Massage therapy is one of the oldest methods in the gallery of health care practices. References to massage are found in Chinese medical texts 4,000 years old and it's been advocated in Western health care practices in an almost unbroken line since the time of Hippocrates, who wrote in the 4th century BC "The physician must be acquainted with many things and assuredly with rubbing". Mandi goes in search of the roots and culture of Thai massage and indulges in a spot of 'passive yoga'.
Thai Massage is an extraordinary, ancient healing arts system based in Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, Buddhist spiritual practice and Yoga. It has a long history of therapeutic healing in Thailand where it's been practiced for centuries. The roots of Thai Massage can be traced back to India where it's believed to have originated some 2500 years ago with Jivaka Komarbhacca, a physician, friend and contemporary of Buddha.
According to ancient legend Jivaka was born with a bag of acupuncture needles in his hand and was therefore predestined to become a doctor and royal physician. His fame as a healer was widely known and tales about his life and medical feats can be found in almost all versions of the Pali Canon (Buddhist scriptures) which considers him to be the founding father of traditional medicine and one of the main sources of knowledge about the healing powers of plants, minerals and massage. His teachings traveled to Thailand at the same time as Buddhism where he remains a central figure in the Buddhist medical system, and is legitimately regarded as the aspiration for all practitioners of ancient massage.
When Buddhism reached Thailand in the 2nd or 3rd century BC, temples were builds with adjacent dispensaries and medical schools, where massage and other healing arts were taught and applied in the monasteries and within the family. Much of what is now known in Thailand about traditional Massage has been handed down orally from one generation to the next, (as most people could not read) from teacher to student and often parent to child. The techniques and philosophies of Thai massage were recorded for posterity by the Sangha, but most of the ancient medical texts were destroyed in 1776, with the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese.
What was left was literally carved in stone in 1832, when King Rama III, in hopes of preserving the tradition of massage, had stone inscriptions set into the walls of a temple in Bangkok, called Wat Poh, which remains the nations center for the education, promotion and maintenance of Traditional Thai Massage and medicine.
A combination of gentle rocking, range of motion, acupressure, reflexology, energy work and stretching, the client's body is also pulled twisted and manipulated in ways that have been compared to a 'passive yoga' . Joints are loosened and opened, muscles are stretched, internal organs are toned, vitality is increased and a deep state of relaxation and inner peace can be achieved.
The extensive and highly refined system of Thai massage combines characteristics of Swedish massage (stroking and kneading the muscles), chiropractic (manipulating skeletal parts) and acupressure (applying deep consistent pressure to specific nerves, tendons and ligaments) in order to balance the functions of the four body elements.
These four elements are earth (din - solid parts of the body including muscles, skeleton, tendons and ligaments); water (naam - blood and bodily secretions); fire (fai - digestion and metabolism); and air (lom - circulation and respiration). Unlike most western massage methodologies Thai massage does not directly seek to relax the body through kneading with the palms and fingers. Inspired by the ancient tradition holistic medicine - of healing and increasing health as well as soothing and revitalizing the body and mind - it employs a 'multipronged' approach that uses hands, feet, elbows, knees, fingers and thumbs applied to various energy lines thought to running through the body.
The theoretical basis of Thai Massage lies in the theory of 'meridian lines' that begin at the toes and work away up through the head, and conduct and carry the energy of the body. Out of the 72,000 energy lines said to be in existence, the focus is on the 10 major lines, called 'Sen'. Important acupressure points are found on these lines.
Treatments for the whole body, different organs and diseases are often done using the 'System of the Ten Sen' which are closely associated with the 'Nadis' of Ayurvedic medicine and the 'Meridians' of Chinese acupuncture - all of which can produce internal effects from stimulation of external points. Working on these energy lines will help to remove any blockages, create harmony and allow free flow of energy through the body.
Done comfortably clothed, Thai massage feels as wonderful as it looks. A national institution and generally regarded as fundamental to one's health regime as cleaning the teeth, massage parlors are as ubiquitous throughout Thailand as temples and Seven Eleven's.
Naturally there are establishments that cater to every taste, preference and bank balance. For budget travelers and backpackers there's the cheap and cheerful parlors on Khao Sarn Road which are also favored by younger Thais who like to get knocked into shape before their night out. Often open beyond midnight these establishments are something of a meeting place, everybody all lined up altogether, relaxed and hanging out. Sessions here are usually concluded with an exquisite fifteen minute head and face massage and clients are often seen walking out in a daze only to return for forgotten sandals or rucksacks.
Marble House and Vejakornr on Surawong road are frequented by connoisseurs of Thai massage - people who don't mind a 'brutal but beautiful' experience. The massages here can last for up to three hours and are a vigorous, enervating if sometimes painful experience. These well established parlors have been in the massage business for years and have a faithful clientele of Japanese businessmen, Thai housewives and curious tourists looking for a more upmarket experience. Everyone has their own private cubicle with curtain, clean pajamas to change into and a cup of herbal tea to flush out the toxins at the end of each session. Marble House is also one of the few establishments in Bangkok to employ the services of the blind who are renowned for giving the most perceptive massages because of their refined sense of touch. Being the fundamental medium of massage therapy, touch used with sensitivity allows the massage therapist to receive useful information about the body, such as locating areas of muscle tension and other soft-tissue problems.
With Thai massage possibly at the peak of it's popularity - even the most exclusive health resorts are offering 'rub-downs' as part of their exclusive and expensive health regimes. The Oriental Spa is one 'temple of wellbeing' that's taken Thai massage and adapted it for the special needs of it's clientele of mainly older European hotel guests, stressed out businessmen and expat housewives looking to treat themselves. There's more of an emphasis on massage as relaxation - for people suffering from the particular rigors of jetlag or those just wanting a bit of pampering - and as you might expect from the Oriental Spa, every need is catered for. There's a private bathroom to change into white linen pajamas and a private massage room replete with an endless flow of iced jasmine tea, dimmed lights, unobtrusive music and the perfect ambiance just to let the cares of the world drift away. Masseurs recruited at the spa are retrained on how to give massage in the 'oriental style' - a slower more gentle technique that concentrates more on acupressure and eschews the more vigorous techniques of stretching.
Although Thai Massage is concerned with the whole body, there is a lot of emphasis on the legs, taking them through a complete range of motion and working repeatedly on the energy lines of the legs in all positions. This can be very beneficial for people with low back problems and has a deeply grounding effect.
One of the most famous and frequented establishments in Bangkok - if not the whole of Thailand - is Parinya's which sits above a traditional Thai herbal medicine shop and is run by the charming Dr. Parinya who has been the resident maw nuat ( massage doctor) for 42 years.
The polar opposite of Marble House or the Oriental Spa which are luxurious, spacious and gentle on the senses, Parinya's is a riot of color from the lime green walls to the bright yellow football shirts worn by the 33 expert masseurs employed here. Graphic photos of patients with everything from piles to dermatitis whom Dr Parinya has successfully cured line the walls, along with numerous medical certificates and pictures of founding father the venerable Jivaka Komarbhacca
The air is permeated with the pungent aroma of herbs and Thai pop songs drift out of a battered radio. There's hardly any space, people are literally lined up side by side and masseurs have to delicately maneuver their way around their mattress so they don't bump into each other.
Not only are the massages here among the cheapest and the best, but they are also of the tradition that combines Thai massage together with pharmacological treatments as prescribed for a particular medical problem. Following a light pummeling to open up the ' sen' channels and get the circulation flowing, a variety of herbs can then be applied to the body to deal with specific ailments.
Turmeric - which stains the skin a jaundice yellow - is used to treat skin diseases and rashes. Lemon grass and orange peel are applied and inhaled for ailments affecting the respiratory system. Tamarind and Camphor can be applied to treat bruises, sprains and swelling. In another treatment herbs are applied in a muslin or linen bag, which has been steamed for at least ten minutes until hot and moist. The heat evaporates the plants into a type of compress which is then patted onto the joints.
Parinya's is a place frequented mostly by older generations of Thais who have remained loyal customers of the good doctor - some even making the trip from upcountry specifically for their weekly dose of therapy. More recently though, it's become increasingly popular with westerners whose enthusiastic appraisals are recorded for posterity in a visitors book. As one overwhelmed punter put it : 'A beautiful, brutal experience. I'll definitely be back for more".
Published on 4/21/01