If you haven’t heard of Thai massage or met a therapist who does Thai work or wants to learn it, we have a real concern. That’s too far from to the loop to be.
In this yoga-centric world, the spiritual intention and dynamic movements of Thai bodywork have a bigger audience than ever. Commonly referred to as “assisted yoga,” Thai massage puts a fully-clothed client through a series of stretches mimicking yoga poses, while his palms, feet, elbows, and knees to press, knead, lift, stretch, and twist the body.
Though very different from Western massage, Thai work relieves tension and increases flexibility as effectively as any massage should. Joints will crack here and there and winces and giggles will happen, especially when a 100-pound Thai therapist tosses around a bigger client like pizza dough.
The practice rarely isn’t loved. Clients will often alternate, having table work one week and Thai work another. Then there are instant converts; A recent newbie said he wasn’t sure he would ever want to have a “regular” massage again.
Thai massage, nearly 3,000 years old, and supposed founded by the Buddha’s personal physician, is a rich part of the mostly Buddhist country’s history. Rooted in meditation, the primary tenet of Thai massage sessions is “metta” or “loving kindness.” Starting a Thai session without a quiet or silent prayer is almost sacrilege. This sanctity is what makes the illicit corner Thailand’s pervasive prostitution stalks in the massage field more than unfair. With all the compassionate history and intention behind Thai massage, it still is the target of sad jokes and jinxes. The places below are a few where the beauty of Thai massage is promoted and perpetuated. You can learn it, you can receive it, see what it is meant to be and feel what it is becoming.
Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School, opened in 1955, is the original institute of Thai massage and medical instruction. Built on the Wat Pho Temple grounds, there are over a 1,000 images of Buddha surrounding the school, including the “Reclining Buddha” one of the largest in existence.
To not get massaged as Wat Pho, if given the chance, would be to miss out on the practice’s most hallowed place. There is no where else you can see 60 ancient stone tablets into which Thai massage’s therapeutic points and pathways called sen lines have been inscribed for explanation.
As a learning facility, attended by Thai and international students, Wat Pho’s treatment area is set up as a student clinic. A receptionist takes your appointment and when it is your turn, brings you to the back room where you change into loose, Thai-style cotton pants and get assigned to one of the mats on the double-wide wooden and reed platforms lining both sides of the room, two clients and two therapists to a platform.
The first massage at Wat Po was perhaps a little more protocol than intuitive, but nonetheless impressive. As the young female therapist thumb-walked the Sen lines on my legs, she chatted away to the therapist next to us. Conversation is not uncommon in Asia’s communal massage scenes and isn’t often considered disruptive. Once you get used to it, it actually isn’t. Besides, this girl didn’t really miss a spot, cracked my back and knuckles like a pro, and was a good comrade when it became impossible not to laugh at my traveling buddy’s completely bewildered expressions during his massage (newbie).
Taking the overnight train from Bangkok north to Chiang Mai, you enter Thailand’s cultural learning center. One could spend months going from one school to another learning Thai massage and just about anything else – cooking, farming, language, dance, etc. For massage there is the Old Medicine Hospital, the Sunshine School, the International Training Massage school (ITM), and many independent teachers. All are worth a visit and a stay, but there is only so much time on a given trip.
Outside the walls of the Old City, Ajarn Sinchai Sukparset, one of Thailand’s many blind therapists and perhaps its most notable, teaches the massage he has used to treat patients at Chiang Mai University Hospital for 44 years.
Ajarn Sinchai’s patients usually have experienced strokes or other causes of paralysis. His classes, run like small workshops, welcome whoever would like to learn that day. Using students as models, on mats covered in mismatched sheets, he demonstrates his techniques to treat issues like facial drooping caused by Bell’s Palsy, an atrophied arm from a stroke, drop-foot, abdominal work, torticollis, etc.
It may have been a case of admiration-daze, but his demeanor alone – quiet, soft, but direct and determined – seemed enough to help and heal people from life-changing events. He would flutter his finger tips along a recipient’s face and hold pressure points in the abdomen in a way that looked rather minimal but obviously had a deeper effect.
About 20 minutes outside of the old city is Baan Hom Samunphrai. Go here. Getting and learning massage here is like going to the French countryside and finding the most amazing under-the-radar master bread baker who is actually willing to teach you.
Thai-born Homprang Chaleekanha, her American husband, Christopher Woodman, and Homprang’s Thai massage-giving family run the property as a retreat and educational center. Whether you want to study or not, you can stay, according to your budget, in private or dorm-like rooms, all built in tradition Thai architecture by the family.
The grounds and structures were designed like a temple, locally-made wooden carvings of Buddha and other deities tucked into Bhodi trees, a peaked-roof classroom in which a shrine to Buddha is filled with offerings of fruit and water every day, a communal, canopied dining section where food so fresh and delicious is served, you don’t even think about restaurant that may be waiting in the city.
But really, the massage is all you need to convince yourself to stay.
Our massages at Baan Hom, given by Homprang’s two sisters-in-law, were what any massage is supposed to be; unlimited in time, completely unique and tailored to your body, rhythmic, doze-inducing, graceful, and transformative. It was like my therapist, Nit, had lasers on her fingertips. At one point, she administered heat and pressure so precisely and gradually, it was as if she painlessly made her way inside my shoulder. There was not one part of the massage my mind or muscles rejected. After two-hours, it was time for the sauna house, where a basket of freshly cut herbs grew fragrant from the heat. I had to make a concerted effort to come back to the physical world and walk. My body had never felt so light, loosened, or relaxed as it did then and it rarely has since.
Homprang, the grand-daughter of a village healer near the Thai-Burma border, has trained her whole family in massage. She’s a serious teacher, protective of what she knows without being mean or pretentious. The courses at Baan Hom are open to any one who would like to learn and can be as short as two days and as long as a few months. They also run the gamut of Homprang’s inherited and studied knowledge as an herbalist, midwife, and massage therapist. It seemed possible she could eradicate pain with her eyeballs.
Massage instruction is given six hours a day after morning yoga called Rasidaton, which is meant to prepare the body to give Thai massage. Each night all students are rewarded with a daily evening sauna session. It’s hard to believe that education could feel so indulgent and wholesome.
Back in the Old City, at the Thai Massage Conversation Club, the blind are trained in Thai massage and work a spartan clinic lined with slightly elevated mats. The therapists are led to the general area of your table and it helps to reach or speak out to greet them. There is a long-held concept that people with sight impairments are more sensitive with touch and therefor more keen therapists. Perhaps. The massages were good; well-coordinated and full of pressure if not precision.
At the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, the treatment area has been updated over the years to look less correctional and more like a Thai spa. Instead of a large gray-lit room with consecutive floor mats, there are now individual wooden platforms for the mats and the women’s uniforms were also changed from prison-issued slate-blue scrubs to pretty sarongs and shirts.
Like the blind, these woman, usually convicted of petty crime and about to be released, have been disenfranchised temporarily and are working their way back into a functioning society. Most people go for the novelty of both places, but the real motivation should be to support the massage arts, get a good massage, and contribute to the potential for people at both places to create legitimate, healthy lives for themselves.
Remember, it all starts and ends with metta.
2 Sanamchai Road
Subdistrict, Pranakorn, Bangkok 10200
139/24 M.2 T. Pradad
086 924 3210
Baan Hom Samunphrai
Chiang Mai 50140
053 817 362
Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution
100 Rachawithee Rd
053 221 231
Thai Massage Conservation Club
99 Ratchamankha Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand
053 904 452