Wat Po v. Chiang Mai Massage: A North / South Divide?

One of the sculptures in the Thai Yoga outcrop at Wat Po.

One of the sculptures in the Thai Yoga outcrop at Wat Po.

In September I attended the General Thai Massage and Foot Massage courses at Wat Po. The teacher from whom I first learned Thai Massage (a.k.a. Thai Yoga Bodywork or Nuad Bo Rarn) was trained in Chiang Mai by various teachers, and the style he teaches reflects that northern heritage. I was curious to see how the style of massage varied in the south from the northern approach that I had already learned. Would I be in uncharted waters? Or would the Wat Po course merely be a refresher of what I had already learned? These questions were on my mind as I began the course.

 

The answer turned out to be somewhere in between. The Wat Po approach wasn’t radically different from what I had already learned, but neither was it a carbon copy. One could clearly see the common origin of these styles. For yoga practitioners, a reasonable comparison would be to imagine you studied Bihar yoga, and then you sat in on an Ashtanga Vinyasa class. Most of the postures would be similar if not the exact same—e.g. a downward dog is a downward dog. However, the sequence is a little different, you may run into a posture or two that you hadn’t seen before, and there will be many little differences in points of emphasis and so on. The same could be said of two martial arts that have a recent common ancestor art. (However, I think martial arts evolve more rapidly than other systems of movement because there is a life and death urgency to adapt to local conditions, and so martial arts can diverge rapidly.)

 

I won’t get into every little difference in this post. For one thing, the first course I took was a 60 hour (10 day) course, and the Wat Po course was only half as long (5 day / 30 hours.) Therefore, some of the apparent differences might have more to do with the need to conform to time limitations than true stylistic differences. The Wat Po course was designed to impart a sequence that could be done in an hour-and-a-half bodywork session. The first course I took taught some material that was redundant in the belief that one could tailor one’s sequence to the recipient’s needs and / or the masseuse’s preferences.

 

As an example, at Wat Po we didn’t learn any massage of the chest or abdomen, but I was shown (in fact, I was recipient of) the Wat Po approach to abdominal massage and it was pretty much the same as I’d learned previously. In my earlier learning, the approach to energy lines was to stretch (longitudinally) the limb, then apply palm pressure, then work the line (typically with the thumbs), and then one would repeat the palm pressure and finish with a repeat of the stretch. At Wat Po, they went straight for the energy line (sen) and followed that with the palm pressure work. I have no way of knowing whether this difference was more due to timing or style.

 

Before getting into the differences, I will talk a little about similarities. The general approach was the same (e.g. the recipient is fully clothed in a light, comfortable garment(s)) and the massage is ideally given on a thin, dense mattress/pad on the floor–rather than on a table. The general principles of sequencing were the same. Namely, one began at the feet and worked in the direction of the head. Also, when working on a limb, one began at the distal end, worked toward the torso, and then back toward to the starting point. Also, energy line work was done before the stretches.  There were four positions in both styles: supine, side, seated, and prone, and—unlike many other forms of massage—the supine position was at the fore (i.e. neither style emphasized the prone position and back work over the supine in the way other varieties of massage often do.) Both styles of massage (as probably all massage) began with a brief introduction and questioning designed to make sure the individual didn’t have any contraindicated conditions. Both styles of Thai massage began with a moment of prayer or contemplation—this is similar to some styles and different from others and speaks to the traditional nature of Thai massage.

 

IMG_0031

The side and seated sequences were the most similar between the two styles.  I learned more in these sequences in the longer (Chiang Mai) course, but what was included in the Wat Po course was largely the same. Where the stretches were of the same type, they tended to be virtually identical. By that I mean to say that both styles had stretches that weren’t taught in the other style, but where that was not the case, the stretches were indistinguishable. For example, the pictured variant on sarpasana / bhujangasana [snake / cobra backbends] was done in the same manner in either style. (I learned more stretches in the first—Chiang Mai–course, because it was longer.)  Over all, the energy lines (sen) tended to be identical, but there weren’t always the same number of them, nor were the same ones always emphasized. There were some differences in the feet lines that I’ll get into below.

 

Now let’s get to the differences. Starting with some small differences, the manner of palm pressure work was different between the two systems. In the Wat Po style, there was always one fixed point that one hand locked in place while the other hand applied palm pressure. I had previously learned to use both hands in a rhythmically alternating series of palm pressure applications.

 

One little difference that I found interesting involved the technique of closing the little flap over the ears at the end of the face and head massage (both styles close off the ears.) I had been taught to very gently release pressure so as to avoid any kind of popping that might disturb the recipient. However, at Wat Po the instructor taught to vigorously pull the fingers away—resulting in a pop. My guess would be that the idea was to get the recipient’s attention so that one could transition them from the face massage (which notoriously puts people to sleep) to a wakeful state so they could follow instructions for the stretches that followed. (We were taught face massage as part of the seated sequence. Previously, I had learned that this was an option, but that it was easier to do the face massage from supine so you didn’t have to worry about the recipient falling asleep and possibly falling over literally.

 

A final little difference was how the blood stop was done for the lower extremities. At Wat Po, they did the leg blood stop with both legs straight, whereas I had previously learned this technique with an open groin, i.e. the knee pointed out. (Both ways work about the same, but I think it might be a little less awkward to do it with the groin open as one is not in as close of proximity to the recipient’s privates.) The blood stop for the arm was identical.

 

The energy lines are one of the most fundamental aspects of Thai massage, and one would expect little variation in them between styles. This proved largely, but not entirely, true. For example, the leg lines were the same (as one might expect because one cannot stray too far from some lines without getting onto bone.) Also the points at the top of the shoulder, around the neck, the base of the skull, and the scapulae were the generally the same–except more or fewer points might be employed from one style to the other.

 

The arm lines were almost the same. The line on the back of the arm was the same, and the line that goes up the middle of the inner arm was the same. However, there was a second inner line that ran in line with the little finger along the lower edge of the arm (presuming the arm is straight out from the shoulder as it is for massaging the inner arm in both styles.) The lines of the back that were used were different. In my (not very accurate) diagram, the lines 1 and 3 were emphasized in the Chiang Mai style, but 1 and 2 were the lines used in the Wat Po system.

 

Back diagram_CM

 

The greatest divergence in lines and points was in the area of the feet. The best example of this can be seen in the lines of the sole. In the Chiang Mai style I’d previously learned there were five lines that radiated from a point where the heel transitioned into the arch about midway across the foot and went toward the base of each toe. The Wat Po style had three lines that were more or less parallel in line with the big toe, middle toe, and the little toe.  See diagrams.

 

 

The Chiang Mai 5 lines of the sole.

The Chiang Mai 5 lines of the sole.

The Wat Po 3 lines of the sole.

The Wat Po 3 lines of the sole.

 

In summary, the difference between these two styles wasn’t that great. In many cases the techniques were exactly the same, in most they were marginally different, and only rarely were they completely different.  I don’t really have a preference between the two styles. I think which would be a better experience comes entirely down to the skill of the masseuse / masseur.

Thai Yoga & Hatha Yoga: Compare and Contrast

During my recent trip to Thailand, I attended Thai Yoga (a.k.a. Rusie Dutton, i.e. “ascetic exercises”) classes at the Wat Po Temple. As a yoga practitioner, I took note of the similarities and differences between Thai yoga and the Hatha Yoga of India. It’s no surprise that Thai Yoga would display the influence of India. Indian influence from olden times can be seen throughout Thailand. The roots of Thai Massage (a.k.a. Thai Yoga Bodywork or Nuad Bo Rarn) itself are attributed to Shivago (also, written/pronounced Chivako), a north Indian doctor in the Buddha’s community of followers.

One can plainly see the influence of Hatha yogasana (postures)  in these Thai exercises, but the details vary. I’m interested in how movement systems (e.g.  martial arts) with a common ancestry diverge over time in response to the unique needs of a different culture. I believe that not only the new system evolves, but there’s also a continuing evolution in the original line. One can, therefore, end up with systems that look little alike over the course of several generations.

The degree to which the Thai Yoga poses vary from Hatha Yogasana varies. In the Thai Yoga class we did a simple lateral bend with interlocked fingers that was identical to a  Sivinanda Yoga pose named tiryaka tadasana.

Lateral Bend (tiryaka tadasana)

Lateral Bend (tiryaka tadasana)

Balancing poses made up much of the Wat Po Thai Yoga sequence. This makes sense as the course was aimed at practitioners of Thai Massage and balance is important in this massage system because there are techniques that involve standing on one foot as one applies pressure with the other fort or in which one must stand to apply stretches. (Obviously, it’s bad for business to step on the recipient in an uncontrolled fashion or to topple onto them.) There were poses that were reminiscent of Natarajasana (Shiva’s Dancer pose), Vrksasana (tree pose), and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (hand to big toe pose). Each of these varied in the details. The most prevalent Thai variation was bending the support leg to lower one’s center-of-gravity. In Hatha Yoga, it’s usually taught to keep the support leg as straight as one can manage (this both contributes to the stretch and can prevent loading the tendons.)

NATARAJASANA: There were two variants of this pose practiced at Wat Po. Both folded the torso more forward than one would typically see in Hatha Yoga, as well as bending the support leg more.  The first version (palm on front knee) is as such:

Version 1 from Thai Yoga (Palm on Knee)

Version 1 from Thai Yoga (Palm on Knee)

 

The second version has the front hand up in a manner similar to the Hatha version, but the torso isn’t kept upright and the support leg is deeply bent.

Thai Version 2 (hand out front)

Thai Version 2 (hand out front)

 

In contrast, the Hatha version is more upright.

Natarajasana

Natarajasana

 

VRKSASANA: There are two variants of tree pose in the Thai Yoga. In both the ankle is kept on top of the thigh and the support leg is bent. Version one is as follows:

Vrksasana1_Thai_Front

Version 1 begins and ends in Pranamasana (hands in prayer pose) With hands out to the side in between.

Version 1 begins and ends in Pranamasana (hands in prayer pose) but hands are taken out to the side in between

 

Version 2 includes a wrist stretch with the balance pose. One puts fingers on thigh facing upward and the squat folds the wrist back.

Version 2 with wrist stretch.

Version 2 with wrist stretch

 

The Indian version:

Vrksasana_hatha_front

 

UTTHITA HASTA PADANGUSTHASANA: There are also two variations of this pose. Note the bending of the support knee. Version 1 holds the foot with the same side hand and places the opposite palm on the knee.

Version 1 from front

Version 1 from front

Version 1 from side.

Version 1 from side

 

Version two holds the extended foot with both hands.

Version 1 from the front.

Version 1 from the front

Version 1 from the side

Version 1 from the side

 

For comparison, the Hatha Yoga version:

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana from side

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana from side

 

UTKATA KONASANA: There are three variants of a pose that is usually called Goddess pose or Utkata Konasana.  The difference here primarily deals with how the hands are positioned, but given the many variants within Hatha Yoga for hand position, this can be seen as a virtually identical pose.

Thai version 1 of Godess pose.

Thai version 1 of Goddess pose

Thai version 2 of Goddess pose

Thai version 2 of Goddess pose

Thai version 3 of Goddess pose

Thai version 3 of Goddess pose

 

Goddess pose with hands in Chin mudra.

Goddess pose with hands in Chin mudra.

 

VIRABHADRASANA: There is a series of five lunge poses that are reminiscent of the Virabhadrasana (Warrior). I’ve dropped the first one because it requires a photo taken from a back angle becuas it involves pulling one’s wrist behind one’s back.

Thai Version 2 hand on front knee

Thai Version 2 hand on front knee

Thai version 3 twist

Thai version 3 twist

Thai version 4 looking back

Thai version 4 looking back

Thai version 5 taking aim

Thai version 5 taking aim

Virabhadrasana I

Virabhadrasana I

 

 

 

DAILY PHOTO: Thai Yoga Bodywork Percussion

 

Taken Friday the 13th of June in 2014 in Bangalore.

Taken Friday the 13th of June in 2014 in Bangalore.

I haven’t been traveling much lately (or even getting far beyond commutes to the yoga studio, kalari, etc.)  so I’m resorting to posting pics of what I’m doing in my day-to-day life as Daily Photos. The past few days I’ve been refreshing my training in the side, prone, and seated sequences of Thai Yoga Bodywork (Nuad Bo Rarn) at the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.

This photo is taken at the end of the seated sequence as a series of percussive actions are applied to the back.