Traditional Thai massage is a beautiful art form. While it is a vital component of Traditional Thai medicine, its beauty and power go beyond medical theory or mechanical techniques. It is a form of communication, one being to another. It is a form of healing through compassionate touch and loving-heart presence. It is play; it is serious medicine; it is art and dance.
Benefits of Thai massage include increased mobility, better circulation, pain reduction and enhancement of well-being on all levels. These benefits are available to clients as well as practitioners. Many Thai massage practitioners find deep healing and sustained health through their continued and regular offering of this massage style.
In Thai massage, the practitioner cultivates, simultaneously, inner and outer stances as part of maintaining mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. The outer stances translate as movements that are a beautiful dance of energy and transitional force between client, practitioner and the earth that supports them.
The inner stances are attitudes cultivated and embodied by the practitioner. These stances help to shape the inner awareness and relationship one shares with clients and the world in general, offering ethical guidelines for daily living as well as therapeutic relationships. Inner stances find their roots in Buddhism (an integral aspect of Thai culture and, thus, Thai massage) as well as empathetic energetic healing.
Buddhism arrived in what is now Thailand sometime around the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. The main texts that document the teachings of Buddha are called the Pali Canon. One chapter within these texts expounds the life of a doctor named Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, who is reported to have been physician to the Buddha (Buddha and Jivaka are said to have lived about 563 to 486 B.C.).
Today in Thailand, Jivaka is revered as the progenitor of Thai medicine. There are statues in his honor and some patients pray to him to intercede on their behalf, while Mo-Boran (doctors and therapists) ask him to come through their hands to affect healing. Jivaka is honored in ceremonies for medicine, and modern Thai healers trace their lineage back to him.
In keeping with the teachings of the Buddha and traditions of Jivaka, Thai massage practitioners adopt some of the basic teachings of Buddhism in order to cultivate and deepen their massage offerings. There are four precepts that form the basic inner stance, or attitude, of the practitioner during massage. They include:
- Metta – loving kindness and goodwill; making offerings from our heart for the benefit of others
- Karuna – compassion and the desire to reach out and ease suffering
- Mudita – joy for the joy and good fortune of others
- Upekkha – recognition of unity; interacting with others from a place of equality and equanimity
Additionally, the inner stance is informed by the way one is present with, or listening to, a client. The key skill in Thai massage is to listen to the client’s body, mind and heart simultaneously. The art of listening is the art of connecting with the client’s energy on a variety levels:
- Energy systems
- Structural issues
- Psychological/emotional issues
- Organs and other systems.
The practice of listening requires the practitioner be fully present to his client, relaxed, attentive, nonjudgemental, open and sensitively aware in body, mind and heart. This is less a conscious thought and more of a whole-body presence—listening to the energy of one’s body through the vehicle of his own being. This kind of deep listening allows practitioners to sense where energy is blocked, where and how it needs to open, be rebalanced or harmonized, stimulated or released.
The practitioner is not just listening with her ears; she is listening with her own body, as well as listening intuitively, energetically and empathically. The directive to the practitioner is to learn to see and listen with hands and all other parts of her being. This allows the practitioner to be finely attuned to the needs and limits of the client on all levels (not just physical). This also allows the practitioner to respond quickly when needed; for example, in finding a particularly sensitive or painful area of the body and adjusting pressure accordingly, or in attuning to the emoting of the client as years of stress are released through sighs or tears.
There is a level of energetic interaction that happens in the realm of the “subtle,” by means of resonance and intent, between giver and receiver that is important to address. It is at this level that all of the interpersonal skills (listening deeply, observation and communication) as well as general knowledge of the practitioner combine to create an ambience of interaction. Much is said in the realm of the subtle, spoken through words and received through inflection, context and meaning, as well as communicated through body language, general felt-sense and resonant energy.
Within this subtle realm, the intention one brings to a session is as important and sometimes more important than the actual form of massage being used. Intent in some ways can be considered the inner stance one is holding. The practitioner may choose to hold a more general intent, such as compassion or joy, applicable to all clients and situations, or may choose to bring a more specific intent to a session with a client, something the client may have spoken as a need on that particular day.
There is a saying that where the mind goes, energy follows—basically that the mind will follow the flow of vital energy, and the flow of energy will also follow the mind. When one brings healing images, intentions or words to mind, these will have a great impact on how one feels, as well as an impact on what happens in the breath and body.
Imagine that the practitioner is a string of a guitar, as is the client. Pluck one string, and the strings adjacent to it begin to vibrate in resonance. As the practitioner strongly holds an intention for healing, this intent will begin to resonate deeply within the practitioner and also the client. In this way, the dance of energy that is the art of Thai massage is performed, listening to the moment-to-moment changing of body and being, continually creating space and holding corresponding intentions, allowing for the powerful birth of healing to arise.
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.