Get stretched and relaxed
Around the world, Thai yoga massage is gaining in popularity at spas, and training for practitioners in private practice is increasingly popular.
At Sereno Spa, located on the golden sands of Goa, on India' west coast, the Indian cultural heritage of yoga and Ayurveda is integrated with contemporary spa principles of thalasso-therapy, aromatherapy and energy healing to help clients achieve emotional, physical and spiritual wellness.
Most healing therapies point to one truth: If mind and body are in alignment, a state of general well-being is achieved. Yoga and massage are transformational practices that foster an experience of mind-body unity, thus merging the physical with the emotional plane. Thai yoga massage essentially addresses the client's muscular tension by assisting her in assuming particular asanas, or postures.
While many believe that Thai yoga massage originated in Thailand, it actually originated in India. It was embraced in Thailand when Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia, says Kam Thye Chow, who studied and taught the therapy in Thailand for eight years. Thai yoga massage can be traced as far back as 2,500 years, and has its roots in the ancient healing traditions of Ayurveda.
Thai yoga massage, as we know it today, evolved from a meditative, introspective practice that was closely connected with the teachings of the Buddha. It was originally taught and passed on through Buddhist temples.
The theoretical foundation of Thai yoga massage is based on the concept of invisible energy lines running through the body. The Indian origin and influence are obvious here, since the background of this theory reflects yogic philosophy.
Life energy (prana) is absorbed through the food we eat and the air we breathe. It is along a network of energy lines called prana nadis that an individual is supplied with this vital energy. Of these energy lines, Thai yoga massage has selected 10 main ones along which there are especially important acupressure points. Massaging these lines and points makes it possible to relieve pain and stress as well as treat a range of ailments.
A disturbance in energy flow results in insufficient supply of prana, which in turn manifests as ill health. Thai yoga massage is a means to break down blockages, stimulate free flow of prana and restore general well-being. The 10 points can be thought of as windows into the body that allow the exchange of cosmic energy through which the body maintains its equilibrium with universal energy. In a typical Thai yoga massage session, yoga postures are used with gentle stretching and pressure to open the energy lines.
The therapist assists the client into a stretch based on a yoga asana. The therapist applies pressure to marma points along the energy meridians, using her hands, feet and elbows. The stretch and pressure gently rebalance the body's energy flow, and are considered beneficial to people of varying ages and degrees of flexibility.
This lavishly illustrated paper folding book (samut khoi) with black lacquered covers is a manual for pressure massage in Thai language and script. It describes the channels in the body terminating in pressure points and how pressure massage can be used to treat certain illnesses. It is thought that the book was produced at Wat Phrachetuphon, Bangkok, in the first half of the 19th century as the text clearly relates to the medical inscriptions from that time on the walls of this royal temple, which is adjacent to the royal palace.
The diagram indicates the channels and main pressure areas of the body, stylistically represented by spiralling calligraphic lines. One channel known as pinkhalā, for instance, begins at the navel and proceeds past the base of the right leg to exit via the back. Another channel, the susumannā line proceeds from the navel into the chest, climbs through the body and exits through the tongue.
Although this tradition remains sound, modern knowledge of the Prand Nadis is better understood making treatments more effective.
Thai yoga massage is a type of bodywork that combines gentle, assisted yoga stretches with deep-tissue manipulation and marma stimulation. It is believed that this technique opens up the body's energy channels and creates enhanced self-awareness to take one to a deeper level of consciousness.
"Yoga massage is … one of the most therapeutic massages," says Sanjay Khanzode, Sereno Spa’s director. "It is highly effective for those suffering from chronic fatigue, sluggish circulation and looking to re-energize mind and body. In my experience I've seen this therapy to be the best to realign all levels of physical, mental and spiritual fitness."
The client wears loose, comfortable clothing and lies on a futon while the 60-90-minute massage is performed. No oils are used. Soft lights bathe the room in a gentle glow and strains of music fill the air.
A Thai yoga massage therapist need not necessarily be a yoga practitioner, but she must be knowledgeable about the philosophy of yoga and well-versed in breath-control techniques. Palm and finger pressure, breathing, stretches and energy flow are the powerful tools a therapist works with during a session.
Synchronized breathing between therapist and client is a key component of Thai yoga massage, an aspect that introduces a deep sense of tranquility and meditative calm. "I feel that this therapy is like a dynamic meditation tool, as I have to focus on my breathing and synchronize it with my client's during a session," explains Jacob Thomas, a massage therapist at Sereno Spa.
As thoughts and feelings are completely intertwined in the fabric of the body, yoga often initiates the release of emotions. With a focus on balanced breathing, even muscular engagement and uniform stretching, Thai yoga massage can clear unresolved feelings, practitioners say.
This type of bodywork is beneficial to the giver, as well. Caroline Walden, a licensed and nationally certified massage therapist, offers Thai yoga massage as one of her therapies in At-One Yoga Studio, in Scottsdale, Arizona. "The client's focus is on breath and relaxation of the mind," she says. "I work with the rhythm of the client's breath and create a connection and a therapeutic dance on the body, which in turn is very meditative for me. The client and I both feed off each other's energy. I feel the sedating effects of the massage and am very relaxed after a session."
The ultimate massage
Kimberly Call travelled to Thailand to become certified as a Thai yoga massage instructor, and in 1995 she opened the Thai Massage Centre in San Rafael, California. Call has created a magical setting: floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking bamboo gardens and waving palms. The sounds of a waterfall, wind chimes and birdsong begin her clients' sense of transport to a place of renewal.
"I recommend sessions early in the day for maximum therapy benefit," Call says. "The rhythm of Thai yoga massage is trance-inducing. It cleanses, restores and uplifts. Clients say they ‘trudge in and float out.’
Table massage, Call says, limits the practitioner, while Thai work done on a mat on the floor allows incredible leverage and body dynamics, opening and regenerating on a deeper level. "After a session, I feel taller, lighter and more alive," she explains.
"There are many positions in this therapy that could be considered yoga asanas, such as the assisted plow, cobra, wind-releasing asana, half-locust, bow and cat-cow," Call adds.
"The client can be prone, supine, on the side or seated. There is a wonderful and diverse repertoire a practitioner can draw from. The rocking helps gradually open and relax; the stretching exercises nerves and meridians; and the acupressure tones. What's best is Thai yoga massage works with each individual's condition and capacities and aims to improve [them]."
Call has worked with more than 1,000 clients in eight years, ranging from computer programmers to airline pilots, architects, yoga teachers, dancers, homemakers and martial artists. She offers a sliding scale that ranges from $60-90 per hour, and offers seasonal and series specials. "I looked for over 25 years worldwide for the ultimate massage and stopped looking when I found Thai yoga massage," she says.
Uma Girish in a free-lance writer in Chennai, India. Her work has appeared in Parabola, Women’s eNews, Emerites Woman, American Health & Fitness and Family Business.