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Is Thai Massage Best When It Is ‘Traditional’?

thai Massage tradition versus innovation

Thailand is famous for its unique Thai Massage therapy system. Every year many thousands of people travel to Thailand to study there. Countless Thai Massage schools have sprung up all over the country in the last 20 years.

Most people assume that Thai Massage education must be best in its home country. The question is if this is really true.

Before we get into the details, I should mention that I am not just talking about theory or making educated guesses. After living in Thailand for 2 decades and being married to a native Thai Massage therapist, my conclusions are based on observable facts.

Is ‘traditional’ better than ‘non-traditional’?

Thai people like to use the term ‘Thai Traditional Massage’. Actually, it has become somewhat of a brand name. The idea is that ‘traditional’ is better than ‘non-traditional’.

But is this really true?

At this point, let’s take a closer look at the circumstances of the Thai people. Thailand is a developing nation and few people have the means to travel to other countries.

This has consequences, and it distinguishes the average therapist in Thailand from their Western colleagues.

The vast majority of Thai Massage practitioners and teachers in Thailand have had no exposure to any other therapy system than Thai Massage, and therefore no way of comparing it to anything else.

‘Tradition’ has its downsides

tradition in thai massage

Their teaching style is based on their tradition with very little outside influence. If the purpose is to preserve the tradition, this works well. But on the other side, it also preserves the weaker elements of Thai Massage and prevents any further evolution of the system.

Now someone might argue that Thai Massage is perfect the way it is. That’s a counterproductive argument since it does not allow room for any expansion, evolution, or improvement.

Healing arts are not meant to be static, fixed, and forever exactly the same. They are meant to be creative, intuitive, and ever-evolving.

Eastern and Western therapists have their differences

Here is a difference between therapists in Thailand and in the Western world: Generally, Thais do not have the inquisitive and intellectual mindset that is more typical in Western countries.

Why is that? Three main reasons are language, less access to educational resources, and less financial resources.

It is quite common that Western massage therapists have studied several massage systems and they often blend those styles. In the US, for example, massage therapists have to take continuing education classes every year, and many choose courses from other therapeutic modalities.

In Thailand however, there is no continuing education and no incentive for change or improvement.

Innovations by Western Thai Massage therapists

creativity and innovation

During my Thai Massage career of more than 20 years, I have observed that many Western therapists have taken Thai Massage to new levels by combining it with techniques from yoga therapy, Shiatsu, or similar modalities.

Many have created their own styles by incorporating or inventing new techniques that have added a new dimension to Thai Massage.

Personally, I have created my own style of Thai Massage by adding techniques from yoga therapy, Chi Nei Tsang abdominal work, and rocking moves, which we teach at Thai Healing Massage Academy.

Visit Thai Healing Massage Academy’s online training library with 20 Thai Massage courses for all your training needs and all levels of skills.

Thai Massage evolution in the western world

thai massage evolution

Most of the evolution of Thai Massage has occurred on the western side of the globe, whereas Thailand is remaining on the traditional side.  

To understand why that is the case, consider the following reasons:

  • Western therapists have easy access to countless therapy systems
  • They are  financially more able to travel and study with several teachers
  • Westerners have a stronger sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness than the Thais. There is a reason for this.

    Most Western massage therapists have a much higher level of general education than therapists in Thailand. There Thai Massage therapy is considered a profession for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

    You will only rarely find a therapist in Thailand with a higher education, whereas in the Western world, many therapists have a college-level education.
  • The Western massage education system requires ongoing training (at least in the US). Therapists cannot just stand still and rest on their laurels. They have to keep their education going in order to maintain their license.
  • Most Westerners speak English which puts lots of educational material within their reach. There is just less information available in the Thai language, although this is gradually improving.

Tradition versus creativity and innovation

many massage styles

Thais do not have any of those advantages and therefore remain primarily on the traditional side. They are not exposed to or familiar with the many healing arts modalities that Western therapists have access to.

Although there are certainly many excellent Thai Massage practitioners and teachers in Thailand, western therapists have the facilities and resources to learn more and add more creativity to the system.

This has added a new dimension to Thai Massage. Some people consider this a healthy and beneficial evolution while the traditionalists consider this a corruption of the original system.

Regardless of such opinions, new adaptations and styles of Thai Massage are here to stay in the Western world, similar to what happened with yoga styles that did not exist a few decades ago.

The micro and macro perspectives in Thai Massage

Look at it this way: On a micro level, in a Thai Massage session, a therapist has to modify and adapt techniques to fit a client’s needs. A one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable for Thai Massage.

The best therapists are creative, innovative, and intuitive. They don’t insist on following a fixed routine.

On a macro level, the Thai Massage system can benefit from the same creative and innovative adaptations that take place in individual sessions.

Examples of when change is good and wins over tradition

thai-massage shoulder stretch

To give you a practical example, many times our students of Thai Healing Massage Academy’s online courses mentioned that our Thai models are small, light, and flexible, and that their Western clients are often much larger and heavier.

Therefore what is needed are techniques to accommodate a different kind of clientele. Asians are typically smaller and lighter than Westerners, and therefore it is necessary to adapt techniques to a different environment.

The same thing happens when Thai Massage is not done on a floor mat as in Thailand, but is adapted to a massage table. Again, techniques need to be modified to work in a different environment.

This may not be ‘traditional’, but it is practical and necessary. So tradition is not always the only or even best way to handle situations in Thai Massage.

Another example would be Thai Massage therapists who have many other skills and can improve their therapeutic effectiveness by adding techniques from another modality.

In such cases therapeutic success wins over traditional values and styles.

So…is there a problem with traditional Thai Massage?

No, certainly not. Tradition is a useful guideline. It preserves standards and assures continuity. It is a framework that can be built on, but it should not be a rigorous set of rules that inhibits growth, creativity, and innovation.

Learning Thai Massage is best done with a good foundation – the traditional model and its sequences. But true mastery in Thai Massage comes with the ability to adapt, create, modify, and intuit based on what the client needs, not by following a set of rules.

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The author, Shama Kern

The author, Shama Kern, is the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage for over two decades, and he is the creator of 20 Thai Massage online training courses.

4 thoughts on “Is Thai Massage Best When It Is ‘Traditional’?”

  1. Thanks for your perspective on this Shama.
    Early on, I was with a teacher who said, “Bring everything that you really know into your Thai massage practice”
    So on that day Thai medicine became the framework and I found within it places to organize all of the western techniques and knowledge that I had previously learned.

  2. As a graduate of both Wat Po and The Foundation of Shivagakomarpaj schools, and a practitioner of Traditional Thai massage for 22 years, I believe in the basic core principles of 1) freeing the ‘energy lines’ and 2) applying yoga-like stretches. The energy lines happen to correspond to the divisions of large muscle groups where deeply embedded nerve trunks and arteries live. Unlike Swedish massage, that focusses on promoting superficial veinous flow, deep pressures along and into the energy lines can free nerve and arterial flow which may have been hindered by distortions caused by acute and chronic muscle tightness. Much more freedom to experiment is allowed in the application of the stretches once the sources of fresh blood containing the messenger minerals that tell muscles to relax are freed. There are hundreds of stretches documented and people are always inventing new ways to stretch the human body. I have traveled the length and breadth of Thailand (three months a year for 20 years) sampling massages and found many more numerous effective stretches than are taught in schools or the many books I have on the subject. I usually stick to the routine taught at the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai as I believe it to be the most acceptable for new clients who might find the Wat Po style too invasive and uncomfortable. I once treated a client who had been paralyzed, from the neck down, for three years from Guillain-Barré syndrome with weekly sessions of that style of Thai massage and he was 95% recovered after 10 months. On regular clients I tailor the poses/stretches to their individual deficits and always work the energy lines in a standard way. I retired to Thailand two years ago.

    To address your very good/thoughtful article: In Thailand, massage is considered a ‘low’ profession because they touch the feet, which are considered unholy and low, which restricts the practice to those on the lower socio/economic/educational scale. They are not taught the ‘why’ and the expected result from what they so they are restricted to the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ method of learning which limits the effectiveness. None of the schools I’ve been to, or the books I have, discuss the physiology of Thai massage and its effects on the body without which one can never excel except by those who are gifted/intuitive. They are also not taught body mechanics to make the massage easier on their body while making the massage more effective. When I first came back from my studies in Thailand, it took a while to figure out the purpose of each procedure in the Western, scientific way of thinking. When students understand what they are trying to accomplish, they may come up with better ways of doing it. I, myself, have fine-tuned the Northern Style to make it flow better but the one thing I don’t change is working the ‘energy lines’. Thank you for the opportunity to offer my input on this subject that is so close to my heart.


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