How much anatomy do Thai Massage therapists need to know?
In the Western world, anatomical knowledge is seen as a required element of massage therapy. It is accepted as one of the fundamental principles in massage schools.
However, you might be astonished to learn that there are parts of the world where anatomy is not the main basis of massage education.
One of these countries is Thailand. How can that be? Let’s take our own Thai Massage school as an example.
In Thai Healing Massage Academy’s online training courses, we use anatomical terms at a basic level only. There are three reasons for this:
Reason #1: Practical considerations
Anatomy uses a scientific language that is not understood by most people unless they have studied the subject.
Our online training courses are used by students from all over the world. For quite a few of them, English is not their first language.
Complex anatomical terms would make it more difficult for those students to follow the training. Therefore we intentionally keep it simple.
In other words, our online Thai Massage training courses are not exclusively targeted at massage therapists whose first language is English and who have studied anatomy and physiology.
Our Western students are mostly professional massage therapists and yoga teachers. Based on their training, they already have a good understanding of anatomy.
They can easily apply this knowledge to our training on their own if that’s important to them. How could that possibly not be important to them? This brings us to our next point.
Reason #2: The original style of Thai Massage
The Thai Healing Massage family of bodywork is based on the Asian style of massage therapy.
In Thailand, Thai Massage has traditionally never been taught based on anatomy and physiology. Why? Because Eastern medical models rely more on a knowledge of internal energy structure than the more clinical model of Western massage styles.
Asian bodywork uses less anatomical knowledge but more understanding of energy flow, whereas Western massage has little understanding of energy flow but more anatomical knowledge. These are two quite different approaches.
In Thailand, you are taught where these internal energy lines run and how to work on them. Even excellent Thai therapists generally have little or no knowledge of the names of bones and muscles since this is just not the primary approach of Asian massage.
Reason #3: The heart and soul of Thai Massage
Here is the essential ingredient of our teaching style: Our students are encouraged to develop their feeling and their intuition rather than just the mechanical aspects of the techniques.
They are taught how to use their hands as listening tools rather than as mere working tools. And they learn how to use their body, breath, and energy in a harmonious way.
Our training is designed to be holistic. It is meant to include the body and its energy. Our therapy education is not just meant to fix a certain part of the body. Its goal is to establish more balance and better energy flow in the entire body.
The eastern approach to massage therapy
While Western massage styles generally use a more clinical approach to massage therapy, the Eastern model focuses more on working with energy. At Thai Healing Massage Academy we encourage working through intuition and feeling rather than scientific knowledge.
We teach our students to develop a highly refined sense of energy, and how to get great results when applying this to their Thai Massage practice.
If students want to back up their training with detailed anatomical knowledge, they are encouraged to do so on their own, but this is not a strong focus of our training courses.
The story of a great Thai Massage therapist who cannot name one muscle
It is certainly useful for massage therapists to have a good understanding of anatomy and physiology, but this does not necessarily make anyone a better therapist.
Let me tell you a story. I know one excellent massage therapist here in Thailand. She has been working full-time as a therapist for over 20 years.
She is very popular and in constant demand. Her clients love her and she is very effective. She is one of the best therapists in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
She has been working on princesses, movie stars, and famous musicians. She has been flown all over the world by wealthy clients just to get the benefit of her massage.
But… she does not know the names of any muscles or bones and sees no reason to learn them. She can feel with her hands all that she needs to know.
How do I know all that about her? Easy, she is my wife.
My personal experience with Thai Massage in Thailand
I have been living in Thailand for 20 years and have received hundreds of massage sessions. I am quite sure that almost none of all those therapists could name any muscle or bone in my body.
The conclusion is that it is clearly possible to give a great massage without anatomical knowledge.
I did study anatomy and I keep several anatomy books on hand. However, I did not learn any of this in the several Thai Massage schools which I attended originally in Thailand.
What I did learn was good ergonomics, energy flow, state of mind, loving kindness, and healing intentions.
Who wants scientific proof? (Hint: it’s not the clients)
In all my years as a professional Thai Massage therapist, I have yet to meet one single client who asked me for scientific proof of the effects or benefits of my massage.
Instead, they all just wanted to feel better, and they were happy that I could deliver that. They cared about practical results.
In Thailand, therapists see no need to cater to the Western craving for scientific validation, double-blind studies, and analysis of chemical reactions in the body. Their purpose is to make their clients feel better and get better.
Anatomy and scientific research are good sources of supporting information for massage therapists, but they are not necessarily a prerequisite for good Thai Massage.
Ideally, the anatomical and scientific knowledge would go hand in hand with the Asian energetic model.
To get the priorities straight, it is possible to be an excellent Thai Massage therapist without anatomical knowledge. However, it is not possible to be a great massage therapist just based on anatomical and scientific knowledge.
Recent trends in Thailand for Thai Massage
In the last decade or so, tens of thousands of foreigners have been going to Thailand to learn Thai Massage. Many of them are very much used to the Western method of learning massage via anatomy.
In response to this, some of the larger Thai Massage schools have started to incorporate Western methods into their training, like anatomy classes and Thai Massage on the table.
Also nowadays some Thai Massage institutions are using scientific concepts to make Thai Massage more acceptable and respectable to the Western world.
So there is a gradual shift toward Western values happening. However, this is mostly concentrated in a few larger cities. In general, Thai Massage is still largely based on the traditional, energy-based, non-anatomical system. This is 100 percent the case in smaller towns or rural areas.
Certainly the Eastern and the Western system can complement each other and co-exist as long as the Western model does not push the Eastern model into the background, thus eliminating the essence or the soul of Thai Massage.
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario, and I think the best option will be obvious.
Which choice would you make to get a good Thai Massage?
The Eastern and Western models are not mutually exclusive and can make an ideal combination. But – let’s just imagine you had to make a choice. You really want a good massage and have only two options.
One is an experienced therapist who is an expert in anatomy, physiology, and scientific research but does not have that special touch that makes you feel great.
The other one is an experienced therapist with a wonderful magical touch that makes you feel like you just went to massage heaven – but he or she has very limited knowledge of anatomy, physiology, or science. Which one of the two would you choose?
Now you could argue that a therapist can have a magical touch and anatomical knowledge at the same time. That’s true, of course.
However, our choice scenario demonstrates that if you had to choose between the two, the quality of touch is the more important one.
What is the true spirit of Thai Massage?
My aim is not to invalidate anatomy. My only purpose is to point out the priorities which I have learned based on many years of experience with practicing and teaching Thai Massage therapy in an Asian environment.
I have found that this eastern model has a higher chance of producing a wonderful massage experience along with excellent therapeutic results.
After all, massage is called a ‘Healing Art’ and not something like the ‘Clinical science of effective tissue manipulation’.
I feel that the Eastern model is closer to the actual spirit of massage therapy. It encourages the heart and spirit to be involved. It promotes feeling without engaging the mind unnecessarily.
It is a way for the therapist to develop higher states of consciousness and develop attitudes like love, kindness, and empathy. It enables you to create a way of life through your massage therapy instead of just a job.
Thai Massage had been used for hundreds of years to address the health problems of the Thai people. It was typically used in an environment where helping people was more important than the financial benefits.
It is an energy-based holistic therapy system. Here at Thai Healing Massage Academy, we have modeled our online courses on these principles. We are teaching students how to become highly skilled, effective, compassionate, and heart-based healers.
The author, Shama Kern has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for over two decades. He is the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the creator of 20 online Thai Massage training courses.