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Movement and the healing power of Thai Yoga Massage

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Mural depicting sen lines (energy lines) used in Thai Yoga Massage. Wat Pho temple, Bangkok

I am thrilled to be able to offer Thai Massage treatments to current students of my yoga classes and to new clients alike. In this short essay I want to provide some insight into what I think it's so special about this massage, specifically as it is practised in Northern Thailand. This is the style I have learned from my teacher Kira Balaskas, who has been teaching and practising since1989.

Thai Massage (TM) or Thai Yoga Massage, can be described as a moving meditation, just like certain forms of yoga. From its first appearance in Northern India, it established itself as a healing modality based on the movement, or re-balancing, of energy in the body. Its main purpose still to this day is to restore the flow of energy running through the pathways, nadis, or energy lines, that spread across the whole body.

TM is often described as passive yoga because of its use of stretches and postures similar to those performed during a yoga session. However, the stretches here are only complementary to the acupressure work, which is key for the re-patterning of the energy flow. Movement is one of the key elements, not simply because of the passive stretching and joint mobilisation, but more essentially because energy is moved and made to flow again, thus restoring prana, the life force of Indian philosophy, which is believed to be absorbed into the body through food and air. Any blockages in the flow of prana can lead to aches, pain and disease.

With the rise of sedentary lifestyles, and the continuous evolving of mobility-replacing technology, we feel more and more disconnected from our own bodies. In fact, there are many lifestyle-related illnesses or conditions that are linked to lack of movement, for example plantar fasciitis, sciatica, IBS, depression, and more. Movement is so integral to our being alive. It’s not just a tool to fix bodily problems, not just physical exercise, but an important ingredient to treat a variety of conditions, including depression and anxiety. Neurologist Oliver Sacks said: "Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement" *. This “ocean of movement”, can become stale, or get rough/chaotic: fundamentally stuck, due to the stresses of everyday life, and the unhealthy postural habits that go with it (the image of ‘modern’ humans walking while looking into their mobile phones springs to mind). Learning to restore the vital flow of energy in the mind-body system through yoga, TYM, and meditation enables us to live a more fluid and healthier life, more attuned to our primal condition of beings living in water.

In TM the body is compressed, pulled, and stretched passively in order to clear energy blockages and relieve tension. While the practitioner uses thumbs, palms, elbows, knees and feet, practically his or her own entire body, the receiver relies entirely on the care of the practitioner. The whole massage is a powerful healing experience of deep relaxation.

TM is performed on a futon on the floor. This allows movement throughout the treatment, and enables the practitioner to make use of his or her own body weight by relying on gravity and its grounding effect.

The acupressure is an essential technique of muscle relaxation that stimulates the flow of energy, thus preparing the body for movement and stretches. These movements and stretches activate each joint into a full, passive range-of-motion, allowing the body to improve flexibility and mobility beyond the treatment room and into day to day life. However, the primary function of the yoga-like postures and stretches is to restore the flow of energy. This shows that what we call ‘movement’ is more than simply stretching, lifting weights, or movement of the limbs or spine.

The application of therapeutic movement and energy work has benefits that go well beyond the physical. The founder of somatic experiential method Continuum, Emilie Conrad, said: "Movement is not something that we do, movement is what we are." ** It’s interesting that the Continuum method is based on the belief that the human body is a fluid entity made of, and behaving like, water. "Within the waters of our being lie unfathomable feelings that allow us to surface and walk on dry land keeping the energy of swimming. The human body is not an object, but an ocean of flows and gushes." ** The image of the ocean beckons again. Although in Conrad’s work limbs, spine, head, and other body parts move, the real shift occurs at a subatomic level, at the level of nerve cells and fluids. In the same way, but through a different modality, TM affects the receiver at a very deep level, restoring fluid in the joints (which reduces friction), promoting the circulation of both blood and lymph, and gradually restoring energy, prana, and overall health.

Main characteristics of Thai Massage

  • Performed on a futon or soft surface on the floor (no massage table)

  • It does not use oils as it is done on top of the receiver’s clothes (it’s important to wear loose comfortable clothing)

  • Stretching is applied as part of the massage (also called: ‘applied physical yoga’)

  • Excellent to treat headache, knee pain, back, shoulder and neck pain, premenstrual tension and other ailments

  • It improves flexibility, relaxes, restores and energises

  • Since palming and thumbing techniques are the essential elements of this form of body work, it can be done on anyone: young or old, strong or feeble, healthy or unwell

I currently offer treatments at Yogahome in Stoke Newington (Fridays), as well as in the North London area (upon request).

Reference * The Man Who Took his Life as a Dance, interview with Oliver Sacks and choreographer Bill T. Jones, New York Times, 12 April 2013

** Emilie Conrad, Life on Land, North Atlantic Books, 2007

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