This was originally written in 2015 and published some time after in a Chinese medicine college's publication. Around the time of this writing I'd traded my interest in Thai massage for my long-held suspicion that bodies are bodies, and no matter what chunk of the earth's crust you're on, if you observe and touch enough bodies, you're going to arrive at some universal understandings about bodies and feeling good and active while in one. I decided I no longer wanted to teach "Thai" massage. Growing up straddling two cultures in a country at a time where assimilation was key, I know, firsthand, that there are so many subtle and complex treasures in any given culture, that one only truly understands them having grown up in that culture. I finally started paying attention to the culture of herbal and nutritional wisdom prevalent in my own family of origin and decided that what interests me most are the "universals" that I have found in eleven years of bodywork practice.
Thai massage was my introduction to giving bodywork. Since my late teens, I had already experienced profoundly beneficial results from receiving therapeutic massage: I became aware of what my body physically does when at the mercy of my strong emotions; I avoided breech delivery of my second child and I ended up not needing surgery that I was told was necessary due to “irreparable nerve damage”. Bodywork was my go-to whenever I felt out-of-sorts as I knew it could help me prevent a minor imbalance from becoming a larger health issue. However, while I knew about and enjoyed its results, it was never something I imagined myself doing. Once I experienced the wordless “connection” through which both bodywork giver and receiver benefit, at a workshop that unbeknownst to me, incorporated Thai massage, I knew I wanted to learn more about and do this work. Forever. And it was with this goal, that I found myself immersed in what would become this life’s work.
Students have asked, “Table Thai or Floor Thai- which should I study?” My answer has always been that because the work is typically done on a mat on the floor, practitioners are best served by finding their own center when working on the floor. Once they have learned the principles that guide therapeutic application of the work, then the things that make Thai massage “Thai” (and most importantly, therapeutic for this body, as its presenting, right here, right now) can be applied to work done on a table.
One of the first lessons I share with students are the spirit in which Thai medicine is rooted. Thailand is a predominantly orthodox Buddhist country and its medicinal practices are not only grounded in Buddhist philosophy, but also informed by its rich history, the many ideologies and ethnicities that have traveled throughout its land along with its many indigenous, magical practices. To delineate Thai massage “styles” merely by Southern, Northern, rural or Royal, oversimplifies all that informs Thailand’s traditional medicinal practices. I suspect the same is true for the medicinal practices of any culture, now, as I look back at the eye-rolling adolescent (yours truly) who huffed in disinterest as her Mother shared herbs’ uses and how specific harvesting times and preparations worked for this ailment but not that during long walks together. And just as fruit is only as nourishing as the soil in which it is grown, the philosophy or spirit in which a medicinal practice is rooted informs, guides and determines the outcome (just look at our sick-care system today). Rooting one’s medicinal practice in the three jewels, four divine states of mind and the five precepts is where one's study of Thai massage begins.
The Three Jewels The three jewels refer to the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. A Buddha simply means an awakened one. To awaken and then by one’s acts, inspire others to awaken, is right and compassionate work. We take refuge in the Buddha not so much as one venerates an image of a saint in the Christian religion, but rather as a symbolic reminder that we can all strive to embody these ideals. To help others is the most surefire way we have to learn- and thus teach- others via our unfolding. The dharma or teachings, refer to the lessons we receive by walking our path or living our life truthfully. If we are awake enough to see them, lessons unfold as we become ready for them. We keep ourselves ready by diligently developing our awareness, or rather, being aware of where our awareness is. At all times. And patiently, kindly, gently, bringing it back to where we want it when it wanders. Because it will. Our sangha, refers to our group, or gang: those around us. There is our immediate sangha, our family, teachers and loved ones. But just as ripples move outward in ever-widening circles, so does our sangha’s reach, until one sees, without any doubt, that our sangha is every being in existence. Clients and other practitioners included. If this [life and busy-ness] is all an illusion, all a mask that we chose to wear to learn whatever we needed to sort out this time around, then, yes, we are all just walking each other home, isn’t that right, Ram Dass? Any bodywork practitioner who has been at this for a few years knows that one’s clients tend to bring precisely the lessons one needs to practice. We cannot touch without being touched by that which we touch- this is why I encourage students to “work with” their clients’ bodies rather than “work on”. Don’t “do yoga to” any body! The connection of touch flows both ways- we may be guiding or facilitating clients’ release of muscular tension but at its most basic, we, the therapist are being guided by their body and after weighing and discerning, reacting (hopefully, wisely) to its reactions! That is why what serves us and ultimately our clients most, is being aware of where your awareness is, listening, feeling, receiving. When facilitation of beneficial change does take place, it is when we work with or walk with others, each on our own path, each gently supporting and guiding what needs to happen next.
The Four Gems I define the four divine states of mind as per Theravada Buddhism: metta, karuna, mudita and uppeka. But again, I relate these to one’s bodywork practice. Sometimes, we think we are practicing them, but we are really engaging in their opposites: self-serving, fear-based or ego-driven pursuits. For instance, is our wish for this person’s peace of mind and well-being really selfless metta or are we basing our perceived peace of mind and well-being on others’ acknowledging our acquired knowledge, degrees or certifications and them telling all their friends what a great practitioner we are? Not so very selfless.
Karuna, which translates to compassion, or as I prefer to see it, a desire to understand or mercy, is a must for any bodywork practice. We do not know the depth of any one person’s experience, but are we always aware when we act and speak from a place of pity? Pity comes from a perceived sense of superiority and treats others as if they are not able to rightly act in their own best interests.
Muditas, or sympathetic joy is something we will absolutely experience: when a client comes in thrilled with their increased range of motion or after having overcome fear aversion after a sports-related trauma. We are happy for them, right along with them. But when we need their rejoicing due to our work in order to fuel our own, that is no longer sympathetic joy but rather attachment to externally-derived affirmation.
Upekka, or equanimity is necessary to receive all kinds of input while working with others: a steadfast, even and quiet mind can observe, listen, hear, smell, feel and discern what course of action will benefit the client without getting disturbed by desires to be right or prove accumulation of book knowledge (oh us westerners and what we think we know!). Once we have succumbed to the ego-driven need to be lauded as an expert (ultimately we can only be expert in our own body) we are no longer acting in equanimity- we are very invested in outcome and this changes the treatment and manner in which it is delivered.
The Five Precepts To refrain from killing can also be stated as doing no harm. With regards to bodywork, that must begin with you. During practical assessments, I ask students, “Are you comfortable?” I constantly ask myself- and I have had injury to show for the times when I have not inquired this of myself enough! How can you facilitate your intended objectives in a way that causes your body least strain? I repeat: No one was ever “healed” by you hurting yourself (see how many areas of life to which this applies).
To abstain from lying, to me as a massage therapist, simply means to not misrepresent myself or this practice, to be honest when I don’t know, to have enough humility and self-awareness to honestly assess my experience level and skill-set and to refer out when that is most beneficial for my client.
To refrain from sexual misconduct in a bodywork context means that I honor the safe space that must be created for my client to do their own self-work and healing. As a massage teacher, it also means to maintain a sacred, safe space in which learning can occur. This means, I don’t ever engage in romantic or sexual relationships with clients or students. That I can work at the level of honesty and intimacy that I do is precisely because of my clarity of intention.
To refrain from intoxicants to me means to be in possession of my full faculties while working and to be firm about not practicing when either party has impaired their awareness. One teacher suggested that since one never knows when one’s skills as a health care provider will be needed, once one becomes such, one is never off-duty. I appreciated that outlook.
The last precept is to refrain from stealing, which to me means crediting teachers, authors and others whose work has informed our practice. This also means not stealing time from clients nor putting them in a care-giving position to me by revealing my personal life concerns during what is their time. This also means not speaking ill of other practitioners; trusting, instead that the effort put into one’s work will always speak for itself and that the universe will always bring us exactly the clients that are ours.
Elements, treatment principles and reconnecting mind-heart and body via breath Thai massage is but one aspect of the traditional medicinal practices of Thailand. Since the Thais, like many precolonial cultures, do not separate thoughts and feelings from the physical body, their medicinal practices consider not only the external physical, but the internal, through diet, herbs and prayer (or affirmation or mantra). I have always joked to my classes that “The meat simply manifests what’s going on here.”, while alternately pointing to my head and heart to emphasize that we cannot extricate one from the other. We have tons of thoughts about our feelings, and we have lots of feelings about those thoughts. Our modern culture spends way too much time thinking and feeling about our thoughts and feelings, but that’s another lesson for another time. Thai medical theory, which I am still learning is based on the balanced interplay of elements: Fire, Wind, Water, Earth (and sometimes space, or ether) and bodywork techniques are chosen based on elemental constitution, treatment of any imbalance and whether the client’s signs and symptoms are coming from depletion, stagnation, blockage or excess. The techniques’ objectives either tonify or disperse, depending on what the client needs, but I think, they all only work when we help the client re-inhabit the area of their body where we are working, via their breath. This is why, I was able to treat patients at a chiropractic practice for years, on a table, using oil if the person’s constitution needed it, and it was still Thai massage- because it was based on Thai treatment principles and developed their awareness via guided breath: any spaciousness or release they experienced was their own doing, simply facilitated by our work, the work that the client and I did together.
I know we have all seen many photos of practitioners doing Thai massage where bodies are tangled up in intricate, multi-faceted positions, doing many things simultaneously. Take a moment and think about that sentence. Is that what most bodies, in our fast-paced, information-coming-at-you-every-second culture need? I learned these moves too, but what struck me about the work was the quiet connection, the stillness; not the acrobatics or multi-joint manipulations. I happened to resonate with being on a floor and barefoot because that is, due to my previous jobs and studies, where I have always been.
When we break it down, Thai massage is no different from therapeutic bodywork done in any other part of the world: we assess the superficial by sight, smell, touch, questions, we work and warm, beginning with the broad, physical and general, carefully working with our client to access the specific and subtle, all the while, harnessing the power of the breath to help balance any places where something is missing or has over-accumulated. We use breath to integrate the mind/heart and the meat. This is why recipients arise from a treatment in a calm, alert, refreshed and resourceful state of mind. You, as therapist, have hopefully just walked with and guided them on a journey to a resting place within themselves. To bring it back to this article’s first section, now do you see why it is so important that you first know how to do this for yourself and why your ego, your desire to prove your mastery (of bodywork, or whatever) has no place in a treatment?
Of course, it is responsible to know your anatomy, pathology and contraindications and stay up to speed on biomedical developments. If the bodywork that resonates with you comes from another culture, then humbly learn all you can about the work’s culture. This is you upholding your inherent promise to provide the best possible care for your clients, but also you honoring the work’s traditions and lineage. Develop fluency in biomedical science and clinical reasoning. In this way, you can work on a table or mat, treat with Thai principles but speak and SOAP in clinical terms. And that is why what makes the work Thai or, most importantly, therapeutic, is not whether the work happens on a mat or table, but whether the treatment plan, informed and guided by, Thai and biomedical treatment theories. Is beneficial for this body, right here, right now. A student once asked me if I thought Thai massage was the only modality that provided this intimate but detached integration of mindheart and body via breath and holding space, and I remember my response very clearly: No; any bodywork, when done with right heart can provide this experience for its receiver.