The idea of “tradition” is a commonly employed marketing tool that is designed to portray a greater degree of authenticity and skill when compared with a non-traditional approach. However, this is a misuse of the term ‘tradition’.
This post is designed as a way to help develop greater clarity around the idea of traditional Thai massage, what it is and what it isn’t. I encourage you to read through this and challenge your own stance on how you view the tradition of Thai massage.
Tradition is not:
It has nothing to do with postures or techniques – many propose the idea that certain postures are more traditional than others and as a result should be more commonly used. The idea that a posture can have greater historical relevance diminishes the scope and vast variety present within this incredible modality. Also, it’s almost impossible to accurately say that any postures or techniques are new or have not been used at some point in the history of Thai massage.
Also prevalent in the field of Thai massage is the use of treatment protocols as a more ‘traditional’ method of applying techniques. Yet when we think of the evolution of Thai massage practice, it only came to be through the experimentation and exploration, which is done through mechanisms of “reading the body” and responding with appropriate technique. So in many ways, protocols are in opposition of historical practice and therefore cannot be a traditional approach. (This is not to say that they are not useful or effective in certain circumstances).
Tradition has nothing to do with geography – many people are also under the impression that in order to practice Thai massage traditionally you have to have learned the art in Thailand. Fortunately teaching skill, knowledge and finesse in practice have nothing to do with your geographical location, and even moreso have nothing to do with the authenticity of your practice. Additionally, growing up in a culture of Thai massage does not automatically impart greater: knowledge, skill, adherence to founding principles of practice or teaching ability.
It has nothing to do with lineage – lineage is also something that many use as synonymous with tradition, when in fact lineage is really only useful for defining our own education biases, and helping to determine where our gaps in knowledge reside (which we all have, regardless of how long you’ve been studying/practicing). On top of this, suggesting that one teacher is teaching a more traditional method than another is akin to suggesting that there are a very small set of techniques and a very narrow scope of what was practiced historically in Thailand.
It has nothing to do with pain – somehow it has become a popular belief that painful Thai massage is more traditional than a treatment that is appropriately intense. Likely a result of tourist popularity with Thai massage and untrained or undertrained practitioners, we’ve collectively accepted that painful is better. Not only is this a falsehood based on the physiological responses of the body to pain (it produces the opposite of therapeutic benefit), it also is in complete contrast to the one true element of tradition, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
So what is the tradition of Thai massage?
The cultivation of loving kindness (compassion). When it comes to identifying the tradition of any practice, we have to evaluate and determine what are the elements of practice that we cannot do without. Without the cultivation of metta, there is no Thai massage. It is the absolute, the only thing that cannot be absent from the practice.
Compassion has no geographical bounds, has no prerequisite teacher, it can take any physical form as long as it’s pain-free, and it follows only the order that is defined by the patient’s body from moment to moment.
And if there were one more piece of the true tradition of Thai massage it would be Thai medical theory. When Thai medical theory informs our practice (and as long as the cultivation of compassion is present), we are practicing the tradition of Thai massage. The true tradition of Thai massage.