The Thai Yoga Bodywork / Yoga Nexus


[Note: This article was first posted on the IMOSHA website.]


It was October of 2013 and I found my way to the Meditation Hall at the Fireflies Ashram off Kanakapura Road outside Bangalore’s southern sprawl.  That morning, I’d begin learning the sequence of actions of the Chiang Mai style of Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) I would struggle to remember that sequence as I awkwardly groped about trying not to drive my thumb into the bones or nerve junctions of my fellow students. But over the course of those ten days, I progressed to the point that my awkwardness was less apparent, and I could get through the sequence without forgetting much.


I’d arrived in India with a long list of activities to try and skills to learn as part of a plan of self-betterment. That TYB course was the first item on the list to be scratched off. I’d been in the country a little over a month.  The strange thing about that was that TYB was the activity farthest outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t a complete stranger to yoga or meditation when I arrived in India. And while I was new to the martial arts of Kalaripayattu and Muaythai, I’d practiced a Japanese martial art my entire adult life.  So while I wasn’t skilled at those arts, I had a level of transferable confidence to counterbalance my lack of skill. The same couldn’t be said TYB. It was all new. But that’s the magic of moving around the world, everything is outside your comfort zone, so you might as well go big or go home.


Small world.  A couple of years later, I’d be in that same Meditation Hall for the capstone weekend of my 500-hour yoga teacher’s course.  I remember lying in that Meditation Hall, resting after having learned the advanced cleansing practices (shatkarma) of hatha yoga. (By then there was an entirely new level outside my “comfort zone” as I’d purged my entire alimentary canal.) At any rate, the Fireflies Meditation Hall was just a piece of geographic connective tissue that linked my yogic and TYB educations. I’d like to discuss five more substantial links.


5.) Anxiety management:  Let me begin with a theme that I mentioned in my introduction. It’s an aspect of personal development that I’ve spent a lot of time working on recently, and that’s moving outside one’s comfort zone to dispassionately observe one’s anxieties.   Both Yoga and TYB present practitioners with opportunities to observe and tame anxieties in a safe way. In TYB, one’s anxiety might be about injuring the person one is working on, about doing a poor job, or it could even be just about touching strangers. People have various reasons—from various social anxieties to germophobia—for discomfort with physically touching people they don’t know well. (Being an introvert, I have a tinge of this discomfort that would likely be much worse if I hadn’t studied martial arts. But, having studied a grappling-centric martial art for so many years, I’d developed a bit of transferable confidence about being in close physical proximity with people I didn’t necessarily know well.)

Anxiety about injuring another


In yoga, the sources of anxiety are often gravity related (e.g. inversions and arm balances), but can be quite varied. I mentioned shatkarma as another example. And I’ve found external breath retentions from pranayama to be a potent area in my own personal practice.


Anxiety about injuring oneself


At any rate, what both Yoga and TYB do to help one take on one’s anxiety is to insist that one confront it in a mindful way. Just practicing forces one to experience the anxieties, but the crucial second ingredient is that one must keep one’s attention on the action—preventing one’s mind from engaging in the escalatory patterns by which it makes molehills into mountains. While it’s true that there are many other activities that this should be true of, it’s common in many fitness activities to practice distractions. People often blare portable music devices to drown out their body and mind as they exercise and practice other self-betterment activities. Such distractions aren’t an option in [good] TYB or Yoga instruction (Note: I say “good” because one can see a sad wave of distraction yogas out there that bury the sensations of practice in cute animals, alcohol, and—even–frat-house style raves.)


4.) Anatomical intuition: Both TYB and Yoga expand one’s understanding of the human body. A great feature for those who practice both systems is that the two systems are complementary. They present both overlapping and non-overlapping means to insight into the body. Yoga provides insight through all of one’s senses—not just the five we think of, but including proprioception (the sense by which a person is aware of the position of his or her own body parts and their movement) and balance. In other words, yoga allows one to see inside one’s own body as fully as possible. On the other hand, TYB offers the opportunity to learn about the wide range of variance in human bodies—feeling all their varied characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.

Finding the limits of another


I think a yoga teacher can learn a great deal by practicing TYB. It encourages a greater understanding of the strengths and limitations of others. At the same time, TYB practitioners benefit from yoga’s high degree of intra-bodily awareness because the Thai style involves many assisted stretches that require strength, balance, and awareness.


Finding one’s own limits


3.) Appreciating the Slow: Modern life shouts at one to do everything faster. Yoga and TYB are two activities in which there isn’t any payoff for being faster, and, in fact, there are costs. In TYB, the massaged individual will find a fast tempo massage less relaxing. If one has ever been handled by a masseuse or masseur like a baker making bread, one knows exactly what I’m talking about. Hatha Yoga also emphasizes slow movement. Even when one is doing an active style like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, there’s an emphasis on maintaining control of the body throughout, and that requires engaging musculature to counter the forces of gravity and momentum.

FYI- this is the aforementioned Meditation Hall during that first training


Sometimes slow is the only way to succeed


2.) Core stability and muscular endurance:  Both TYB and Yoga build and require core strength and muscular endurance. Bodywork is a physically demanding job. When one learns TYB, a great deal of attention goes into the minutiae of handling the client so as to minimize the stress and strain on one’s body. Still, there’s no way around the fact that one is manipulating another person’s body  and one has to bear that weight so that the client can be relaxed as one stretches them out or turns them over. Commonly, those people will be larger and heavier than the person delivering the massage.  Even if one isn’t doing TYB all day, one will likely feel it—perhaps all the more because one hasn’t developed that core strength and muscular endurance. Yoga can also help the TYB practitioner to keep supple in a job that can easily make a person sinewy.


On the other hand, yogis and yoginis can learn a thing or two about balance and control of the core from the challenging act of manipulating another person through their stretches.


1.) Attentiveness to Subtle Sensations:  In yoga teacher training, one is often shown Wilder Penfield’s homunculus. Penfield was a doctor who studied the functional organization of the brain, and particularly the sensory and motor cortexes (the parts that process sensations and commands to move body parts.) He was eager to map the motor cortex so that he’d know what portions of damaged or cancerous tissue could be removed without causing paralysis or the like.  At any rate, you’ve probably seen either a flat or 3-D version of the homunculus. It’s notable for its huge lips and hands and comparatively tiny chest and thighs. That’s because the size of a body part on the model doesn’t represent its anatomical size but rather its size in the brain, and our hands have a truly astounding piece of cerebral real estate.


What’s fascinating is that for all this capacity for feeling through our fingers, one has to practice to get the fullest out of that ability. In the beginning, it can be quite different to feel huge knots in the muscle during TYB sessions—even though our ability to differentiate tiny tactile differences is tremendous.  In yoga one isn’t so much engaged in feeling with one’s fingertips as one is with one’s internal sensory suite, but the point remains that we have a great deal of capacity that most people leave unused.


I suspect there are many more points of confluence between TYB and Yoga that haven’t occurred to me. If you’ve got one, feel free to comment below.

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Massage by Lucinda Lidell

The Book of Massage: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Eastern and Western TechniquesThe Book of Massage: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Eastern and Western Techniques by Lucy Lidell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I picked up this book because I recently began studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) While The Book of Massage doesn’t specifically deal with Thai massage, as a neophyte, I figured some general reading was in order, and there aren’t a lot of widely available books that deal with Thai massage specifically (at least not where I currently reside.)My first testimonial of this book is that I looked through over a dozen books on massage at my local bookstore, and this is the one with which I walked home.

I found Lidell’s book to be a valuable resource. The book covers three approaches to massage: oil massage, shiatsu, and reflexology. As the subtitle suggests, this book addresses both Eastern and Western approaches to massage. The section labeled simply “Massage” is one that deals largely in the Western approach, as it’s suggestive of the Swedish style of massage. This involves oil, no / few clothes on the recipient, and a variety of strokes that are delivered over relatively broad areas (as opposed to the deeper acupressure approach of the latter methods.) The oil massage chapter begins with an overview including what type of oil to use and the basic strokes, and then provides a sequence before delving into specific techniques for various body parts or groups of body parts.

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage that is based on the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) I found this style to be much closer to what I’ve learned in TYB. Like TYB, both patient and recipient are clothed, there is no oil, acupressure is the norm, it requires no table, and there is a match up between what are called “energy lines” in TYB and “meridians” in Shiatsu. Shiatsu even employs similar stretching techniques to those that are the hallmark of TYB. I can imagine these systems having a common ancestral art.

The order of the shiatsu chapter is basically the same as the chapter on Massage. First, there’s necessary background information. This consists of a couple of pages on the basic Taoist concepts on which TCM is based (e.g. Chi, Yin & Yang, and the five elements) and related vocabulary like “tsubo” (pressure points) and meridians. The section then goes on to address basics of posture and bodily tools (palms, thumbs, elbows, knees, etc.), the sequence of the massage, and then the specifics of various body parts.

Reflexology massages only the feet and hands in the belief that points on these appendages map to other parts of the body. In other words, practitioners believe one can increase wellness throughout the body by working points on only the feet or hands. It’s said that the roots of reflexology may be ancient and that it may have been practiced in Egypt in 2300BC, but the modern school was developed by an American physician in the early 20th century. TYB does borrow from reflexology (though not necessarily the modern form of it), so some of this was also similar to what I learned in TYB. Again, the order of this section went from the generic information one needs toward the specifics of how to apply a given technique on a particular part of the foot or hand.

In addition to the three core sections, there were chapters before and after that provide the reader with useful information. Some of this was banal but obligatory (e.g. a brief history of massage and a discussion of the importance of touch among the human species), but some of it was essential practical information such as how to create the proper environment and how to center oneself before delivering a massage. There was also information that will be useful for some about massages involving babies, expectant mothers, the elderly, athletes, and oneself.

Perhaps the most beneficial of the “supplementary” chapters was one that dealt with the subject of how to read bodies. This may seem like an odd topic. However, it’s useful to be able to recognize where an individual holds his tension or where her posture is off–a problem that can create many muscular difficulties. There’s a short overview of anatomy, which I found useful, and a shorter overview of “chakras and auras,” which I personally didn’t find useful but can see where others might.

There are several strengths and relatively few weaknesses to this book. I found the organization to be logical. The graphics are a combination of photos and line drawings, and they work well together. I thought it was great that the author explained that Shiatsu is to be done in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing and that the only reason the graphics display the masseuse in a skin-tight body suit was so that the baggy clothing wouldn’t inhibit the reader’s view. Also, I found the written descriptions worked well with the graphics. One often needs a written cue as to where to find a certain point or line, and just showing it in a picture can be misleading given the wide variety of body types as well as the granularity of the graphic in contrast to the specificity of a point one may need to hit.

I suppose I should warn the easily mortified and / or very religious that there are full and partial frontal nude photographs in the section on oil massage. [I doubt such people are a major demographic for giving or receiving massage, but one never knows.]

I don’t have a lot of complaints. As it’s set up like a workbook, a spiral binding might have been nice, but I recognize the huge challenges of that. Plus, I’m not certain that one can or should learn massage from a book. Rather one should look at it as information to support study with a skilled teacher–or to experiment with once one has already developed some skill. The sections early and late in the book that talk about the importance of human touch didn’t add much, but they were also brief.

If you’re looking for a book on massage that covers a broad set of bases, but yet gives adequate detail for learning, I think this book is a good choice. I’d say it piqued my interest in learning Shiatsu.

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