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Searching For Authenticity in Thai Massage: Part One

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, talking and working with folks out here in Thailand and in the States, and I’ve been asking a lot of questions about this practice. What the hell have I been doing for 20 years?  Pichest has taught me a lot as have so many other teachers along the way.  And the bodies of my clients and students have been my best teachers for sure.  But even after all this time, I haven’t felt like I’ve been completely on terra firma.  I’ve gone along with the program for sure, as I love this style, especially as Pichest teaches, but at the same time, I’ve had this little birdie in the back of my mind singing, “this is my message to you o o”.  No actually, that was Bob Marley done slightly off key by a way too loud yet well-meaning band on the beach.  But I digress. 
As a western secular Buddhist, I have a skeptical, scientific mind that’s always questioned what I’ve been told.  I’m particularly wary of prima facie stories that seem to just be accepted without question.  Whether they come out of religion, culture, or someone’s big ego, it’s one of the reasons that I really enjoy listening to and speaking with a historian like Pierce Salguero (who happens to be coming again in June fyi). I’m interested in how history (as well as taking a big equanimous step back) looks at how mythology and cultures and marketing and opinion and fantasy and money and spirituality and geography and religion all intertwine to create a big messy but fascinating Tom yum (which by the way, as with almost everything over here, is laced with MSG – no more Thailand headaches for me with my new discovery – I didn’t realize fucking everything I eat here has it in it!).  
It’s really a huge mystery about how things evolve and change through time and place.  But that being said, I think we can agree this. It’s a legitimate and not totally futile exercise to try to find the truth, or at least a story that contains as much of the truth as we can ascertain. And so it is when it comes to the stories that we have been told and tell about Thai massage and Thai medicine. Here’s where I’m at right now, literally (I’ve been wanting to use a malaprop as soon as possible after having to look it up despite Father John Misty’s scorn – by the way, if you want to hear a mean, blistering song that’s kind of awesome at the same time check out his use of malaprop in “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment). Actually, I’m literally in Koh Lanta.  But that’s a story for another time – and not a particularly interesting one either. 
As some of you know, I’ve been studying with Nephyr Jacobsen – I highly highly recommend her as the most knowledgeable western teacher that I’ve found when it comes to really asking the big questions about what this practice is, discovering answers and then practicing and teaching them (with clarity and fine attention I might add).  I met with her teacher for a nice morning in Bangkok a couple weeks ago and got to ask him many of the questions that have been on my mind about the Thai medicine, where it comes from, what is authentic practice, and is there really such a thing as authentic Thai practice. 
These days, anyone can call anything Thai massage if it has stretching and it’s done on a mat on the floor and doesn’t use oils so much blah blah blah.  Osteo-Thai, Physio-Thai, Acro-Thai, Dynamic Thai, Trigger point Thai, Ayurvedic Thai, etc etc etc.  And I think the reason for this might be that being on the mat on the floor fully clothed and passively moving the client through range of motion really makes a lot of sense and it is truly easily adaptable to any kind of physical therapy.  In the west, because we initially adopted a European style of massage, with oil, on a massage table, when this Thai thing started being seen and known, of course people gravitated towards it and saw it’s enormous flexibility (pun intended) and simplicity that opens up bodywork practice to many more people and allows anyone to incorporate other ways of working into a Thai routine that someone learned in a two week trip to Thailand.  
Now, what about Shiatsu? I hear you asking. Actually, I don’t know about Shiatsu, if people are being as generous with the name as they are with the word Thai. I’m guessing not and the reason why I guess not is because Shiatsu isn’t just doing a bunch of cool moves with people on a mat on the floor.  It’s actually based in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It has a theoretical basis that is well established and commonly accepted. Therefore, it’s not as easy to modify and change it because it is clear that Shiatsu without TCM is, well, guess, what . . . it’s Thai massage!!! Because in most peoples minds, Thai massage doesn’t have much of a theoretic basis (I’ll get to the “much” in a bit).  Because of that, it is quite susceptible to people making it whatever they want.  And actually, I’m cool with that.  Working on a mat on the floor is an incredibly lovely and spacious place where people can create with healing intention and help many many people.  So don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater!  But can we, with integrity, co-opt “Thai” into all of these new and exciting developments? 
Here’s the bigger question then. Is Thai just this incredibly loose and open form of bodywork that can be adapted to any myriad of circumstances or ideas, or is there something more to see here that we haven’t been seeing?  
I’m going to leave you with that to ponder and write a part two next.  Stay tuned! 
Thai Element 5 day workshop on the first week of April.
200 Hour Trainings in San Diego and Chicago beginning April 12 and 19th respectively.
If you want to apprentice the April program in Chicago, email me.
If you are thinking of Thailand next year, remember you must register by October 1.

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