Good question! What we usually mean when we in the West talk about Thai Massage, in Thailand is called nuat phaen boran (‘ancient-style massage’) or more recently nuat phaen thai (‘Thai-style massage’). There are many forms of Nuat Boran, but they all have certain characteristics in common: the receiver is dressed and is brought in positions that you could say resemble yoga poses. Without the use of oil, energy lines are stimulated with pressure and stretches. In the West, massage is mostly associated with relaxation. In Thailand though, Nuat Boran is an integral part of Traditional Thai Medicine and is seen as a medical procedure. It can be used in combination with other forms of treatment such as herbs, rituals, or other physical manipulations.
Legend has it that Nuat Boran was developed by Buddha’s doctor, Dr. Shivago, and arrived in Thailand together with Buddhism. That is why many masseurs have a little altar for him in their practice space and pray to him before a treatment. It is more likely though that it developed over time out of local customs, with influences from Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic healing arts brought from India by Buddhist monks.
In the early 20th century, Western medicine became commonplace in Thailand, and in 1923 Thai Traditional Medicine, including Nuat Boran, was banned as quackery. However, since the mid-1980s, there has been a revival, supported by the Thai government.
One reason for the revival of Nuat Boran was that westerners traveling through Thailand became enthusiastic about it. Some even wanted to learn how to give it. Nowadays Thai massage is given on a grand scale, much of it to tourists. But because some of those tourists are looking for a ‘happy end’ rather than a traditional massage, the word ‘Yoga’ often is added to indicate that no prostitution is on offer.
As part of this revival, a group of Westerners came to Thailand to learn Nuat Boran, studying with Thai masters or in Thai massage schools. Some established schools of their own, teaching Westerners.
Is it possible for someone who is not Thai to give a ‘real’ traditional Thai massage? Nuat Boran is part of a complete Thai vision of medicine in which next to Buddhism; shamanism, herbalism, amulets, and ancestors play important parts. Westerners can learn to perform the massage techniques with great skill, but the complex context of Thai tradition is a whole study by itself.
Many Western practitioners who come to Thai massage, already have a background in other forms of therapy. They might be physiotherapists, shiatsu masseurs, acro-yogis, or osteopaths, each form bringing its own ideas about the functioning of the body and how to keep it healthy. This causes new forms to evolve. This is comparable to how yoga took on all kinds of new forms after it was adopted in the West. Many of the practitioners of those newer forms tend to call their work Thai Yoga Massage, or even Yoga Massage, rather than Traditional Thai Massage. I have trained in different styles and forms in Thailand and the West and feel comfortable calling my work ‘Thai Yoga Massage’.