Good question. What we mean when we talk about Thai Massage nowadays, 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 certain characteristics they all have in common: the receiver is dressed and is brought in positions that you could say resemble yoga poses. There, 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 like herbs, rituals and other types of physical manipulations.
Legend has it that Nuat Boran was developed by Buddha’s doctor, doctor Shivago, and arrived in Thailand together with Buddhism. That is why many masseurs have little altar for him in their practice space and pray to him before a treatment. It is more likely though that it has developed over time out of several influences from local customs, from Chinese medicine and from healing arts that came from India.
Not so long ago, Thai Traditional Medicine, and Nuat Boran being part of it, became in decline as Western medicine become more commonplace in Thailand. Practitioners were even prosecuted in the beginning of the 20th century. But since the ’90s a revival has started, 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, and much of it to tourist. But because part of those tourists are looking for a ‘happy end’ rather then a traditional massage, the word ‘yoga’ was added to indicate that no prostitution was on offer.
Beginning in the ‘80s some westerners kept coming back to Thailand to learn Nuat Boran. They studied for many years with Thai masters or in Thai massage schools. They started offering it and started schools of their own, teaching to other westerners.
Is it possible for a westerner to give a ‘real’ traditional Thai massage? Nuat Boran is part of a complete Thai vision on medicine in which next to Buddhism, shamanism, herbs, amulets and ancestors play an important part. 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 come to Thai massage with already a certain therapeutic background. They might be physiotherapists, shiatsu-masseurs, acro-yogis or osteopaths, with very different ideas about the functioning of the human body and the conditions for its health. This causes new forms to evolve. This is comparable with how yoga took on all kinds of new forms after its arrival in the west. Many of the practitioner of those newer forms tend to call their work Thai Yoga Massage, or even Yoga Massage, rather then Traditional Thai Massage. Myself I have trained in different styles and forms in Thailand and in the West and feel comfortable calling my work ‘Thai Yoga Massage’.