Thai Massage, often called Thai Yoga Massage, is an energy and bodywork practice that originated in Thailand and is considered part of Traditional Thai Medicine. It appears to have been influenced by Buddhist, Indian and Chinese traditional practices. Thai Massage incorporates aspects of energy work, acupressure, and yoga traditions.
The practice of Thai Massage became popular in the west, beginning in the 1980’s when western tourism to Thailand increased, as well as the interest in experiencing alternative health techniques. (3)
Thai Massage practitioners work on sen, or energy conduits, that are believed to exist in the body. In Thai medicine, there are 72,000 sen, of which 10 are considered most important.
In a Thai Massage, the practitioner will work segments of these lines using acupressure with their thumbs, palms, forearms, elbows, feet or knees. In addition, a Thai Massage will incorporate yoga-style stretches, where the practitioner stretches the client using their hands, arms, feet and knees. As with yoga, correct breathing practices aid the client in obtaining results.(1,2,3)
Thai Massage has many variations. Some people draw a distinction between “northern style” Thai Massage, which is slower and gentler, versus “southern style” which is faster and more intense. This distinction is not generally recognized in Thailand.
The distinction recognized in Thailand is “royal” massage, designed to work on royalty versus “commoner” or “folk” style. Royal style massage was developed to be more respectful of the bodies of the Thai royalty, so feet are not used, there is less physical contact between client and practitioner, and there is no stretching.
The Commoner style is more relaxed regarding physical boundaries and allows stretching and more positions and techniques. Most Thai Massage schools teach a combination of these techniques. (3)
Thai massage benefits
The intended effect of a Thai Massage is to help the body rebalance its energy. Other benefits may include improved flexibility, improved circulation, improved body alignment and posture, and deeper breathing. (2,3)
In a 2003 article, it was suggested that Thai Massage had potential to help clients with: asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, angina, nausea, nasal obstruction, eye problems, throat problems, shock, schizophrenia, hysteria, various mental disorders, manic depression, diseases of the urogenital system, appendicitis, deafness, ear diseases, frequent urination, impotence, precox ejaculation, irregular menstruation, uterine bleeding,facial paralysis, hypothermia, and diarrhea. (9)
What to expect from a Thai massage session?
Unlike most Western bodywork modalities, Traditional Thai Massage is done with the client fully clothed in loose, comfortable clothing that allows for stretching. No oils or lotions are used. The massage is done on a mat on the floor. Pillows and other props are often used in order to allow the client to be comfortable in various positions. Blankets and other covers may be used to keep the client warm during a session.
A session may last 1-2 hours. When done well, a Thai Massage flows and has a meditative dance-like quality. Intuition, mindfulness and spiritual focus are considered to be part of the work done by a Thai Massage practitioner (1,2,3)
The exact sequence and the type of work done will vary from practitioner to practitioner and from client to client. Some sessions will spend more time with acupressure on the sen lines while others may spend a great deal of time doing stretches. Sometimes, herbal balls are part of the treatment, where heated packets of Thai herbs are placed on various areas of the body to relax them and/or are used to apply pressure or tapotement to the client.
Although a Thai Massage is done fully clothed, the quality of touch is often considered a good form of intimate, non-sexual touch. A good therapists is careful to work within the client’s comfort level and respects the client’s spoken and unspoken boundaries. (2)
Some practitioners may invite their clients to wash their hands and feet prior to the massage, as is commonly done in Thailand. There may be soft music in the background, and there may be aromatherapy used. (3)
A standard massage routine for the general public is about half acupressure and half stretching. For each part of the body worked, the client begins by warming up the area using acupressure along the sen lines, then proceeds to joint mobilizations and finally to yoga-like stretches.
Thai Massage work focuses a lot of attention on the legs and feet, and a Thai Massage should always begin at the feet and move up the body. (1,3) In Thailand, the acupressure and stretches are generally deep and strong; however, most Western practitioners will work within their client’s pain threshold and only do extremely deep work on clients who request it. (3) When doing Thai Massage, the therapist works with a gentle rocking motion, using the shifting body weight to apply pressure.
Western Adaptations of Thai Massage
As stated above, Western practitioners often adapt the Thai Massage to be gentler, in order to work within their client’s pain tolerance. One Western adaptation is Table Thai Massage, where the work is done on a massage table instead of on the floor. This limits the types of stretches and movements that can be done, but also is easier for clients who find it difficult to get down onto and up off of the floor.
It also allows the therapist to perform Thai techniques in the same setting as other bodywork and massage. In addition, some practitioners will use Thai techniques as part of a table massage, and may combine it with Swedish Massage, energy techniques such as Reiki, or other types of bodywork. (3)
Precautions and Considerations
IIn the United States, a licensed massage therapist may legally practice Thai Massage, even if they have minimal or in some cases no training in the practice. Clients seeking a qualified practitioner may need to rely on referrals or question therapists regarding their training and qualifications. (2)
Improperly trained practitioners may cause injury to clients during a session if they are not aware of the possible adverse effects of Thai Massage on people with various ailments, such as heart problems. There have also been reports of fractures being caused by practitioners who are too vigorous. (4) Clients who have medical issues should discuss them with their physician and their Massage practitioner before receiving a Thai Massage. (3)
The effectiveness of Thai Massage has been clinically investigated in recent years. Among the many articles that have been published were a study finding Thai Massage equally effective to Ibuprofen in reducing pain in knee osteoarthritis (5); a study finding that regular Thai Massage helped post-menopausal women increase bone formation (6); and a study finding that Thai Massage reduced biochemical stress markers in the body (7).
ThaiMassage.com (8) has a page dedicated to Thai massage research publications that include articles on using Thai Massage for palliative care in cancer patients, using Thai Massage for chronic headaches, and using Thai Massage for treatment of fibromyalgia, among others.
Thai Massage is a bodywork modality that originated in Thailand and has become popular in the Western world over the past few decades. Traditionally done on a floor mat with the client fully clothed, Thai Massage combines acupressure and yoga-style stretching to relax and energize the recipient.
Thai Massage has a strong spiritual aspect, but also has a growing body of research that demonstrates its potential for aiding in pain reduction and stress reduction. Thai Massage can be adapted to work within a client’s pain tolerance and personal boundaries.
In addition, it has been adapted by various practitioners to be practiced on the massage table. Some Thai techniques can incorporated into Swedish massage and other bodywork or energy modalities.
Since any licensed massage therapist can legally do Thai Massage, even with very little training in the area, clients seeking a qualified Thai Massage practitioner should ask the therapist about their training and experience, as well as get references or referrals from existing clients. Thai Massage may need to be modified for clients with certain medical conditions.
Apfelbaum, A. Thai Massage: Sacred Bodywork. 2004. Penguin.
Haddad, B. Thai Massage & Thai Healing Arts: Practice, Culture, and Spirituality. 2013. Simon & Schuster.
Salguero, CP and Roylance, D. Encyclopedia of Thai Massage: A Complete Guide to Traditional Thai Massage Therapy and Acupressure. 2011. Findhorn.
Wiwanitkit, V. Thai Traditional Massage: Issues Causing Possible Adverse Effects. Ancient Science of Life, 2015, Oct-Dec; 35(2): 122-123.
Chiranthanut, N; Hanprasertpong, N; and Teekachunhatean, S. Thai Massage and Thai Herbal Compress versus Oral Ibuprofen in Symptomatic Treatment of Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Randomized Controlled Trial. BioMed Research International. Volume 2014, Article ID 490512, 13 pages.
Saetung, S; Chailurkit, L; and Ongphiphadhanakul, B. Thai traditional massage increases biochemical markers of bone formation in postmenopausal women: a randomized crossover trial. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013, 13:69.
Sripongngam, T; Eungpinichpong, W; Sirivongs, D; Kanpittaya, J; Tangvoraphonkchai, K; and Chanaboon, S. Immediate Effects of Traditional Thai Massage on Psychological Stress as Indicated by Salivary Alpha-Amylase Levels in Healthy Persons. Medical Science Monitor Basic Research. 2015. 21: 216-221.
Ryan, C; Keiwkarnka, B; and Khan, MI. Traditional Thai Massage: Unveiling the Misconceptions and Revealing the Health Benefits. Journal of Public Health and Development 2003. 1(2): 69-75.