A comparison of Thai Yoga massage and Holistic Western Massage. A perfect complement.

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A comparison of Thai Yoga massage and Holistic Western Massage.
A perfect complement.
Lizzie Longhurst September 2015

I decided to write a blog about the comparison of the two different types of massage as many clients who have been coming for western style holistic deep tissue and swedish massage wondered what was the difference and also were not sure if they would like something that they typically new was clothed, on the floor and with yoga in the title as it sounded so entirely different. Which in many ways it is but also there are many similarities. I will look at the history and roots of both styles, their philosophy, their approach and techniques, what they are typically good for (benefits) and what may be contra-indicated.

One of the major differences between the two treatments is that thai yoga massage is a traditional and ancient treatment that originated 2500 years ago. It has not been influenced in the same way as holistic western massage, as western massage has been heavily influenced by traditional ways of massage from Thailand, India, China, Japan to name but a few. Thai yoga massage originated in Northern India, yes not Thailand, around the time of The Buddha 2500 years ago. It was founded by Jivaka Kumar Bhacca, a physician to the king of the time and also thought to be a close friend of Buddha. Jivaka Bhacca is still honoured today in Thailand as the father of medicine in Thailand. Thai yoga massage is thought to have arrived in Thailand with Buddhism around second or third century BC. The roots of thai yoga massage lie in the Indian System of Ayurveda (meaning life and knowledge) and it was traditionally practised in Buddhist Temples as an extension of Buddhism.

Western Massage has many links to different cultures, especially now where the West has become more enlightened and attracted to understanding other cultures and traditions. However, we believe that the roots of our orthodox medicine and massage come from Ancient Greece. The word massage probably comes from the Greek to knead, or from the Arabic word Massa, meaning to press softly. Throughout Ancient Greek and Roman history we can see the use of massage with herbs and oil, gym and dance to help improve health. The Greeks used massage to combat disease. By 380 BC Hippocrates found massage was beneficial if movements were done towards the heart rather than away and that different pressures had different effects. He promoted the use of smoothness and rhythm in massage and terms such as pummelling, squeezing and pinching. These techniques can be found in the basis of swedish massage. In fact after the Romans, western civilisation started to be more interested in the spiritual rather than physical well being, so for many centuries, although herbs were used, the practise of massage was not progressed until later centuries when science and the study of surgery and pathology took over. By the end of the 18th Century Peter Henry Ling developed The Swedish Movement Cure, including massage as part of exercise in the gym. He believed that anatomy and physiology needed to be understood before using massage and exercise. He referred problems not in his skill set and outside his range of knowledge to Doctors. He founded swedish massage and exercise, using effleurage, petrissage, vibration, friction, rolling and pinching techniques. In 1894 a group of women formed the society of trained masseuses with rules, regulations and exams. By 1920, it amalgamated with the Institue of massage and remedial exercise. A Royal Charter was granted by 1943 and it became The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists.

The Thai system of massage is a traditional and ancient form of massage and works on the idea that there are a multitude of invisible energy lines running through the body that carry life force, Prana. Prana is created by the air we breathe and the food we eat. In Thai yoga massage there are ten important lines called Ten Sen. In a Thai yoga massage all of these lines should be included in the treatment. The use of direct thumb pressure on the lines and stretching of these areas, is understood to release tension, inflammation and congestion in the body therefore improving well being and the flow of prana and dispelling weakness illness and disease. This is not a diagnostic treatment but works therapeutically to help release imbalance in the body, mind and spirit. There are direct similarities to yoga and their energy lines, prana nadis and Thai yoga ten sen lines. The training of Thai yoga massage has been passed down orally from master to student. Some scriptures were written down in Pali on palm leaves but many of them were sadly destroyed in 1767 by Burmese invaders, however some still remain in Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok.

Thai yoga massage has seen a revival in the last 40 years. Although masters were still practising in villages, many cities and urban areas were being popularised by Western Orthodox medicine, as happened in The West in earlier centuries. Then in the 1980s, there was an interest by Western travellers in The East to alternative forms of well being and so this led to a resurgence of interest in Thai yoga massage, creating more practitioners in Thailand, Schools and then schools and practitioners in The West being set up. Asokananda was the first westerner to write a book about Thai Yoga massage in a language other than in Thai and is primarily responsible for bringing it to the West.

In Western massage, there has been a link to orthodox medicine due to the history mentioned before and how massage was used as part of physiotherapy. In the West, some practitioners and styles of massage are very clinical, treating only an affected area such as a site of pain or injury as with sports massage or remedial massage. The therapist in this case would be very clear that this was there specialism and their training and insurance would also confirm and assure this. Other therapists (including sports massage therapists) may also be holistically trained and within this training and philosophical approach, they would treat the client as a whole, not just the injury or issue that was being presented. They would take a full case history in a confidential consultation and then treat the person from an emotional, physical and perhaps even a spiritual point of view. This has been born out of eastern styles of massage and other therapies being widely used and learnt here, perhaps from Thai yoga massage. Depending on the therapist, they may also use techniques to be grounded and centred before giving a massage. These techniques could include letting go of their own tension through doing yoga or meditation before giving a session, visualising a form of protection surrounding them before meeting and practising massage in order not to pick up negative issues or tension from the client. After a session, many therapists will also use techniques to help cleanse and let go of anything they may have picked up from working with a client. This could be literally just washing their hands or arms, breathing techniques, the use if essential oils, yoga, swimming or meditation for example.

In Thai yoga massage there are specific spiritual philosophical approaches to how a practitioner prepares and gives a treatment. This is because it was traditionally practised in Buddhist Temples and was part of Buddhist practices. It is known as a meditation in two ways. Firstly using the application of loving kindness, metta. To be able to do this one needs to be compassionate, understanding of your client and therefore able to vary and adapt your approach to the needs of your client as each individual. Also Thai Yoga massage incorporates the idea of mindful meditation, being fully present in the moment of the treatment and being fully aware of how the client is during the whole massage. This is therefore not a mechanical treatment, a purely symptom focused treatment, but a treatment where you the therapist can treat the client in a receptive and intuitive way. Thereby leaving you to feel relaxed and mediative by the giving of the session and the receiver being fully held and met through the treatment. Thai yoga massage in the West would also only be insured by a practitioner who held full qualifications and this would mean they should also go through a full consultation with the client.

In The West we are taught to be analytical and use our knowledge of anatomy and physiology. As massage therapists we work on muscle groups and look at releasing knots, congestion, soothing adhesions and inflammations. We would be looking at this from a learning of the internal workings of the body and how the muscles, organs and systems are understood to work. We maybe looking at this holistically, the congestion or knots could be being caused by an emotional imbalance as well as a physical injury and we may look at ways to release this through joint manipulation and soft tissue massage that would balance our bodies and minds through the homeostasis of our endocrine, nervous systems, circulatory, lymphatic and genitourinary systems. The Thai and Eastern way of looking at this would be that the flow of prana may be congested in one area of the lines and body, thereby causing inflammation, pain, disease, stiffness, heat, numbness and by using pressure, deep breathing, stretching/movement and the client physically and emotionally being able to let go, the prana is released and balance, harmony, homeostasis is returned to the body and mind. However, the structures of the body are not analysed in the same way as with western massage. The treatment and lines are not diagnostic but certain lines and points correspond to different parts of the body and what they do. For example in the centre of the crease of the ankle is a knee pain, headache and cramp in the calf point or Sen Sumana in the midline of the body running up the centre of the ribcage and sternum is very good for respiratory problems or asthma. In many ways the different approaches will actually create the same affect, relief of pain, less inflammation, detoxification, release of congestion, energised and feelings of well being. Through a detailed consultation there maybe local or full contraindications decided upon depending on what was presented. It is essential that a therapist is fully qualified, as with western holistic massage. The contra-indications are the same:
Certain stretches or massage techniques are not safe to use on someone with heart disease, high blood pressure, varicose veins, kidney infections, bruising, fractures or cuts or when menstruating. However many of the stretches and massage techniques in both forms Western and Thai would be appropriate and so a qualified therapist would adjust the treatment so that it was safe and effective.
On the other hand, certain symptoms would mean you would not treat a client who presented with the following conditions with either thai yoga massage or western massage: if they were unconscious, had a fever, were vomiting or had diahorrea. This is because any form of massage would put pressure on the systems that were affected and douse spread the infection or issue. If someone was unconscious they would need immediate medical attention.
If someone was pregnant or having treatment for cancer then it would be important to get further training in these areas and speak to their doctor.

The method of giving a Thai yoga massage compared to a Western massage can be very different. In general a Western massage is given on a massage couch/bench which is at the height of the therapists hips. In Thai yoga massage we use a futon which is on the floor so the therapist would be kneeling, sitting and sometimes standing by the client. There are always exceptions, especially in the diverse way practitioners are now trained but in general these are clear differences.

In Thai yoga massage you would work over the clothing of the client as the strokes are different. There are deep thumb pressures, palm pressures, feet pressures to promote blood and prana flow and stretches and pressures combined to release tension and prana. In Western massage in general the client is undressed and covered by a towel or sheet, areas of the body are then worked on directly using oil or balm as a medium to create slippage so as to promote blood flow. Sometimes therapists use no oil and use pressure and friction without oil but oil is then generally used to soothe the area worked on. Also in some Western massage notably seated massage, clients can be fully clothed but the techniques used are generally acupressure which are rooted in Thai yoga massage and Shiatsu. Some Thai yoga massage practitioners may use oil and balm on the hands, feet and face. You can also experience some of the Thai yoga massage with oil but it is usually fully clothed.

Thai yoga massage is generally known for its deep pressure and stretching. We are taught to go to the point of sweet pain or release and no further. This is the same with most western massage, the practitioner does not want the client to feel stress or further pain. The sense of sweet pain is giving the body the opportunity to let go and this is done carefully and respectfully in both practises. Using the clients deep inhalation and then pressure on exhalation or deepening of the stretch on exhalation also allows the body to let go of held tension or congested prana flow. Again this is the same in both practices.

Technique wise there are some real differences here and some similarities. In Thai Yoga massage as I have mentioned before the practitioners works on the Ten Sen lines from the feet upwards. This is done in a rhythmical way and there are certain techniques and lines that you must work in a specific way and in order as this enhances the release of prana. There are elements of free style and individually tailoring the session to the client as you can use different stretches but the lines remain the same in all treatments. You can work the lines using palming with your hands, knees or feet, thumbing using your thumbs or elbows. Hacking, cupping and beating can be used as over the back and shoulders as used in Western massage too. Some therapists use massage tools also such as sticks on the feet or lines. The treatment is a traditional treatment however and this should be respected. A typical session would be between 90 minutes and two hours so as to include all the working of the lines.

In Western massage a session can be of any length and as long as your practitioner is fully qualified, insured and part of an association they can decide how long the massage could be, which they usually give the client a choice of: from 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes and 90 minutes, longer is not so common. The massage usually starts on the back and if you are having a full body massage (which you don’t have to, you could just have a back, neck and shoulder massage or leg and foot massage), back of legs, front of legs, arms, abdomen (not so usual but essential in thai yoga massage), shoulder, arm, hand, neck and head massage. There is more freedom of choice in what to include in Western massage but in the same way it may mean that not all of the body is treated. Techniques are usually effleurage, long sweeping movements towards the heart, warming and soothing strokes used initially to warm up the body with hands and forearms, petrissage meaning to knead, like the kneading of dough, picking up the muscle and moving it with pressure using your hands, fingers or thumbs, or picking up and squeezing the muscles with thumbs and fingers, skin rolling to help reduce water retention, wringing to produce heat in the area, friction to release spasm, using fingertips, knuckles or elbows, stripping the muscle using a deep stroking movement to separate fascia or muscle sections. Tapoement and tapping, hacking and cupping can be used as with thai yoga massage to increase energy flow to an area and to warm an area. Vibration techniques can be used over a congested area or know to help release tension. Thai yoga massage can also incorporate the above techniques and if qualified in both Western massage and thai yoga massage you could also experience both within a session if used mindfully.

After a session in thai yoga massage or Western massage you could feel a feeling of being re-energised or stimulated, more supple and loose. You could feel also very tired, dehydrated and as if you had had a detox. This could be that the release of prana in Thai Yoga massage or an improved circulation in Western massage. Both treatments could release toxins so you need to process them and heal before feeling the sense of balance and restoration. To listen to your body after a session is essential and a therapist would recommend that you drink plenty of water, have something cosy to put on in case you feel cold (lowering of blood pressure as relaxed and resting) and to rest if you feel tired and groggy. This feeling should pass within a few days and then renewed health and vitality felt. Areas that are particularly tight could also feel a bit tender if they have been released so to have a warm bath or to do continued stretching would also be good to complement the treatment.

In conclusion there many similarities between Thai yoga massage and Western Massage, especially now as Western massage has learnt much from The East. However essentially they are very different treatments in their form. A client may feel quite similar after the effects and benefits from both styles of treatments but it is important that a client knows what to expect, especially when booking either style of treatment for the first time. One could say that Thai yoga massage engages the client more in the session and that in Western massage a client can be more passive in receiving the treatment, but personally I would hope that I would engage clients in both forms of massage if that was needed and if they were exhausted a more passive treatment in either form would be better. Again, the idea that each client and with each session the therapist would adapt the session to suit what the client needs at that time. I would highly recommend having a phone conversation with a new client about the different treatments but hopefully this essay would also help give a brief over view of the two treatments.

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