In a previous article, the fundamental importance of cultivating inner stances (attitudes) and deep listening to clients on a variety of levels was explored. The inner stances contribute to health and well-being on all levels: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual, of both client and practitioner simultaneously.
The outer stances, which will be the focus of this article, follow a few basic rules to ensure energy flows freely through the practitioner. In Thai massage, this energy is referred to as lom, which can be roughly translated as “life force.” Additionally, outer stances ensure proper body mechanics so as to prevent pain in the hands, knees, other major joints and along the spine over time. This ensures the longevity of the Thai massage practitioner’s career, as well as continuing to encourage lom to flow freely through the body.
As we apply pressure (especially when thumbing, although generally at all times), we make use of the flow of life-force energy as an integral part of the massage. In Chinese, a power center called the tan tien, which refers to “the field of the elixir of immortality,” is located at, below and interior of the navel. Letting our breath travel to and fill the belly is one way of keeping this reservoir full of clear and healthy life-force energy (lom). As the practitioner massages, she can visualize or sense energy being issued from this place, travelling up to the heart and out the arms and thumbs. Most massage clients sense this as a deeper and more exact pressure, even if the practitioner is not exerting any more physical pressure than usual.
During the massage, there is also a link established with the earth that allows for a more full issuing of pressure and presence. Each element (earth, water, fire, air and space) has both active and receptive qualities. The active form of the earth element is elimination or letting go, which generally has a downward flow or pull. Imagine there is a giant spring on the ground. As the practitioner allows her body weight to fall into or press against the spring, energy is stored and then begins to push or press back toward them. This is potential energy, and the more one can let go into the earth, the more the earth can give back to the practitioner and, hence, the client.
Roots that reach into the earth connote a sense of stability and grounding. The deeper one can root downward, the greater the potential for drawing energy up through the roots to feed one’s center. When the practitioner only allows his roots to be superficial, he neither has access to the rich energy available deeper in the earth nor has a stable base.
The ground will push back as one roots into it. As the practitioner gives the massage, the more he can root through the legs and pelvis–connecting fully with the earth and feeling the earth give energy back to him–the more internal power will be available to move up and through his body. This energy is palpable, both to the practitioner and client.
The application of the principle of rooting, as well as engaging the waist and belly, affords the practitioner a steady and even power without having to over-exert muscles. There is a deeper connection through the structure of the body (bones and ligaments, along what are called sen lines in Thai massage) that when interconnected, allows the muscles to remain relaxed and responsive, yet imparts a strength that muscles alone could not apply.
This relaxed, responsive state, where one sinks into and meets the earth, differs from collapse where the body loses its integrity and becomes limp and flaccid. While deep release for the client into the ground in the lying postures is encouraged, the practitioner is encouraged to exhibit a relaxed and responsive state. In doing so, the practitioner is able to remain open and connected through the massage, channelling energy rather than blocking or inhibiting its flow, and will be invigorated by the practice. When the massage becomes effortful, the practitioner may want to consider:
- Is a break or rest from client work needed (mental, emotional, physical, energetic)? If so, for how long?
- Is there a need to receive (and not just give) body or energy work, either through self-care such as yoga or other activities, or received care such as massage, energy healing, counseling, etc.?
- Are proper body mechanics and principles being utilized?
In Thai massage the principles of rooting, of relaxed responsiveness and of connection are key in several ways. On a basic mechanical level, practitioners work with a variety of body sizes and shapes. At times, one may find oneself manipulating and moving a body that may be larger or heavier than his own. Making use of the ground to push into and from allows practitioners to lift, maneuver and apply pressure with less effort and fatigue than might happen if using muscle strength alone. Certainly, with only the effort of muscle (even on a body that is smaller or lighter than one’s own), practitioners may find themselves tired over the course of an hour-and-a-half massage, not to speak of a full work day of clients.
On another level, “falling in” to the client from the earth as well as accessing one’s center creates a distinctly different kind of pressure than if one simply pushed or pressed using brute force–basically, internal power, as opposed to muscular force. Internal power is developed through circular movement, bowed lines and a relaxed body. Internal power channels energy through the muscles and sinew, whereas muscular force expends energy. Muscular force is a result of straight lines and a bound body. The bones are bound by the muscles to form a rigid structure. In Thai massage, muscular force is experienced by the client as forcing, is often painful and ineffectual as a healing technique.
Furthermore, muscular force has no direct relationship with the client, nor with energy itself. When one falls in and when one leads from her center, she remains “related” to the client, the forces of nature around her, and the energy within. Through internal power, the practitioner can access the inherent intelligence of lom for healing, as well as remain open so as to “hear” the signals from the client’s body and from her own intuition.
Consider practicing on friends to have them describe the sensation of you issuing brute force versus falling-in, and then have someone try it on you. Even if you are using the same amount of pressure, the difference in the quality of touch is clear and astounding.
Nikki Manzie is the director of Eastern therapies and bodywork, as well as Yogatherapy, at Pacific Rim College in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She is also co-director of Three Winds Academy. She deeply values relatedness and healing connections between self, other and nature; this is apparent in her training of therapists, practitioners and other trainers. For more information about her work, visit www.ThreeWinds.com and www.pacificrimcollege.ca.