind, fire), within this system, the sen are defined as tendons, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels, and the element “lom” or “wind” is understood as the property of movement. This understanding derives from Buddhist medicine which has its roots in ancient Indian medicine.
All types of massage, including Thai massage, can help people relax, relieve aching muscles, and temporarily boost a person’s mood. However, many therapists make claims that go far beyond what massage can accomplish. It does increase circulation, gives temporary relief of pain, provides a sense of well-being, and promotes relaxation, but there is little evidence of further benefits.