Thai yoga massage offers much more than just relaxation. I discovered that during a 10-day massage course from the Sunshine network, in Northern Thailand. It helps prevent diseases and accelerates the healing process. Read all about it in this personal story.
I’m lying on a bamboo massage platform in the middle of the jungle and tears are flowing down my cheeks. My friend just put his hand on my stomach. He doesn't even give pressure yet: the abdominal massage has yet to start. "Are you okay?", he asks. “Yes, go on. It feels good”, I say.
“Most Thai masseurs skip the belly area with westerners, so much tension is often stored there. They dare not open that emotional cesspool”, says our massage teacher Andrea Baglioni. I recognize what he says. My stomach reflects my condition. Am I busy and tense? Then everything is bloated and hard.
Photo credit: Nate White
Andrea is not afraid of emerging emotions. In fact, he points out the inner processes that can be set in motion for these twelve days and encourages us to give space to all feelings. “Thai massage brings you in touch with your body and your emotions, and that can initiate a transformation process.”
My friend carefully explores my belly with his fingers and gives light pressure. I tremble. My body shocks. And I weep rivers with tears. The geckos on the ceiling disappear in the caverns.
Thai Hill Tribe
As I release trauma, life in the village goes on. Huai Naam Rin is one of the mountain villages of the Lahu tribe: nomadic people, originally from China. This village is a two-hour drive from Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. Dozens of hairpin bends take you to this fertile jungle area, where residents grow organic coffee, corn, limes, oregano, lime grass, cauliflower and zucchini.
“Daveo”, they shout when you walk past. They wear floral print motif skirts, both women and men. Dogs run behind you, wagging their tails, and children grab your hand to never let go.
It sounds strange, a Thai massage course amongst a Chinese tribe, given by an Italian, our teacher Andrea Baglioni. But this is the place where one of the leading Western teachers of traditional Thai yoga massage opened a massage school about thirty years ago: the German Harald Brust.
Harald, also known as Asokananda, dedicated his life to massage, yoga and meditation. He researched and practiced Thai Yoga massage at a profound level and wrote his findings in an English book: The art of traditional Thai Massage (Bangkok, 1990). It was the first publication in a language other than Thai.
During his travels and studies in India and Thailand, he ended up here in Huai Naam Rin. He fell in love with the village and one of the residents, whom he married and had a son with. Asokananda died in 2005. His most loyal student Andrea took over his mission.
Photo credit: Nate White
Traditional Thai yoga massage
People from all over the world still come here to learn Asokananda's vision of traditional Thai massage. Yoga teachers, masseurs, physiotherapists, inquisitive globetrotters and my friend and me: both hard workers, who find deep relaxation in massage. Now we discover that it has so much more to offer.
Back to the abdomen, which is treated on day four of the course. In Thai yoga massage, you always start at the feet and finish at the head. From bottom to top, this is how you follow the natural energy flow.
Unlike Western massage, traditional Thai massage works primarily with the energy body. Of course: you relax your body and mind and release emotions. You can also relieve back or knee pain and stimulate the lymphatic system to remove waste products. But the main goal is: to balance the life energy in your body.
You can think of it as a deep cleansing of the energy channels, or meridians, to remove energy blockages that can cause diseases. The effect is similar to acupuncture, only using your hands, thumbs, elbows and feet instead of needles. You do not knead the muscles, but activate the energy
channels by applying pressure.
This theory is comparable to Chinese acupuncture and Japanese Shiatsu massage. Where did the theory originate? That is still a mystery, but the similarities betray that all currents must come from the same source. With Thai Yoga massage, you can also relieve specific complaints, such as menstruation pain or headaches, by applying pressure to acupressure points.
For example, Andrea uses a point on his hand instead of a local anesthetic when he visits the dentist. “This point releases endorphins, a natural pain reliever. Also, it supports healing processes and is therefore still part of care in Thai hospitals. But note: it is not an antibiotic. Sometimes medicines are needed. And like any holistic healing, you have to improve your lifestyle. ”
Opening the energy channels in the body is an art and a good masseur is traditionally a spiritual practitioner, who meditates regularly. “Meditation brings inner peace, makes you attentive and helps you transcend the ego. In that state you can give truly good massages”, says Andrea, who obviously spends many hours on a meditation cushion. He is calm, clear, gentle, cheerful and down to earth despite speaking about deep, spiritual matters.
"Just think how a massage feels when someone is tense, absent or trying to prove something”, he continues. “You transfer your energy to the other. When it is no longer about you, the energy, or love, can flow freely. And you feel that as a receiver.” That is why we meditate morning and evening and sing mantras to give love with an open heart. Love that demands nothing in return.
The influence of yoga
Day six. It's time for the chest area, the arms, the hands and "Shiva's stretches", named after a Hindu God. Thai Yoga massage originates from India. About 2500 years ago, the philosophy of yoga, together with Buddhism, spread to "the land of smiles".
That is why you see many yoga postures, which makes the massage form unique in its kind. For example, the Cobra: a position where you lie on your stomach, push yourself up and stretch your abs and lower back. Or savasana: the final relaxation pose. Thai massage is therefore done with clothes on, without oil.
With yoga, you keep your muscles flexible, and you stimulate the energy flow in the body. Only with Thai massage, someone else does this for you, which is why it is also called "lazy yoga". The advantage is that someone else can get you deeper into the pose than you could. For example, you can lift and lengthen the body and twist it. Also, people who are physically unable to do yoga have the opportunity to stretch their bodies.
Applying yoga to another is an art, it turns out. I bumble along with my fellow students. Andrea regularly intervenes and shows how it is done, in an almost dancing way. It flows from one movement into another.
“Look, I'm standing wide-legged, moving from my center and always using my body weight to give pressure or stretch the body. This way you avoid having to use muscle strength, and you protect your back”, he repeats again and again.
Photo credit: Nate White
By the end of the course, I will have the opportunity to experience a true Thai yoga massage. A Norwegian woman gives me a facial massage that takes me to seventh heaven. Her fingers slide over my cheeks and forehead as if they were brushes drawing the waves of a sea.
In the evening, the herbal sauna opens, as part of the Thai Yoga tradition. Medicines from the jungle clean our lungs and pores, and the heat relaxes our muscles even more. When the luminous, full moon dispels the sunset sky, I fall into a deep, long sleep.
You can feel the love
During my onward journey through Thailand, I visit several massage parlors, including traditional massage schools. The treatments are technically good, but not comparable to the massages I got from my fellow students.
I miss the real attention, love and energy transfer. It makes sense. These masseurs probably treat dozens of tourists every day. Keep doing that with attention… Thankfully, I have experienced the essence of Thai Yoga massage, with Andrea.
Want to learn (more about) Thai yoga massage? We're giving a workshop on the 10th of September 2021. Sign up here.
Missed it? No worries! After this date, more Thai massage workshops will follow.
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