Thai Massage: An Evolving Art

It was two years ago when I first journeyed to Chiang Mai to dive deep into the study of Thai Massage. Yes, I had studied in Phoenix with a few teachers, taking workshops and a few privates, but it never felt complete. It was all about techniques and maneuvers. My first two weeks studying at The Old Medicine Hospital reinforced what I had learned in the states. We perfected techniques from palm pressing, to thumbing, to forearm use, and elbows while adjusting our clients through a few positions–on their back, on their side, on their belly, and sitting up. We ended each week with a comprehensive final exam that involved performing a several hour sequence. We were graded on whether he hit all the points of the sequence correctly, with correct technique. However, even after that experience, I still did not feel ready to give a Thai Massage. I remember thinking that it could not all be about a sequence. How trite would that be if we just had to go through the motions to create the magic. Many of the people who went through school with me at The Old Medicine Hospital likely felt the same way and never moved on into the practice of Thai Massage.

It was then that I found myself at the home of Pichest in Hang Dong, where on my first day he informed me that my technique was terrible. This was only two days after teachers at The Old Medicine Hospital were telling me my technique was perfect. Yet, I had to believe Pichest because inside I felt the same way. As Pichest watched me attempt a massage on someone that first day he told me that the beads of sweat on my head were not good–that I was working too hard. He told me that my body was also terrible. He told me that I had been practicing too much yoga and was inflamed as a result. He told me to take an anti-inflammatory pill. He physically tried to correct my techniques and then gave up. This is the type of first day experience that I needed. He was trying to destroy any sense of ego I had created around Thai Massage–and it worked. I broke down that night in tears, but I felt an overwhelming relief as I admitted to myself: I know nothing about Thai Massage. Certifications, lessons, years of studying in the states in my spare time. None of it meant anything. It was hollow because I had not learned to feel with my heart, to practice Thai Massage without the aid of my analytical mind, to understand my own body.

I gave up my daily ashtanga yoga practice. I took the anti-inflammatory pill. And, more importantly, I went back to Pichest’s house each day ready to unlearn, fully expecting to be broken down. Pichest is not a conventional teacher and many people do not survive there long. To learn from him requires unlearning parts of yourself that are difficult to let go of. Every day as you make the long commute to his house there is both excitement and dread–is he going to break you down more today–or will you be left alone as he brings another student to tears.

During that first year of studying with Pichest, I spent three months in Thailand on three separate trips. Most of my time was spent at his house, facing each day with openness to the experience. In the interim I opened a small studio space in Phoenix and bravely started giving Thai Massage to people. Each massage conjures up the same types of feelings I encounter in Thailand–will this client be the one that breaks me down and teaches me that I don’t know anything. In some ways, I hope for that experience because it’s where I learn the most about this evolving art form.

Thai Massage must be approached in this manner. No sequence or technique is helpful if true healing is to take place. One must be willing to shed all traces of knowledge and let the client’s body guide the session. In those quiet moments of letting go during a session, trusting intuition, each body will tell you what it needs. I have often found myself drawn to a certain area of the body without knowing why. It just feels like I need to work in that area, or maybe I’m imagining something. Call it intuition, or sensing, or feeling, but that is where Thai Massage occurs. It’s in the unknowing trusting.

Now as I gear up for my fourth trip to Pichest, I’m filled with the same apprehension and excitement as before. On my last trip, he asked me to give him a massage and he slept through most of it. That is a moment every student of Pichest will hopefully experience. When your teacher finally surrenders an allows you to do what you feel. When your teacher trusts you enough to let go of teaching and just receive. During my massage on Pichest I used techniques I had never used before and have not used since. It proves to me that Thai Massage is not about technique–it’s about listening to the body and speaking back without words. It’s a conversation and no two conversations are ever exactly the same.

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