Thai Massage History and Context
This is an outline I use in Thai Massage classes to introduce students to the history of Nuad Bo-rarn in Thailand. I have a link for references for more info, and would love to hear your feedback on this history (especially if you are a historian). thanks & enjoy.
In the Thai Language:
Nuad= massage or body/energy work, Bo-rarn=ancient, classic
Beginnings of Thai Massage (Nuad Bo-rarn):
Shivaga (Shivaka) Komarapaj is considered the “Father Doctor” of Thai Massage, and even the “father of Thai medicine.” He was a contemporary of the Buddha in northern India (& what is now Nepal), and a doctor to the Buddha and Sangha, the spiritual community of the Buddha. Depending on who you ask, this may have been anytime from around 600-200 B.C.
In the practice of Thai bodywork, we honor and give thanks to our lineage, saying a mantra (prayer) including homage to Shivaga Komarapaj, our teachers, and the energies of healing.
Early Thai medicine (and it’s histories and stories) was passed down via oral tradition. It has evolved alongside and influenced (and been influenced by) Ayurvedic medicine/theory in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some say it is rooted in the Vedas.
By the 1600’s, there were many medical scriptures written on palm leaves in the Pali Sanskrit language (written in Khmer script). Thailand was invaded by Burma in 1767, and the Thai capital of Ayutthaya was sacked and destroyed. Many of these texts were lost at this point.
Historically in Thailand, Thai bodywork was practiced and taught in Wats (temples). More recently, many schools and massage centers have begun teaching and offering bodywork to the general public. When studying in Thailand, it is important to be respectful of this tradition, and consider your place of study a sacred space: remember to take note of and honor local cultural and spiritual practices.
“Royal Tradition of Thai Massage”
I’m generalizing here, but we typically categorize the styles that evolved through the the Wats and were employed by members of the ruling classes as: Southern-style, or Northern-style.
Southern-style is from the Bangkok/Wat Po area. It focuses on acupressure, and uses less stretching than Northern-style.
Northern-style has developed in and around the Chiang Mai area. Relative to Southern-style, it incorporates more yoga-like stretching. Both ‘styles’ overlap, and each do use acupressure plus stretching. Northern-style has Burmese, Chinese and Hill-Tribe influences.
“Rural Traditions in Thai Massage”
As with any human culture, we like to pass our folk medicine & healing traditions on down through the generations. Thailand and southeast Asia are no different, and we find many ‘family’ and shamanic styles of bodywork throughout, which influence and interact with the ‘Royal Traditions.’ Many native cultures (Hill-Tribes such as Lahu, Karen, etc.) might mix animism and other spiritual practices with the overarching Buddhist cultural practices (likewise, Buddhist practices might not be involved at all).
Some examples that don’t always fall into the basic ‘Royal Styles’ include (and are not limited to):
- Tok Sen — using a special wooden hammer & mallet to tap & vibrate underlying tissues & along sen lines. One of my teachers used a hammer & mallet that were carved from a tree that had been struck by lightning. Mantras were painted onto the tools.
- Yam Kang — “fire foot massage” Yam Kang translates as ‘walk plow.’ There’s a bowl of fire underneath a curved plow blade as a bowl for massage oil or plai (a Thai relative of ginger) water. The practitioner’s foot dips into the oil or water (It’s the oil that makes it flame up like that), resulting in a hot foot, which makes for a pretty good massage tool.
- Herbal Compress –added to any massage
- Reflexology — comparable to western reflexology, but it’s own method.
- Mantras, shamanic practices, animistic spiritualism (sometimes mixed with Buddhism)