Fieldwork Thai massage

“Is Thai Massage supposed to hurt?”

In October 2015 I spent three weeks in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, to take courses at the Sunshine massage school, a place with a very good reputation (even though it’s name might not sound very formal).

The last course I did was a week of ‘fieldwork’. Under the supervision of a teacher, we were going to give massages to senior citizens at a center for the elderly. I was very excited about this. The center was a hall, covered by a corrugated roof, where activities could take place. Every morning we were assigned a different, usually female, client, varying in age from 50 to 80. One of them worked at a market stall, another prepared street food, there was a retired schoolteacher, and another had worked for the government. Hardly any of them spoke English. Some of them had high blood pressure, diabetes or were obese, while others were in perfect health. The massage teacher interviewed them about their health and translated for us, five Western massage students. Almost all of the clients had received many massages before. It was clearly a part of their culture. After the interview we made a treatment plan. As expected, seeing the age of our clients, our teachers mostly advised us to use gentle pressure. As we, the masseurs, were to discover, the idea of what is light pressure was quite different from that of our Thai clients. Nearly all the recipients asked for more pressure, stronger massage, more weight. A quiet hefty American fellow-student said that he had never given as much pressure as that requested by his 80-year-old recipient.

Fieldwork Thai massage
Fieldwork Thai massage

My impression is that the Thai idea of their massage is: ”no pain, no gain”. They want to feel the strength of the masseur. Western massage is often oriented towards relaxation. The Thai idea of massage is more medical, to help heal injury or an ailment. The sen-lines (meridians) get worked on, to get energy that is stuck moving again. This explains the experience of some travelers who take a massage in Thailand. If they yell out in pain, the masseur laughs politely and continues as she did. Maybe also live in general in Thailand is tougher, so people’s attitudes are more ‘no-nonsense’.

What is my approach? There is a theory that says that people are happiest when they experience challenge and relaxation at the same time. Relaxation is nice, but gets boring after a while. But if all you experience is challenge, you get stressed. We seek a balance of both. So a massage must also be a combination of deep relaxation and at the same time enough pressure to have an impact and also to hold the attention of the receiver. But if the massage hurts, or the client is afraid that it is going to hurt, their body will start to tense up, which is the opposite of what I hope to achieve.

Many clients have sore areas, for instance in the shoulders, the back, or the calves. Of course these areas will feel sensitive when they get massaged. However, it is very possible to treat these areas without the receiver tensing up. By going slow, by listening to the clients’ body, sensing where the boundaries are and, if necessary, by asking. The massage should be more of a collaboration than an imposition. That way the receiver can keep a sense of control and stay relaxed. Even if it hurts a bit sometimes.

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