Thai massage is part of a family of Asian healing arts – Japanese Shiatsu, Chinese Tui Na, Indian Yoga Therapy. They all share common elements which distinguish them from Western Swedish massage.
- They are performed fully clothed, generally no oil is used. Therefore the technique has to be different from oil massage. Instead of long massaging strokes, pressure is applied by thumbs, hands, knees, forearms, or feet.
- Asian healing arts all incorporate the principle of ‘energy’ – “Ki” in Japan, “Lom” in Thailand, “Prana” in India, “Chi” in China. The idea is that the physical manipulation affects a subtle energy flow which in turn aids the healing process. Western massage is more focused on anatomical principles like structure, muscles, and tissue.
- Asian massage techniques incorporate much more physical manipulation than Western Swedish massage. There is stretching , bending, twisting, and traction. Thai massage is often quite similar to yoga poses.
- Unlike Western style massage which is done on a massage table, Asian massage is mostly done on floor mats.
Thai massage’s similarity to yoga is not surprising as it was imported from India. Up until about 20 years ago, Thai massage was not well known outside of Thailand. Since then it has become popular all over the world, with many books and courses published about it.
In Thailand Thai massage is offered everywhere – on the beach, in massage shops, in hotels, in fruit and vegetable markets, flea markets etc. However often the quality of the massage is quite mediocre. Thai massage has become a popular profession since the basics can be learned rather quickly, and the practitioners can earn more money than in a basic salaried job.
With the advent of mass tourism in Thailand, Thai massage shops and Thai massage schools have sprouted on every corner in the tourist destinations. Most of the shops are legitimate massage shops, but there are plenty of exceptions. My rule is always to go with an older, simple woman rather than a young girl who has lots of makeup and painted finger nails. If they offer their services in a pushy way, avoid that shop. Really good therapists do not need to be pushy, they will be busy because of their reputation.
In the typical tourist massage shops, Thai massage in Thailand is often fairly basic, mechanical, not very intuitive, and sometimes even painful. Since there is a never-ending supply of fresh tourists, even the poorly qualified massage therapists can stay in business.
But there are true masters and healers who can really achieve amazing results with Thai massage. They have practiced the real healing art and refined it with their intuition and subtle skills. In order to find those healers, you have to really do some research. Once you find such a master, magic can happen.
Before the advent of modern medicine, Thai massage along with herbal medicine and shamanic cures were the main medical approaches to illness in Thailand. However nowadays many Thais, especially the younger ones, regard Thai massage as old-fashioned and only suitable for older people.
Interestingly it was mainly the foreigners who contributed to the renewed popularity of Thai massage. Thousands of westerners study in hundreds of schools every year, and many of them open Thai massage schools in their home countries. The majority of the books about Thai massage were written by non-Thais.
The benefits of Thai massage include the ones of Swedish massage, like increased circulation, relaxation, reduced pain and stiffness, etc., but in addition to those there are two more benefits. One cannot be easily documented, but is widely accepted in Asia. It is the improved subtle energy flow through energy lines or meridians. This energy is seen as the underlying cause of physical conditions.
The second benefit is similar to the benefits of Hatha Yoga because of the physical manipulation and stretches. However those benefits can only be realized by well trained and skilled practitioners. A typical beach or tourist massage will work fine for relaxation, but don’t expect major energy shifts from it.
There are different styles of Thai massage. In the south of Thailand massage is offered on the beaches, and the Thai massage is often mixed with oil massage and has actually not much in common with traditional Thai massage. The two main traditional massage centers are Bangkok and Chiang Mai, with two slightly different styles.
The therapists in Thailand tend to stay with the traditional style, but many western practitioners have successfully blended Thai massage with other related massage modalities and created new and excellent, albeit nontraditional styles.
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