Why I Study Thai Yoga Bodywork

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher.

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher

Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB), also called Nuad Boran (ancient bodywork) or Thai Massage, is a system that integrates assisted yoga-style stretching, reflexology, acupressure massage, and elements of Ayurvedic healing to stretch and massage the body. Its history is believed to date back 2,500 years to Northern India, where its roots lay with Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha–a physician in Buddha’s community. However, the art reached its perfection in Thailand, the nation with which it remains most closely associated.

I recently completed an introductory course in this system in Bangalore through the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.

Before I moved to India, I thought a lot about what I would like to learn while I was on the other side of the planet. There’s a great deal of expertise on subjects sparsely taught in the US, and it can often be had at a bargain in comparison to American prices.

Some of the skills I wanted to foster were to be expected. I wanted to learn more about meditation and the ways of living in the moment and with a quieter mind. I’ve played with such practice for a long time, and I came to believe that becoming a better martial artist  and person depended upon cultivating fudōshin— an immovable spirit. I’ve seen no route to that state that circumvents quieting the mind, and that requires observing and training the mind. One can only become more physically capable for a time, then growth depends upon the mind, on shedding petty impulses, on being incapable of manipulation, and on being unswayed my the vagaries of emotion. I’ve begun working on this objective through visits to meditation centers and by making my own practice more regular.

I also want to learn about other martial arts, besides the one I’ve been learning my entire adult life. It makes sense to learn something about the indigenous martial arts of the places I visit. I want to experience the similarities and differences of these arts, and to learn about the cultural elements that shape those differences and elements of uniqueness.

However, one of the biggest surprises has been my new-found interest in studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) When I visited Thailand last fall I studied Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) for a week and Thai cooking for a day, but it didn’t occur to me to take one of the many Thai Massage short courses until I was back home. My interest in TYB is reflective of a broader desire to learn more about the indigenous healing methods of Asia, and that goes back a few years.  I developed a vague feeling that I wanted to study such things a couple of years back when I realized my body was deteriorating too fast for comfort, and Western medical treatment consisted of advising me to stop doing a number of the activities that I love.  Still, I must admit that I didn’t really give  a lot of thought to this interest until I started this course.

Having now thought about it, my interest in studying TYB is closely linked to my interest in martial arts. This notion might seem hard to reconcile.  TYB is a healing art, and martial arts, while they should be grounded in a sound moral philosophy, are essentially about inflicting damage on a body. The  two disciplines seem to be at odds. Still, they have a great deal in common. In each, mindfulness is key. Control of the breath is a common element of both. In Japanese martial arts there is a word, taijutsu, which means body skills, but which implies efficient use of the body. This means favoring bigger muscle groups over smaller ones where possible and taking advantage of the body’s natural alignment (e.g. straight spine) and body weight. These concepts that I had long practiced in budō were also ubiquitous in TYB. Furthermore, a number of the points that I had learned to attack, were now targeted to heal.

Still, some of these same points could be said to be common to any system of movement done properly, be it dance or exercise. So why I was drawn to TYB in particular? The most direct reason is to learn how to fix the failings of my body, and those that I’ve witnessed in others. I experienced these methods as a recipient in Thailand, and could see their value at once.

There’s also a benefit from increased understanding of anatomy and bodily awareness. One learns about how the musculature works to move the body in a way that isn’t easily picked up from textbooks. One begins to read bodies like others read books. One gains insight into the bodily deficiencies that one has taken on without even being cognizant of them. A martial artist may, on average, be a hundred times more bodily aware than the average person, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great room for growth. (It speaks to how sadly lacking in bodily awareness most people are as much as anything.)

Still, this isn’t the full story of why I wanted to learn this art. Another reason came to mind in the introductory session, before we even began learning the technique. The teacher was talking about how TYB teaches humility, and how one has to learn to touch a stranger’s feet with compassion and devotion to that person’s well-being–an act that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.  Admittedly, this isn’t a level of humility and compassion that I have developed in life to date. Though I am the son of a mother who–as a nurse as well as a mother–was probably more at ease with putting the well-being others above her own comfort than anyone else I’ve ever met, for me this is a struggle outside my comfort zone. The martial arts teach a kind of humility (a lesson that all too many practitioners find a way to make an end run around), but if one’s practice is separate from one’s career field it’s easy for the notion of service to be so abstract as to lose meaning.

This, of course, returns back to my earlier mention of the mind. One’s ego is the biggest barrier to personal growth. Ego makes one easily manipulated. Ego makes one subject to petty impulses. Ego makes one give into fear and anger.

Learning a stretch

Learning a stretching technique

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