On a bright morning back in 2002, I stood in front of a group of eager massage therapists.
One asked, “Don’t we have to get on the table to do this right?”
I remember laughing and telling my student, “Nope, keep your feet on the floor. After all, the last thing you want is to fall on your client!”
Everyone chuckled, and then they began to learn how to perform Thai for the Table.
I remember thinking to myself, “This is why I teach—to give therapists the opportunity to have long, successful careers filled with passion and free of injury.”
Thai for the Table has proved to be an excellent pathway to fulfill that goal.
The origins of Thai massage are thought to date back to ancient India, and one can see the influences of yoga and Ayurvedic traditions integrated throughout the sequences as well as the theory.
The hallmarks of Thai massage, including table Thai massage, include: the use of momentum and gravity rather than muscular strength; work along energy lines called sen lines; rocking; and range-of-motion assisted stretching.
The core of Thai massage theory centers around the integration of mind, body and spirit, and therapists seek to connect with their clients in what is often referred to as a therapeutic dance.
What also excites massage therapists about Thai massage is it is traditionally performed with the client fully clothed and with no oils, allowing therapists to offer a unique service and expand to new clientele demographics.
Thai massage has grown enormously in popularity and scope over the last decade—and sparking controversy over whether or not Thai massage is actually massage and what constitutes adequate training to consider oneself a Thai massage practitioner.
Prior to gaining momentum in the U.S. as a popular modality, Thai massage schools in Thailand taught 60-hour certification courses, and teacher training was available for an additional 60 to 70 hours. Now, certification can be had around the world from the traditional 60 hours up to 500 hours, leaving massage therapists to make their own choices as to what is sufficient training.
Table Thai Massage
Thai for the Table is a relatively new phenomenon. Functionally, there is little to no difference in the number of techniques or type of techniques you can perform using table Thai massage versus Thai massage on a floor mat. The majority of technique adaptation comes from shifting the therapist’s body position.
For example, in traditional Thai massage, there are a number of movements where the therapist is standing over the client. In Thai for the Table, the therapist moves to the side or head of the client but performs an identical or similar movement that creates the same impact on the client’s body.
In teaching Thai for the Table with therapists who are already trained in traditional Thai massage, we find they have these “a-ha” moments where they realize how they can translate movements to the table.
Once learned, it’s an easy jump, but table Thai massage requires certain flexibility in thinking that’s difficult to come up with on your own without training.
There are, of course, a number of interpretations of Thai massage when it is performed on the table. Approaches vary depending on who is teaching the course.
Some therapists get onto the table with the client, using the table almost like a floor mat for a number of techniques; however, this is not necessary. Getting on the table is uncomfortable for the therapist (and sometimes for the client), and poses an unnecessary risk in stability and liability. But mostly, it’s just not needed.
Additionally, in the BodySaver modality of Thai for the Table, we have replaced much of the thumb- and palm-pressing techniques with use of the therapist’s forearms, knuckles, fists, knees and feet to be in alignment with our mission of injury prevention.
This is a departure from traditional technique, but the benefits remain the same for the client and the therapist gets to further protect their joints from injury.
Feet as Massage Tools
One of the wonderful things about Thai massage is being able to use your feet as massage tools, which is part of the traditional Thai modality. This is generally the biggest challenge for massage therapists to translate into table work.
Using your feet isn’t absolutely necessary to perform effective table Thai massage work, but the ball, arch, toes and heel of your foot are all sensitive and effective—and it’s almost impossible to injure your feet and ankles. Unlike your hands, wrists and thumbs, they are designed to withstand a great deal of pressure.
Combined with the strength of your legs, therapists who really want to take their technique to another level should learn to use their feet in a table massage.
To do so, therapists can use a bench or other adjustable seat to work at height. In side-lying position, for example, your hands and feet can work in concert on your client. The feet may be working compressions into the hips and back, while your hand clasps the client’s foot and stretches their quads and hip flexors.
When I first added Thai for the Table to my treatment menu, most of my clients went from 60-minute sessions to 90-minute sessions. I introduce techniques little by little, letting clients know I’m going to use a Thai technique and then getting their feedback.
The feedback is positive 99 percent of the time, and from there I add more into a session. Even though you may be performing a massage session where oils are involved and the client is disrobed, Thai movements and sequences can be integrated into the table treatment as much or as little as you like.
Client Case Studies
Let’s take a look at two types of clients, Pete and Roger.
Pete is a very active person. He plays golf, runs and works out at the gym with his trainer. He has a stressful job in sales and uses massage both to relax and deal with post-exercise strain.
Roger is an older man, still active, but dealing with some arthritis in his joints and the effects of a herniated disc in his low back from about 10 years ago.
He likes to take care of his home and helps his daughter with her house as well, but he sometimes overdoes it and strains his back or shoulders. He comes to massage for pain relief, and to be able to get back up and keep going in his day-to-day life.
Thai for the Table is perfect for both Roger and Pete.
Thai therapists use Thai massage as an assessment tool to uncover muscle imbalances and limitations in range of motion. Movement can be a self-exploration for clients as they get to encounter the awareness that comes when someone else is moving their body for them.
Clients who become aware of the limitations in their mobility can then choose to take action where previously they may have been blind.
Furthermore, there is a unique sequence in Thai technique that addresses the abdomen, rib cage and chest and has been shown to increase circulation to the internal organs and open up the rib cage for deeper breathing. The attending health benefits can be quite significant for any client.
If the session is done fully clothed, the client doesn’t have to concern himself with oil on his body or hair, disrobing, being self-conscious or adding extra time to a session. This is a huge benefit for busy, active people who may want to receive sessions on their lunch break or in a similarly limited window of time.
Thai massage has a great deal of therapist-assisted stretching in it. Stretching is a key fitness practice that people tend to overlook.
Thai massage isn’t nicknamed “yoga for lazy people” for nothing. Clients such as Pete who are into performance don’t necessarily take adequate time for stretching compared to how hard they push their bodies. Roger still isn’t totally comfortable with taking his clothes off and he likes that some of the Thai stretches he can do at home in between treatments.
Greater mobility, flexibility and range of motion equal greater freedom of movement and reduced pain for both types of client. All this can be achieved via table Thai massage.
Both Roger and Pete have pretty high stress levels. The rocking motion central to Thai massage is sedating and relaxing, while the therapist-assisted stretching and range of motion work is energizing. So, the overall effect is balance. The relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged when the body is rocked.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, all body systems respond positively—autoimmune systems work better, positive neurotransmitters like serotonin are released, digestion improves and a general sense of well-being is the result.
Using a rocking motion to apply pressure also avoids the stretch reflex. This reflex causes the muscle to contract even as you are trying to lengthen it—creating pain and working against you.
Rocking and using momentum allows for a deep stretch and lengthening of both long- and short-fiber muscles—the muscle telescopes out longer rather than snapping back like a rubber band.
Thai massage incorporates joint manipulation with acupressure simultaneously, moving the tissue into the pressure, thus allowing the client to receive multiple benefits at the same time and tolerate deeper pressure.
Spinal manipulation is unique to Thai massage, and something Roger and Pete both specifically come to Thai for the Table to receive.
Thai movements include flexion, extension and twisting of the spinal column that impact the deep muscles of the spine not normally accessible by palpation. The discs of the back also receive nutrients when you twist, opening up energy and speeding healing.
You can hear “spinal manipulation” and get nervous you’re going to hurt someone, but with all Thai movements, the motion is designed for clients to only move to their capacity and ease into the motion gently.
Roger and Pete are happy massage clients, but what Roger and Pete don’t realize is they are also my favorite kind of clients—Thai for the Table clients. The best-kept secret of Thai massage is the benefits it imparts to the therapist’s well-being.
There is a significant difference in the quality of touch when you use gravity, body weight and momentum as opposed to muscular strength from a static position.
A deeper, more satisfying connection is established between client and therapist. This can be described as the difference between trying to do something to your client (using muscular strength) as opposed to doing something with your client in the therapeutic dance of Thai (using gravity and momentum).
Preserve Your Own Health
Thai for the Table allows therapists of any size to perform effective, deep-tissue massage without the risk of injury or exhaustion. No ropes or straps are necessary, and clients don’t feel like they have to “work” during the treatment to get the results. Thai massage is effective because it uses leverage, momentum and gravity.
With the epidemic of joint injury and burnout leaving the average career span of a massage therapist between five and seven years, using Thai techniques preserves the health of your wrists and thumbs, and allows you to get some movement and stretch in your own body.
This prevents locking of your joints, connective tissue and muscles, while rocking movements trigger your parasympathetic nervous system as well as your clients’.
The therapists we teach often complain of boredom—they have the same kind of clients or perform the same kind of massage repeatedly.
For creative, dynamic people, this just isn’t healthy. What is healthy is having a flexible, interesting set of tools you can flex to accommodate any client—and also vary your technique to keep yourself interested and provide variety, deeper healing and relaxation for your clients.
Thai for the Table is one of the best ways to bring balance, fresh technique and perspective to your career while taking care of your well-being.
About the Authors
Patrick Ingrassia, L.M.T., is the founder of the Nayada Institute of Massage and inventor of the Nayada Method and the BodySaver Bench. He has been teaching massage in the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico for more than 20 years. Ingrassia developed the BodySaver Method of massage to address issues with injury and burnout that stop massage therapists from reaching their potential. He is a New York state-licensed massage therapist, Thai massage therapist and intructor, Kripalu-certified bodyworker, certified personal trainer and yoga teacher.
Tina L.I. Dietz, N.C.C., is a nationally certified counselor and business manager of the Nayada Institute, along with being the managing director of the Evergreen Experiment. She specializes in bringing entrepreneurial ventures into reality as a master coach and consults business owners looking to have freedom, fulfillment and balance present in their lives.
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