The Bigger Picture of Thai Massage
Thai Massage is not just another massage modality in the Western sense. It is part of an ancient culture, it is part of a lifestyle, it is part of a social environment.
It is one element in the greater healing system of Thai Natural Medicine. There is a philosophy behind it, a tradition, a way of life, and a set of attitudes. It is not just a bunch of techniques and stretches.
The Thai Massage Explosion
Since Thai Massage has been discovered and embraced by the rest of the world in the last couple of decades, there has been a huge demand by tourists (35 million visitors in 2019).
This has generated a huge Thai Massage industry geared toward all those tourists. Everything from very simple shops to high-end spas is plentiful in all tourist areas in Thailand.
This development has spawned more regulations, supervision, and licensing requirements by the Thai government which had previously not existed. In the process, Thai Massage has become more commercialized and institutionalized.
On this level of Thai Massage you will find fixed prices, fixed session lengths, licensed therapists (maybe), and a relaxed, but somewhat structured environment.
Thai Massage in Thailand – Village Style
Then there is another, less visible level. Most villages in Thailand have at least one Thai Massage therapist. That’s not a person who went to a formal school, works out of a clinic, and has anatomy charts and certificates on the wall.
Most likely he or she learned the art from a family member, carrying on the family tradition of helping and healing. This therapist is not only in it for the money.
He or she generally works in their community, in a very simple environment like a thin straw mat on the floor, and might get paid in cash, produce, a chicken, or some other exchange.
The Beauty Of Simplicity in Thai Massage
In this environment privacy is not an issue. Most likely everyone can watch the session.
How about clean sheets? There are no sheets at all. Thai Massage is done fully dressed, and that’s all that’s needed.
There are no intake forms, no formalities, no rules, no licensing, no legal considerations, no insurance, no ethics courses, no anatomy, and no no-show charges.
There is no fixed duration of the session, no set pricing structures, no tasteful room decoration, no soft music in the background, no association fees, no CEUs, and no threats of lawsuits. Just one human being helping another feel better and get better.
Western Therapists Enter The Picture
Any Western-trained massage therapists will cringe in horror at this scenario since pretty much most of what they learned in massage school just doesn’t apply anymore under those circumstances.
Here’s a strange thing. I have seen many Western therapists come to Thailand and not only visit such village-type therapists but even learn from them.
They consider it special and authentic to learn from a simple village therapist who learned Thai Massage from his grandma.
And this person who never attended massage school and doesn’t have a single certificate may well be an effective healer.
The Culture Clash Issue
Then those foreign students go back to their home countries and reintegrate into the Western environment. Suddenly everything that was “special” and “authentic” in Thailand is now illegal, unethical, and unprofessional in their world.
Now they are surrounded by people who are pushing to make licensing requirements stricter, and strengthening legislation for the massage profession.
There are people who are suing those who lack proper credentials, people who meticulously follow a myriad of rules, and who discredit everything which cannot be scientifically proven.
Can you see the issue – it’s a culture clash. It’s a matter of entirely different values. It’s two totally different ways of thinking.
Of course, not all Thai Massage in Thailand works like I described above. In the cities and tourist areas massage shops have fixed prices, fixed session lengths, and often even licensed therapists. And in higher-end spas it is even more structured.
But in general Thai Massage in Thailand is still a fairly relaxed and easy-going scene compared to western massage.
Transplanting Thai Massage
Now let’s look at what can happen when you take the Thai Massage system out of Thailand and transplant it to a Western country.
- Instead of providing a very affordable healing service for everyone, it turns into a luxury service that only the middle or upper middle class can afford regularly.
- Instead of blending Thai Massage into the social fabric, it becomes a totally private and more clinical affair, losing its social and cultural character.
- Instead of working with intuition and a sense of energy flow, there is pressure in the Western model to convert it into an anatomy-based system which it was never based on. This squeezes the energy component out of it.
- Instead of working on a wide floor mat, the setting becomes a narrow massage table which is not ideally suited for Thai Massage.
- Instead of practicing in a social environment in a room full of clients who are lying on mats next to each other, the doors of the massage rooms are shut with “Quiet – Do not disturb – session in progress” signs on the door.
- Instead of feeling what’s wrong with your client, therapists or the law require an intake form with a medical history and possible doctor’s approval.
I could make this list a lot longer, but I think you get the idea. By taking Thai Massage out of Thailand, it is changed in some ways.
This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but it sure is different. Let’s look at this more closely.
Western Thai Massage Applications
There are several ways how Thai Massage is adapted and modified in a Western environment.
- Some therapists just add a few Thai Massage techniques to their existing modality. Then it becomes partial or blended Thai Massage.
- Some are practicing Thai Massage as a stand-alone modality, but in a Westernized way – as an anatomy-based system, on a massage table, and in a clinical setting.
- There are those therapists who have spent time in Thailand and studied there extensively. They might try to practice Thai Massage in a ‘pure’ or ‘traditional’ way to reflect its original spirit.
- Then there are yoga teachers who integrate Thai Massage into their training. They emphasize the yoga-like stretching elements or are turning it into a hybrid Thai Yoga Massage system.
- Others are trying to make Thai Massage more acceptable in the Western world by focusing on scientific proof and validation.
- Some therapists are trying to present Thai Massage along with the entire Thai natural healing system – herbal balls, herbal medicine, sen line theory and application, and the entire theoretical background.
- A number of Western Thai Massage teachers have created their own modified styles and have come up with new names like “Vedic Thai Massage”, the “DeonThai Method”, “Thai Yoga Massage”, SomaVeda Thai Yoga”, and many more.
Pros And Cons Of Westernized Thai Massage
There are lots of ways how Thai Massage is applied in the Western world. My purpose is not to label them as right or wrong, better or worse, superior or inferior. I am just pointing out developments and differences.
On the positive side, Thai Massage has sometimes been expanded and enriched and even improved in the Western world – at least in some cases.
There are some very creative, dedicated, and highly skilled Western Thai Massage therapists.
On the negative side, Thai Massage has often been watered down and stripped of its heart and soul by forcing it into a Western model of massage therapy.
Lost In Translation
If you happen to speak more than one language, you know that there are some words that just cannot be translated.
The meaning of some words or concepts is not the same from one language to the other.
The same holds true for the healing arts. You can try to look at Thai Massage strictly through clinical eyes and a scientific mindset, and you can disregard the energetic elements as unnecessary or unproven.
However you will end up with something that might look like Thai Massage, but it is just an empty shell.
There is a richness and a beauty in Thai Massage which doesn’t come from scientific proof but from its cultural environment. And this is what often gets lost in translation by moving Thai Massage into a Western environment.
A Unique Thai Massage Training System
There are several ways of learning Thai Massage.
- Thousands of people go to Thailand every year to study. If you like traveling, and have the time and the money to spend at least a couple of months in Thailand, this can be an enjoyable way to learn Thai Massage.
- There might be a local school near where you live. This won’t require so much traveling, and it won’t take you away from home for so long. However a solid and comprehensive Thai Massage education in the Western world tends to be quite expensive.
- A third solution is offered by Thai Healing Massage Academy in the form of interactive online training with personalized teacher support via an online forum community. This multi-media training program is like a virtual classroom.
This solution is much less expensive, and it gives you permanent access to all training materials.
The training is very much authentic since Thai Healing Massage Academy is run by an American/Thai family.
This solution is especially effective if you already have a massage or yoga background.
For more information, check out Thai Healing Massage Academy’s online training program:
To learn or improve your Thai Massage skills with refined elements like good body mechanics, good communication skills, a developed intuition, and a great touch, check out our convenient online training:
The author, Shama Kern, is the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He is the author of 20 online Thai Massage training programs and has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for over two decades.