Thai Bodywork & Thai Medicine
Thai Bodywork & Therapies
in Historical Context
Traditional Thai Bodywork Then
Traditional Thai Bodywork (Nuad Borarn) was once part of a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to health and healing. Patient treatments included in-depth therapeutic bodywork which addressed the entire body from the feet to the head, structural alignment, acupressure, visceral manipulation, and employed herbal compresses to ease pain and soften joints, as well as increase circulation. On the purely physical level, a panoply of therapeutic modalities were employed to treat the body, attempting to restore balance in 42 elements subdivided into four groups: air, wind, fire, earth. A prescribed diet and herbal decoctions, as well as cupping and Reusi Dat Ton where frequently an intrinsic aspect of healing. A Thai doctor's (mo boran) focus was not solely on physiological ailments, but also addressed mental state, social and emotional relationships, and spiritual imbalances.
Due to the confluence of history and geography, Thai bodywork has been influenced by healing traditions of India, the Himalayas (Tibet), Southern China and Laos. However, contrary to modern marketing terms and inaccurate knowledge of historical context, Thai bodywork is not a passive form of yoga. The melding and linking of Hatha yoga to Thai bodywork is a widespread and unfortunate misconception: terms such as 'Thai Yoga Therapy', 'Thai Yoga Massage', and 'Lazy Man's Yoga' do not show respect or recognition for cultural authenticity, or recognize the origins of Thai Massage, which is in fact rooted in the purely Thai tradition of Reusi Dat Ton. For further perspective on Thai bodywork and loss of cultural authenticity in current times, as well as a frank commentary by a scholar and Thai practitioner who is highly respected both in Thailand and in the Thai medicine community, please go to this article on our Perspectives page.
There are said to be Northern and Southern styles of Thai bodywork. This terminology is for purposes of distinction rather than reflecting a true bifurcation in northern and southern practices. There are up to five if not six distinct regional influences in Thai bodwork and traditional Thai therapies. Loosely and generally speaking, the 'northern' style is based upon the older, indigenous Lanna-Thai medicine tradition, whereas the newer acupressure protocols associated with 'southern' style have more recent origins at Wat Pho in Bangkok, the first systematized and formalized school of Thai Massage and medicine.
Therapeutic bodywork has an essential purpose in Thai medicine: to remove blockages or 'breaks' in the flow of Lom (wind) throughout the body. Lom moves through channels (Sen) in the body which are physically palpable by a sensitive practitioner, not merely imaginary or theoretical energy fields as modern-day new-agism is fond of propounding. These channels are unlike the Chinese system which has termination points. Instead, the Thais believe that Lom exists in a continual movement in and out of the body, and that there is no end-point, therefore a blockage or break in the movement of Lom throughout the body is considered a serious thing: bodywork and massage, acupressure, herbal compresses and often spiritual interventions are considered necessary in clearing the Sen and restoring health and wellbeing.
The earliest known texts and diagrams delineating the Sen and anatomically specific corresponding points of treatment were more a reference than teaching materials, originating from two ancient Thai kingdoms: Dvaravati (6th-13th centuries) and Sukhothai (13th-15th centuries). These representational charts still serve as the basis for self-treatment (acupressure, massage, specific stretches) in the practice of Reusi Dat Ton, as well as influencing all forms of traditional Thai bodywork.
As early as 1238 A.D. there are known to have existed 102 hospitals (or treatment centers) in the northeastern Khmer region, and at the height of the Ayutthaya period (mid-1700s) pharmacies and dispensaries were readily accessible to the public. After the Burmese invasion of 1787, much of Thai medical tradition became fragmented or altogether lost due to upheaval and an outright, concerted effort to eradicate Thai traditions. Later, the encroachment of westernized medicine brought by missionaries and western physicians further eroded reliance on Thai medicine and its adjunct therapies, including Thai bodywork. In 1831, in an admirable —although fragmentary— effort to compile and retain knowledge of Thai medicine, King Rama III ordered that several treatises on Thai medicine and a pharmacopeia be written. He is also known for commissioning the creation of stone statues at Wat Pho in Bangkok depicting a number of Reusi Dat Ton poses.
Thai Bodywork & Medicine Today
Thai medical knowledge and its corresponding disciplines and practices were passed along from teacher to student through apprenticeship, thus creating an unbroken lineage. This holds true to this day in the study of Traditional Thai Bodywork, however more in theory than practice. Although Thailand owes much to the efforts of Rama III and those of later Kings, Rama IV and V, the result of wars and westernization has, with time, been a dilution of knowledge and breaking up of lineages. Today it is rare to find a true mo boran (Thai medicine doctor) and the vast traditions of herbalism, massage, cupping, and spiritual practices have faded.
About 35 years ago, efforts on the part of several determined individuals and Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) practitioners, the interest and efforts of the recently deceased Thai king, coupled with a worldwide call by the WHO (World Health Organization) for member countries to encourage use of traditional plants and herbs in their primary health-care programs, drew attention to the disappearing body of Thai medical knowledge. The ensuing resurgence of public interest led to new appreciation and promotion of Thai medicine and theory, including Thai bodywork as a therapy and healing modality. Recognized and respected for its therapeutic benefits and integrative applications in restoring range of motion, managing chronic pain, therapeutic rehabilitation, and ameliorating persistent depressive states, it is estimated that over 6,000 Thai medical facilities incorporate Thai bodywork and medicine into their therapy programs and treatment of patients.
Keeping the 'Therapy' in Thai Therapies
There is a growing appreciation of traditional Thai bodywork world-wide, which has had both positive and negative ramifications. Misunderstandings of the origins of Thai bodywork and Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) abound: Traditional Thai Medicine is a fairly recent term referring to the Thai government's efforts to standardize and modernize traditional medical practices throughout Thailand as early as the 1700s and as recently as the 1980s. Standardized testing, teaching methods and modernized protocols became the norm, and nuad borarn (Thai bodywork) was a casualty of this effort resulting in a system of teaching reliant upon standardized techniques, and modernized interpretations and theories drawn from other countries and traditions. This has led to ubiquitous and vague interpretations of the premise and foundation of Thai bodywork, how it should be practiced, as well as incorrect correlations with yoga and the misleading appellations 'Thai Yoga Massage', 'Lazy Man's Yoga', 'Yoga Massage' and 'Thai Ayurveda Massage'. The current, widespread, and modern emphasis on acrobatics and a rather callisthenic approach to bodwork are counter to the compassionate Thai tradition of therapeutic healing sessions. Thai bodywork is an introspective, reflective practice, focused and calm, yet imparts a quiet energy to the body and clarity to the mind of the recipient. Still used in villages throughout Thailand, and now once again in health centers and clinics throughout Thailand, traditional Thai bodywork is used in the treatment of neurological conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, neurogenic pain, paralysis, and other acute and chronic conditions.