What Makes Thai Massage Authentic?
Every year thousands of people go to Thailand to learn the real, authentic, traditional Thai Massage. But – how do you know what is really authentic? Is it authentic just because a Thai person is teaching it instead of an American?
Is “traditional Thai Massage” always better? And what exactly does “traditional” or “authentic” mean anyway?
Nowadays there are several hundred massage styles, including several Thai massage ones. A hundred years ago massage was not so popular and widespread in the west. Compared to today, there were very few massage styles. In the last few decades many styles of massage, bodywork, physical therapy, yoga and energy healing were developed. What makes them authentic?
How do massage styles develop?
1. Someone keeps developing an existing system and turns it into something new. For example Swedish massage, deep tissue massage and sports massage are clearly related.
3. Someone studies several systems and combines them into a new style. An example would be Thai Massage combined with elements from Shiatsu and Tui Na.
4. Someone modifies an existing system and gives it a new name. An example would be Thai massage and Thai Yoga Massage, or my own Thai Rocking Massage system.
How the new kid on the block turned into an authentic guru
At one point all those new systems were unknown. They were not seen as authentic, and were sometimes branded as heresy since they diverged from an established style. Over time more and more people studied the new system, books were written about it, it became widely known and accepted, and then it became an authentic style. At this point it became copyrighted, patented, enshrined in stone and fixed with authentic manuals and rules.
How the unauthentic massage becomes the new standard
In the next phase the tables are turned, and if someone practices the system in a different way, then this is now proclaimed unauthentic and against the spirit of the wise founder of the great system. If enough people see a benefit in the new heretical style, it will over time become its own authentic system. In this way the cycle continues.
How tradition can be elevated to a ‘massage religion’
Recently I read an article written by a western massage therapist who demanded that Thai massage practitioners identify if they practice northern or southern or commoner style and that they should demonstrate that they know a certain prayer that some Thai massage schools in Thailand teach.
Here in Thailand most therapists never recite this prayer, and could not do so if asked. Even if they can recite it they have no idea what it means since it is composed in Pali, a non-spoken language similar to Sanskrit. And even if they could repeat it and understand its meaning, does this make them better therapists? I seriously doubt it.
Where are you supposed to draw the lines if they ‘shift in the sand’
The various Thai Massage styles are widely mixed. There are no fixed boundaries. In the northern city of Chiang Mai there are schools which teach the Bangkok style, others teach northern style, and some teachers have their own unique style.
Is there anything to be gained by massage puritanism? Is a massage better because it has a certain label? Is there anything wrong with improving or changing a massage style? In my mind the answer to all three questions is “no”. Authenticity is a useful requirement for precious stones, artwork, or antiques. Healing therapy on a higher level is a uniquely individual skill which defies attempts to be legislated by definitions or labels.
The best massage teachers are often more unique than traditional
Some of my best Thai massage teachers had their own unique style, and this is what made them special. In the world of massage and healing therapy, labels, styles and authenticity are good frameworks for one’s initial education.
But the more one excels in the healing professions, the less there is any reason to limit oneself to designations and labels. Healing is a uniquely personal expression which comes not so much from technique than from one’s heart, one’s creativity, one’s intention, and one’s passion.
I have to admit that I am biased towards the eastern approach. My opinions are based on having lived in Asia for many years, and having practiced and taught Thai massage for more than 14 years.
Asian therapists are much less interested in categorizing, labeling and authenticating than their western counterparts. I am not sure what an ‘authentic’ Thai massage is, but I sure can tell a good one when I receive it.