Thai Bodywork & Thai Medicine
Traditional Thai Bodywork & Therapies
in Historical Context
Traditional Thai Bodywork (Nuad Borarn) was once part of a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to health and healing. Patient treatments included in-depth therapeutic bodywork which addressed the entire body from the feet to the head, structural alignment, acupressure, visceral manipulation, and employed herbal compresses to ease pain and loosen stiff joints, as well as increase circulation. On the purely physical level, a panoply of therapeutic modalities was employed to treat the body, attempting to restore balance in 42 elements subdivided into four groups: air, wind, fire, earth. A prescribed diet and herbal decoctions were frequently an aspect of healing and restoring balance. A Thai doctor's (mo boran) focus was not solely on physiological ailments, but also addressed mental state, social and emotional relationships, and spiritual imbalances.
Contrary to modern marketing terms and inaccurate knowledge of historical context, Thai bodywork is not a passive form of yoga. The melding and linking of Hatha yoga to Thai bodywork is a widespread and unfortunate misconception: terms such as Thai Yoga Therapy, Thai Yoga Massage, and Lazy Man's Yoga do not show respect or recognition for cultural authenticity, or recognize the origins of Thai bodywork, which is in fact rooted in the purely Thai tradition of reusi dat ton.
There are said to be Northern and Southern styles of Thai bodywork. This terminology is for purposes of distinction rather than reflecting a true bifurcation in northern and southern practices. There are up to five if not six distinct regional influences in Thai bodywork and traditional Thai therapies. Loosely and generally speaking, the 'northern' style is based upon the older, indigenous Lanna-Thai medicine tradition, whereas the newer acupressure protocols associated with 'southern' style have more recent origins at Wat Pho in Bangkok, the first systematized and formalized school of Thai Massage and medicine.
Bodywork has an essential purpose in Thai medicine: to remove blockages or breaks in the flow of Lom (wind) throughout the body. Lom moves through channels (Sen) in the body which are physically palpable by a sensitive practitioner, not merely imaginary or theoretical energy fields as modern-day new-agism is fond of propounding. These channels are unlike the Chinese system which has termination points. Instead, the Thais believe that Lom exists in a continual movement in and out of the body, and that there is no endpoint, therefore a blockage or break in the movement of Lom throughout the body is considered a serious thing: bodywork and massage, acupressure, herbal compresses and often spiritual interventions are considered necessary in clearing the Sen and restoring health and wellbeing.
The earliest known texts and diagrams delineating the Sen and anatomically specific corresponding points of treatment were more a reference than teaching materials, originating from two ancient Thai kingdoms: Dvaravati (6th-13th centuries) and Sukhothai (13th-15th centuries). These representational charts still serve as the basis for self-treatment (acupressure, massage, specific stretches) in the practice of reusi dat ton, as well as influencing all forms of traditional Thai bodywork.
As early as 1238 A.D. there are known to have existed 102 hospitals (or treatment centers) in the northeastern Khmer region, and at the height of the Ayutthaya period (mid-1700s) pharmacies and dispensaries were readily accessible to the public. After the Burmese invasion of 1787, much of Thai medical tradition became fragmented or altogether lost due to upheaval and an outright, concerted effort to eradicate Thai traditions. Later, the encroachment of westernized medicine brought by missionaries and western physicians further eroded reliance on Thai medicine and its adjunct therapies, including Thai bodywork. In 1831, in an admirable—although fragmentary—effort to compile and retain knowledge of Thai medicine, King Rama III ordered that several treatises on Thai medicine and a pharmacopeia be written. He is also known for commissioning the creation of stone statues at Wat Pho in Bangkok depicting a number of reusi dat ton poses.
Thai Bodywork & Medicine Today
Thai medical knowledge and its corresponding disciplines and practices were passed along from teacher to student through apprenticeship, thus creating an unbroken lineage. This holds true to this day in the study of Traditional Thai Bodywork, however more in theory than practice. Although Thailand owes much to the efforts of Rama III and those of later Kings, Rama IV and V, the result of wars and westernization has, with time, been a dilution of knowledge and breaking up of lineages. Today it is rare to find a true mo boran (Thai medicine doctor) and the vast traditions of herbalism, bodywork and spiritual practices have faded.
About 35 years ago, efforts on the part of several determined individuals and Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) practitioners, the interest and efforts of the recently deceased Thai king, coupled with a worldwide call by the WHO (World Health Organization) for member countries to encourage use of traditional plants and herbs in their primary health-care programs, drew attention to the disappearing body of Thai medical knowledge. The ensuing resurgence of public interest led to new appreciation and promotion of Thai medicine and theory, including Thai bodywork as a therapy and healing modality. Recognized and respected for its therapeutic benefits and integrative applications in restoring range of motion, managing chronic pain, therapeutic rehabilitation, and ameliorating persistent depressive states, it is estimated that over 6,000 Thai medical facilities incorporate Thai bodywork and medicine into their therapy programs and treatment of patients.
Keeping the 'Therapy' in Thai Therapies
There is a growing appreciation of traditional Thai bodywork world-wide, which has had both positive and negative ramifications. Misunderstandings of the origins of Thai bodywork and Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) abound: Traditional Thai Medicine is a fairly recent term referring to the Thai government's efforts to standardize and modernize traditional medical practices throughout Thailand as early as the 1700s and as recently as the 1980s. Standardized testing, teaching methods and modernized protocols became the norm. Nuad Borarn (Thai bodywork) was a casualty of this effort resulting in a system of teaching reliant upon standardized techniques, and modernized interpretations and theories drawn from other countries and traditions. This has led to ubiquitous and vague interpretations of the premise and foundation of Thai bodywork, how it should be practiced, as well as incorrect correlations with yoga and the misleading appellations Thai Yoga Massage, Lazy Man's Yoga, Yoga Massage and Thai Ayurveda Massage. The current, widespread, and modern emphasis on acrobatics and a rather callisthenic approach to bodywork are counter to the compassionate Thai tradition of therapeutic healing sessions. Thai bodywork is an introspective, reflective practice, focused and calm, yet imparts a quiet energy to the body and clarity to the mind of the recipient. Still used in villages throughout Thailand, and now once again in health centers and clinics throughout Thailand, traditional Thai bodywork is used in the treatment of neurological conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, neurogenic pain and persistent pain, paralysis and muscle atrophy, as well as multivarious long-term and chronic conditions.
Reusi Dat Ton
Reusi in Thai means hermit, or hermit-sage, a direct reference to the ascetic hermits (Sanskrit rishis) living and practicing in the Himalayas around 500BC. Their strict adherence to and practice of meditative disciplines demanded protracted periods of contemplation and detachment from the sensory world, therefore bodily functions and extraneous movements were restricted to an absolute minimum. Hindu scriptures and Buddhist oral tradition describe specific breathing techniques, poses and movements practiced by rishis to care for the body and enable such self-control over long periods of time in relative immobility. Thus, the general meaning of reusi dat ton can be well appreciated: hermit self-stretching.
Thai bodywork, Thai medicine (yā thai), and reusi dat ton were closely intertwined during the course of Thailand's history. Both were taught and passed on through oral tradition and direct lineage, from master and teacher to student. Once primarily practiced by hermits, monks and ascetics, authentic knowledge of reusi dat ton has dwindled further in modern times.
Tok Sen is perhaps one of the oldest therapies and forms of treatment in the northern Lanna-Thai medicine tradition, and has endured for centuries in its original form in villages in the far northern edges of Thailand. A wooden mallet, often made from the heart of a Tamarind tree, is used to rhythmically tap a dowel which can have blunted, round ends or be shaped like a wide wedge. The practitioner uses various Thai therapies and bodywork in conjunction with Tok Sen, tapping lightly but firmly along areas of tension and pain, or quite deeply where muscle is dense or the local nerve is involved. The tapping results in a deep, resonating vibration which travels through the body, felt long after the treatment is over.