Officially, Thai Traditional Massage is considered energy work and not bodywork. That, of course, sounds somewhat paradoxical because of the evident physical manipulations in Thai Massage.
And, the confusion gets “worse,” so to say, because bodywork in the East is basically related to Herbal Medicine, that is, the intake or absorption of food and herbal supplements in order to achieve health benefits.
But in any case, what is meant by energy work is that Thai Massage works with the physical body with the aim to promote the uninhibited flow of vital Life Energy through the Thai Sen Channels, this energy being called Prana, Lom or Qi in Asian countries, among other labels.
What exactly this “Life Energy” is, is subject of continuous debate in the West, but in the East it’s taken for granted, that is, no questions asked or real efforts made to further “explain” it.
Now, of course, for our skeptical Western minds this is highly unsatisfactory, but then again, we could translate Life Energy as the final product of the air we inhale and the food we eat, just exactly as how the East clarifies the intake of Qi, Prana or Lom Pran.
Thus, air (oxygen) and food (nutrients) are transported through our blood circulatory system (the latter corresponding with the Thai Sen Energy Lines) to be combusted and transformed into energy for our bodies. This energy is Life Energy, movement, action and functioning, and without it we would simply be a corpse.
With that particular outlook in mind we can perhaps better grasp that the end goal of Thai bodywork is indeed energy work. However, the energy that is produced in our bodies can be further categorized in several types of energies, such as physical, emotional, mental, sexual and spiritual energy, to name a few options.
Now, there are therapists and instructors who approach Thai Massage with a special focus on these more subtle energy aspects. They place emphasis on how different types of energies influence the state, health and well-being of our physical body.
The role of the energy worker than is seen as “to tune into” these subtle energies and to diminish or release any energy which is causing physical pains or discomforts. The opposite is true also: to promote the production and flow of those types of energies that lack. In fact, this is what’s called balancing the flow of energy.
You will notice that energy work focused Thai Massage will usually put more emphasis on talks, touch, rocking, rhythm, holding, support and so-called Metta (loving kindness and compassion). The sessions are clearly much “softer” than our good old “no pain, no gain” Thai massages, making them particularly popular in the West.
In conclusion we could say that there’s no real opposition between Thai Massage seen as either bodywork or energy work. It depends on the stance one would take, emphasizing the one or the other in treatments or trainings. In fact, Thai Massage is both and serves both, like the two sides, head and tail, of the same coin.