15 areas where Western and Thai Massage are different
Before you decide to learn Thai Massage, it is important to understand what makes it different from Western therapies.
Thai Massage study is not just about learning a different set of massage techniques. Instead, it is a totally different approach to massage therapy with a totally different mindset.
It has a strong cultural background which Western massage lacks. It is part of the social fabric of Thailand and has a long history behind it.
Here is a list that compares various aspects of the two systems. Keep in mind that this is somewhat generalized and that there are exceptions to many of those items. But for the most part, the comparison holds true.
1. Spacial dimensions in massage
Western table massage can be described as a two-dimensional massage system since the client doesn’t move and always remains in the same plane.
In contrast, you could look at Thai Massage as a three-dimensional system since the client is moved around frequently without staying in one plane.
2. Mapping out the body in massage
How do you find your way around the body? What markers do you use? Here is a significant difference between East and West.
Western massage is primarily based on anatomy and physiology and uses these as a map for the body.
Thai Massage is based on the energy line approach and uses those as a map for the body.
3. General approach to bodywork
Western massage is leaning towards a clinical approach based on medical principles.
Thai Massage uses a different mindset which is based on a more holistic approach.
4. Localized treatment versus energy flow therapy
Western massage aims to work out problems with a localized approach by working on specific areas where the problem occurs.
Thai Massage aims to correct and re-establish energy flow in the body instead of just working on the spot where the problem manifests.
5. Undressed versus fully clothed
Western massage is typically done right on the skin with the client undressed. This can bring up privacy and ethical issues.
Thai Massage is done fully dressed, and therefore the whole approach to it is much more relaxed – no draping needed, and privacy is not a big concern.
6. Regulations versus cultural integration
Western massage is extensively regulated and legislated. Licensing is typically required.
Thai Massage is part of the Thai system of natural healing. It is part of the social and cultural fabric of life and its practice is very common, accepted, and regarded as natural.
Until fairly recently, a therapist’s reputation was considered more important than official credentials. Traditionally, there has been much less formality and regulation, although this is slowly changing.
7. Science versus actual experience
In the Western world, massage benefits are typically explained in scientific terms.
In Thailand, nobody cares much about scientific explanations as long as the massage feels good and is beneficial. That’s why Thai Massage is generally not presented in scientific terms, but more as a holistic and beneficial system.
8. Legal concerns and paperwork in massage therapy
Especially in the US, therapists might have to deal with legal issues or even run the risk of getting sued. That’s why intake forms, consent forms, and insurance are typically a part of massage therapy.
In Thailand, nobody would even dream of suing a massage therapist, even if they are doing something wrong. Paperwork is typically not involved in massage work, and therapists don’t have and don’t need insurance.
9. Private versus public setting
In the Western world, massage is generally done in a private setting behind closed doors, and in dedicated spaces.
Thai Massage is often done in much more public settings in Thailand, and people don’t care so much about privacy. For example, you can find it in parks, markets, conventions, events, and on the beach.
10. Cost of sessions – Thailand vs the Western world
Massage in the Western world is somewhat of a luxury item that often requires a substantial financial outlay for quality massage work.
Thai Massage in Thailand is not a luxury item. It is mostly priced quite cheaply. You can still find massage for $5 per hour, and in some local settings for as little as $3 per hour.
11. What is the massage trying to accomplish?
Western massage styles are primarily seen as a method for relaxing (with beneficial effects) although there are types of massage that are more therapeutically oriented. In general, spas are mostly seen as places for pampering oneself.
Thai Massage on the local (not touristy) level has always functioned as a therapeutic system for dealing with aches and pains and diseases. There is a larger percentage of people who want to get their health issues remedied when receiving sessions.
12. Physical massage settings
Western massage is practically always done on a massage table.
Thai Massage is traditionally done on a floor mat, although nowadays in the Western world, many Thai Massage therapists are adapting it to the table.
13. Which body parts do therapists use?
In Western massage, therapists use primarily their hands, and to a lesser degree forearms and elbows. This can lead to wearing out of the hands, or to injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.
In Thai Massage, therapists make extensive use of many body parts – hands, forearms, elbows, knees, and feet. Especially when doing strong work, they can easily replace their hands with other body parts. This is better for the health of the therapist.
14. Body mechanics
Western therapists use more muscle power in their work which can result in back and shoulder problems.
This muscle use cannot be eliminated since therapists cannot always be right on top of their clients because of the massage table. Especially for long stroking techniques they need to use muscle power to some degree.
Thai Massage therapists rely mostly on their body weight which reduces stress on their bodies and prolongs longevity in their careers.
Working on a floor mat greatly facilitates the use of body weight and good body mechanics. This is because therapists can easily position themselves above the client. Instead of stroking techniques, Thai Massage uses leaning techniques that require very little muscle power.
15. Massage application methods
Western massage uses oil with mostly stroking and kneading moves.
Thai Massage does not use oil and uses a much wider range of applications – kneading, stretching, traction, rocking, percussion, and leaning moves.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. There are more differences since the cultural settings in Thailand are very different from the Western world. Anyone who visits Thailand will see this quickly.
Rigid distinctions versus blending
This comparison is not meant to be a judgment on the merits of either system. It just points out some of the differences between the Western approach to massage and the Eastern approach to Thai Massage in Thailand.
These differences are not rigid, of course. Western therapists often use elements from the Eastern system or even blend the two styles. Or they might add holistic aspects to an otherwise more medical or science-based system.
Therefore this comparison can only serve as a general guideline that does not fit every single Western therapist.
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