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Can Thai Massage Be Improved?


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Shama Kern demonstrating a Thai Massage shoulder stretch


Is traditional Thai Massage better than non-traditional?

Thai Massage has almost a certain mystique about it. It sounds exotic and it looks quite amazing with all those stretches and yoga-like positions. It is the only massage system that I know which is branded as “traditional”.

Did you ever hear of “traditional” Swedish massage or “traditional” sports massage? Thai Massage however is promoted as ‘traditional’, with the implication that this somehow makes it better than a non-traditional version.

Actually the truth is just the opposite. Some of the very best Thai massage teachers I ever had were all very much non-traditional. They developed their own style, they were very creative, came up with modifications and significantly diverged from the ‘traditional’ style that is taught in most schools in Thailand.

Looking at tradition objectively

Tradition is not always a good thing necessarily. Sometimes it is just a synonym for an unwillingness to change, to grow, to expand. In some cases it can be nothing more than a limitation.

“Traditional Thai Massage” has become sacrosanct, and if you dare question this, then you are a heretic. (I am sure some people will brand me a heretic for writing this article.) But bear with me and I will prove to you that there is another way to look at this.

I have noticed that some Thai Massage students here in Thailand build up almost a cult atmosphere around certain teachers. They put them up on a pedestal and then these teachers can do no wrong. Whatever they do is perfect and their way is the only ‘right’ way to do it.

Sometimes I have heard the question asked: “What lineage are you in?” God forbid if you are not part of an authentic and traditional lineage, because then your Thai Massage certainly could not be any good, or so the reasoning goes. Without lineage you instantly lose credibility in the eyes of those who insist on the superiority of it.

However the facts often show us a different picture. Let’s set aside tradition and lineage as an indicator of quality for a moment and look at it in an impartial way.

Looking at possible improvements

It is useful to take a step back and analyze Thai Massage or any therapeutic system with some common sense. If you live in Thailand for a long time, you will certainly come across the good and the ‘could-be-better’ elements of this healing art. Below I am listing some of my observations and non-traditional solutions which represent a real improvement.

Moving from mechanical to creative

Thai Massage is often practiced in a rather mechanical way, beginning at the feet and ending up at the head by following a routine sequence of moves. Many times I have requested that therapists work on a certain area of my body, let’s say my shoulders.

But almost in all cases they just proceeded to do their usual routine. They could not imagine doing anything really different. They were stuck in their traditional routine.

However some creativity and intuitive modifications can be a big improvement. Instead of following a routine sequence, you can follow your intuition, or the client’s requests, or the path of the client’s areas of restriction.

And yes, you can mix in elements from other techniques, even if they are not part of traditional Thai Massage. If it works, it is good and right.

Tradition versus evolution

Most Thai massage sessions consist of mostly leg work and relatively little upper body work. The traditionalists argue that this is because the Thai people used to work in the fields a lot and therefore needed mostly leg work.

Well, maybe this was so at one time in the past, but today most urban Thais work desk and computer jobs just like their western counterparts, or they drive vehicles or have some other sitting occupation. This means they develop more back, shoulder, and neck problems rather than leg problems.

If the work environment changed over time, what’s wrong with allowing Thai Massage to evolve along with it? Nobody would argue that the Thais should follow old traditions and go back to plowing fields with buffaloes instead of their modern jobs.

Thai Massage would definitely benefit from more sophisticated back, neck and shoulder work. The ones who are applying more of this tend to be westerners who feel no obligation to follow any tradition and who had the opportunity to study other massage systems.

neck and head massage
Neck and Head Massage from the Heavenly Head Massage system


Neglected areas in Thai Massage

The abdomen, for example, is almost never touched. Although there are some abdominal techniques taught in Thai Massage schools, they are often uncomfortable or even painful, and are almost never practiced in the typical massage shops (which is a good thing).

However there are massage modalities which work very effectively on the abdominal area, specifically Chi Nei Tsang and Shiatsu.

Abdominal massage therapySome of those techniques can easily be built into a Thai Massage session and improve it greatly.

A system which incorporates such effective and gentle abdominal work into Thai Massage already exists.

Take a look at Thai Healing Massage Academy’s Abdominal Massage course.

Replacing direct pressure with motion based movements

Thai Massage uses mostly linear, straight down pressure which is applied with thumbs, hands, forearms, elbows and knees. This can sometimes feel quite strong or even painful.

There are those who subscribe to the “no pain no gain” model, but others shy away from Thai Massage because they prefer a gentler approach.

Thai Rocking Massage therapyMost linear or direct pressure techniques can be modified or replaced by circular or rocking motions which greatly reduce the risk of unnecessary pain.

Such a modified and more gentle system of Thai Massage exists already.

It is called Thai Rocking Massage, and hundreds of Thai Healing Massage Academy’s students have been practicing it with excellent results for over a decade.

Making a good system even better

These are just a few examples how Thai Massage can be improved, and there are others. Of course there are some highly talented practitioners in Thailand who can do truly excellent work.

Luckily I had the opportunity to learn from them. Those studies opened my eyes to new ways of working, new inspiration, creative applications and modifications.

Please note: My observations in this article are based on the mainstream massage shops in Thailand which is where most sessions take place. Of course even in those shops you will find exceptions in the form of gifted therapists, but they are rare.

Just to make this clear, I am not saying that traditional Thai Massage is an inferior system. What I am saying is that a good system can sometimes be made even better by not clinging too closely to tradition.

The world is evolving and changing, and so can massage. We can always learn more, become more creative, intuitive, and flexible. If tradition gets in the way of that, then it is a label that we do not have to hold onto.

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8 thoughts on “Can Thai Massage Be Improved?”

    • Correct, Mellody. It’s just more obvious in Thai Massage since it is often labeled as “Traditional Thai Massage”, insinuating that this the only and best way to do it. Most other massage systems don’t have the “traditional” label associated with them, so any modifications aren’t seen as a divergence from the tradition.

  1. Thank you Shama,

    I certainly agree with Mellody. These modalities are living art forms and should always evolve. Certainly, we should remember the traditional ways and have some understanding of them in there true forms so we know a basis to come from. However, to go hundreds or even thousands of years without change is stagnant in any modality.
    Before your courses it was like an assembly line of movements or procedures. After a while I would not be as connected to the person I was trying to give massage to.
    You have totally changed the way I look not only at Thai massage but at the way I teach other mind body forms and have connected me back to myself in some ways. Other labels in my in my industry may include- classical and or authentic. I know true forms are important as they are where evolution come from. I think your method teaches one to be creative as well to listen to the receiver.
    Bless you Shama!

    Thank goodness for your creativity, it is a true gift.

    • Tradition, authenticity and ‘classical’ all have their place and their value, certainly. My contention with them is only when they prevent a healthy and necessary evolution, when they become an excuse for maintaining a lower standard instead of accelerating and expanding the healing potential of a particular healing arts system. If tradition allows and encourages growth and expansion, then as you say, it is a good framework to work with.

  2. Thank you for this great article Shama, you know that I believe in evolution, and I know for sure that Thai massage can be improved, and that is exactly what Thai Healing Academy is doing. My darling Thai wife massage instructor Banana is now incorporating your teaching in her treatments and massage sessions. When I apply these techniques on her she has nothing but praise for you. I know that her future students will benefit from her non-traditional approach. Her transition is not difficult, her willingness to learn new techniques and open mind makes it all possible, and of course being the recipient of her talent, I can honestly attest to her healing powers, again thank you Shama

    • Your updates on your new school are always inspiring. I am sure you will be successful and I am glad that my courses play a role it this.

  3. thanks for writing so openly about it. Yes, I agree we often need to step outside the box. When I teach Yoga, no class of mine is ever the same!

    • I am sure that it is much the same in Thai Massage and yoga. These concepts apply to all healing arts, as Mellody pointed out above. I just write about Thai Massage because that’s what I am mostly involved with and what I can observe very clearly here in Thailand.


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