Thai Yoga Massage Statues at Wat Pho, Bangkok
Thai Yoga Massage is probably best known to the masses as the relaxing treatment with a lot of stretches that makes you feel good and makes you sleep better.
Not many ordinary folks seem to be aware that Thai Yoga Massage is considered a healing art and as such is deeply rooted in ancient Indian, Buddhist, Thai and Chinese medical traditions. Because of this patients are not just looked at as physical beings, but also from an energy point of view.
This article will discuss some of the differences and similarities between 3 styles of treatments: Thai Yoga Massage, Acupuncture and Reiki. The last two are also energy treatments originating from the Far East. I will also briefly discuss how they can complement each other to provide patients with a more thorough healing experience and practitioners with a deeper understanding of the work they are carrying out.
Brief history of Thai Yoga Massage, Reiki and Acupuncture
Both Thai Yoga Massage and Acupuncture share a long history spanning over 2500 years and are both intrinsically linked to the traditional medical culture of their respective countries of origin. Nowadays, perhaps in recognition of their increased popularity, they are the subjects of evidence based research to prove or discredit the efficacy of the treatments.
The first official record of Chinese Medicine can be traced back to some time between the first century BC and the first century AD. Whereas the first written mention of Thai massage dates back to XVII century medical scriptures written on palm leaves (Asokananda, 2002, p. 5) of which a large part was destroyed during the Burmese invasion in 1767. What’s left of the original scriptures offers vague and incomplete anatomical assessments but they are nevertheless the only remaining historical source.
In contrast to both Thai massage and Acupuncture, Reiki is a relatively new healing art – its origins dating back to the mid-XIX century (Lambert, M., 2000, p. 8). Unlike TYM and Acupuncture the history of Reiki isn’t deeply steeped in traditional Japanese medicine but is more similar to a religion: its foundations being based on a story about the experiences of Dr. Usui (as told by him) that practitioners are asked to have faith in. Instead of being borne out of years and centuries of studies of human ailments and afflictions Reiki was based on “revelations” that Dr. Usui had after fasting for 21 days during a meditation retreat on a sacred mountain.
The common denominator between all three styles of treatment is the concept of life energy permeating every inch of the human body and the idea that illnesses and diseases happen when somehow an imbalance or blockage to the free flow of this energy occurs. The ultimate aim of each treatment is to restore the body’s equilibrium (www.acupuncture.org.uk) resulting in the patient’s healing. How each style of treatment approaches this task differs significantly.
Similarities between Thai Yoga Massage, Acupuncture and Reiki
1. Ming Era Acupuncture Chart
According to both TYM and Acupuncture the life energy flows through specific channels running under the skin along the whole of the body. These channels are conceptually similar to the network of veins and arteries but in neither tradition they are considered to have an anatomical basis.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, of which Acupuncture is a part of, the energy lines are called Meridians. There are said to be 12 major and 2 minor meridians in the human body. Of these 12 are linked to specific organs and all have a role in the elimination of disharmony. The pathways of each meridian and their branches with all the associated pressure points have been extensively documented in medical text books throughout the centuries and are often at the basis of other styles of holistic therapies like Kinesiology or Acupressure.
The theoretical basis of Thai Yoga Massage is very similar to that of Acupuncture but only takes into account 10 Sen lines (out of the 72,000 that allegedly run through the body).
When comparing the pathways of the Sen lines with the Chinese meridians there are many similarities raising the question of whether the two traditions are the result of different evolutionary strands of a common healing system. One of the main differences between the Sen lines and the meridians is that the formers are not being linked to specific organs but are linked to conditions and ailments of the human body.
As far as Reiki is concerned it’s considered to be a “safe, non-intrusive healing energy which channels itself to wherever it is needed in your body or the person you are treating” (Lambert, M., 2000, p. 6). There is no such thing as energy channels according to Reiki, instead practitioners work with the intention of balancing the chakras considered to be “spiritual energy centres located in seven major points on the etheric body (aura)” (Lambert, M., 2000, p. 24).
Also, whereas TYM and Acupuncture are based on the idea that the life energy flows within the human body, in Reiki the “energy originates from the ‘universal source’ rather than directly from the healer” (Lambert, M., 2000, p. 6).
Differences between Thai Yoga Massage, Reiki and Acupuncture
The point at which each treatment differs from the others is in the techniques used to bring about healing: in Thai Yoga Massage the practitioner uses his/her body weight (through hands, feet, knees, elbows) in a non-intrusive manner to apply leaning pressure to the energy lines and therapeutic pressure points. He or she also guides the patient through a sequence of yoga poses to apply passive stretches to the energy lines as opposed to the muscles. Also the treatment is based “upon the principles of loving kindness and compassion” (De Grunwald, N., p. 3) and carried out in a meditative mood reminiscent of Buddhist practices. Although during a general 2 hours treatment the practitioner follows a set sequence of massages and stretches, they are encouraged to rely on their intuition to feel for the energy lines.
In contrast, Acupuncture is an invasive treatment (can be quite painful) that involves thin sterile needles being inserted in specific positions, that can be pinpointed with accurate measurements, along the meridians connected with the patient’s ailments. Unlike with Thai massage which is completely hands on, there is very little touch involved and after all the needles have been applied the patient is usually left on his/her own for a few minutes to allow the treatment to have effect. Each treatment is typically conducted in a clinical manner with the Acupuncturist acting more like a Doctor than a healer.
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Finally with Reiki, practitioners channel the universal energy into their patients by positioning their hands on or near different parts of their bodies (12 different hand positions). The more advanced the practitioner the less likely they are to actually touch their patients as this is not a strict requirement for a successful treatment.
The hand positions in Reiki are very similar to some of the hand positions in Thai massage: over the eyes, under the base of the skull, over the pectorals, on the abdomen, along the back. The two treatments also share the intuitive component which the practitioner is encouraged to tune into for guidance as to which areas of the body need to receive the energy. Interestingly, Reiki has the unique ability of allowing the practitioner to treat him/herself unlike the other two treatments which are very limited in this respect.
Although each style of energy treatment offers many possibilities for healing in its own right, these have the opportunity to significantly expand when different aspects from all treatments are combined together to give patients a truly (w)holistic approach.
Thai Yoga massage, as taught in the West, could do with enriching its theoretical foundations through the extensive documentation of meridians and acupressure points available in Acupuncture. This would help cut down on the hopelessly vague explanations often offered by TYM teachers of different schools that tarnish the credibility of Thai massage as a healing art.
In addition Thai Yoga Massage patients could benefit immensely from receiving Reiki energy and from their therapist being able to tune into their clients’ bodies on more subtle levels than just through physical touch.
Bruce Lee once said that no single style of martial arts has the answer to all the situations a fighter might encounter throughout his/her life. This idea couldn’t be more true for holistic treatments as well.
- British Acupuncture Council Website:
- Asokananda, H.B., 2002, The Art of Traditional Thai Massage, Nai Suk’s Editions Co. Ltd
- De Grunwald, N., Thai Yoga Massage Practitioner Diploma Training Manual, Self Published
- Lambert, M., 2000, An Introduction to Reiki, Collins & Brown Ltd
- Dale, C.,2009, The Subtle Body, Sounds True Inc.
- “Acupuncture chart 300px” by Unknown – Imagery From the History of Medicine (original in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris).. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons