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Thoughts on the Thai Massage Sequence

Here we go again.  After years of thinking about what is traditional Thai massage, what is the “traditional” sequence taught to beginners, and how does this impact the teaching of Thai massage in the west.  I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.

I have gotten a bunch of Thai massages here in Thailand.  Most are horrible.  The way people are taught and what they are taught does not feel good to most bodies.  Then I see what most westerners are taught in many schools around Chiang Mai and there are so many problems I don’t know where to begin.  How about at the beginning?  The first move often taught in a Thai massage sequence is where the client is in supine, the giver is at their feet pressing them down to the ground, and forcing their legs into lateral / external rotation.  This simple, traditional start to the “sequence”, for many people, strains the inner knee.  Feel it and see if you don’t feel some strain on the inner knee when someone presses your inner feet / toes toward the floor.  When the hips are tight as they are with so many in the west, they do not roll out and the knees take the brunt of the torque.  So, here we are teaching a one size fits all sequence that begins with stressing out the knee joint, causing tension in the person receiving and of course, reflecting back to the giver adding tension to them.  I could go on with almost every position as it’s often taught.  I could also go on with the sequence that things are done in too and I will do it soon enough.  But suffice to say that simply the amount of time spent in supine on one’s back at the beginning of the massage without a break, 1/2 hour, 45 minutes, an hour or even more in a massage I had recently here, is hell on the back, creating discomfort, stiffness and tension.

I don’t know why this is.   Perhaps, because Thai bodies are so different from western bodies, that things that are bad for a western body are good for a Thai body.  And our bodies in the west are different.  Very different.  I remember when my son Oliver was at Pichest’s last year.  Pichest immediately took his foot, pointed to it and said, “culture already!”.  What he meant was that the shape of his nine year old foot as determined by our shoe wearing culture was already bearing telltale sign of the west – not to mention the problems associated with it.  So with our western body shapes in mind, how can we assume we can just take the “traditional” thai massage sequence direct from Thailand without changing it to fit our needs.

Pichest looking at Oliver’s foot last year

I think that part of the problem comes in due to the fact that many people who study Thai massage whether it be in the west or here in Thailand, is that these people tend to have certain body types that are atypical of most westerners – especially United Statesians.  Often times young, often times yoga students or the like, backpackers, and simply people who have not been swallowed by the kaphic tendencies of our culture.  So in a way, the way Thai massage is typically taught feels good, or at least not bad, to these body types. However, the people we often work on, do not have the same capabilities that the practitioners have.  And when they have only been taught by Thai people and only practiced on lithe westerners, then this practice runs head on into body types and constitutions that are not able to accept or integrate that way of working.  This not only causes problems for those who receive but also for those who give, who have not been trained how to work with a really big person, a really stiff person, or a really sensitive person.

All this makes me not want to call what I do Thai massage.  And that is why I am happy to be changing the name of the school.  I like Thai healing better.  It speaks to the bigger picture.  The mindset and spirit that is underneath it all.  Because that, in my opinion, is what counts anyways.  The look of it, whether it be a “traditional Thai sequence” or anything else, doesn’t matter.  That’s where we get hung up on outer form and duality.  I won’t speak any more on that for now so as not to cause too much controversy in one day!

So, this all leads to a new sequence that Michelle and I are creating out here.  As we’ve been working on it, we are surprised at how different it is, how many moves we’ve left out, and more.  It’s been fun picking apart each move, looking for alternatives, and looking for different, easier approaches.  We are creating something that has the health and safety of the practitioner in mind first and foremost combined with the maximum effectiveness for the receiver.  In addition, we are trying to create a certain flexibility that allows a beginner to be able to perceive when other approaches might be appropriate for a client.

All this does not come out of the air or a twisted desire on my part to create some new trademarked branded Thai massage.  It comes from my desire to simply feel good about what I am teaching to beginners, knowing that it will be safe and effective and enjoyable and healing.  And with these principles being the guide, not “tradition”, we can create something that I can feel really good about teaching and sharing.

And of course, it all has been inspired by my teacher, Pichest Boonthumme, who could care less about tradition and cares deeply about the potential, not just of the healing practice, but of each individual person to awaken, grow strong, open their heart, and share their own healing with others.

Again, and I can never say it enough, THANK YOU PICHEST!!!

  1. David Roylance
    David Roylance03-15-2012

    Paul, this reminds me of a conversation I had once with Ajahn Wasan Chaichakan. As you know, the son of the great Ajahn Sintorn Chaichakan and cousin to Ajahn Pichet – who you’ve studied with a lot. Without detailing the whole conversation it was basically along the lines of….us agreeing that there is no such thing as “traditional thai massage” because where do you draw the line? What is traditional and what isn’t, really? At what point in the evolution of Thai massage do we draw the line to say this is traditional and this is not?

    What I believe there is, is bodywork inspired by the Thai people that developed through a long historical and cultural process – a process the continues today.

    As Ajahn Wasan was giving me a bunch of books and oral teaching one day I asked, “Can I use this in my own book and share it with others?”. Ajahn Wasan replied “well, yes of course. That’s why I am giving it to you”. I had a follow up question that I wanted to ask him but I **paused**. I wanted to fully formulate the question in a way that was not offensive, or what I thought would be offensive.

    I said, “Ajahn Wasan, if I use your material can I update it, make it easier to read and understand? Include material that I’ve learned form working with American’s?”. He replied, “Yes, of course, of course, yes you should. That is your responsibility in bringing Thai massage to America. You can never just do it exact as you are taught. Those days are long gone and is what your beginning students do now. They follow you. So make it better, better than my dad, better than me, and when you are an old man someday your students will make it better than you”.

    Anyways, your post got me thinking about all of that and figured I’d share. Brings back a lot of memories for me and very much looking forward to being back in Thailand in June 2012 for the important Annual Wai Khru at the Old Medicine Hospital. That’s what I think of when it comes to “tradition”. Honoring all the great teachings that have come to us that allow us to help others this this work. : ) – cheers and enjoy your trip. – David

    • chicagoschoolofthaimassage
      chicagoschoolofthaimassage03-16-2012

      Hey David,

      Thanks for these thoughts. Very generous of you to take the time to share them. I’m glad to hear it too. I love that definition. What I believe there is, is bodywork inspired by the Thai people that developed through a long historical and cultural process – a process the continues today. I love coming here because it frees my mind somehow. It’s hard to explain but I understand what is important so much more clearly here. I don’t know if it’s the kow tom for breakfast or the gentle reminders given everytime i pass a bhikku or a buddha. But whatever it is, it feels good and I will try once again to bring that good feeling back to my home the best way that i can. Peace to you and have fun in June when you return! Peace. . . .

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