Although called “massage,” Thai Massage therapy is quite different compared to mainstream Western massage treatment modalities.
Western massage in its more contemporary versions started with Classic Massage aka Swedish Massage. In the past hundred years or so, Western massage certainly evolved significantly (with many ‘new’ or derived modalities), but its base characteristic is still that it aims at working with muscles and joints and other soft tissues from out an anatomical and physiological approach.
Moreover, its goal is basically to relax soft tissues and counteract tensions and pains. More generally said — Western massage is primarily a relaxing massage. Nevertheless, more in-depth therapeutic applications have also been developed, particularly in the past few decades.
What characterizes Thai Massage is that it’s energy based. It aims at balancing one’s internal energy system, which is thought to be represented by the flow of Vital Life Energy, the latter called Lom Pran. In fact, a Thai Massage therapist works with the physical aspects of the body to address the pranic or energetic body through manipulating, that is, ‘opening’ or ‘maintaining’ the energy pathways in the body — the so-called Sip Sen Energy Lines.
Thai Massage also utilizes a holistic approach — addressing the total flow of energy in the body and realizing that “all things are connected” — in contrast to the more “narrow” approach in Western massage where the masseur rather looks at resolving the specific problem or pains at hand.
Additionally, Thai Massage is foremost a therapeutic massage modality and not aimed at relaxation (relaxation is a by-product of the treatment). Another big difference is that Thai Massage is traditionally carried out on the floor on a special mat, yet Western massage is typically applied on the massage table. I have written an extensive article about the important differences between these two ways of working.
Then, Thai Massage is traditionally a fully clothed massage applied without oils, while Western massage is usually partly unclothed and often given with oils, lotions, and creams. Compared to Western massage, Thai Massage is also much more dynamic: the client is moved around in many ways, significantly stretched, massaged with the feet, knees, hands, thumbs, and forearms, and is given the massage using a broad range of techniques and in various positions, such as the prone, supine, sitting, and side position.
And finally last but most certainly not least, Traditional Thai Massage emerged within a religious context in Thailand, adopting Buddhist, meditative, and animistic spiritual principles, which is of importance for the practice until today.