Preserving an Ancient Art

By Kristin Nuttall

What is Thai massage? Within Thai
Traditional Medicine (TTM) there exists the practice
of assisted yoga-inspired stretching, combined
with acupressure along the Sib Sen system of energy
lines. Yet some Westerners have taken it upon themselves
to create fusion blends such as Thai-Yoga or
“Thai” table or chair massage. How is it possible
to preserve and maintain the original practice of a
sacred art that is sometimes stripped of its identity?
At the crossroads between India and China, Thailand
collected great wisdom through the ages. Over
two thousand years ago, Buddhist philosophy and
healing practices began to appear in Southeast Asia.
Based to some degree on knowledge transmitted by
Indian Ayruvedic doctors, and traditional Thai Medicine
began to evolve.
In Thailand, ancient wisdom of health and wellness
has survived for centuries as a powerful method
to sustain the people. Their concept of the body is
not limited to the physical plane, but also includes
a model for etheric energy. TTM encompasses the
four elements (Earth, Water, Fire and Wind) that are
associated with the energetic and physical bodies.
Supported by the spirituality of Theravada Buddhism,
treatment has developed in many forms,ranging from
spiritual counseling and nutrition, to herbal remedies 
and iridology. Various ailments are also addressed through therapeutic massage.
Sen line therapy is applied using point pressure
and yoga-based stretching. Also for self-renewal
is Ruesri Dut Ton; traditional Thai self-stretching
exercises, much like a blend of gentle Yoga
& Qi Gong. These methods keep the winds of the
body blowing free and unblocked. In Thai they say
“Bpert pratu lom”, meaning to open the wind gate.

A Thai woman in traditional ceremonial dress.
Photo by Kristin Nuttall, RTT, Sacredasia

The scientific mind cannot credit what it cannot see.

Caged within the gates of suppression, Traditional
Thai Medicine suffered a great decline among Thai
people when pharmaceuticals began to replace
natural healing methods. During the 1950s, The
Rockefeller Foundation, a US enterprise, infiltrated
the Thai Education system. Disguised as a charitable
donation of Western technology, it imposed the condition 
that, in exchange for bringing this new information, existing 
methods would be replaced. Formerly, the knowledge of con-
ceptual anatomy and opening up the body for surgery
was unknown. Traditional Thai Medicine was
no longer taught conventionally in the universities.
To a certain extent, it was devalued and shamed.
Modern allopathic drugs began to change an entire
belief system, throwing Thai society out of its finely
tuned balance. Now that the glory of pharmaceuticals
is wearing off,  and people are beginning to realize
the potency of its side effects. Natural methods
never had such repercussions. 
Integrity was stolen again at the time of the Vietnam war. During a stage
of suppression and weakness of the old ways, opportunities
arose to abuse therapeutic massage and
Bangkokʼs prostitution ring grew. Their services
quickly became known as “Thai Massage.” Stripped
of dignity, the Thais were quick to lay the blame
on refugees from surrounding countries.While in the
cities traditional healing modalities were discredited
and suppressed, the traditional Sen line therapy continued
to have a stronger presence in rural areas.
Thankfully, great changes are being made within the structure
of Traditional Thai Medicine and therapeutic Thai
massage. In 1993, the Thai Ministry of Health established
The Institute of Traditional Thai Medicine
for the restoration and preservation of ancient wisdom.
In 2002, the Institute was granted departmental
status, appointing Dr Pennapa Subcharoen as
Deputy General. “We stopped developing Thai massage
in the past century”, said Dr. Subcharoen in an
educational documentary by Asian Spa Therapies
Inc. “Traditional Thai massage was mixed with the
Western Swedish massage.” She stated with an air
of disappointment.
The Institute has begun to implement an 800-hour
program as the new standard for public health and
therapeutic massage. Regulation is a tricky thing in
a culture where knowledge has been handed down
for more than a millennium. On one hand, there is
a need to somehow regulate all the “Mom & Pop”
massage schools that can now be found in every
neighborhood of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. But if
everything is regulated, what will happen to traditional
healers who have had their knowledge passed
down from generation to generation?

Detail of an epigraph from the medicine pavilion
at Wat Pho, Bangkok, showing various therapeutic
treatment points. Photo by Bob Haddad, RTT, THAI Archives

The path to the heart of Thai massage is through
the people who are passionate about bringing it
forth with authenticity. When looking for a school
or a mentor, if you view your work as more than a
mechanical routine or a source of revenue, then you
will find integrity. In recognizing the professional associations,
we support a movement for the credible existence of Thai massage. 
Through continued education, understanding and promotion, we make
great strides toward this goal.
Kristin Nuttall lived in Northern Thailand for two
years, and has studied with PʼSinuan, Poo and at
the Thai Government School of TMC. She practices and teaches Thai massage in
British Columbia, Canada.