October 14, 2012

Thai Massage: It’s Beautifully Different from Yoga. ~ Jenn Will

Thai Massage and Hatha Yoga are quite similar, and beautifully different.

Have you noticed Thai Massage is popping up in yoga studios everywhere these days? Perhaps you’ve been wondering what it is and what the heck it has to do with yoga. Is it yoga?

Indeed, Thai Massage is suddenly in yoga studios all across the United States. You might find it as part of an acro-yoga or partner-yoga class, or as a supplement to hands-on-adjustment techniques for yoga teachers. It’s sometimes called “Thai Yoga Massage” in the west, though I’ve never heard my Thai teachers use this term (I don’t use it either, preferring to honor the uniqueness & evolution of each form).

Plenty of massage therapists in the U.S. have been diligently practicing and sharing Thai bodywork for ages, but it seems to have truly broken into our collective cultural consciousness in the last decade. Thai massage is a uniquely effective form of healing bodywork, and I’m sure it will continue to grow in popularity.

**Same same, but different: Thai massage and yoga asanas

There are many ways in which these two distinct forms of bodywork, both rooted in the Vedas are alike and different. They do look similar, but I want to focus on my favorite way they are different. 

The art of letting go.

We are great at doing things in our culture—we know how to get things accomplished and how to be active. Many of the more popular styles of yoga are quite action-oriented, and appeal to this part of our nature.

This is great—we have found a meditation style that works for us. However, no matter how active we are in a pose, ideally we want to also tap into its more subtle, receptive qualities. We want to be able to let go in the appropriate spaces, and be active in the appropriate spaces. Yoga-as-meditation is the unifying, balancing of these aspects.

There are receptive styles of yoga where this aspect is in the forefront. For example, in restorative & yin yoga, you relax deeply into props or right onto the floor, using gravity to hold you (as opposed to your own muscle-strength). But, whatever style of yoga you are practicing, you are the one doing the work.

What happens when you let someone else do all of the work?

When you get on the mat to receive a Thai massage, you’re surrendering that work to someone else, and this allows for deep letting go. Your therapist moves you around, while your only job is to be a floppy rag-doll on the floor. This lets you get out of your own way where if you were practicing a yoga asana, you’d have to be thinking about it, placing your foot in the right spot, extending an arm.

This surrender can be very enjoyable or a difficult challenge. It fascinates me to see what happens when I ask a client to totally give me their leg or their arm.

Try this with a friend: give her your arm. Now let it go and allow her to hold it for you. Have her gently shake it from side-to-side so that your elbow sways. Are you still holding it or are you able to give it up? Are you holding in your shoulder? Your neck? It’s not always easy, and our response to this bit of letting go can be full of useful information.

When I receive a Thai massage, I am allowed to totally let go of every fiber of every muscle, tendon, ligament and tissue cell in my body. Fully supported by gravity on a comfy mat, and by my therapist, I can let go, and sense where I’m holding.

Even in the midst of the wonderful stretching, lengthening, and massaging, I find this to be one of the most powerful aspects of the work. It can be a meditation on letting go. For example, I may realize I am gripping my right hamstring. Once this a-ha moment happens, I can begin the process of working with that hamstring and seeing if it wants to relax. Here, I’ve identified a place where there is the possibility of more ease, and less work. I can see that I can be even more relaxed, and have found more room for allowing good stuff into my life.

There are myriad ways and reasons that we might be physically or structurally off-kilter. No one is in perfect balance. We are dynamic, complex organisms and it’s helpful to observe ourselves without judgment.

For instance, noticing our physical patterns of keeping muscles activated (or under-utilized), can open up more awareness and help us to see what we might need for balance and ease, both physically, emotionally and mentally. How are we interacting with the world around us? What are we allowing to flow through us? What are we defending against?

I find the deep letting go I get to practice when I receive Thai bodywork actually informs my yoga practice. When I’m in a very active yoga pose (especially when I’m practicing a new or challenging one), I tap into my body’s memory of what total surrender feels like. The real gift is I can tap into that feeling on and off the mat.

It seems that all great spiritual traditions address the concept of letting go, of non-attachment. It’s undoubtedly a skill that helps us to be more at ease as humans in the world. Receiving a Thai Massage is one excellent and enjoyable way to practice it.


*By “yoga,” I mean Hatha Yoga.
**”Same same, but different” is something my teachers at ITM in Chiang Mai, Thailand, say often. It means “yes, it’s the same, but different” & is very endearing to all of us that study there. The Thai language is structured in such a way that “more slowly” becomes “slowly slowly” when translated back into English, hence “same same.”

Photography: Kelly Kruse Photography


Jenn Will is a yogini, massage therapist, teacher, writer, gardener/herbalist, bicycle-advocate, dancer & all-things-wild-nature-lover.  She teaches Thai massage & yoga workshops abroad and at home in Bloomington, IN, where she nests with her husband and three cats. Find out more about Jenn & her work at www.earthdancehealingarts.com



Editor: Nikki Di Virgilio

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