Massage & Mindfulness
Massage in America has ‘suddenly’ become quite mainstream and acceptable. Indeed, one of America’s fastest growing service industries is the day spa, which among other services commonly features massage. Massage schools have proliferated across the country. Twenty years ago, who in their right mind would have predicted that massage schools would be in places like Huntington, West Virginia or Fayetteville, Arkansas. Even more amazing is that more and more insurance companies are reimbursing patients for massage services.
For the majority of Americans, a massage is simply a massage: techniques for rubbing the body for relaxation and stress relief. Practitioners and students of massage and those individuals who have become connoisseurs of massage know that a massage is not simply a massage. Massage encompasses a wide range of techniques. Some massage procedures are not very relaxing, even painful at times. Certain types of massage can be more invigorating and stimulating than relaxing. Various forms of massage utilize hot stones, cold and hot packs and other forms of tools that function to facilitate the therapeutic effects. Other types of massage use no oils or lotions and are given with the client fully clothed. Some massage practitioners apply techniques with their feet, elbows and knees in addition to their hands. Clearly, massage is a many faceted phenomenon.
The bodywork techniques commonly referred to as Thai Massage are an important component of an entire traditional medical system. Traditional Thai Medicine is a 2500-year-old system of natural healing developed in the ancient kingdom of Siam (modern Thailand). Traditional Thai Medicine is composed of four major branches. These four components are herbal medicine, food cures and nutrition, spiritual practices and the manual therapies ‘Nuad Bo’Rarn”, also commonly referred to as Thai Massage. Examining the Thai name for their hands-on healing work is helpful in developing an understanding of this type of work from the Thai perspective. The Thai word ‘Nuad’ means to touch with the intention of imparting healing. The word ‘Bo’Rarn’, derived from the Sanskrit language, means something that is ancient, sacred and revered. Clearly, the intention is to describe something that encompasses a Western notion of massage, but extends far beyond a description of a series of techniques applied to the surface of the body.
The medical knowledge of ancient Siam was transmitted orally from teacher to student in the same way the treasured texts (sutras) of Buddhism were transmitted. This medical knowledge was highly revered by the recipients and the practitioners of the medical arts. Historically, the practitioners of medicine were the Therevada Buddhist monks and the sites where healing was provided was primarily at the monasteries (known as Wats).
Traditional Thai Massage is based on an energetic paradigm of the human body/mind. This bio-energy travels on pathways throughout the body that are designated as ‘Sen’. Specific locations (points) of energy are called ‘nadis’. Traditional Thai Medicine has been informed historically by the rich, ancient traditions of India and China. Thai medicine has evolved within the cultural context of Thai Therevada Buddhism and its development and history are woven into the fabric of the spiritual tenets of Buddhism.
A key aspect of Buddhist philosophy that is expressed through Thai Massage is the concept of ‘Metta’. Metta, which is translated as ‘loving kindness’, is a core component of daily life for each individual seeking awareness on the path described by the Buddha. The practice of Thai massage and other healing work is understood to be a practical application of Metta. Thai massage demonstrates the Four Divine States of Mind as taught in Buddhism: Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Vicarious Joy, and Mental Equanimity. In Thai Therevada Buddhist philosophy significant emphasis is placed on the practical application of spiritual philosophy; that higher ideals should be brought into everyday life activities and decisions.
Additionally, many components of the traditional massage have been developed and utilized to facilitate seated meditation and yoga practice. In Thailand, (as in India), yoga is considered to be a science that links the individual self with the Universal Self. Furthermore, yoga can expand the narrow constricted egoistic personality to an all-pervasive, eternal and blissful state of reality.
There are certain key aspects of Thai massage that make it markedly different from what is typically considered to be massage. Thai massage is usually performed with the recipient wearing loose fitting clothing while laying on a cotton mat on the floor. No oils or lotions are utilized in Thai massage, and the session usually lasts a minimum of 90 minutes. In Thailand, it is common for sessions to last up to three hours!
Whereas most massage instruction begins with technical procedures and specific anatomical information, Thai Massage instruction begins with the imperative that the student works in a concentrated and meditative state of mind. Students are encouraged to work in a state of mindfulness, concentrated and fully present in each moment. This level of consciousness can be imparted to the recipient through the practitioner’s touch and actually foster a meditative state of mind in the recipient. Students are instructed to seek clear intention and purpose in their work and to maintain a focus on their breathing.
The techniques of Thai massage are applied very, very slowly. Students are encouraged to realize that it is impossible to be working too slowly as long as there is some movement. The slowness of practice facilitates the tendency toward mindfulness. Additionally, because many of the techniques require heightened flexibility of both the practitioner and recipient, the slowness significantly diminishes the chance for injury. With the practitioner working in a state of mental mindfulness and working very slowly, they become acutely aware of resistance and any discomfort for the client immediately and are able to stop or amend the procedure before injury occurs.
Proper body mechanics are emphasized in the teaching and application of Thai Massage. Many aspects of a Thai massage session are equivalent to having yoga asanas (postures) done to you. People often refer to Thai massage as a type of dual yoga. While anyone can receive Thai massage, certain procedures can be eliminated if they are not appropriate for the recipient: i.e. certain stretches of the back and legs would be avoided for individuals with lumbar disc problems. Thai massage has been utilized for centuries as an important healing tool in the treatment of a wide variety of ailments. These can include, but are not limited to, musculo-skeletal problems, internal medical problems, neurological complaints, and emotional distress.
A final aspect of Thai Massage that further establishes its uniqueness from Western massage is the emphasis on deep abdominal procedures. In Thai medical theory, all the major energy pathways of the body (the Sen) have their origins in the abdomen in the vicinity of the navel. In addition, the health and vitality of the primary sensory orifices (eyes, ears, nose, and mouth) are dependent on the health of the abdominal organs and the unobstructed flow of bio-energy through and away from the abdomen.
Traditional Thai massage is a unique and wonderful form of hands-on healing work. Although it has many elements that are quite ‘foreign’ to Westerners, it’s many attributes and benefits can make it a marvelous healing experience and a joy to learn as well as to receive. Additionally, Thai Massage can provide a good opportunity (even for a novice) of achieving a state of deep mental and emotional equanimity, profound stress relief and moments of sweet bliss.
About the Author
Dr. Richard Gold is a psychologist and California licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of the book “Thai Massage: A Traditional Medical Technique”, as well as a Board member and co-founder of Pacific College and the International Professional School of Bodywork (IPSB). In addition to maintaining a busy private practice in San Diego, Dr. Gold is also a faculty member at Pacific College where he teaches Thai massage. For more information on Thai massage, please contact Pacific College at (619) 574-6909.