When I took my first training in Thai yoga massage in 2004, I was a yoga teacher in Los Angeles, California. After my yoga teacher training, I searched for continuing education that would deepen my understanding of anatomy and give me a new perspective on how to adjust the poses of students in my class. I had no idea I would become so fascinated with the method or that I would eventually turn my training into a career. After the training, I went home and began practicing on my family and brave volunteers from class.
A few years later, I decided to continue my massage training and get my license so I could become a practicing therapist. I eventually memorized a 50-minute Swedish massage while seeing clients as an intern at massage school. At first, I stuck to the script of the massage as taught to me, but as I began to get more comfortable working on the human body, I started to notice that my prior training in Thai yoga massage was creeping into the routine. It started with a joint rotation or two. Then I added a stretch. Five years later, the massages I give to people incorporate what I've learned from both Western and Eastern styles of massage. Although Thai massage is usually performed on a thick mat on the floor, some of its practices can be easily blended into a massage done on a table.
So, what are some basic concepts of Thai bodywork?
First, the concept of creating healing space is universal to all kinds of bodywork, whether or not it is acknowledged during the massage. In Thai bodywork, the sacredness of the healing space is a main focus. Creation of this space is done with a brief prayer at the beginning of the session, sometimes called "setting intention." This prayer creates a meditative state said to benefit the giver and receiver of massage.
During the work, we seek to invoke the states of maitri (friendliness), karuna (desire to ease suffering), mudita (rejoicing in the good fortune of others) and upeksanam (seeing others without prejudice). It can be said silently to yourself or aloud at the beginning of the massage, and you can also offer your own words that include a desire to offer healing and compassion to your client.
In Thai theory, the body's life force flows through sen lines than run through the entire body. Illness and disease are caused by blockages in the sen lines, similar to the way freeway traffic can cause a back up of cars. On a mat, sen lines are worked with palm, thumb and even foot pressure. On the table, you can open these lines with palm or forearm pressure.
The sequencing and timing of Thai bodywork is different than Western styles of massage. In Thai massage, we start at the feet and work toward the head while the client is supine. After flipping, we work from the head down. In Western massage, the therapist tends to focus on the client's back for a large portion of the session. Equal attention is given to the legs and feet as to the rest of the body in Thai bodywork. In order to blend these two ideas into your existing massage, lengthen the amount of time spent on the lower half of the body and adjust the sequencing of the massage.
Assisted stretches and joint rotations are important in Thai bodywork. One of the easiest stretch/joint combinations is done by bending the client's knee and bringing it to her chest. Hold this for 30 seconds. Use your free hand to rotate the ankle in both directions to lubricate the joint. Do the same to the hip joint by moving the client's knee on top of the hip while rotating the femur in small, then big, circles in both directions. Make sure you do the same stretches and rotations on each side.
This leads to a discussion about draping while doing stretches and rotations. My regular clients usually wear shorts or yoga pants during their massage so that I'm able to position them for the best possible stretch without compromising privacy. When I need to, I will wrap the sheet around the client so that it ends up looking like a diaper. This can be tricky and takes some practice to get right.
The full scope of Thai massage is more complex than what I've presented here. As with any new discipline, there is a lot to learn. I consider myself a beginner even though I've been practicing for many years. For someone just being introduced to Thai bodywork, the concepts of healing space, sen lines, stretches and joint rotations are good starting points for further study of the discipline.