What is Thai massage?

Have you ever felt like you needed someone to stretch your whole body or at least parts of your body? Then you may have benefited from a Thai massage. One way that Thai massage could be defined is a system of massage using pressing movements and assisted passive stretching movements. Thai massage in the most basic sense is a synthesis of movement and massage. The massage part may not be familiar, if all you have experienced is Swedish massage, or classic massage. It is linked to Chinese and Indian forms of massage which involve acupressure, pressing of points along the meridians, or energy lines (sen sip) in order to remove blockages. The movement part has evolved from the ancient Indian practice of yoga. It has been referred to as ‘lazy person’s yoga’. Thus, how the stretching comes into it.

Thai yoga massage is different from other types of western massage in other ways as well. It is performed with the client in light loose clothing, so there is no use of oil and it is performed with the client on a mat on the floor. The practitioner may use more than just fingers and thumbs; the whole hand, the forearm, the elbow, the knee and the foot is also used. Different techniques may be used as well, pressing of the palm, pressing of the thumb, chopping with both hands together, to name a few of the techniques. Practitioners use their body weight to deliver pressure rather than their muscular strength. If you look up from your position on the floor from time to time you will also notice the different and sometimes interesting positions that are used for the practitioner to gain leverage to apply pressure. Traditionally, a Thai massage lasts up to three hours. Nowadays, though, it is easy to find Thai massage reduced to one or one and half hours.

Thai massage can also be looked at as a mutual meeting of practitioner and client. It is also different from a spiritual perspective. For some practitioners it involves prayers and it should involve compassion, which in Thai is Metta, translated literally as loving kindness (Salguero, 2004). It is more holistic than western massage in that it centres around energy flow and the general objective is to open up the energy channels and facilitate the energy flow throughout the body. There is also therapeutic Thai massage as well which aims to treat specific conditions but these conditions are looked at in terms of blocks in the flow of energy, so as well as treating specific parts of the body to address the problem, the energy channels need to be opened up via massage.  It is believed that problems result from imbalances of energy throughout the body.

 Energy in Thai is known as Lom (translated as wind), chi in Chinese, prana in Indian and ki in Japanese. In Thai massage, Lom travels down the sen (the energy lines), until it meets with a blockage. This is believed to be the source of illness. The sen lines can be likened to meridians in Chinese medicine. Although they do not follow exactly the same paths, they are the same in principle. There are said to be 72,000 sen lines but 10 main ones. Because of the massage being traditionally linked with the energy lines, traditional Thai massage will begin from the feet and go up. Nowadays, however, as lifestyles change and people use their feet less than they use to, the massage may start with parts other than the feet. For example it might begin seated with the neck and shoulders, being the most common site of accumulated stress for many people.

Apart from clearing blockages in the sen to allow energy (the life force) to travel unobstructed, the other major component of Thai massage is stretching. This stretching aims to open up the range of movement and increase flexibility. It is with this part of the massage that the link with India and ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) becomes especially apparent. Stretching not only helps the muscles but also the joints and helps to rid the body of accumulated tension and open up the body. Stretching also facilitates the flow of the energy through the body.

Massage is one of the four branches of traditional Thai medicine, the others being herbal medicine, nutrition and spiritual practices. In the Thai language, Thai massage is called Nuad Bo Rarn, which, if translated literally, means something like sacred, ancient healing touch (Gold, R, 2005).

Thai massage is believed to have been derived from Chinese forms of massage but it also believed to have been brought from India by the Buddha’s medical doctor, Jivago Kumar Bhacha, around 2500 years ago. However, the first real concrete evidence found of Thai massage being performed is from the Ayutthaya period (1350AD)(Chaithvuthi and Muangsiri, 2007). In the 18th century with the Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya, the recordings of Thai massage were destroyed. After this the drawings of the sen lines and the positions of Thai massage were transcribed on to the walls of what is popularly known as Wat Po in Bangkok (the most popular place to learn Thai massage). Wats (temples) were the place where Thai massage traditionally took place and was studied due to the sacred and healing nature of the massage. Nowadays, in modern Thailand, the massage is practiced anywhere, massage clinics, spas, homes, and so on.

As well as just making you feel alert and alive Thai massage alleviates muscular pain, joint pain, stress, helps increase flexibility, general wellbeing and energy flow. At the end you can feel anything from completely elated to relaxed and very serene and relaxed.

Benefits of Thai massage include the following:

  Alleviates pain, such as back pain and other muscular pain

  Helps to relax


 Balances energy

  Decreases stress and calms the nervous system

  Decreases tension buildup in muscles (adhesions)

Strengthens the immune system

Increases flexibility

  Enhances your practice of yoga (or any other practise requiring flexibility)

  Improves range of motion

  Helps the digestive system via stomach massage


Chaithvuthi, J. and Muangsiri, R. (2007) Thai massage the Thai way: Healing body and mind. Chiang Mai: Thai massage book press.

Gold, R.M. (2005) A Guide to traditional massage.  Massage Therapy Journal. Fall. Retrieved October 12, 2007 from www.amtamassage.org

Salguero, P. (2004) Encyclopedia of Thai massage. A complete guide to traditional Thai massage    therapy and acupressure. Chiang Mai: Silkworm books

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