Do Thai Massage Therapists need to know anatomy? What kind of a strange question is this?
Isn’t it obvious that the answer should be “yes”? Or so would be the response of any western massage therapist.
The observations in this article are based on Thai Massage the way how it has been traditionally practiced and taught in Thailand.
My personal experience in Thailand
I have lived in Thailand, the homeland of Thai Massage, for two decades.
When I started out with my career 20 years ago, I studied in quite a few Thai Massage schools, and not one of them mentioned anatomy.
I also know many native Thai Massage therapists, and the vast majority of them have practically zero knowledge of anatomy.
What’s the reason for this?
The answer is not so simple. There are several levels of how Thai Massage is being practiced. Most Thai and western massage therapists know Thai Massage as a system of stretching and pressure points.
Relatively few know that Thai Massage is part of a rather sophisticated system of traditional Thai medical knowledge. There are several reasons why very few therapists are familiar with it.
1. The complete study of Thai medical knowledge takes years to learn, a lot of dedication and financial investment
At this level the therapist does know about anatomy among many other subjects. However the average Thai Massage therapist in Thailand typically comes from a socio-economic background which makes it difficult or impossible for them to access more advanced education.
Many practice Thai Massage because it it possible to become reasonably proficient in a few weeks, it is an easy job to get into, and is better paid than most basic jobs in Thailand.
Thai Massage by itself, without more advanced training in Thai natural medicine, is traditionally taught without anatomical knowledge.
However, this does not necessarily mean that the Thai Massage is of inferior quality. There are many excellent therapists who work primarily via experience and intuition, and who have become highly skilled.
The reason is that Thai Massage is using energy lines as a map to the body, unlike western massage styles which are using anatomy as a map to the body.
2. Now let’s shift to the Western Thai Massage therapists
Why don’t they learn the more profound aspects of Thai natural medicine in the Thai Massage schools?
One reason is that the traditional Thai medical knowledge is only taught in the Thai language and therefore excludes almost all Westerners.
The second reason is that the Thais are not very eager to teach this knowledge to Westerners. They see it as something to be preserved and guarded, not as something to be shared with the world.
Thais often look at the multitude of foreigners who come to Thailand to study Thai Massage as curiosity seekers and cash cows.
Consequently a high percentage of Thai Massage schools are set up as massage factories that churn out students as fast as possible for as much money as they can get..
A third reason is that although many massage shops in Thailand offer classes, the teachers themselves have not been trained in more advanced Thai traditional medical knowledge, so they cannot teach it.
A fourth reason is that it is entirely possible to become an excellent Thai Massage therapist without being trained in the entire traditional medical system of Thailand.
Western students have one advantage over their Thai counterparts. They can access anatomical knowledge more easily on their own. Also many of them have studied other styles of massage or yoga which include anatomical knowledge.
So here are some facts: In Thailand, most Thai or western therapists learn very little, if anything, about anatomy. Only in recent years some of the bigger Thai Massage schools have started to include anatomy training in their classes since there was a demand by their western students.
The Thai government has been raising educational standards for the Thais in recent years. But this does not apply to Western massage students since they do not fall under any licensing rules in Thailand.
Traditional Thai Massage education generally never included any anatomical knowledge, unless the therapist also studied the entire system of traditional Thai medicine. The reason is that Thai Massage works with energy lines instead of anatomy.
This is gradually changing for western students who are used to the anatomical model and often incorporate it with the energy line model.
Where Thai Massage goes under the radar
There is a level of Thai Massage and Thai medical knowledge that is rarely seen by most westerners.
On one end of the spectrum there are those who have actually undergone years of training and who are highly educated. But in general you won’t find them teaching Thai Massage to foreigners in massage factories.
At the other end of the spectrum there are often very simple, but highly intuitive and shamanic practitioners who generally do not speak any English. They mostly live in areas where they don’t come in contact with foreigners, and they are not seeking such contact either.
Their knowledge does not come from formal education and sophisticated training, but from apprenticing, good intuition and lots of experience.
Anatomy in Thai Massage:
East and West are not on the same wavelength
When Thai Massage is taught in Western schools, anatomy is generally part of the curriculum. Now the question still remains: Is it necessary for Thai Massage therapists to know anatomy?
My personal opinion is that it is definitely an advantage. But I also have to say that I have received countless wonderful Thai Massage sessions here in Thailand from therapists who had absolutely no anatomical knowledge.
With practice, Thai Massage therapists can develop intuition and a sense of touch that can make them highly skilled without anatomical knowledge by working within the energy line model.
Thai Massage and western massage are based on two different models or approaches.
- Thai Massage does not use anatomy and physiology as the main basis of the therapy. Instead it uses the concept of energy lines.
- Western massage uses anatomy and physiology as the main basis of the therapy.
If you were to say that anatomy is lacking in the eastern system, then you could argue that energy lines are lacking in western massage. The fact is that they are two different ways of working with the body.
Thai Massage, anatomy and energy
Energy lines are not part of western anatomical training, but are an entirely different area of knowledge.
If I were to generalize a bit, I would say that Thai Massage, at its popular level, does not include anatomical knowledge, but instead relies on feeling, experience, intuition and an understanding of energy lines.
Western massage often goes to the other extreme. Massage schools require the students to study anatomy in such depth where it is often not applicable to actual massage practice anymore.
A lot of it is forgotten by the students after they pass their exams, unless they are real anatomy aficionados. And at the same time western massage is very much lacking an understanding of the energetic components of the body.
It is definitely possible to perform an excellent Thai Massage without any anatomical knowledge, but therapists who are trained in the more profound traditional Thai medicine can take it to an even higher level.
Traditional and less traditional Thai Massage
Since Western Thai Massage therapists have very limited access to traditional Thai medicine, some blend elements of yoga or traditional Chinese medical knowledge, which is much more available and accessible than the Thai version, with their practice.
While this might diverge from the strictly traditional Thai version of Thai Massage, it can be just as effective.
There are two camps among western Thai Massage therapists: Those who place a high value on the traditional model, and those who place less emphasis on tradition and blend Thai Massage with other styles and other knowledge to make it effective in the most practical and most easily accessible way.
The author, Shama Kern, is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for 20 years, and he is the creator of 20 Thai Massage online training courses.