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What is the Difference Between Thai Massage and Partner Yoga?

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Thai Massage and related styles

Thai Massage calf stretch
Thai Massage calf stretch

Thai Massage has its roots in India’s yoga tradition.

According to legend, about 2,500 years ago, during the time of Buddha, an Indian physician came to Thailand and brought what is now known as Thai Massage with him.

The similarities  between the two systems are quite obvious. Thai Massage is often called “Thai yoga massage” or “lazy man’s yoga” since it is somewhat like yoga being done to you. The therapist is applying a series of yoga-like stretches to the client.

Normally yoga is done by individual practitioners who perform stretching techniques on themselves. But there are also styles where two yoga practitioners work together.

Thai Massage, Partner Yoga and Acro Yoga

One is called partner yoga, and another one is Acro yoga. These are quite acrobatic styles and contain many quite involved positions and stretches.

Acro yoga

When I first started to learn Thai Massage, many of us students were also yoga practitioners.

Sometimes we did partner yoga techniques just for fun as a complement to our classes.

I remember that one time there were some students who were really good at acro or “flying” yoga, and of course we all wanted to participate and learn some new techniques.

I even had one Thai teacher who sometimes showed us techniques that were clearly more partner yoga than Thai Massage.

So there is clearly some overlap between Thai Massage, Acro yoga and partner yoga. Sometimes I see youtube videos that are labeled as Thai Massage, but the techniques are really more in the partner yoga arena.

When is it massage and when is it yoga?

So what is the difference between those techniques? What are the boundaries or definitions of Thai Massage techniques? Where do you draw the line between massage and yoga?

I have lived in Thailand for many years and have studied, practiced and taught Thai Massage right here in its home country. I have also studied yoga. So I am in a good position to distinguish between the two systems:

  • During Thai Massage sessions, clients are totally passive. They are not expected to do anything themselves. All manipulations are done by the therapist to the client. Regardless of how fancy the technique is, the client does not participate in its execution.
  • Thai massage sessions are not just a series of stretches. There are many muscle manipulations, kneading, pressure points – actually it is possible to do an entire Thai Massage session with hardly any stretches.
  • In Partner yoga  both partners are active and mostly all techniques are stretches. It has nothing to do with massage.
  • In Acro yoga generally one partner is manipulating the other. Most techniques are quite involved and although one partner may be on the receiving end, it has nothing to do with a traditional massage where the client is lying on a mat and often falls asleep during the session.
  • Thai Massage contains many yoga-like stretches along with other massage techniques. The therapist is active and the client is passive. Partner yoga and Acro yoga contain mostly physical manipulations and stretches, but they contain hardly any massage elements and no partner can be totally passive or fall asleep.

All three system can overlap and can be combined

Partner Yoga

There is quite some overlap between the three systems we discussed. It is possible to build massage elements into Acro yoga or partner yoga.

There are many practitioners who have studied more than one system, and some of them mix styles in very creative ways.

However in Thailand there is no mixing going on. Thai Massage is taught in a traditional way and very few teachers combine elements of other styles with it.

All combinations have happened outside of Thailand

Once you leave Thailand and its traditional massage system you also leave many definite or clear boundaries behind. Many western practitioners blend Thai Massage with partner yoga, shiatsu, or other modalities.

It is quite easy to distinguish traditional Thai Massage as it is done in Thailand from partner yoga or acro yoga. But those distinctions are often blurred when Thai Massage is practiced in other countries.

I have seen youtube “Thai Massage” videos that would not be recognized as Thai Massage by the actual Thai practitioners here in Thailand. So there are many shifts and changes and innovations outside of Thailand.

Therefore this article can only outline the difference between the three systems from a traditional, more defined point of view, where the styles are not mixed.

yoga bridge
yoga bridge

If you disregard traditional models, you can create any combinations you can imagine, you can give them any names you like, and you can mix as many styles as you know.

You could call it “Thai potpourri“, or “Flying Thai yoga sensation” or “Amazing Asian and Thai yoga trapeze artist miracle massage“.

But for those readers who are in a more basic or traditional mode, this article should provide some useful guidelines how to distinguish between Thai Massage, partner yoga and acro yoga.

Some schools outside of Thailand are trying to follow the traditional Thai model, whereas others dispense with traditions. In my mind there is no right or wrong here.

There is something to be said about following an established and proven tradition, but no tradition would have ever been established in the first place unless some creative minds first innovated those concepts.

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image of Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the author of 20 Thai Massage online training courses. He can be reached via email at shama@thaihealingmassage.com

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13 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between Thai Massage and Partner Yoga?

  1. Thanks for the enlightening article, Shama. It is very educational and interesting. I especially enjoyed the photograph of you and the lady in the orange pants doing Acro Yoga. I wish I were flying in the sky like that!

  2. Hi, Shama,

    I teach different styles of yoga – hatha, shadow yoga, ashtanga, sometimes I introduce some elements of partner yoga in my classes, but in it would seem strange to me to use partner yoga elements in Thai massage for the reason you’ve mentioned in your article – in Thai massage your partner is passive, while in different styles of yoga the participants are active.

    • Yes, that is the main distinction. Some of the actual positions can look very similar in yoga and Thai Massage. The execution is different since only one is active and the other is passive. But watching both styles, it is very obvious that they share common roots.

  3. Thanks shama,the difference is there between Thai massage and yoga in most of the countries in Africa the people prefer the massage because they want the massage therapist to do all the work as they relax as its done in Thai massage…i don’t do alot of yoga techniques but I include yoga techniques in my gym stretches with my clients at gym and they give good results but I believe in a full yoga session its interesting…

  4. Receiving a Thai Massage session is definitely a lot less work than a partner yoga session. For the Thai Massage the client doesn’t have to know anything, whereas in partner yoga both have to know what they are doing.

  5. I have been doing Acroyoga for quite a while now.

    One other difference I have experienced is that the client needs some strength and flexibility do be able to do most of the poses. They also need to trust and not fear being lifted which sometimes can cause stress.

    Also, the fact that both parties are active in Acroyoga, although still provides a good stretch, it doesn’t relax the client as much -there is no way they can fall asleep…Having said that, as there is constant interaction, Acroyoga can be more fun if they are looking for something more active…

    • Thanks Suzan, you made some good points. Definitely the “drifting off into trance-land” factor and the passive nature of the massage experience are not part of the Acro yoga experience. Acro yoga is fun, but not for everyone, as you said. Massage can be experienced by anyone in contrast.

  6. Frankly speaking-there is nothing like partner yoga to the best of my knowledge. It is the off-shoot of western mind just like hot-yoga. I do not know anything about Acro Yoga too. As far as Thai Massage is concern-yes it does look like as if the therapist is stretching the receiver just like yoga poses. Well in its truest sense that is also not yoga.Yoga is the practice to connect with self. Therefore how can some one else do it for any body.

    • Bharat, it is true that several yoga styles have been developed in the western world and that some of them lack the original intention of yoga which is to connect with self as you say. You are also correct that Thai Massage cannot recreate this truest sense of yoga in a passive client. So if we want to be precise, we had to say that Thai Massage and yoga are connected on a physical level.

      There is however another effect when you work on the energy lines, or nadis as you call them in India, which does create a sense of balance and well being. Therefore Thai Massage has a beneficial effect on the physical body and on the energy body.

  7. I enjoy all three equally. I give 2 hour sessions that blend all elements of Body, Mind and keeping the session anchored in Spirit. Keeping an overlap between the three systems I build massage elements into Acro yoga and partner yoga.

    I’m one of those practitioners who have studied more than one system, and find lots of pleasure (for me and my clients) by mixing styles in a very creative ways.

    • Thanks Elisabeth – to me this seems ideal, to blend compatible styles and be adept at more than one modality. This allows for lots of creative adaptations and brings out the’art’ in healing.

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