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Curious Double Standard in Thai Massage

double standard in thai massage training

Here are some interesting facts about Thai Massage training which you might find amusing, entertaining, or shocking. They will also give you a totally new perspective.

Just so that you know where I am coming from with this statement – here is my story in a nutshell.

Thai Massage sign

I have spent 20 years living in Thailand, practicing and teaching Thai Massage. As a westerner, during all this time I had one foot in both worlds – the western world and the eastern one.

I know about the requirements and methods of learning Thai Massage in both worlds – and there are massive differences.

What are they and why is that so? Here is the story.

Western massage training and it’s rules

In the western world, Thai Massage training is subject to lots of rules, depending on where you live. Here are some rules that might be involved.

  • You might have to study a certain amount of hours in an accredited school in order to obtain a massage license
  • You might need a criminal background check
  • You might have to pass a rigorous test by a state board (US for example)
  • You might need to have a certain type of insurance (UK for example)
  • You might need to have extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and ethics
  • You might have to do a certain amount of practice hours
rules handbook

These are some of the rules which you might have to follow in the western world.

Standards are becoming stricter and often more difficult and even cumbersome.

If you don’t follow these rules and procedures, you will not get a massage license, or you might be breaking the law, and/or you might lose your massage license.

The rule-obsessed western world

I have run into some rules. For example, once I tried to submit a Thai Massage article to an American massage association.

I naively assumed that having learned Thai Massage from many of the best teachers in Thailand, having hundreds of articles and videos published all over the web, and having taught Thai Massage for two decades to thousands of students would give me credentials.

rules icon

But no – they would not publish my article unless I qualified under their rules.

Those stipulated that I would have had to prove that I had studied with one of their instructors and could demonstrate that I had done a certain amount of Thai Massage practice hours.

This was quite bizarre since I had been teaching Thai Massage for several years before this association even existed, and some of their teachers might have actually learned from my courses.

But rules are rules, even if they don’t make any sense, and people love making and following rules in the western world. But, as you will see, this is not the case in Thailand.

The Thai way of learning and practicing Thai Massage

sabai sabai

The Thais call it sabai sabai or maipenrai, roughly meaning “take it easy”, “it’s cool, man”, everything is a-okay, or ”no worries mate” (for the Aussies).

Bottom line is that everything about Thai Massage is much more relaxed and easy-going there.

There are fewer rules and less requirements and less fees. That’s just how it is.

Western therapists apply different standards in Thailand

Here is an interesting phenomenon which I have observed: When Westerners come to Thailand to learn Thai Massage, suddenly everything changes and they are perfectly willing to throw their rules overboard.

They ask their favorite Thai massage therapist where she learned all her wonderful skills.

When she tells them that she learned it from her grandma, the westerner will nod appreciatively  and admire grandma’s skills.

Sometimes they even seek out a village teacher who has never had any formal training, and they consider this a very unique, authentic, and meaningful education.

Unorthodox Thai Massage teachers even by Thai standards

When I first started my Thai Massage training in 1999, my most influential Thai Massage teacher was quite a genius.

He was intuitive, somewhat psychic, highly creative, and his technical skills were amazing. But he was also quite odd in some ways.

wow sign

Officially class was supposed to start at 9 am, but might actually start at 9.30 or 10 am or whenever the teacher felt like it.

Then he would chant mantras for another half hour and then proceed to dispense his wisdom via lengthy talks.

When all was said and done, he took a cigarette break right in the classroom, and then finally demonstrated the Thai Massage therapy techniques. He also kept smoking and even took naps right in the classroom whenever he felt like it.

But whatever you think, he was one of the best Thai Massage teachers, and many students came back year after year to study with him. Well, admittedly there were a few who just couldn’t handle his style and left quickly.

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Family training versus official training in Thailand

He had indeed originally learned Thai Massage from a family member and had no formal training and certainly no massage license or certificate of any kind.

massage license required

A few years later the Thai government made a law that Thai Massage schools had to be accredited and that teachers had to have a license.

After stalling for a couple of years, he finally did what he had to do to comply with those laws.

I am convinced that he was a much better therapist than whoever he got his required training from to get his license. I remember that he felt really weird about this change from the ancient tradition of learning Thai Massage in informal ways to a more formal and official method.

His Thai Massage school was quite famous, and many western therapists received their training from him. In fact, he had more students who kept studying with him year after year than any other school or teacher in Thailand. He was kind of a legend.

Outside the bigger cities, on the village level, the family-based training is still in place, and the official version has not caught on there.

As a matter of fact, I have had three such unorthodox Thai Massage teachers, and I am glad I did. That was before Thai Massage schools became a big business in Thailand and adapted to more western standards to accommodate their clientele.

Western rules cannot be applied in the rest of the world

Thailand has a very different culture, it’s a different world. If you try to apply your standards of how you think things should be based on where you come from, you will be shocked or frustrated in Thailand.

Things are different here. It’s not about right or wrong, better or worse – just different.

So getting back to Thai Massage schools and training in Thailand. What I noticed is that those rule-obsessed Westerners have no problem with their grandma-taught therapist and their chain smoking and story telling master teacher in Thailand (and don’t get me wrong, he really is a master teacher).

When they are in Thailand they throw out their western standards and rules and learn Thai Massage the Thai way. Or at least they used to.

Nowadays many big schools are trying to resemble western schools more and more because that’s where all their students are from, and that’s what many of them expect. And they know which side their bread is buttered on.

The reverse scenario

But now let’s turn the tables. Let’s say I show up in the West and tell people that I can do a great Thai Massage because my grandma taught me well.

massage offender

What will happen next is that they will call the police on me and throw me in the prison cell block which is reserved for those who dare touch anyone without the proper documentation, licencing, training, CEUs, ethics courses, disclaimers, insurance, and various paid up professional association fees on the state and national level (did I forget anything?)

Even if I would legally set up a Thai Massage class in the West, and I show up an hour late, tell lots of wise stories (at the expense of teaching time), puff cigarettes in the classroom and nap once in a while, I would get thrown out of the facility, all students would demand their money back, and my reputation would be destroyed instantly.

At this point the same student who was happy to throw out the rules in Thailand would feel morally obliged to crucify me on the alter of western rules and standards.

As you can see, there is more than one standard in the Thai Massage world. What happens in Thailand doesn’t work in the western world, and vice versa.

My odd master teacher is revered as a genius in Thailand, but he wouldn’t stand a chance in the US, for example.

And all the rules and requirements of western Thai Massage schools could never be implemented in Thailand. Typically Thais are not very good at following rules.

thai-massage-shoulder-stretch

Wherever you learn Thai Massage, whatever course you study, and whatever Thai Massage school you attend, make sure that the teacher’s heart is in it.

Make sure that he or she has passion for this art, and that you learn a holistic system and not just a mechanical set of techniques.

And then work with the rules – or the lack of them – and build a wonderful and exciting way of making a living and helping others.

To learn Thai Massage or to improve your existing Thai Massage skills, check out Thai Healing Massage Academy’s extensive online training library:

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Shama Kern, founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy

The author, Shama Kern, is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for two decades, and he is the creator of 20 Thai Massage online training courses.  

24 thoughts on “Curious Double Standard in Thai Massage”

  1. Thanks so much for your interesting perspective from the other side of the world. I always enjoy reading your blogs. Congrats on not going with the rule-obsessed Thai site to publish your articles. Your descriptions of your teacher is quite fascinating! It’s a good lesson in releasing judgments and preconceived ideas. Keep up the good work, Shama.

    Reply
  2. Thank you Ariana, I am always trying to present a different perspective from my vantage point of living on the other side of the world. I once read this saying that “a mind, once expanded, can never shrink back to its original dimensions”. So I try to expand my own mind and in the process help others expand theirs. Living in a totally different culture presents me with many opportunities to do so.

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  3. Thanks Shama for the good humour. Yes, I can certainly relate to what you are saying as I have been there too. I guess that’s why I like to return to Thailand on a regular basis to get back into that relaxed attitude so I can come back home and maintain that attitude in my own work. So far it’s working GREAT for all concerned. Hugs

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  4. Iwill try to visit thailand,I’m interested in
    taking thai massage classes
    Good report about the thai culture.
    Keep going writing about it!

    Reply
  5. Its quite obvious that its Pichest Boonthumme that you studied under and he is totally not conventional even in Thai society. So its not even Thais that go to study with because they like things a bit more structured than he is. In fact its mainly eccentric foreigners who find him so fascinating because he is so unconventional yet exceptional.
    So I don’t think he is really a model of how to be for us because its almost like he comes from another planet and its a mystery where his inspiration comes from.

    Reply
    • Quite true Graham. I have also studied with Poo and Chaiuth when he was still alive, and both of them gave Pichet a run for their money when it comes to eccentricity and being way out there. And they all had some very unique talents. Most regular massage schools in Thailand are more conventional than those three. It is an interesting combination that I have gotten some of my best education from some of the most eccentric people. None of them would make it in the US, for sure.

      I have been with Pichet for a few months when I started out. I don’t think that his students were eccentric, but there really aren’t many places to go after you got your basic Thai Massage education in one of the many schools, and you want to go deeper.

      Back then Pichet was a bit more organized and structured. I hear that nowadays he did away with all that completely. It is just all free flow, and must be hard to take for anyone who is expecting some kind of structure. Yes, Pichet is some kind of a cross between an enigma, a genius, an eccentric, a shaman, a healer. And you really have to drop all your ideas how a massage school should be run if you want to be able to put up with him. In either case he was my most influential teacher.

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  6. On the other hand, most of the massage schools that Westerners do attend are very structured. Do this 3 times then up and down the leg and no suggestion of ever being creative. And I have the feeling that most Thais are also taught this way. So not many step out of the mold of the same conventional Thai Massage sequence that they deal out to all clients.

    It could be interesting to teach your Heavenly Head and Abdominal massages to Thai Masseuses. There are thousands of massage parlors all offering the same menu of treatments. They might make a killing offering something different to Tourists.

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  7. You know Graham, this is a strange thing. You are absolutely correct that the therapists in Thailand would make a killing if they would step out of their mold and offer something different. But the vast majority of them are simply not interested in learning anything new. Their concept is that they know enough to do a session and make some money, so why bother with new information.

    I have offered to teach some of my styles to Thais, but I never had any takers, even if I would have taught it for free. Thais have a very different mentality from westerners who want to learn as much as possible and who are always interested in new information and new techniques in the massage world.

    That’s the reason why Thai massage is evolving and changing in the west, but staying the same without any changes or modifications in Thailand.

    There are many socio-economic reasons for that which become very obvious when you live here, and I have written about it in several articles on this website and on http://shamakern.com. It goes beyond the scope of this comment here, but there really is a big difference between east and west why people become therapists and how they see their work.

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  8. Hi Shama. Many thanks for your really interesting articles. I have not yet been to Thailand but am saving up to visit. I really like your approach and wonder if you do any direct teaching over there?

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  9. Hi Shama,
    Very much enjoyed reading your article.It is soo true,unfortunately,that massage in the States is so regulated.Also enjoyed watching your video of the Mala festival.What stood out to me the most was the sheer JOY that people expressed on their faces and in their body movements! I feel that is sadly missing in “mainstream culture” in the U.S. many clients I work with sensor their body movements so much that there is no flow or joy left!Just finished downloading my last Heavenly Head Massage video.Great information and teaching! thank you

    Reply
    • Hi Heidi, you are right – there was a lot of joy and fun at this festival, and a real free flow in the healing arts. Luckily we don’t have to contend with much regulation here in Thailand.

      I am glad that you like the Heavenly Head Massage course. I hope I can continue to provide more inspiration and education to you and all my clients and students.

      Reply
  10. Great comments. That is why inThailand everyone is laid back and appreciates life daily. Here in the western world its rules..rules..rules,(HE WHO MUST OBEYED!!) fail to follow them and BIG trouble. I am a firm believer in slow down and see what is around us ENJOY LIFE! Not so here must be busy busy or you are useless

    Regards

    Terry

    Reply
  11. Hi Shama, it is nice to read your articles(this one is very funny) and being part of your courses. I think as a student in Asia (China, Thailand..) people have to be patient, emphatic and humble, or they will be upset. ๐Ÿ™‚ I think China is even more strict somehow than Thailand, but in the end it is better that they do not praise you all the time. It makes you work more harder. The difference with us foreigners is, that we ask so many questions, want certifications, levels, ranks for everything and forgetting work hard. For lot of teachers in Thailand or China is also important , if you already have basics, if you do not have they do not want to teach you much. But for people who want to grow, it is ok.

    Reply
    • Martin, I am glad you like my article. You are right, in Asia you need patience. In the western world you can get away without it, but especially here in Thailand, if you exhibit impatience, you don’t get anywhere.
      Most of the bigger Thai Massage schools here in Thailand have adapted their style to the foreigners by now. They have figured out what they expect, and since this is a big business, they provide it. Now some of the big schools offer CEUs for the US and Canada, or even England. They do Thai Massage on the table and all kinds of other stuff that did no exist 15 years ago at all.

      If you study at a small school or with an individual, it is still mostly old style. I am quite glad that I still caught the generation of teachers who were really unique and had their own styles, and little structure but lots of great knowledge.

      This helped me a lot in developing my own unique style, or actually several styles. A lot of what I teach is not being taught anywhere else in Thailand, like the Thai Rocking massage or the Heavenly Head Massage. All those unique teachers inspired me to grow way beyond the basic traditional style of Thai Massage.

      Reply
  12. Thank you Shama,

    I think I worked for those people you speak of before. Not in Thai massage but, in other fitness avenues at 5 Star Spas. I did it for 6 years. I said good morning and greeted them by name every day and always tried to be pleasant. Many never spoke back to me or even knew my name for that matter, which is fine. But, I felt part of me died before I opened my own studio.
    Honestly I have found that the best services do not come from such establishments. We sometimes get wrapped up in exclusivity here to the point we exclude the best of the best to claim we are best.
    Believe me you made a good choice by not writing for them. So glad you made that decision so we commoners have the pleasure of reading your articles.

    Reply
    • I know, I have worked in 5 star destination spas as well and got caught up in bureaucracy and rules. I am glad that I have my own business where I can set standards that I feel comfortable with.

      It is often difficult to really express our best intuitive and creative ideas in big business environments (and that includes massage). I am happy I found a niche where I can fill a need, to provide high quality massage video training to people and places who would otherwise have no access to it, or who really prefer the home study model.

      And yes, I love writing my articles, and I am so glad that people like you appreciate them!

      Reply
  13. You always so funny and entertaining Shama! I agree too many freaking rules in the USA! I like simple and relaxed. . Whatever happened to that? Maybe that’s why everyone goes to Thailand to learn. . Less stressรท! Keep posting your Awesome videos! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply

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