Hi everyone. For my first contribution to the NCWC blog, I would like to briefly introduce traditional Thai styled massage. My intent is to bring Thai massage into my practice by the end of October. Therefore, it would be useful to share on the topic in order that people unfamiliar with Thai massage get an idea of what they would experience. When writing about Thai massage, it is typical to begin with a history of Thai massage. This is because it is such an ancient art in relation to the Swedish massage we are accustomed to in the West. However, I think discussing two obvious differences between Thai and Swedish massage will be more effective.
First things first, I am a practitioner of both, and I equally espouse the virtues of both Swedish and Thai Massage. Yet it is natural to ask how does Thai compare to our regular Swedish massage practice and why might you choose one or the other? One difference between the two is that Swedish massage is usually an oiled massage done with direct skin contact. One reason for this is that Swedish massage aims to encourage intramuscular circulation. This circulation is important in Swedish massage so that soreness causing toxins caught up in this intramuscular fluid are released. Thus by pressing directly on the muscles to create pressure in the muscle, we achieve that. Because it is typical for you the patient to be disrobed to some extent during Swedish massage, we use a table for you to lay on and sheets to cover the areas of your body not being treated. The use of sheets and a table in Swedish massage creates a safe and professional distance between you and the therapist, while still allowing therapeutic treatment. Thai Massage, on the other hand, does not use oils. Therefore, it is done while you are fully clothed (in exercise clothing). And rather than being performed on a table with the practitioner standing beside you, Thai massage is done on a mat while you and the practitioner are on the same level. So the most immediate distinction you will notice between Thai and Swedish massage, is that with Thai you are fully dressed and laying on a mat on the floor, rather than on a table.
The second distinction you will notice regards the way you are massaged. I mentioned above that Swedish massage works with intramuscular circulation. There is fluid between your muscle fibers, that when muscles are knotted up does not circulate properly. Certain chemical properties in these fluids can build up and indicate to our nervous system that there is pain in that muscle. So, by applying moving pressure to muscles, Swedish massage techniques can assist such circulation. This is one of a number of ways Swedish massage is therapeutic. Conversely, Thai Massage originates out of Indian Ayurvedic medicine. In its traditional practice, it works with lines of energy transfer (called sen). We can also understand this in terms of tissues that provide much of the structure for muscles, i.e., connective tissue or fascia. Instead of placing focusing on the muscles (although there is plenty of muscular treatment in Thai and it is equally as enjoyable), Thai massage focuses on the health and efficiency of the tissues that provide structure for our muscles. The ideal of reducing pain and increasing mobility is the same in Thai as it is in Swedish, but Thai accomplishes this through a system of postures. It works more expressly with the structural tissues surrounding the muscles and bones. By correcting problems in these tissues, muscles are able to relax, which in turn improves intramuscular circulation and diminishes pain.
To finish, a large aspect of Thai massage is performed by positioning and holding the patient in postures. In fact, though it is true that Thai massage predates the physical focus of yoga by many centuries, Thai massage is often referred to today as Thai Yoga Massage. Many of the postures used are those that people familiar with the practice of Yoga would be accustomed to. However, rather than putting yourself in those postures, and rather than using your muscles to hold yourself in those postures, the Thai practitioner does this for you. There are of course techniques used in Thai that are similar to the kneading techniques of Swedish massage, but in this article I am focusing on the differences. One important similarity to mention is that since I am an RMT, both the Swedish and the Thai will fall under your insurance coverage.
Wishing you vibrant health!
Harold Duggan M.A., RMT