Wherever one ventures in Thailand, one finds traditional Thai massage on offer, a common feature in most towns and cities. From budget-friendly street corner salons and open-plan beach set-ups, to lavish hotel spas and sophisticated health centres, Thai massage, also called ‘Thai Yoga’ massage, is part and parcel of the everyday Thai landscape, enjoyed by native Thais and foreign visitors alike.
In fact Thai massage, a combination of acupressure and passive, Yoga-like, stretches has become a quietly successful export phenomenon: dedicated shops and salons are popping up in cities around the world, Thai massage is growing as a popular menu option in many health spas and treatment centres, and Thai Yoga massage courses and certifications are a sought-after experience for non-Thais, abroad as well as in Thailand.
The exact historical details of how the practice and culture of Thai massage began are not entirely clear, or agreed by experts; in part this is because much of the tradition is inseparable from religious and spiritual Buddhist beliefs and therefore subject to both myth as well as historical fact. Another often cited reason is the loss of ancient texts and historical documents during the wars between Burmese and Siamese, particularly when the Siamese royal city of Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese invaders in 1767.
Most accounts agree the medical and massage practices that later formed into Thai massage arrived in Thailand with Buddhism. An often cited account central to the founding myth of Thai massage is the story of Shivago Komarpaj, a northern India-based physician who was said to be the personal physician of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, and also served the Magadha King Bimbasara and the ‘Sangha’ Buddhist nuns and monks of the time.
It is said that the early Indian-based Buddhists played a strong role in systemizing and codifying the ancient ayurvedic practices, including the practice of massage. On the way across to Thailand and beyond, the practices were shaped and refined by many other local influences such as Hatha Yoga, by the system of Chinese meridians and by indigenous traditions of the local Tai people. Some experts and historians place the recognizable formation of the practice now known as ‘nuad paen boran’, or traditional Thai massage, in the period 800-1200 AD.
Over time, knowledge and techniques were not only captured and refined by Buddhist scholars, monks and healers, but also by ordinary families who passed down the knowledge from generation to generation.
In 1832, King Rama III had the surviving knowledge carved into stone at the Bangkok temple known as Wat Pho, so that it would never be lost again like the ancient texts of Ayutthaya were decades earlier. These 60 carved epitaphs show in detail the energy lines and pathways (‘Sen’) and therapeutic points that are central to the Thai massage system. Wat Pho then became, and is still considered today, an internationally renowned centre of knowledge and training in the tradition of Thai massage.
Thai massage has always been regarded throughout history as a healing and curative art, as opposed to just relaxation. Ordinary people in search of healing and relief from ailments would flock to the temples, where it was the monks who had studied and mastered the discipline, and who were the physicians of those times. In fact, today the Thai government continues to officially recognise and regulate Thai massage as one of the four pillars of traditional Thai medicine.
While the tradition is practiced by many lay people today, Thai massage as a healing art should still viewed as an expert discipline where the best treatment outcomes can only be achieved by those practitioners with serious formal training and years of experience.
Until next week.
Your Tamarind Springs blog team