Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Traditional Massage - no happy endings with the real gig...

I will never forget the face of a young guy, a guest at Baan Bophut, who earlier in the day had asked me sotto voce where he might find a good Thai massage close to the hotel. Later, he told me, sheepishly, the recognition that a Thai massage was something very different to the salacious event he had imagined, took fully two hours to register, so convinced was he that, at least, there would be 'a happy ending'.

Make no mistake. Traditional (or Ancient) Massage: nuat phaen boran, as the Thais know it, is a revered, integral part of local traditional medical techniques. It should not be otherwise confused.

Traditional Thai massage is based on Ayurveda and yoga, and it's believed came from India along with the expansion of Buddhism and Indian culture into Thailand some 2500 years ago. Some scholars speculate that through the trading relationships over a long period, the Chinese influences on Thai culture, also played a part in the development of Thai massage.

Traditional massage is still taught and practiced at many Buddhist temples and massage schools throughout the country, the most famous of all being the School of Medicinal Massage at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Ancient tablets at Wat Pho depicting Sen and acupressure points

Thai massage is applied to a system somewhat analogous to Chinese medicine's energy meridians or 'sen'. One of the pillars of Traditional Chinese Medicine, meridians are invisible lines through the body that carry energy to every organ and system. Traditions teach that there are an infinite number of energetic connections throughout the body, arranged into lines of energetic influence. The Thais consider ten of these lines to be the largest channels from which all others branch, and it is these ten sen that are treated in Thai massage.

In a general treatment, all the sen are worked equally to cultivate and promote even energy flow. The more specific therapeutic use of the lines involves additional treatment on one or more sen. The nature of the illness or condition determines what sen are treated, as they are all associated with having specific effects on the physical, mental and emotional selves.

The massage recipient changes into loose, comfortable clothes and lies on a mat or firm mattress on the floor or raised platform on a Samui beach and is arranged into many yoga like positions during the course of the massage. In the northern style of Chiang Mai, there is a lot more muscle stretching movements, whereas the southern style includes more acupressure.

The massage practitioner, who may be male or female, leans on the recipient's body using hands and straight forearms locked at the elbow to apply firm rhythmic pressure. The massage generally follows the Sen lines on the body.

Not just the hands are used by the practitioner. Legs and feet can be used as a fulcrum or lever to hold or stretch the body or limbs of the recipient. In other styles, hands hold the body, while the feet do the massaging action to which there is a standard procedure and rhythm. A full massage session typically lasts two hours or more, and includes rhythmic pressing and stretching of the entire body; this may include pulling fingers, toes, ears, cracking the knuckles, walking on the recipient's back, and includes arching the recipient into the bhujangasana or cobra position. Oil is not used in traditional Thai Massage.

In Koh Samui a two hour massage might cost around baht 350 (US $10 currently) depending on location, or less for a quicker version (it could cost ten times more a posh spa or five star hotel).

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