The West “discovered” the wisdom and vitality of Oriental healing arts and massage a long time ago. Ever since, ancient practices such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine have captured the minds of health practitioners and the man on the street alike and as travel and immigration have increased, so has the spread of Asia’s traditional health practices.
Even though many Asian healing arts are becoming more widely available in the West, many still come to Asia in search of help for physical ailments. Some may think the treatments found in Asia are somehow more authentic, others come because many of the treatments can be had here for a fraction of the price they would have to pay in their home countries.
Below is a brief summary of some of Asia’s traditional healing massages. There is some overlap in principles and techniques as some have inspired others and evolved along the way. This very short primer should help you get “rubbed the right way”, with knowledge to boot.
Thai massage, or nuat Thai, is second nature to me – I’ve had hundreds of them over the years. Once you’ve experienced the power and invigorating energy imparted by one of these high intensity massages, you’ll surely want another. Many people prefer having the massage in a sala, a sun-shaded hut, on one of Thailand’s many tranquil white-sand beaches.
Here, you can relax to the sound of gently lapping waves as your cares are massaged away. There will usually be a fan to keep you cool during the hot season which runs roughly March through June, and keep mosquitoes away if it’s evening. If you’re on Koh Samui or Phuket, avoid Chaweng and Patong beaches where activity around you may be distracting. Try Samui’s Choeng Mon beach for a quieter setting.
Thai massage is quite vigorous, with physical manipulations that reflect yoga or other bodywork techniques albeit with the receiver taking a passive role. The practitioners are anything but passive; they use their whole body to massage, including of course hands but also elbows, arms and even feet to apply pressure. The massage is typically applied in static, rhythmic pushing moves to the receiver’s body and might use knees and legs as fulcrums for larger moves.
One variant of Thai massage, rajasamnak, was designed specifically for the royal family, hence feet are never used to give massage, nor elbows and knees. Only hands are used. Many students of rajasamnak are trained in the national centre of massage, Wat Pho, in Bangkok. Getting a massage from a certified practitioner will likely yield a better experience, although many Thais have some basic knowledge of Thai massage techniques.
Working along sen, or designated energy pathways, a masseuse or masseur (in Thailand, it’s typically the former) works from the feet to the head. This follows the belief that the feet are the least pure part of the body and the head the most holy.
It is said that Buddha’s own physician, Shivago Komarpaj, created Thai massage. However, the likelihood is that an amalgam of various techniques was combined to create the still-evolving final result.
In my experience, most Thai masseuses do not vary their routine much when asked, but some do. If you have a sensitive spot, it is good to tell the giver rawang, meaning careful, or mai kang tee nee, meaning not hard here, before starting. With a little luck koi koi or bow bow may help if the massage-giver is pushing too hard.
Although perhaps not as popular or famous as the Thai massage, the Balinese massage is nevertheless well worth a try. Like its Thai equivalent, it borrows heavily from Chinese techniques and healing wisdom, as well as Ayurvedic healing practices. One of the major differences is the folding and kneading of the skin, not done much in Thai massage. This is to promote oxygenation and healing, as well as to loosen the muscle fascia.
Balinese massage also incorporates a fair bit of reflexology (pressure point massage – mostly of hands, feet and ears) into a typical treatment. Sandalwood, jasmine and rose are very commonly used as scents to facilitate relaxation. Stronger essential oils might be used to address some internal issues; these could include frangipani and cempaka. Warmed oils, such as ginger, cloves and lemongrass among others, might be produced to coax out deeper tension. The fragrances promote relaxation but can also do the opposite; tell your practitioner ahead of the massage if you have any problems with floral or other scents.
India has a long tradition for healing massages. The most famous perhaps, Ayurveda, is a complete medical system based on traditional Hindu texts, originating on the Subcontinent but now popular throughout Asia and beyond. Balance is the key to health in all aspects of life, Ayurveda espouses, but physically it is key to balance various elements and urges in the body.
Ayurveda means “knowledge of life” and massage treatment is viewed as simply one aspect of a harmonious, balanced life. A serious massage practitioner will ask you about your diet, work, stressors, meditation practice and other things – not to be nosy but to help you reach your highest level of wellness.
Ayurvedic massage consists primarily of acupressure and is also called Marma therapy. Points receiving pressure are called Marma points. Since Ayurveda treats emotional as well as spiritual energies, Ayurvedic massage operates on several levels – physical (visible) and metaphysical (invisible).
Ayurveda places a strong emphasis on medicinal oils, considered vital to the massage and thus the receiver. Ayurvedic oil massage is said by some early texts to imbue the receiver with good vision, nourishment, good sleep and skin, as well as a long, balanced life.
Techniques are adjusted to fit each person’s doshas, or bio-physical forces. If done correctly, focussing on the doshas may aid in boosting the immune system, push out diseases, augment circulation, cut stress, detoxify and cleanse the blood, up one’s vitality and overall well-being and improve skin health.
When receiving an Ayurvedic massage, you’ll notice tapping to excite Marma points and release energy blockages. There’s also squeezing of tissue and muscles, and kneading and pinching, along with the long and short strokes encountered in many varieties of massages. One of the more popular treatments, shirodhara therapy, involves a continuous pouring of medicated oil on the forehead – “the third eye” – to promote a deep state of relaxation.
Ancient Chinese Arts
The Chinese manipulative massage technique of tuina is also worth mention. It uses various techniques such as acupuncture, moxibustion and fire cupping, along with chiropractic and physiotherapeutic stretches.
During a tuina treatment, the practitioner will brush, roll and knead the skin as well as push and rub areas between joints. This follows some range-of-motion stretching, too, and if done right, it can work wonders on neck and back pain.
Suggestions with Your Massage:
Wear loose-fitting clothes so that your body is not restricted in any way and the practitioner can work his or her magic.
- Come hydrated to your massage although not with a stomach full of water as it might be uncomfortable during some of the more strenuous massages. Don’t have a large meal right before your massage. Always follow the advice of the practitioner.
- Come informed. Some techniques and massages are more easily enjoyed if you know what you’re in for. Having someone walk on your back like it sometimes happens during a Thai massage, or being asked intimate questions about your toilet routine as it may happen during a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor, may seem strange if you’re not prepared for it.
- If you feel you have had a good treatment, do remember to tip the practitioner.