After completing two weeks of study at the Thai Institute in Virginia, I had a functional understanding of Thai massage. I could move a clothed client through stretches on a mat, put pressure effectively on energetic points, walk on a client’s back, and deliver a relaxing full-body Thai massage session. However, my skills were limited, and I wasn’t proud of my work. My mat work reminded me of my first few months after graduating from PMTI: solid, but not creative or especially responsive. The bread rose, but it wasn’t particularly satiating or flavorful.
More troublingly, I was unsettled to have learned Thai massage from two white American men. While those men are great teachers, and had both studied extensively in Thailand, it felt appropriative for me to offer a service with limited understanding of the underlying culture. Moreover, as my original drive to study Thai massage came from receiving work from Thai practitioners -- all women, mostly twice my age -- I knew how different their work was, and how powerfully transformative it could be.
In the spring, I began researching massage schools in Thailand, with the hopes of expanding my knowledge. While there were many places of instruction, I found two main ‘schools’ of massage: Southern, or Wat Pho, style, which uses stronger pressure and focuses on energy lines, and Northern style, based out of the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai, which was gentler, and characterized by more yoga-like assisted stretches. As Old Medicine Hospital was the sister school of Thai Institute, and ‘the more gentle style’ is still incredibly intense for westerners, that sounded ideal. I’d be picking up where I had left off, and with the same assumed base of knowledge. While Old Medicine Hospital didn’t quite love my idea -- their weeks of Level One and Two had some differences -- they didn’t turn me away.
In planning the trip, I decided that while I wanted studying in Chiang Mai to be the cornerstone, I also wanted to gain a greater comprehension of Thailand as a country. I had never traveled abroad before, and as I looked into a potentially incredibly depressing fall, the idea of a much longer trip sounded like a more enticing possibility. As I did become depressed in the fall, planning for the trip became very nebulous; aside from the classes, my travel itinerary was vague. Up until two weeks before the trip, the concept of international travel seemed very abstract and far away.
After a day of flights, I arrived in Bangkok on January 7th. With over a week before classes began, I hit the ground running. Cramming in as many tourist destinations as I could see, I first visited Wat Pho. The first public university of Thailand, Wat Pho is also the center of traditional Thai medicine and massage education -- classes are offered year-round inside the temple grounds. While the bulk of tourists filtered in and out of the postcard-famous Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the rest of the complex was sparsely populated, with a few small tour groups spending more time in the smaller temples. Most fascinating for me, the northern section of the temple is decorated with energetic diagrams illustrating the flow of energy through the body. As a student of Thai massage, jet-lagged and drenched in sweat and sunblock, I found these diagrams incredibly heartening, to be so centrally visible in such an incredibly splendid temple.
While in Bangkok, I satisfied more touristy business, taking a ferry boat down the Chao Praya to explore the rightfully-derided backpacker area of Khao San Road. I visited Dursit Zoo, climbed the stairs of Wat Arun, and wandered into a megamall with an unfathomably superb arcade game selection, including seven different interactive dance games. From there, I took a bus to Krabi Province in southern Thailand, where I swam at six different beaches, and muscled through heat stroke, heat rash, and a spectacular butt sunburn. My merry week finished, I safely arrived in time to snuggle in at my hostel before my first day of classes at Old Medicine Hospital.
Each school day began with a wai khru, a Buddhist ceremony to honor and express gratitude for teachers. While recitations at Thai Institute had been very somber and drawn-out, we recited at a much faster clip at Old Medicine Hospital; I tripped over my words, even though I had nearly memorized them a few months past. In recitation, I clearly heard how terrible my Thai accent was. Thai is a tonal language, so my erratic spoken pitches made my words’ content nonsensical. After we completed the day’s wai khru, the school principal introduced himself, and gave a short encouraging speech to the thirty students gathered before splitting us into sections.
Level Three students were paired with Teacher Gift and Teacher Aon, who wrote their full Thai names on the board, humored our mispronunciations... and asked us to use their nicknames. There were eight students, and we hailed from nearly as many countries: Spain, Greece, France, England, Italy, Israel, Canada, and America. Some of us were full-time massage therapists, others were travelers looking to learn new skills. We ate in different permutations at lunch, but I quickly and emphatically bonded with my American compatriot, Vika. In the last week, I’d had only a handful of conversations, and meeting Vika was an incredible respite. She was also a relatively newly minted LMT, she lived in Minneapolis; we had similar politics; we tended towards traveling alone and took minimal notes. I fell madly into friend-love.
Level Three focused on each quadrant of the body, and learning steps for solving issues of pain in those areas. The format was similar to a dance class -- we learned a short choreography, step-by-step, and then practiced the choreography until we could complete it fluidly. Teacher Gift demonstrated each step carefully, pointing out his body positioning, and how he moved the receiver into a new position gracefully. With each step, the therapist needed to move a limb, or a section of the body, block the limb in place, and find a physical position from which to give firm pressure. At some points, Teacher Gift’s movements were acrobatic, turning a client’s whole body effortlessly, and keeping them secure.
For each step, Teacher Gift gave several “options” which would vary per client and per therapist. As this was practice, we needed to work through each option, which added many wrinkles of complexity. Some options were very slight modifications; others required the therapist to find a different placement. While each step would flow easily to the next, each option did not necessarily flow smoothly, making our practice clunky. As I discovered later, learning each option allowed me to offer fluid sessions to clients of all sizes and with different levels of flexibility. However, during class, when Teacher Gift delightedly announced “Option!”, many of us would sigh. Classes were also easier for me, as English was my first language, while for many of my classmates English was a second or third language, and taking notes was a mixture of English and their native language. During that week, I had a lot of “aha” moments, where Teacher Gift showed transitions between movements that made each pattern seamless. He answered questions that I didn’t know quite how to ask.
Outside of class, I loved exploring Chiang Mai. Although I liked the idea of frenetic travel -- visiting many places in a week, changing hostels every other day, swimming in different waters, etc-- I much preferred staying put, and gaining understanding of a specific city. Chiang Mai is a very cosmopolitan city (ie. terrible traffic), 24 hour internet cafes, malls and temples a plenty, and natural wonders within a few miles. The historical center of Chiang Mai is the walled Old City, bounded by moats, a mile on each side. I stayed at Coincidence Hostel on the west side of the Old City, a block from Soi Ratchadamnoen, the site of the Sunday Night Market, which offered more artisans and craft dealers than the nightly market on the east side of the city. Although these markets were popular amongst western travelers, there were hundreds more markets at which local people bought groceries, goods, and meals. My favorite haunt was the North Gate Jazz Co-op, popular with Thais and tourists, with killer touring bands. I went every other night, eager to hear new music.
I discovered the extent to which creature comforts shaped my outlook. Though traveling was very exciting, and I’d been active in Southern Thailand -- swimming, snorkling, getting lost and walking for hours-- I hadn’t technically exercised in almost two weeks, and felt like total trash. As a modern city, Chiang Mai offered plenty of gyms. My first gym attempt was fairly high-end fitness facility, with western workout classes, including a Les Mills Bodypump class, which forcefully taught me how to count to eight (Neung! Saawng! Saam! See! Haa! Hohk! Jet! Bpaaet!). Frustrated by high prices, I tried a bodybuilder gym inside an older mall. Though the bodybuilder gym wasn’t an ideal exercise space, it offered access to the lush hotel poor next door. After signing into the gym, and doing some squats, I snuck through a few back staircases and found my way to the enormous outdoor pool. With a fabulous view over the city and a very low daily rate -- 100 bhat (~3 dollars) -- the pool was the decadent touch that totally settled me. The other students in my program had found a different underused hotel pool, and we gleefully compared notes.
On the fourth day of the Level Three, we went on a field trip to a traditional Thai medicine school, in the burbs of Chiang Mai. The head of this school was an an older teacher and his son, who translated his father’s words. While we learned in a modern schooling pattern, many forms of Thai medicinal education was passed on within families, from parent to child, and within communities. We used different tools for muscular release -- leaves that offered a soothing feel, and small hammers -- and discussed different herbs used in traditional healing.
The older teacher explained we’d be learning a very old therapeutic technique: “fire massage.” The set-up for fire massage was pretty metal-- the receiver lay on a platform, next to which was a sturdy bar that the giver held onto for support. Below the platform was a flame grill, with an iron still atop it. The grill was on, and the iron looked ideal for frying eggs. Beside the grill were two small troughs, one with a clarifying liquid -- a zinziber herb water that smelled similar to ginger -- and one trough with sesame oil and “local whiskey”. You dipped your foot in the zinziber solution, swiped it across the still very quickly, and then pressed your foot into the receivers’ back. Then, after you cleaned the recipients’ skin, you would dip your foot into the oil and alcohol mixture and very, very quickly dart your foot across the still, which would then belch up a plume of flame, and land your foot on the giver’s back. It was vital to not catch your foot in the fire. After you had addressed the back with your feet, you would heat a Thai medicinal compress on the iron still, and roll it out on the receiver.
We received first, so we could personally judge how this was mostly safe, and not burning-foot-in-back. While I was confident about receiving, the mechanics of giving seemed... painful. I have very sensitive feet. I dislike when I step on hot sand, which is definitely not a surface connected to flames. In a further discouraging moment, the younger teacher paired me to receive from the most aggressively masculine person in our class, who seemed unduly eager to experiment with fire. Lying down on the table, I tried to breathe normally. My partner laughed briefly, then became... incredibly competent and focused. His feet felt very warm, but he was careful, and slow. I giggled with relief.
When I stood up, I felt taller. The next student lay down on the mat platform, seemingly completely at ease. As directed, I dipped my foot in the zinziber water, then across the still --which was terrifying because when the water drips off your foot, it literally sizzles on the iron -- and onto my partner’s back, who sighed contentedly. I gripped onto the bars, and lightly dipped my foot into the alcohol and oil. When I darted my foot across the iron, the heat came much, much faster. The plume of fire jumped up instantly -- very terrifying -- and I herked my whole leg out of the way and slowly lowered my foot onto my partner’s lower back. They sighed. I gradually calmed down with the oil mixture, and let my foot skate along longer each time.
The instructor’s son spoke. “We show this on the back, because it is safer, and you are young therapists, but you can also perform this on the abdomen, which can ease cramping, lower back pain, and energetic issues.” He gestured to me, “May I show with you?”
I nodded, and lay down on my back, thinking of calming ocean waves with lovely corrals. He laughed, very gently at me, “You don’t have to hold your breath!” He used his heel -- which was warm, but not unbearably hot- to press into my psoas, and up into my obliques, and then down the central line of my abdomen. His abdominal work was much deeper than what I had done in class, much more gently.
On the bus-taxi rides back, we grinning at each other like loons. I spent a lot of time picking at my feet, which smelled faintly like chicken satay. Vika and I had dinner afterwards, and laughed about how scared we had each been.
The next morning in class, we made herbal compress, a crafty challenge that eluded me. Jen, the Canadian, already used the compresses in her practice, and gave each client one to use in their service. She compared the process to making blinzes, but I couldn’t quite translate that to making a successful compress, which involved pounding the herbs within the cloth into a firm ball. While my compress ball survived heating, it was weirdly lumpy.
Level 4 which was described to me as “sen line week” by previous students. Thai massage is an energetic modality: work falls on sen lines, similar to Chinese acupressure points, that run throughout the body. Although there are 72,000 lines, therapists typically focus on ten lines, which corresponded with physical systems -- circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, urinary, excretory, reproductive -- and senses -- touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell. The helpful metaphor was to imagine sen lines as hoses of different sizes that ran through the body. If the hose kinked in a certain spot, the therapists unbound it, to allow energy to run through smoothly again. As initially described to me, sen lines fell across major muscular attachment sites, which made learning them very intuitive, as they already followed paths of work. However, there were complicating factors: different schools of massage defined the lines differently, so the sen diagrams I’d seen at Wat Pho did not directly correspond to the lines we used. Sometimes, we used the same lines, but labeled them differently. Teacher Aon dropped the knowledge bomb that lines could move, even on the same person, over time, and Teacher Gift added, “They can be like a metaphor, yes? It is not literal.”
In Virginia, I had disliked this ‘energetic’ focus in training -- the work was more monotonous, we weren’t learning new positions, and we were instructed to use our thumbs to trace the points along sen lines. As an LMT, I’ve learned that my thumbs are fairly delicate flowers and am extremely loath to use them for any extended time. Initially, my Thai teachers looked ascanse at my hesitation, and showed us thumb strengthening drills -- Teacher Gift did tiny pushups in a seated position, mostly using his thumbs. In this week, they encouraged us to use our fingers, palms, and elbows in place, if needed. There was a lot of elbows, and my thumbs were happy.
Teachers Gift and Teacher Aon effortlessly wove together sen line work with specific stretching. While we were still focusing on sen lines, we described each aspect in more detail, and moved through two lines a day. We additionally delved more into the theory of how sen lines interrelated with expressions of pain and distress throughout the body. In practice, the work was geared towards addressing a specific issue -- knee pain, for instance -- and which points along sen lines to target to alleviate that pain. While the work had larger energetic implications, the points very closely corresponded with trigger points, and the directions in how to alleviate blocks in the sen lines were to direct pressure at myofascial release sites, and use pin-and-stretch techniques. For an energetic focus, it felt much closer to neuromuscular work. At the same time, while I was being worked on in class, I fell asleep nearly every time, despite aggressive elbows.
On Friday, we ended the day earlier in the afternoon for a closing ceremony. Similar to the morning’s wai khru, we chanted, and the ‘principal’ of the school shook each of our hands, and tied a string around our wrists to signify our commitment.
My trip continued on from there -- I spent a few more days in Chiang Mai before traveling by boat down the Mekong river in Laos, spending four days in Luang Prabang, and then heading for Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, south to Phnom Pehn, further south to the actually-heaven islands of southern Cambodia. I spent a lot of time alone on buses; I read hella books; I lost all my postcards in a tiny inn in a town on the Laotian border. I learned how to be alone. I learned how to wait, patiently, without noodling around on my phone. I spoke to a hundred strangers, and made friends with whom I felt great trust.
Months after my trip, it’s clear that I’ll be a basic therapist for a long, long time. Each day of Level Three and Four contain weeks of practice material for me to pour over. My movements aren’t as graceful as Teacher Gift’s; my sen line work isn’t as precise as Teacher Aon’s. When I consider the first practitioner who made me realize how impactful Thai massage can be -- Jasmine at Lamai Thai in San Francisco -- I realize that her strength will never be mine.
As I mature as a practitioner, I’m aware that the style of Thai massage I practice will drift from what I learned in Chiang Mai, and from I experience from Thai practitioners. Part of this comes from practical factors -- I’m twice the size of most Thai people, and many of my clients are larger than myself. I move slower and I use my hands more. After years of table work, I have a western sensibility to my work. There’s so much farther I have to go to be able to express myself in this modality: to preserve my learning at the Old Medicine Hospital, and respect my teachers, while offering therapeutic work that meets my clients where they are. There’s many more hours on the mat, ‘practicing my scales,’ before my improvisations start to feel right. It’s likely I’ll have to make a return trip.