From the MASSAGE Magazine article, “Body in Balance: Thai Massage,” by Anthony James, N.D., in the June 2009 issue. Article summary: In Thai massage, the entire body is pushed, pressed, rocked, vibrated and rhythmically compressed by virtually every part of the therapist’s body—hands, feet, elbows, knees, forearms and shins. The therapist, at times, will stand and sit fully on the client with complete balance and control, guiding and manipulating the client to realign with either internal or external alignments.

by Anthony James

As an art and spiritual discipline of healing, Thai massage has been passed from one generation to the next in the form of oral tradition, whereby one would serve a sort of apprenticeship under a teacher, often for several years, before practicing as a therapist. In general, the teachings were preserved and cherished by the monks and nuns of the Buddhist temples. In Thailand’s past, people came to the temples for just about everything, from medical help to education. Anyone could come to the temple for food, shelter or medical or spiritual healing.

There is little written documentation of the development of Thai massage’s style. In a videotaped interview with myself filmed in 1996, the late Grand Master Aachan Sintorn of the Royal Thai Ministry of Health Task Force on Traditional Medicine said there is only one known complete copy of the original Buddhist Pali Codex describing the practice of this tradition. This copy, now preserved by the National Museum, Department of Antiquities in Bangkok, is the basis for the renaissance of Traditional Thai Medicine, including Thai massage.

Also called “nuad phaen boran Thai” or “Thai nuad,” Thai bodywork is born of a long tradition, and has been taught and practiced in one form or another in the region of Thailand for more than a thousand years. The initial credit for Thai massage is given to one individual, a famous doctor known as Jivaka, who was known to be a contemporary of the Buddha and was a personal physician to Bimbisara, the king of that period in Northern India. Jivaka was also a physician to a developing order of Buddhists monks and nuns known as the sangha. His name and position are mentioned in the traditional Pali Canon, or writings of Theraveda Buddhism, and in the genealogies of Indian Ayurveda.

Variations and derivations of the hands-on therapies ascribed to Jivaka are practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia and, of course, Thailand. Even though we pay respect to the “founder” Shivago, it is impossible to say to what extent other styles of medicine and massage have contributed to Thai massage’s development. For example, there are also dramatic similarities to the hands-on traditions of amma and tuina of China and anma/shiatsu of Japan.

Every traditional healing session of Thai massage begins with Puja or the wai khruu, or paying of respect. This is still done partly in remembrance of Jivaka’s contribution to the present day art. In the past, this wai khruu was a distinctive incantation in the Pali language (an anachronistic Sanskrit language used primarily by Buddhist monks). Traditionally, it is an invocation to the founder Shivago/Jivaka with a present, positive imperative statement calling for healing, not only for the client and sick person, but for the world as well. The most well-known example of this wai khruu is “Om namo shivago.” (To listen to this mantra, go to

In modern times, Thai Massage was introduced to the West primarily by three teachers: Phaa Khruu Samaii Mesamarn of the Wat Buddhai Sawan lineage; Aachan Boonsorn Kitnyam of the Wat Po lineage; and Aachan Sintorn Chaichgun of the Buntautuk tradition. These three renowned grand masters passed on the work and lineage to Aachan James and continued to do so for students in Thailand until their respective passings.

In the past, Thai massage contributed to the emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of the Thai; it continues to do so today. Thai medicine is Vedic medicine and is based on spiritual and energetic principles, and is now heavily influenced by the aforementioned cultural influences of the Chinese, Burmese, Laotion, Khymer and Yunani medicine of the Malay south.

The cosmology of traditional Thai medicine is the same stakya, or samkhya, creation principles as found in Traditional Indian Ayurveda. The Thai refer to this as the Sampayutta Dhamma. The Sampayutta Dhamma details how ultimately all disease processes are fundamentally caused by a disassociation with the knowingness with God. This disassociative state is a manifestation of the ego, which in turn is evidenced by three primary forms of defilement: desire, aversion and ignorance.

These three egocentric defilements become the three dosha (body types, or humors) of satva, raja and tamas. All faculties and material manifestation of consciousness are seen as derivatives and blendings of these three qualities. Satvas (defilement of desire) is responsible for the five sense faculties, the five motor organs and the mind. Rajas (defilement of aversion) is the source of what is called kinetic protective force, or all movement and action. Tamas (defilement of ignorance) is responsible for the guna (quality or manifestation) of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell.

The fundamental purpose of true medicine is to resolve the schism of the egocentric consciousness and that of god. God is defined as the undefiled, undifferentiated perfected cosmic consciousness. This is practically sought after by balancing and bringing to harmony the three doshas, the manifestations of fractured consciousness. Philosophically, the Buddhist world view of samsara is important, in that the Buddha explained the nature of the world is suffering, and that it is the ego which suffers as a result of misunderstanding one’s true nature, and the consequences of ego interacting with the world.

So all Buddhist medicine is based on the idea of education to one’s true nature and releasing one from the consequences of manifest ego. Therefore, Buddhism is medicine in that it is an attempt to treat the most fundamental cause, or origin of all pain. In practical terms, the guiding principal is “ProMiiWihan Sii”, or the Four Divine, Boundless States of Mind (love, compassion, joy and equanimity). This is the highest and finest medicine. Everything that comes after is based on this.