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Relax...the Thai Way!

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By Rebecca Wilkowski

Rebecca Wilkowski is a freelance health writer and photographer, as well as PR Director for Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, people make more visits each year to alternative care practitioners (629 million) than to primary care physicians (386 million). With the cost of health care in the United States estimated to reach $2.2 trillion by 2008, it is no wonder Americans are looking for alternative ways to manage their health.

Recent studies show consumers visit massage therapists 114 million times each year, spending between $4 and $6 billion annually, making massage is one of the fastest growing segments of holistic health care in America today. It can be found everywhere from day spas and chiropractic offices, to health clubs and employee break rooms. The massage explosion can be attributed partly to the growing population of tired and aging baby boomers, and partly to an increased awareness of the effects of stress.

Research has shown that massage therapy has numerous benefits. It can reduce a person's heart rate, as well as systolic and diastolic blood pressure, boost the body's immune system, improve flexibility and range of motion, and assist with relief from stress, chronic pain, anxiety, tension, and depression.

For the majority of Americans, massage is simply a technique for inducing relaxation and stress relief. However, to the nearly 290,000 massage practitioners and students in the U.S., it is much more.

Massage is a generic term, which encompasses a wide range of techniques and styles of bodywork. They can range from relaxing to invigorating and may include hot stones, cold and hot packs or other tools to facilitate the therapeutic effects. While some types of massage use oils or lotions, others are given with the client fully clothed. Depending on the style, massage can be applied with a practitioner's feet, elbows or knees in addition to their hands.

The bodywork technique commonly known as Thai massage is an important component of an entire traditional medical system. Traditional Thai Medicine is a 2,500-year-old system of natural healing developed in the ancient kingdom of Siam, now modern Thailand. Traditional Thai medicine is composed of four major branches: herbal medicine, food cures and nutrition, spiritual practices and the manual therapies of Thai massage, or Nuad Bo'Rarn.

Examining the term Nuad Bo'Rarn is helpful in developing an understanding of this type of bodywork from the Thai perspective. The Thai word Nuad means to touch with the intention of imparting healing. The word Bo'Rarn, derived from the Sanskrit language, means something that is ancient, sacred and revered. Clearly, the intention is to describe something that encompasses a Western notion of massage, but extends far beyond a description of a series of techniques applied to the surface of the body.

Influenced by the rich, ancient traditions of India and China, Thai medicine's development and history are woven into the fabric of the spiritual tenets of Buddhism. Thai medicine was transmitted orally from teacher to student in the same way the treasured texts, or Sutras, of Buddhism were transmitted. Historically, the practitioners of the medicine were Therevada Buddhist monks who practiced their healing at the monasteries, or "Wats".

A key aspect of Buddhist philosophy that is expressed through Thai massage is the concept of Metta. Translated as "loving kindness," Metta is a core component of daily life for each individual seeking awareness on the path described by the Buddha. The practice of Thai massage and other healing work is understood to be a practical application of Metta. Thai massage demonstrates the Four Divine States of Mind as taught in Buddhism: Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Vicarious Joy, and Mental Equanimity. In Thai Therevada Buddhist philosophy, significant emphasis is placed on the practical application of spiritual philosophy; that higher ideals should be brought into everyday life activities and decisions.

Traditional Thai massage is based on an energetic paradigm of the human body/mind. Energy is thought to travel on pathways throughout the body called Sen, with specific points of energy on these pathways called nadis. Thai massage moves energy freely along these pathways, thereby facilitating balance and health.

Thai massage is an interactive therapy involving the gentle stretching of muscles with pressure from a practitioner's palms, thumbs and feet. It is usually performed with the recipient wearing loose fitting clothing while they lay on a cotton mat on the floor. No oils or lotions are used during the 90-minute session. In Thailand, it is not uncommon for sessions to last up to three hours!

In addition to stretching, Thai massage also emphasizes deep abdominal procedures. In Thai medical theory, all the major energy pathways of the body have their origins in the abdomen near the navel. It is believed that the health and vitality of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth are dependent on the health of the abdominal organs and the unobstructed flow of bio-energy through and away from the abdomen. Whereas most Western massage instruction begins with technical procedures and specific anatomical information, Thai massage instruction begins with the imperative that the practitioner work in a concentrated and meditative state of mind, fully present in each moment. It is believed this level of consciousness can then be imparted to the recipient through the practitioner's touch.

The techniques of Thai massage are applied very, very slowly. It is impossible to work too slowly as long as there is some movement. The slowness of the practice facilitates the tendency toward mindfulness. Because many of the techniques require heightened flexibility of both the practitioner and recipient, the slowness significantly diminishes the chance for injury. With the practitioner working in such a way, they immediately become acutely aware of resistance and any discomfort for the client and are able to stop or amend the procedure before injury occurs.

Proper body mechanics are key in the application of Thai Massage. Often referred to as "assisted yoga", many aspects of a Thai session resemble those of yoga postures. While anyone can receive Thai massage, certain procedures should be eliminated if they are not appropriate for the recipient (i.e., certain stretches of the back and legs would be avoided for individuals with lumbar disc problems).

Thai massage has been utilized for centuries as an important healing tool in the treatment of a wide variety of ailments such as musculoskeletal problems, internal medical problems, neurological complaints and emotional distress. Its benefits include structural alignment, increased flexibility, and decreased muscular and joint tension.

Even for a novice, Thai massage can provide a good opportunity to achieve a state of deep mental and emotional equanimity, profound stress relief, and moments of sweet bliss.

Rebecca Wilkowski
San Diego, California

(Published: June 2004)

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