October 19, 2013

How Yoga & Thai Massage Are Connected. ~ Robert Henderson

I didn’t see it at the beginning, but after 13 years of practice, I do now: Yoga and Thai massage are the same thing.

Yoga, for me, is a process of removal of all the outer layers of conscious living from the body until the central essence, the spirit, is revealed.

The yogi performs this process on a mat, by himself, through daily practice. It is a slow and often courageous process of unfolding. Each new unfolding reveals the next, deeper layer needing to be unfolded. Sometimes the space between these layers brings expansion and joy, sometimes resistance and discomfort and sometimes confusion and lack of answers.

Through each layer of unfolding the yogi has the freedom of choice. To remain where he is, or to journey deeper. For the yogi on the search for truth and freedom, it is a journey taken without question, for at the end of the journey is everything. Everything beyond even the most beautiful dreams.

The same process is mirrored perfectly in Thai massage.

Thai massage teachers are busy listing the various styles on Facebook groups everywhere. I am not one for listing the different types of Thai massage. This leads to debate on which type is better, or more authentic than the others.

Thai massage, for me, is a spiritual discipline. All my teachers in Thailand practiced daily prayer and meditation. Not a quick ‘Dear God’ prayer, but deep, intense prayer, often sung or chanted, that established a powerful connection to spiritual energy. A form of energy you connect to through symbol, whether that symbol be Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha or Jesus.

It is the use of spiritual energy in their massage practice that makes all the Thai masters so great. Westerners who come to study with these masters for a short period of time are not always able to see the importance a strong daily spiritual practice plays in Thai massage. Accordingly when they return home to start their own practice, they try to reproduce the greatness of their Thai teacher through the use of complex and difficult technique. It is the same as saying that in order to be a successful yogi all you have to do is practice more and more difficult asanas and nothing else.

Like yoga, Thai massage is also a process of removing all the layers of conscious living from the body until the central essence, the spirit, is revealed. And like in yoga, this process applies to the practitioner.

But how does Thai massage remove the outer layers of conscious living from the physical body of the therapist/practitioner?

The answer is as simple as it stares the Thai massage therapist in the face every time he offers massage. The answer is the client. The answer, to be more precise, is to listen to the body of the client.

The pains, stiffness, tightness, resistance and emotions a Thai therapist feels in the body of his client are no different to those experienced by the yogi on his mat during various stages of his daily practice and are no different to those in the body of the Thai massage therapist himself.

In Thai massage, the issues that the Thai therapist have most difficulty in dealing with in his clients are the issues that he himself has most difficulty in dealing with in his own life.

The feelings of heaviness, tiredness, light nausea or agitation a Thai therapist might feel after giving a massage are not the signs of having taken on the bad energy of the client. They are a mirror being held up to the therapist by the client, to show the therapist that there are issues hidden within himself that need addressing.

When the therapist fully addresses all his issues, all the outer layers of conscious living from his body, then all difficulty in massage and all post-massage feelings of heaviness, tiredness etc. disappear.

In yoga, the student has their teacher for guidance during a developing practice. In Thai massage, the therapist has their client.

It is initially hard to see that the massage client plays the same role in massage that the yoga teacher does in yoga. But he does. The client is the therapist’s teacher. When a therapist has a difficult client, this represents an opportunity for the therapist to address and release the same difficulty from within their own self.

And like the yogi at the beginning of a difficult phase of unfolding, the Thai massage therapist has the freedom of choice to either listen to a difficult client or ignore him.

This is perhaps the most important similarity between yoga and Thai massage. At some point along his journey, the yoga is going to ask the yogi to drop everything in order to go deeper. This is a crucial point. This is where yoga crosses the line from physical practice into spiritual practice.

The same happens in Thai massage. At some point the practice asks the therapist to drop everything in order to go deeper.

Some therapists refuse to go deeper and find alternative ways to replicate depth of practice through the use of even more advanced massage technique, or through the use of add-ons, such as Osteothai or Therapeutic Flying.

But the true version of ‘going deeper’ is nothing more than opening the spiritual centers in the body and letting the energy of spirit guide the therapist to a deeper level of connection; to a deeper level of sensitivity and finally, to a deeper level of ability in therapy and healing through massage.

At such depth of practice, the therapist leaves behind the tools of technique and anatomical guidance and falls, open-armed into the universe of intuitive, inspirational, creative and free expression in massage. Massage sans frontiers.

So it is with yoga. The yogi leaves behind what was and turning towards a higher goal, embraces a new freshness, clarity and purity of practice.

If you are a yogi on a path towards freedom and truth, there is nothing more beneficial than finding a Thai massage therapist on a similar path.

The very action of massage: the loosening of tight muscles and connective tissue, the warming of cold, contracted muscles, the release of air bubbles from the organs and the lightening of heaviness from the bones opens and releases those parts of the body that can be difficult or time-consuming to open and release through regular yoga practice. Thai massage and yoga become the different layers which, when added together, make the perfect cake.

Thai massage, however, is not a substitute for yoga. Some people refer to Thai massage as ‘Lazy Man’s Yoga’. This is an insult to both yoga and to Thai massage.

It is not the role of a Thai massage therapist to stretch and twist a yogi to make them more flexible enough so they can more easily attain an asana that has so far proved difficult to achieve. This is irresponsible. The asana has been difficult to achieve because the asana is asking a question of the yogi. To stretch and twist the yogi so they can achieve the asana is to avoid answering the question being asked of the yogi by the asana.

If you short-cut your way through a difficult asana, that asana will, in time, come back and ask its question again and the yogi, now on an advanced set of asana, will suddenly find himself floored by a simple asana they have been able to perform for years. The question, still seeking its answer, is being re-asked.

The unfolding lotus unfurls its leaves in a timeless, perfect way. It does not cut this natural process short.

I am, by profession, a Thai massage therapist. I am not a practicing yogi. I have, however, worked for many years at places of yoga, offering my services to the yoga community.

I see how beautiful yoga can be. I feel the freedom and softness of body in the yogi who surrenders to their practice. Conversely, I feel the hardness and tightness of the yogi who tries to exert control over their practice. There is an enormous difference between the physical body of the yogi who is using yoga to change or improve some aspect of his life and the physical body of the yogi who has surrendered to his practice and allows yoga to reveal his inner, true self.

It is the exact same as the touch of the Thai massage therapist. The hard, insensitive, closed and disconnected touch of the therapist who tries to own and control his massage as opposed to the soft, sensitive, open and connected touch of the therapist who has surrendered to his practice.

Do not confuse flexibility with openness. I have massaged many intermediate or third series ashtanga yoga practitioners and the muscles and connective tissue in their body are as hard as steel rope. Flexibility is not a substitute for openness. Indeed, flexibility is often camouflage for being closed off.

I said at the beginning that yoga and Thai massage are the same. They are. They just happen to appear different. One is performed by an individual on a mat. The other, in front of  a second person lying on a mat.

As disciplines of bodywork and self-development, they start from different points on the spectrum, but when you surrender to them and allow them to reveal your inner spirit and essence, they join completely at the apex.

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Assist Ed: Sanja Cloete-Jones/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Robert Henderson