Thai Massage and Thai Yoga Therapy: What’s the relationship?

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Thai Massage and Thai Yoga Therapy: What’s the relationship?

deonThai METHOD – The Teacher

Having recently gone through the process of creating a brand-new website, I found myself having to clarify (for myself, as well as) those assisting me with the project, what exactly was meant by the term Thai Yoga Therapy and how that relates to the more widely used Thai Massage. So here we go:

Definition of Thai Massage

“Thai Massage” is a generic term that can refer to many different – but related – kinds of bodywork modalities. First of all it most often refers to any kind of soft tissue manipulation performed by a person of Thai origin.

As a result of having lived in and around Los Angeles (the city with the highest concentration of Thai nationals outside of Bangkok) for several decades, and after having traveled to Thailand and studying there, several times since first discovering the modality in the year 2000; I have built-up a decidedly hands-on (and admittedly, not very scholarly) understanding of what it is all about from a Thai person’s perspective – which is undoubtedly the most common if one looks at the numbers of people involved.

There are a great many variations and interpretations of bodywork performed by Thai people, and increasingly so as the popularity of and demand for this type of service has mushroomed worldwide, over the last decade.  Much of the bodywork performed by Thai people in Thailand (and California) is very different from another definition of “Thai Massage” that refers to “Traditional Thai Massage,” which is one of the “Three Branches of Traditional Thai Medicine.”

Ancient thai yoga massage illustration

Westerners, or more correctly “non-Thai” students and practitioners of Thai Massage mostly think of some form of “Traditional Thai Massage” when they use the term “Thai Massage”, meaning a floor-based therapeutic modality, performed without the use of oil or lotion, where the client is comfortably clothed.

But this is probably a minority viewpoint when looked at from a global perspective, since most people (non-students or non-practitioners) that have had “Thai Massages” – in their mind very authentic ones – have had them provided by Thai people, on a table or raised platform of some sort; often using oil (which has recently become very popular and is now an option in most, if not all of the literally hundreds, if not thousands of Thai Massage establishments across Thailand); where the client is often naked (sometimes draped with varying degrees of effectiveness); or clothed (only part of the time.) Also, a candid description of the optional unlisted services that are often provided tends to stretch the definition of “therapeutic”… of course only done with the client’s “happy” consent, if done at all.

So this is the first level of discernment where I felt it necessary to draw a distinction, from the generic “Thai Massage” which could mean so many different things to so many people, to the more specific “Traditional Thai Massage”, which most non-Thai aficionados, practitioners and students understand to be what they do and/or receive.

But now, beyond being “therapeutic” only, done clothed, without oils and on the floor, “Traditional Thai Massage,” in Thai called “Nuat Phaen Borarn” meaning “ancient-style massage” could also well refer to more than one, very different looking and feeling modalities.

The Royal style, called “Rajasamnak” in Thai, is quite a formal affair, performed mostly with only the hands: palms and thumbs; and forearms, and is the style most modern Thai practitioners have been trained in.  This is the official form prescribed by the Thai Ministry of Education and taught and practiced at the national center for Traditional Thai Medicine at Wat Pho Temple, in Bangkok.  This is also mainly the style of “Therapeutic” Thai Massage that Thai people practice outside Thailand, in California, Europe and other parts of the non-Thai world.

The Villager/Folk/Commoner style called “Chalosiak” has countless variations of application and tends to be mainly practiced in the North of Thailand, around Chiang Mai. This approach encourages the use of the feet and knees in addition to the hands; employs yoga-style assisted stretches, joint mobilization, conscious breathing technique and a somewhat mystical shamanistic focus on the flow of energy and a harmonizing of the inner physical with the outer environment and the more subtle cosmic forces of the universe.

deonThai METHOD Thai Yoga Therapy

The deonThai METHOD draws from this Northern Thai, folk healing lineage, hence the term “Thai Yoga Therapy”. Our use of the word “Yoga” connotes the broader, more philosophic definition of forming a union or unions between opposites like the inner and the outer; the micro and the macro; the physical and the mental; spiritual and material, etc.

thai yoga massageInterestingly, there is actually a uniquely Thai form of “yoga”, and now I’m talking the other, more popular definition as in “exercises” or “asana” in Sanskrit. This is called “Reusi Dat Ton” and is a set of exercises that look similar to (but are different than) the yoga exercises from India, performed in order to balance and harmonize physical and mental energies of the practitioner, aimed at improving their general health and wellbeing.

The “Yoga” in “Thai Yoga Therapy” also points to the aspects of Mindfulness and Equanimity, meant to be consistently present in the performance of any and all actions of the practitioner and ideally, also in the experience of the recipient.

This “Meditative Dance of Healing” that arises when the physical actions and experiences of givers and receivers are infused with the subtle, yet profound essences of conscious communication and mindful movement, is what makes this METHOD of “Thai Yoga Therapy” different and distinct from other, more generic styles of “Thai” or “Traditional Thai”… “Massage.”

From here, one can get even further into the differences and similarities and one can bring up all the other terms currently being employed, such as Thai Bodywork; Thai Yoga Massage; Thai Energy Work; Thai Therapy; Thai Healing with the Hands; and so on, with ever so much more to say about each…
But I will leave that discussion for another day 🙂

Please feel free to comment, question or criticize this clumsy attempt at using words to clarify concepts that are so much deeper, vaster and more profound than they can do justice to…

I can’t help but to think about the age-old warning from the sages about “being very careful not to confuse the finger pointing at the moon, with the moon itself…”

So let’s just leave it at that for now, and I will look forward to hearing from, or seeing you somewhere down the road, really soon!

2 Comments

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for your article, which is timely and necessary. I hope you don’t mind if I ask you about a couple of statement you make, to clear things up in my mind.
    I have some understanding of both Wat Po style and Rajasamnak or Royal style, and I have always considered them to be different, for example my understanding of Rajasamnak is that the receiver is never face down (an becoming for a Royal !) and that Rajasamnak has no rocking movement as does Wat Po style.
    Wat Po style on the other hand uses the 10 sen concept which is definately derived from Yoga, as do all government training programs, whereas true northern (Lanna) style uses quite a different understanding based on Buddhist medicine, and so has little to do with Yoga, except of course certain postural similarities, OMH and the derivative schools in Chiang Mai teach basically Wat Po theory with local chaloysiak techniques, it is not Traditional Northern style.
    Chaloysiak is the common style which has become mixed up with government training to become what most people call Traditional Thai Massage, and Reusi Datton also involves meditation, breath work, self massage, visualization, and is a complete self care system in itself, the postures being apparently very similar to Tibetan Yoga.
    These are my comments on your article, in the interest of clarifying understanding of this much confused topic, thank you very much and ood luck with all your ventures.
    best wishes,

    Nemir

    • Deon de Wet says:

      Hello Nemir,

      … And thank you for your obviously well informed response to my article. You bring up further valid and very interesting distinctions, which I would highly recommend as avenues for deeper exploration to any sincere student/practitioner. Do check out his website at: http://www.learnthaimassage.org/

      I agree wholeheartedly with you that this is a much-confused topic and I have personally been frustrated by the varied and often contradictory theories that abound, about the subject. And therefore, since my (lack of) command of the Thai language is such that most of my theoretical knowledge thus far has been gained second or third-hand, these days I have decided to stay well within the boundaries of knowledge gained through personal experience.

      Hence my approach to practicing and teaching has become decidedly hands-on and increasingly focused on my own ideas and the techniques I have learned and adapted that have served to produce effective results. My main objective has become the furtherance of my own and my students’ cultivation of compassion and generation of goodwill among their clients and community.

      Although the foundation for my practice and my training program is obviously steeped in Thai Massage, be it Traditional, Ancient, Royal, Popular, Northern or Southern, nowadays I prefer to leave the detailed distinctions to those more scholarly inclined, and try to concentrate more on the practicalities of improving health and well being in the communities we serve. Which is one of the main reasons I call my “style” by a different name… so as to avoid as far as possible, the inevitable arguments that arise about “authenticity” or academic and historical “correctness”.

      But that said, I truly appreciate teachers like you and my friend, Professor Pierce Salguero, who appear to have so much more capacity and ability (than I) to trace down origins, distinctions and the true theoretic underpinnings of this fascinating and profoundly effective healing art we know as “Nuad Bo Rarn.”

      I admire your work and look forward to the day our paths may cross in person, and I thank you for your interest and sincerity.

      Be Well,
      Deon

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