What Is Traditional Thai Massage?

Published | Updated August 7, 2019

Thai Massage statue on Wat Pho temple grounds

Traditional Thai Massage (Nuad Thai or Nuad Boran) is an ancient form of Thai Bodywork based on passive yoga, deep stretches, and firm (acu) pressure. With stretching exercises, yoga poses, and pressure along specific energy channels (the so-called Sen Lines) Thai Massage helps us in being freed of physical, mental, and emotional blockages and tensions.

Perhaps even more important is the holistic approach which can support the body’s self-healing and regeneration processes to start functioning in an optimal way. As for everyday life, one could experience an improved balance, vitality, and flexibility.

It is believed that the origin of Thai Massage was in India. Aspects of Indian Ayurvedic medicine can still be found in Thailand and together with herbal treatments, steam baths and massage, Ayurvedic medicine forms an integral part of what is now called Traditional Thai Medicine.

The founder of Traditional Thai Massage is thought to have been a doctor from Northern India. He was known as Jivaka Kumar Bhacchal (aka Dr. Shivago), a contemporary of the Buddha and the personal physician of the Indian King Bimbisara over 2,500 years ago. It’s said that his teachings reached Thailand at the same time as Buddhism—as early as the 3rd or 2nd century B.C.

Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha is not only an inspiration for the massage techniques used in Thailand today, but he’s also considered to be the source of knowledge about the healing powers of herbs and minerals. Even today Dr. Shivago is highly respected and honored by many Thais as the ‘Father of Medicine.’

One of the oldest traces of the ancient background of Thai Massage can be found in the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok where one can see about sixty diagrams carved in stone and placed into the walls of the temple. The diagrams denote the therapy-points along the various energy lines (10 Sen or Sib Sen) accompanied by explanatory notes. These Sen form the primary theoretical basis of Thai massage.

Yet, much of the origins of Thai Massage and Traditional Thai Medicine are still unclear. It is unknown whether there were any indigenous forms of massage in the region before that time. Also unknown is which parts of Chinese Traditional Medicine had any theoretical and/or practical influence on the practice of Thai Massage.

Nowadays, it is impossible to definitively answer such questions, since for centuries medical knowledge was transmitted almost entirely orally from teacher to student.

Traditional Thai Massage has spread to many other countries in the world. In the past 15-20 years, it has gradually become an important bodywork modality with plenty of Thai Massage courses and workshops given around the globe. It has been adopted in various forms by spas, yoga studios, and alternative health practitioners.

Conforming to the tradition a Thai massage session is given fully dressed. The receiver as well as the masseur or therapist wear comfortable clothes. Generally, oils or herbs are not applied, and a session is given on the floor on a special mat.

However, when oils and herbs are used, like for instance with Thai Oil Massage and Thai Herbal Compress Massage, the treatment is given directly on the unclothed body.

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