Learning Thai Massage
They say that the third time is a charm. Maybe that explains why it felt so good to cross the border from Vientiane into Udon Thani, Thailand for a rendezvous with the land of a thousand smiles. Hearing multiple stories of people being denied entry with foreign motorbikes, I had no idea what type of bribery would be needed to successfully get my bike across.
It turns out a smile and a pleasant “Sawadee khap!” was all that was needed. A very friendly worker at the border filled out some preliminary paperwork for me as we talked about riding and our shared infatuation with Thailand. She then said to report to customs, but a twinkle in her eye gave me the impression that if I drove right on by, she wouldn’t stop me. So I fired up my baby and cruised past customs without a second glance, home free on the well paved Thai highway.
That night, I received another dose of Thai hospitality. After stopping at the bus station to see if there were any buses to Chiang Mai that could transport my bike as well (there weren’t) I pulled down a nearby side street with a guesthouse advertized at the intersection. Walking into Mojo, I was greeted by two German men in wheelchairs who informed me that the place was in the process of being sold and was closed. But, a backpacker in need always had a home there and offered me a plush room to stay for the night for only 200 baht.
The grounds of the guesthouse are spectacular, complete with a waterfall and pool, outdoor pool tables, and sauna. The owners put 2.4 million euros into designing the place, and I was being allowed to stay there for $7! The Germans shared their stories with me about becoming partially paralyzed in separate motorbiking accidents in Thailand. The conversation was very sobering, despite being told over a few beers. In that moment I was able to truly appreciate how fortunate I’ve been to only have minor injuries from accidents that could have been life-changing.
The next day I was determined to crush out as many kilometers as possible to Chiang Mai and managed close to 800, falling a couple hours shy of making it to my ultimate destination. I arrived the next afternoon where I met two Americans, Jeff and Zoe, sharing some beers in the bar outside my budget hostel on Soi 9 of the Somphet Market. I took an immediate liking to the duo, who are both yoga teachers and practitioners.
In our conversations I mentioned I was in Chiang Mai to learn thai massage. I had tried to register online at the ITM school, but there was an error with the registration page. Coincidentally, Jeff was currently enrolled in a two week course at the Thai Massage School Shivagakomarpaj and Zoe had just finished an oil massage course there. Hearing their testimonials first hand, I took it as a sign that this was the school I was meant to attend.
The next morning I cruised up to the Old Medicine Hospital where the courses are held and enrolled in the two week traditional thai massage course. In the morning, different techniques and positions are demonstrated by the comical Thai staff members. (Padthai (a comical name to begin with) constantly cracked jokes about staying away from the ‘danger zone’ or you risk making babies. He also spontaneously belted out songs like “Unbreak My Heart” and random Christina Aguilera songs, keeping the mood light.) We then practiced on one another, broke for an hour lunch, and learned more positions and practiced again for three hours after lunch.
Thai massage is a very unique form of massage in which stretching and opening up energy lines are emphasized. Part of giving a Thai massage is almost like performing yoga for somebody, stretching their bodies in ways that could not be done without assistance. For example, some positions involve stepping on pressure points in the client’s back and lifting and twisting their legs, keeping the upper body on the floor as the leg and side muscles stretch and twist.
Special attention is also paid to the main energy lines running throughout the body. A prime example is the energy lines running directly along both sides of the vertebral column of the spine and the start of the muscles about an inch to each side of the spine. Applying pressure by walking your thumbs along these lines opens up the energy channels to allow energy to flow more freely throughout the body. This technique also helps to improve circulation, as well as the stop blood technique, which acts as a very temporary tourniquet to slow the blood flow to certain parts of the body, opening up when released.
By the end of the two weeks, everyone had developed the ability to give an effective massage for up to three hours. But this was far from the only benefit of my time spent in the course.
The Old Medicine Hospital provides very basic housing for their students (a massage mat on the floor) that allows everyone to coexist in a close knit community. Every morning, Jeff and I would be joined by some of the girls in the course (usually Stephanie, Ainoz, Jesica, and Anabella, all really cool people) for a solid hour and a half of yoga, pranayama, and meditation before breakfast. After class, Jeff lead a fun class teaching us tricks for achieving some of the more advanced postures. I am extremely grateful to have met Jeff and tapped into his wealth of knowledge. Now poses like astavakrasana and forearm handstands are fun as opposed to frustratingly difficult.
Another benefit of the thai massage teaching is that it developed a much greater sense of body awareness that has also transcended into my yoga practice. Giving and receiving massages all day, you are naturally very in tune with your body and are aware if you are carrying any stress in certain places. Then it’s just a matter of taking your awareness to these areas and removing the blockages (much easier accomplished with a small army of people willing to practice their massage skills on you).
It’s been a pretty blissful past couple of weeks, learning can certainly be fun.