Thai Massage – what’s in a name?
As far as names are concerned, Thai Yoga Massage is the same as Thai Massage, or Traditional Thai Massage. There are many variations that sound like they are all different styles.
You may also hear about Lanna Style Thai Massage. Lanna simply refers to a region of northern Thailand. Then there is the northern-style Thai Massage and Bangkok-style Thai Massage.
However, unless you want to get into the real nitty gritty, all those styles will feel pretty similar and you won’t be able to tell much of a difference.
Sure there are slight regional differences, and there are differences between individuals who have developed their own style, and there are differences between schools.
For example in Chiang Mai, Thailand, there are many schools and although they are all located in the same geographical location, there are differences in styles and presentation.
However, for an outsider who visits Chiang Mai, it will all feel pretty much like – well – Thai Massage.
Is there such a thing as a ‘pure Thai Massage style’?
Some schools or teachers like to think that their style is truly authentic. However in reality there is a tendency to more blending rather than differentiating.
The reason is that with the increased mobility of the Thai population, many northern therapists have studied or even worked in Bangkok.
Many therapists from Bangkok have moved to Chiang Mai, the northern capital, and many therapists have studied both the Bangkok and the northern style.
One of the major schools in the north came from Bangkok. Some schools have adapted their curriculum to cater to the Western interest in anatomy, and many Western teachers have included more yoga elements than you find in the traditional style of Thailand.
The fact is that there is no one true, original, authentic, unique style of Thai Massage or unbroken lineage that needs to be followed in order to be authentic.
Purity and authenticity are not attributes which are primarily found in a name, or in a book of rules, or in a lineage, but in the expertise, dedication, intention, and passion which a therapist has for his or her work.
Thai Yoga Massage, Yoga, and Thai Massage
Thai Yoga Massage is the only name that is not used in Thailand at all. This name has been coined by Western therapists because of the similarity between yoga and Thai Massage.
Yoga in Thailand is nowhere close to the popularity it enjoys in the Western world. Actually, the Thais have only started to develop an interest in yoga in the last decade or so, and that only in a few major cities.
This is despite the fact that there actually is a Thai Yoga system that is similar to the yoga from India. But it never became popular in Thailand.
What is the real Thai Massage?
So what’s in a name? Personally, if I had to choose, I’d prefer Thai Yoga Massage over Thai Massage. The reason is that unfortunately many people have a misconception about Thai Massage, especially in Europe.
They associate it with erotic massage and seedy establishments. Truth be told, there are quite a few of those in Thailand, and if you look for them, they are easy to find.
However, this doesn’t change the fact that Thai Massage is a healing system that has existed for hundreds of years. And even before then, it flourished in India in the form of yoga therapy.
It has played an important role in the healthcare of Thailand along with herbal medicine long before there was modern medicine, and it continues to be more popular than ever.
Evidence of Thai Massage’s growing popularity
This is easy to verify. This graph is generated by Google Trends. It shows the result of a global search for the popularity of and the interest in Thai Massage The trend has been steadily going up for the last one and a half decades.
Although the term “Thai Yoga Massage” reflects more accurately what it is about and what its origins are, it does not have the brand name recognition that Thai Massage has.
The other factor is that yoga is associated in people’s minds with an activity.
Many people think that Thai Yoga Massage is something like partner yoga.
However, this is not true. In partner yoga both partners are active and both have to have yoga skills.
In contrast in Thai Yoga Massage, only the therapist is active and the client is passively receiving.
Thai Massage versus Partner Yoga
Often the term ‘applied yoga’ is used to describe Thai Massage. This is not quite correct because it implies that it is a continuous series of stretches.
A good session, however, consists of at least as many muscle and pressure techniques as stretches. Actually, most sessions in Thailand consist of more non-stretch techniques than stretches.
So ‘applied yoga’ is just part of Thai Massage, but it does not represent the entire modality since it leaves out the majority of a typical session.
Personalized names based on individual styles
Then there are other terms. For example, Thai Healing Massage is the name that I use for my style since it reflects that I put a lot of emphasis on therapeutic and healing elements.
This is in contrast to the majority of sessions in Thailand which are generally a fairly fixed routine and one-size-fits-all sequence of techniques.
A colleague of mine, Deon DeWet, calls his style the DeonThai method. Some teachers prefer the Thai name, “Nuad Borarn“, others call it Thai bodywork, and one school in India came up with the name “Ancient Thai Massage“.
Many Western therapists have been influenced by the “Pichest style” which is a unique version of Thai Massage which has been created by Pichest Boonthumme, a teacher in northern Thailand (deceased in 2023).
Then there are other names that are real concoctions and have nothing to do with traditional Thai Massage, like ‘Thai soapy massage’ or ‘Thai breast massage’, and other colorful concoctions.
These are entirely made up by some seedy establishments, and they don’t exist in the traditional Thai Massage environment at all.
Real and not-so-real Royal Thai Massage
And then there is Royal Thai Massage. This sounds like it is something really first-class. However, the fact is that this style is characterized by restrictions that are really not good for the therapist’s ergonomics.
When therapists work on the royal family, they are not allowed to place their bodies on top of the royal’s body. They have to kneel beside their client and just use their thumbs and hands.
This makes it impossible for them to get good leverage or an ergonomically ideal position. So for us ‘commoners’, Royal Thai Massage is neither practical nor desirable.
Nowadays there are quite a few spas all over the world that have ‘Royal Thai Massage’ in their name. While this might be an attractive-sounding name, it has nothing to do with the actual Royal Thai Massage system in Thailand which is only meant for the royal family.
There is no correlation between the names of Thai Massage and the quality of the system
So now you have a good overview of the various names and styles which are in use. They are all derived from the mother term “Thai Massage” which is how it is called in Thailand. The name is not as important as the style of individual teachers and your connection with them.
If you really resonate with someone’s approach and teaching method, don’t worry about the label but learn the essence. Most good practitioners and teachers will sooner or later develop their own style, their own approach, and in some cases their own name.
The author, Shama Kern, has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage since 1999. He is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the creator of 20 Thai Massage online training courses.