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Thai Traditional Massage

by Maria Mercati(more info)

listed in massage, originally published in issue 14 - August 1996

The origins of Thai massage remain obscured in the mists of time. It is modern compared with Tuina (Chinese) and Ayurvedic (Indian) massage which date back over 4000 years but has nevertheless been practised in more or less its present form for over 1000 years. Present day Thailand occupies a position on what was a trade route and migration crossroads between China and India. A “pot pourri” of religions and ethnic groups have occupied this territory at different times in the past, each leaving behind some legacy of practice and tradition which has contributed to the development of later cultures culminating in that which is characteristic of Thailand. Unlike Tuina Chinese massage, the theory and practice of which was fully documented some 2300 years ago, Thai massage was passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth until relatively recently. The definitive text describing this unique massage was written in 1832 by order of King Rama III and was carved in stone at Wat Poh in Bangkok.

Thai traditional massage shows evidence of Indian yogic influence but also resembles Chinese massage in the disciplined manner in which it focuses on the energy meridians though these are not nearly so well defined as those which guide the practitioner of Tuina. The energy meridians of Thai massage are called “sen”. According to the old theory which was recorded in the Pali language, there are seventy-two thousand of these sen lines but thankfully, modern Thai massage works on only about 10 of these!

The aim of Thai massage is to balance the energy of the body to give a feeling of relation and well-being which transcends to purely physical to affect the mind and emotions and even the spiritual aspects of our being. The theory is that perfect balance of the intrinsic energies of the body equates to perfect health. This form of massage when received regularly, performs a powerful prophylactic function as well as maintaining good health. Those who are lucky enough to experience Thai massage in this way will testify to its incredible ability to de-stress the body; to soothe and calm the mind and to lift and release layer upon layer of pent-up negative emotions and liberate the soul.

Until recent times Thai massage has been regarded as having deep religious significance to the Buddhists and was exclusively practised by monks in the temples. It was seen as the physical expression of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and vicarious joy which exemplify the four states of the mind so fundamental to the philosophy of Buddhism. When practised strictly according to these principles, Thai massage is as beneficial to the giver as it is to the receiver. Regrettably, in these modern times it is becoming more and more tainted by commercialism.

“Flowing” and “rhythmical” describes exactly the sequence of unhurried presses, stretches and twists that make up a complete Thai massage. The sheer number and variety of techniques used in a typical routine is somewhat bewildering to the learner. There are over one hundred of them! At all times the position of the masseur/ masseuse relative to the receiver is just as important as the way the particular technique is applied. Within a full massage sequence there seems to be endless nuances of tempo and pressure. There are no sharp discontinuities or sudden changes of form – one movement melts into another smoothly and harmoniously. There is never a suggestion of haste.

A Thai massage is a blend of techniques, some of which are used to apply pressure to the sen lines while others create the wonderful twists and stretches that often resemble applied yoga. Pressure is applied with feet, palms, thumbs, elbows and knees. The measured pace and flowing movement that characterises this massage belies the very deep pressure and powerful stretches that are used. The greatest benefits from this unique type of massage come to those who are able to relax to the point where they become putty in the hands of the massager. At no time should the receiver “assist” by actively helping any particular movement that is being carried out.

In an ideal situation, time would not be a significant variable and massages taking two hours or more would be the norm but in the West time is usually a constraint on such a relaxed approach. Fortunately, it is possible to do a meaningful massage in one hour but this does necessitate sacrifice of some of the frequent recapitulation, particularly of pressure techniques on the feet and legs which are so characteristic of Thai massage.

Reflexologists would certainly approve of the great emphasis placed on massage and manipulation of the feet. Thais always start on the feet which are subjected to an amazing variety of presses, stretches and flexion – at least 20 different techniques are commonly used! Toes receive additional treatment which involves rubbing their tips, rolling them and pulling them collectively and individually, often to the accompaniment of loud cracking sounds.

At all times the practitioner has in mind the need to stimulate the movement of energies in the sen and to those who are unfamiliar with the theory, a disproportionately large amount of time may seem to be devoted to pressing along the energy lines. The legs, for example are first massaged with the subject supine and the limbs in the straight position. Later, pressing, which is done with the thumbs and palms is repeated with the leg flexed at the knee and everted; then while still flexed, held across the other leg. Eventually this palming and thumbing is repeated with the receiver lying prone and also lying on the side. The masseur/masseuse will often return to the feet and legs to give further pressure stimulation to the sen in between the large scale manipulations which involve stretches and twists. This is done so smoothly that there appears to be no disruption of the overall flow of the massage. Facilitating the movement of intrinsic energy in the feet and legs in this way is regarded as being absolutely fundamental to achieving the overall energy balance throughout the body which spells “well-being” for the recipient. Those who have tried Thai massage at the hands of a master will have no shadow of doubt that it does!

For recipients and onlookers alike, the most dramatic part of the massage is that which feels and looks rather like applied yoga. Many of the movements involve close and sometimes almost intimate contact between giver and receiver. Wonderful shapes and symmetries unfold, to be held for a few seconds before they evaporate away or blend into the next sequence. The overall impression given to an observer is of a beautifully choreographed sequence of movements for a duet. Indeed, after watching Thai masters perform, one is left convinced that each is a choreographer in his own right, so many and subtle are the variations on what is a basic theme.

It is no exaggeration to use the word “duet” for many of the movements used in a Thai massage. There is often need for the subject to cooperate and work with the masseur/masseuse to produce the desired effect in exactly the right way. This is perfectly exemplified by the “Sitting Stool Cobra Stretch” which is a highly effective and elegant way, of flexing the upper body backwards at the lumbar region whilst at the same time giving the shoulder a powerful stretch. This is how it is done.

The subject lies prone with arms outspread at an angle of about 45 degrees to the body. The lower legs are flexed into a vertical position to present the soles of the feet horizontally to the person doing the massage who now proceeds to sit firmly and squarely upon them, with his/her feet astride the subject’s middle back. The arms are now lifted so that the wrists rest across the top of the masseur’s (masseuse’s) thighs. He/she then takes a firm grasp of the shoulders, leans back using the foot “stool” as the pivot and raises the subject’s upper body into cobra position. This is held for up to 10 seconds before it is relaxed.

As with so many Thai stretches the body weight of the giver is used to counter balance the weight of that part of the subject’s body being lifted. Balance, posture and total control of every movement is vital if the masseur is to avoid straining and even injuring his own body. At the same time care must be taken not to over stretch and twist those who are new to this type of massage and the frail and elderly who might be suffering from such conditions as osteoporosis which contributes to brittleness of the bones.

Using parameters of Western anatomy and physiology to assess the potential value of Thai massage it is easy to see what beneficial and therapeutic effects can be achieved by it. Common problems like painful and even ‘frozen’ shoulders respond extraordinarily well to the types of manipulation used. The “Flexed Backward Arm Lever” is a very simple but good example. Here the practitioner assumes a one leg kneeling position behind the subject whose arm is flexed and raised into a vertical position with its hand held down across the base of the neck. Gentle backward leverage is then exerted on the elbow against the pressure that is supporting the hand. Tense shoulder muscles such as the trapezium and teres major and minor respond very well to this kind of treatment which also aids shoulder joint mobility.

Those who wish to make a regular investment in the health and fitness of their bodies will find Thai traditional massage an excellent choice. Not only does it contribute to the balance of the intrinsic energies that ‘under write’ freedom from sickness, aches and pains but in addition it aids circulation and lymphatic drainage, improves joint mobility, promotes high levels of flexibility and, as if that were not enough, leaves the recipient feeling as if he/she is “walking on air”! (To quote the words of a number of the writer’s patients after receiving a session of this unique massotherapy.) Even emotional pain is treated. Not surprising when one understands what “energy-balance” means in terms of good health. It is the fundamental determinant of health of the whole body – physical, emotional and spiritual. If the Thai massage practitioner is a perceptive listener so much the better, since many who receive this type of massage feel a sense of security in his/her presence and a closeness which encourages them to talk and unburden themselves of anger, grief, frustration and other emotional pains. This greatly reinforces the effects of the massage itself to give the recipient a different way of looking at problems in general and a new self image.

If all this sounds a little too good to be true, there is a down side. At this point in time good Thai massage practitioners are rather thin on the ground and by no means evenly distributed around the country. Many who read this article will not find one in their vicinity. The good news is that their numbers are steadily increasing in line with the upsurge of interest shown in oriental therapies – largely as a result of tourists returning home with memories of blissfully effective therapies they have received whilst holidaying in SE Asia.

A few words of caution must be stated in conclusion. All those incredible shapes and flowing movements that constitute the manipulative side of Thai massage can be potentially damaging to both giver and receiver. To give a massage of this kind at even a very modest level requires great skill, strength and poise which can only be acquired with correct training. Even a fit, young person can be hurt when subjected to stretches and twists that are incorrectly applied or simply over done. In addition, there are the usual contraindications to the use of Thai massage which are essentially those that would apply to any form of massotherapy. It should not be used or alternatively carried out in a highly modified form on those who are suffering from heart conditions, high blood pressure and cancer. Skin conditions such as excema, psoriasis and urticaria should not be massaged and most of the extensive stretches and twists would not be applied during pregnancy. If the subject has some conditions that raises doubts in the mind of the practitioner as to the suitability of this type of massage it is always best to err on the side of caution and refer this person to his or her medical doctor who may be able to determine whether massage is contraindicated.


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About Maria Mercati

Maria Mercati BA(Hons) ITEC MTI Dip Thai Massage, Dip Shiatsu Mem AcuC, Cert Tui Na (Shanghai College Traditional Medicine), Cert. Acu (Xiangshan Hospital of TCM Shanghai), Cert Acu (Weihai Hos) is an authoritative and innovative teacher, best-selling author and practitioner in the field of Tui Na Chinese and Thai Massage as well as Acupuncture. Her books Step-by-Step Tui Na and Thai Massage are definitive texts and have been translated into twelve languages. She has also produced and directed a series of DVD's (filmed by professionals) to accompany her books.

The methods Maria uses and teaches have been developed from her many periods of study in China, Indonesia and Thailand working with the leading experts in their respective fields.  She brings a wealth of practical experience to her courses, having achieved outstanding results with thousands of patients over the last twenty years.

She may be contacted via;

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