Thai Massage by Richard Gold
How It Started
In Thailand, what is known in the Western world as Thai massage is known as Nuad Bo’Rarn. Nuad is a Thai word that translates as, “to touch with the intention of imparting healing.” Bo’Rarn is a word derived from ancient Sanskrit; it translates as, “something which is ancient and revered.” The same word, Bo’Rarn, is applied to the revered sutras (texts) of Buddhism. Also, in Thailand, Thai massage is recognized as a core component of an entire system of traditional medicine. There are four aspects of traditional Thai medicine:
1) Herbal medicine;
2) Nutrition and food cures;
3) Spiritual practices, including mantras, prayer, incantations and mindfulness meditation;
4) Nuad Bo’Rarn (Thai massage).
Historically, Thai massage was not specifically what Westerners consider massage. It was thought of as and utilized as the hands-on practice of traditional medicine. Thai massage techniques were applied to the treatment of the varied ailments that afflict humanity, including mental and emotional illness.
The historical founder of Thai medicine is known as Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha (the father doctor). He is identified by scholars as a close personal associate of the historical Buddha, and was the head physician of the original Sangha, the community of followers that gathered around the Buddha. This would place him as living in India approximately 2,500 years ago.
Buddhist monks and followers brought their traditional medicine with them as they made their way from India to what is now modern Thailand, in approximately the second century B.C. For centuries, the traditional medical knowledge was transmitted orally from teacher to student. Over the centuries, a distinct tradition evolved that was primarily influenced by the Ayurvedic traditions from India, but also began to incorporate theories and practices from ancient China. In addition, healing practices of the indigenous tribal peoples of the area also became part of the local medical practices. By the time Theravada Buddhism was declared the official religion of the kingdom in approximately 1292 A.D., the traditional medicine was well established in the Buddhist monasteries, known as Wat. Traditionally, the Buddhist monks—and to a lesser extent Buddhist nuns—administered the healing work to the people in their villages.
Besides the specific hands-on techniques, herbs and foods were utilized in healing; Buddhist philosophy pervades the practice of medicine in Thailand. Healing work is understood to be the practical application of metta, or loving kindness. Metta is understood to be a core component of daily life for each individual seeking awareness and fulfillment on the path taught by the Buddha. Teachers describe metta as the “foundation of the world,” essential for the peace and happiness of oneself and others.
In Thai Theravada Buddhism, significant emphasis is placed on the practical application of spiritual philosophy: that higher ideals be brought into everyday life and decisions. Accordingly, the practice of Thai massage demonstrates the practical application of the four divine states of mind: 1) metta, 2) compassion, 3) vicarious joy and 4) mental equanimity (brought to fruition through meditative practice).
How Is It Different?
Today, Thai massage is being practiced in clinics and spas all over the world and has experienced remarkable growth and acceptance. In fact, there has even been a dramatic growth of schools for traditional Thai massage in Thailand. It combines elements of yoga, meditation, acupressure and assisted stretching to provide a unique and wonderful bodywork experience.
However, Thai massage does differ in several ways from Western massage. Key distinctions include:
- Thai massage is practiced with the client fully clothed in loose-fitting clothing.
- No oils or lubricants are utilized in Thai massage.
- Thai massage is practiced very slowly.
- Thai massage is a core component of an entire traditional medical practice (traditional Thai medicine).
- The practice emphasizes pressing, compression and stretching techniques. The rubbing techniques of Western massage (effleurage and petrissage) are absent.
- Thai massage practitioners utilize their feet, knees, elbows and forearms, in addition to their hands and fingers extensively during therapy.
- Sessions take place on a cotton pad or mat that is placed on the floor or on a low platform.
- Thai massage therapists are encouraged to work in a concentrated and meditative state of mind, unencumbered by thought or fantasy. They are supposed to “transmit” this quality of mind through their touch to the client.
- Although it is the physical body of the client that is being addressed, the primary focus and intention of the therapy is to bring balance and harmony to the “energetic” body and mind of the recipient.
Primacy Of Abdominal Work
Like Indian Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Thai medicine is based on an energetic paradigm of the human body and mind. In the Thai medical model, bio-energy (Qi) travels through the body on what are designated as Sen lines, which are somewhat similar to the meridians of acupuncture/Chinese medicine theory. Ten primary Sen are identified in Thai medicine, which, essentially, originate deep in the abdominal cavity in the vicinity of the navel and connect the center of the body to the sensory and excretory orifices and the extremities. Because of this energetic understanding, the practical, therapeutic application of Thai massage focuses on the abdomen. The practitioner will work with the client to establish an awareness of breathing deeply into the abdomen. Once the client is breathing deeply, the therapist will proceed with a specific series of deep palm compressions, followed by deep thumb presses. All these procedures are designed to invigorate the functioning of the organs and to eliminate energetic blockages and stagnation of blood and lymph. The improved functioning of the abdominal region has positive implications for the overall health and vitality of the client.
Thai massage offers the practicing massage therapist a wonderful new approach to bodywork and therapeutic touch. In addition, more and more massage and bodywork establishments are receiving requests from clientele to provide this unique style of therapeutic touch. There are great opportunities to practice Thai massage in spas, clinical settings and resorts around the globe. The learning, practicing and receiving of Thai massage can be a profound, wonderful and joyful life experience.
About the author
Richard M. Gold, Ph.D., L.Ac., ABT, has been practicing Asian healing arts and acupuncture since 1978. He is the author and instructor of the DVD Mastering Thai Massage produced by Real Bodywork. He is the author of Best Selling Thai Massage book, 2nd edition.
He is a founder and current board member of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Additionally, Gold is the president and chairman of the board of the International Professional School of Bodywork (IPSB). He teaches at both institutions. Gold is based in San Diego.