Thai Massage: Foundation and Basic Principles

Discover traditional Thai massage, a practice that has been gaining popularity worldwide.

By Jill Burynski, June 28, 2018

Just 20 years ago, Thai massage was quite obscure even among massage therapists. Today, it is unlikely a massage therapist will complete massage school without at least an awareness of Thai massage, if not an introductory class in the technique. What’s more, clients and employers are seeking qualified Thai massage therapists more than ever before.

Thai massage has been said to be equally beneficial for the giver and receiver, with a form of body mechanics that does not put strain on the therapist. It can be likened to a martial art and moving meditation for the therapist and is a deeply effective and holistic form of bodywork for the receiver. With all the benefits for both client and therapist, coupled with the increasing demand for this technique, Thai massage can be a wonderful specialty for a therapist to add to their massage therapy practice.

Thai Massage: Benefits for Both the Client and Massage Therapist

Thai massage employs a combination of acupressure, deep compressions and passive yoga-like stretching. Unlike its Western counterpart, Thai massage is practiced on a mat on the floor and the client is fully clothed in loose or stretchy, comfortable attire. Generally, no oil or cream is used, although sometimes herbal compresses or salves may be applied.

One of the reasons the popularity of Thai massage has spiked in recent years is the wide range of benefits that seems to be unique to this technique. Clients are reporting fast, effective and lasting results.

Following are some of the benefits clients experience with Thai massage:

Increased energy. Some other forms of massage invoke a parasympathetic relaxation response, leaving the client feeling like they just woke up from a deep sleep at the end of the massage. While that is wonderful and has numerous benefits, Thai massage seems to have a more energizing effect on the nervous system. A focus on restoring movement in the Sen lines combined with the joint mobilization resulting from the passive stretching leaves the client feeling calm, yet alert and energized.

Reduced fascial restriction. The sequence of compressing, thumbing then stretching commonly used in Thai massage can result in a form of myofascial release.

Increased range of motion. By first warming an area with compression and acupressure, then following with a passive stretch, Thai massage can increase range of motion in a client in a lasting way. The effects mimic the results achieved in proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching.

Improved posture. When we reduce fascial restrictions and increase range of motion, our client can experience an immediate improvement in their posture. For many clients, this improved posture allows them to experience their body in a new way. Continuing to receive Thai massage on a regular basis can allow them to maintain this improved posture and all the physical and mental benefits it brings.

Reduced back pain. Thai massage tends to focus on areas of the body often overlooked or underworked in other forms of massage, including the adductor muscles of the inner thigh, the abdomen, the rib cage and anterior trunk. These specific muscle groups sometimes lead to a forward to stooped posture when shortened or restricted. The forward posture that is pervasive in our culture is the leading cause of back pain.

One likely reason Thai massage is able to work these areas consistently is that clients are fully clothed. Many massage therapists and clients alike shy away from these areas because they can feel vulnerable or invasive. Also, draping can be a challenge in these areas. The simple fact of working through clothes as opposed to skin can alleviate many of these issues.

Stroke patients. A study conducted in Northern Thailand and published by the National Institutes of Health in the United States in 2012 sought to find the positive effects of Thai massage in stroke rehabilitation. The study concluded that patients who received Thai massage after a stroke experienced significant improvements in activities of daily living, mood, pain and sleep patterns.

Clients, however, are not the only ones who benefit from Thai massage. This practice has quite a bit to offer massage therapists, too—mainly the opportunity to maintain their own health and wellness and help prevent some of the injuries that so often force therapists out of the profession they love. Following are some of the top benefits Thai massage offers massage therapists:

Reduced common injuries. The techniques
and body mechanics of Thai massage do not strain the practitioner like many other forms of massage can. By relying on gravity and leverage instead of using muscle strength, Thai massage therapists avoid many of the injuries and pains that are common in this profession.

Reduced fatigue. Working in a slow, meditative fashion combined with body mechanics that greatly reduce the exertion by the therapist leads to much less fatigue after a session or a full day’s work.

Increased marketability. Along with the physical benefits, Thai massage can also help you market yourself and your practice in new ways. The demand for Thai massage is increasing year after year, as more employers are seeking qualified Thai massage therapists to add to their staff and more clients are looking for therapists who practice this technique.

Thai Massage: The History

Thai massage has a long and rich history, and exploring its ancient roots in India, as well as the rise, fall and rebirth of traditional medicine practices in Thailand, is a great foundation for massage therapists interested in this technique.

Jivaka Komarabhacca, or the Father Doctor as he is commonly referred to, is probably the most important figure in both Thai massage and Thai traditional medicine. Some lineages of Thai massage also refer to him as Shivago Komarpaj.

He is often credited as being the founder of Thai massage, but there is some disagreement around this idea. Thai massage was actually developed in Thailand by Thai people and has evolved over the centuries. The Father Doctor, who was born and lived in India more than 2,500 years ago, is probably more accurately thought of as the patron saint of Thai Traditional Medicine rather than its creator. Most Thai practitioners say a prayer, or mantra, called Wai Khru to the Father Doctor in the belief that his spirit will guide them during a treatment and protect them energetically.

His early life. This story of Jivaka’s life is based on accounts from several scholars on the subject, though we need to recognize that it’s impossible to know the exact details as this legend was passed down orally over many centuries.

Jivaka Komarabhacca was born in India in approximately 500 BC, and is said to have been found as an infant laying in the trash by Prince Abhaya, who was the son of King Bimbisara of the Maghadan Empire of North Eastern India. Prince Abhaya adopted this baby and named him Jivaka, which means “alive.” Komarabhacca means “raised or nourished by a prince.”

Being taken in by Prince Abhaya gave Jivaka a life of wealth and privilege, and his royal upbringing provided him opportunities to do anything he wanted. What Jivaka most wanted was to study medicine, and so his adoptive father arranged for him to study under the most renowned doctor in India at the time.

When Jivaka was 16 years old, he was sent to Taxila, a famous center for learning in India at the time. He was assigned to study under a worldrenowned doctor named Atreya. Jivaka stayed in Taxila and was an apprentice to Atreya for seven years. After seven years, Atreya declared him ready to practice medicine and sent him on his way.

His later life. Jivaka’s exceptional talent in medicine and healing made him a legend in India, and he treated some of the most important people of his time, including princes, emperors and wealthy business merchants. Even with this status, however, Jivaka also cared for common people and the poor, going against the caste system that divided Indian society. Some believe it was his own humble origins that made him open to the idea of compassion for everyone no matter their social status, and thus more open to the teachings of his most famous patient: Buddha. Toward the end of Buddha’s life, Jivaka treated him several times per day while also building a monastery dedicated to Buddha and his disciples in his mango garden. Jivaka’s reverence for and close connection to Buddha is likely why he became so renowned in Thai traditional medicine, even to this day.

It was not until well after Buddha and Jivaka passed away that Buddhism became recognized as a formal religion or philosophy. Buddhist monks traveled around Southeast Asia along spice routes, spreading the teachings of Buddha along with the legendary stories of Jivaka Komarabhacca and his healing miracles.

History of Traditional Medicine and Massage in Thailand

Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in Thailand in approximately 300 BC, Animism was the philosophy and spiritual practice of the native people of Thailand. Animism is based in the idea that spirits exist in all plants, animals and the natural world in general. This outlook leads to the belief that the cause of all disease and the secrets to all cures can be found in the spirit world.

Within each community, “shamans,” or those people who communicate with the spirit world, were the medical practitioners. Their ability to commune with plants, animals and more otherworldly benevolent and malevolent spirits allowed these practitioners to develop treatments, healing trances and rituals to dispel evil spirits.

When Buddhism came to what we now call Thailand, it was adopted as the religion of the land. Also around the same time, what we now call Thai Traditional Medicine became the formal system of medicine, and many credit the Father Doctor for these developments.