Thai Massage and Yoga are family members
Thai Massage has its origins in India’s yoga system. According to legend, an Indian physician came to Thailand and introduced what is now called “Thai Massage”. His name is a tongue breaker – Shivaka Komarpaj -and nobody agrees on the spelling. I always called him “Dr. Shivago” for simplicity’s sake which is fairly close to how his first name is actually pronounced.
He is still revered as the founder of Thai Massage and many massage schools display his picture or statue. He was a contemporary of Buddha, which makes Thai Massage about 2500 years old. Many Thai therapists begin their sessions with a prayer to him.
Asian massage therapy focuses on the concept of energy flow whereas its western counterparts tend to be more clinically oriented. Thai Massage recognizes an invisible energy flow in the body through “sen lines”.
This energy is called “lom” in Thailand which corresponds to “prana” in the yogic tradition and can be mapped and localized. Skilled practitioners know how to influence the flow of this energy for healing purposes.
Western massage therapies do not recognize this energy since it cannot be physically seen or scientifically verified.
But if you think about it, emotions like love or joy or sorrow cannot be seen or dissected either, but everyone knows that they exist, because we all feel them. Feeling is a valid way of perception, albeit non-scientific. A skilled Thai Massage practitioner can feel and manipulate energy, although it has to be said that only few have developed this skill very highly.
Just as yoga can be practiced as an exercise regimen or as a spiritual practice, so can Thai Massage be used as bodywork or as a true healing art. It depends on the intention, skill level and awareness of the practitioner.
The purpose of Yoga and Thai Massage
The goal of yoga is not to be able to stand on your head or twist yourself into a pretzel, but to activate an energy in your body that opens up higher levels of consciousness.
Similarly the goal of Thai Massage is not just to stretch muscles, but to facilitate an unobstructed flow of life energy through the body which allows healing to take place.
In India yoga was mostly practiced by saints and yogis. The spread of yoga to a popular, openly available and widely practiced discipline by anyone and everyone is only a fairly recent development that took place over the last few decades.
Thai Massage was traditionally practiced and taught in temples as a discipline that was closely related to Buddhist teachings. Only in the last two decades has Thai Massage become a popular and widely practiced massage style.
Both yoga and Thai massage have only fairly recently come out of the closet and become available to everyone. Both yoga and Thai Massage were traditionally practiced by spiritually oriented monks and yogis.
The recent popularity for both has resulted in great opportunities for new skills and personal development, but also in a watering down of the original spiritual principles. Yoga is now often practiced as a mere physical exercise routine, and Thai Massage is often done as just another body work style.
Although there are yoga disciplines that do not use physical exercises like bhakti yoga or jnana yoga, for the sake of this discussion we will use the physical disciplines like hatha yoga as a means of comparison to Thai Massage. Yoga uses physical stretches and manipulations to open up the body. Many of these stretches are very similar to Thai Massage positions.
Active versus passive practice
The main difference is that yoga can be practiced by oneself whereas Thai Massage is done by a therapist to a client. Yoga requires schooling, knowledge, skill and experience to practice whereas a recipient of Thai Massage does not have to know anything about it and can still experience many benefits of yoga. That is why Thai Massage is often called “applied yoga”.
I am not saying that a recipient of Thai Massage is practicing yoga. The potential for personal development of a yogi is clearly much greater than for a recipient of Thai Massage. On the other hand a Thai Massage can provide many of the benefits of yoga without having to know or practice yoga. For that reason Thai Massage is sometimes called “lazy man’s yoga”.
Consistent yoga practice has great benefits, but it requires time, study, discipline and dedication. Regular Thai Massage also has great benefits similar to yoga and can be experienced by people who do not have the ability or inclination to practice yoga.
The best of both worlds for clients
During my personal practice of Thai Massage I have come to the conclusion that the best of both worlds is a combination of both disciplines.
I often tell my clients that they have three choices. They can come to me for the rest of their lives and get regular Thai Massage sessions and pay me a lot of money, or they can learn yoga and do it for themselves for free.
Even better, they can get Thai Massage for the sheer enjoyment of receiving a blissful and beneficial session, and then they can practice yoga at home. This is the best of both worlds.
Yoga for Thai Massage practitioners
I always advise my Thai Massage students to practice yoga for several reasons. First, to do Thai Massage requires flexibility, the ability to move around a body on the floor, to sit on one’s knees or cross-legged. It is very hard to do good Thai Massage without being in good shape oneself.
Second, the practice of yoga will enhance a Thai Massage practitioner’s state of energy and awareness which is a very important part of Thai Massage. Third, Thai Massage practitioners can help their clients by recommending certain yoga exercises as “homework” after a Thai Massage session in order to increase and prolong benefits.
Thai Massage for Yoga teachers
As far as yoga teachers are concerned, the practice of Thai Massage can help them to improve the quality of their touch. It can enable them to deal with yoga related injuries like overstretching.
It can help them to apply some complementary and matching massage moves as part of their teaching sessions. This can enhance the experience of their students and add to the uniqueness of their classes.
Thai Massage and yoga are a perfect marriage. I have used them both in my practice and in my teaching and I would not want to miss either of them in my repertoire. Yoga and Thai Massage work on the physical body and on the energy body. Both use similar techniques, both open and improve energy flow, both are originally based on spiritual principles, and both have tremendous benefits.
The author, Shama Kern, is a long time resident of Thailand and the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy.
He lives with his Thai wife in Chiang Mai, which is the city with the highest concentration of Thai Massage schools in the world.
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