By Sarah Landicho
I first experienced Thai massage a few years ago at a workshop designed for yoga teachers. It was a little dip into this world of bodywork that introduced me to new ways of assisting and adjusting my students.
As limited as this presentation was, it grabbed my attention. The intention behind Thai massage seemed more embedded in therapy and love than alignment or depth of a posture. But what really struck home was how fantastic it felt to give. The compressions and stretches I gave from my hands or feet derived from my body’s weight rather than strength, and the rhythmic, rocking motions were fairly hypnotic. It was good for me, too.
That’s not an unusual discovery, says Paul Fowler, yoga teacher, registered Thai therapist and director of Blue Lotus Healing Thai Studies in Bucktown, which offers training in Thai massage. “The way I look at it is learning Thai massage is a way for the practitioner to engage in a self-healing modality,” he explains. “It’s really a practice of helping yourself. If you’re comfortable and energy is flowing in you, then you can help energy flow in the other person.”
That’s very much what this practice is about, adds Chuck Duff, president of Thai Bodywork School of Massage in Evanston. “Thai bodywork is very unique in its ingenious combination of compression and movement, and the underlying principle of moving stagnation in the body,” he explains.
While bodywork isn’t traditionally associated with the eight-limbed path of yoga, it certainly falls under the umbrella of the third niyama, tapas. “This niyama is about using discipline to create movement, cleansing and releasing stagnation, and I do see Thai massage as very helpful,” Duff adds. “The flow of energy in the body through breath and releasing blockages is a core principle of Thai medicine. The Thai bodywork can make our [yoga] practices easier to maintain and perhaps to experience the feeling of flow in a new way.”
Often referred to as “lazy man’s yoga,” Thai massage requires that clients be placed in various yoga-like poses during the stretching and compressing of the bodywork. “If you think of yoga as asana, and if you think of yoga as a larger picture of connection to spirit and things like that, then yes, [Thai massage] is certainly a way of gaining understanding of your body, learning where you’re holding and not and getting to know yourself in that way,” Fowler says.
But there are differences, too. For example, muscle compression isn’t often a part of yoga asana, he explains. Through compression, muscles relax and stretch, which improves energy flow. Additionally, the various bodily manipulations during Thai massage and the one-on-one experience between practitioner and receiver provide immediate feedback not often received during yoga. In this way both people learn where the client is creating habitual holding patterns in the body – something that might never be discovered in a physical, active yoga practice.
“[Thai massage] works on different levels: mental and emotional,” Fowler adds. “It helps to teach the body to become aware of those blocks and holdings and how they’re created through the mind. And then, maybe, in [the clients’] lives, they can start to recognize what’s going on and start to let it go.”
“People always say [Thai massage] is like nothing else,” says Paul Weitz, registered Thai therapist and co-founder of Blue Lotus Healing Studies. “One of the reasons is because it works deeply on the physical, energetic and spiritual levels.”
Thats true for both the practitioner and the client. “There’s a certain feeling when it really works,” Weitz explains. “When a person really clears out, there’s an energetic shift that takes place in the client and the practitioner. It’s a clearing, a freedom, a lightness…it brings prana, good energy, to both.”
For Fowler, practicing Thai massage is a form of turning inward. “A big part of the practice for me is the meditation art,” he explains. “When you are touching someone’s body, there is a certain requirement of absolute attention…When you’re working on someone else, you’re putting [that person’s] trust in your hands, so there’s an attention that needs to be paid. I don’t have to even try; it’s automatically there. And when I do that for an hour and a half, whatever I’ve been chewing on in my life, it’s pretty much gone.”
Maybe that’s why I keep turning to Thai massage as part of a rounded yoga practice. It simply balances my energy in a different way whether I’m giving or receiving. And that’s what I’m always looking for: balance.