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, lifestyle, and social environment.
It is an element in natural Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) system. There is philosophy, tradition, a way of life, and a set of attitudes behind it. It is not just a bunch of techniques and stretches.
The Thai Massage Explosion in USA
Since Thai Massage has been "discovered" and embraced outside of Thailand in the last couple of decades, there has been a huge increase demand.
This has generated a large Thai Massage industry geared to Non-Thai clients. Everything from very simple shops to high end spas is plentiful in all tourist areas in Thailand.
This development has spawned 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. Every village in Thailand has 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 or barter. This is how we learned Traditional Thai Massage from our family.
The Beauty Of Simplicity
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, no no-show charges, 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
A western trained massage therapist may cringe in horror at this scenario since pretty much most of what he or she learned in massage school just doesn’t apply anymore under those circumstances.
Here’s a strange thing. 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 or her grandma. And this person who never attended massage school and doesn’t have a single certificate but 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, strengthening legislation for the massage profession, suing people who lack proper credentials, meticulously following a myriad of rules, and discrediting 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 is like this. In 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 happens when the Thai Massage system is taken out of Thailand and brought to USA,
- Instead of providing a very affordable healing service for everyone, it turns into a luxury service which 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.
By taking Thai Massage out of Thailand, it is changed in some ways. This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, just 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 looking for scientific proof and validation.
- Some therapists 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.
Pros And Cons Of Westernized Thai Massage
You can find a wide spectrum of Thai Massage applications in the western world. Without placing judgement on right or wrong, better or worse, superior or inferior let's review the 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 which 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.
Champaka Thai Massage's Position
At Champaka Thai Massage & Spa, we try our best to present an authentic traditional Thai healing art as close to its original form as possible. We recognize the benefits of some western sensibilities and try to incorporate the positive elements. We hope that you will find the final result enjoyable and therapeutic.