Live, Move, Move, October 28, 2018

Interview With A Thai Bodyworker

Sharon is a Thai Bodyworker. She studies and practices the art of Thai massage. She prefers to be called a bodyworker because of the often inappropriate and sketchy associations with the term “masseuse”.

We bonded over cats and cosy apartments – her apartment, in the centre of Amsterdam, is particularly lush and inviting and the type of place you just want to curl up, with a cup of tea, and never leave. It’s intended this way – to be warm and cosy – as this is where she does her Thai massage.

Sessions start with a warm foot bath and chat. You have the opportunity to check in on any major life events or changes with your body since last session. My complaints were always the same – everything is sore down the right side of my body from carrying our little one around. You then get changed into loose clothes – long sleeved top and trousers (Thai massage is done fully clothed) and then head over to the Thai massage mat, which is a like a large, firm mattress on the floor. I’m told that working on the floor, as opposed to on a massage table,  provides better economics for the therapist.

Sharon has a knack for finding and releasing those niggly, tight bits that have been bugging you for ages. Sessions are intense, but you come out of there feeling a real shift. For me this shift was often both physically and emotionally. 

In our interview we cover:

  • What exactly Thai massage is
  • Cultural influence on Thai massage
  • How going through a burnout ultimately lead her to becoming a Thai bodyworker
  • What a typical session might look like
  • Why Thai massage is done fully clothed and what the benefits are for the client
  • How often you might consider getting a Thai massage done
  • How treating the physical body can sometimes affect change to our mental health
  • The importance of self-care
  • How tissues feel different when they hold a lot of tension
  • How we can find a Thai bodyworker or therapist in near you

Monique: How did you start your day today?

Sharon: I’ve found that 2 hours is the minimum amount of personal time I need to feel ready to address clients’ needs and not be focused on my own. How I spend that time varies a little, somewhat on time of the year. It’s summer now, and there’s been a heatwave, so I usually run a load of laundry before bed (fewer towels and blankets this time of year, but more light cotton clothing that clients change into) and get it on the roof to dry in the morning. I make coffee and water my roof garden while I drink it. This morning I had a cup of warm water with lemon before that. 

Monique: What exactly is Thai massage?

Thai massage is part of the orthopaedic root of Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) – “all physical therapies applied to the external body, including: point therapy, application of oils and herbs, bone setting (indigenous chiropractics), cupping, scraping, stretching, tok sên, blood letting and much more (all therapies found in modern Thai massage fall into this category)” (quote by N. Jacobsen, who is my teacher). In my own practice, I regularly use point therapy, oils and herbs, cupping, scraping and stretching. In the West, Thai massage has gotten popular as “Thai Yoga Massage” because of the element of stretching, and fewer people are aware of its place within the larger TTM framework.

Monique: What is the cultural influence of Thailand on Thai massage?

Sharon: Tricky. Thai massage is inherently Thai, and I don’t think you can really take it out and still be practicing Thai massage, although I know many practitioners do (I think it’s fair to say that they are adapting Thai massage techniques to their own toolkit, not that they are practicing traditional Thai massage). Thai Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism) and element theory (different from Chinese, Japanese, Ayurvedic) is at the heart of Thai massage, and also the cultural heritages that combined to form what we now know of as modern Thailand. That history and culture inform how the client and their concern is interpreted and approached, which techniques are used and when they are used, and how the practitioner prepares and protects her or himself, among other things.

Monique: What initially attracted you to being a Thai Bodyworker?

Sharon: I experienced a “burnout” (sometimes called adrenal fatigue, but actually the involvement of the adrenals as cause vs effect is still in debate), culminating in quitting an office job I loathed at the end of 2010. I was trained as a teacher, and had taught for 14 years before that office job. I liked feeling that as a teacher, I was helping people. In massage, I found something similar. In Thai massage specifically, I found techniques that worked for the parts of the body I felt were missed in most table-based massages. When I first experienced a Thai massage I was still practicing Muay Thai (kickboxing), so I loved some of the stretchy massage techniques where you get twisted or stretched and then compressed within those postures.

Monique: Can you talk us through what a normal session looks like?

Sharon: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a normal session. Every person comes for a different reason, and I specialise in “treatment” massages, where I’m working on a very specific, often chronic, physical complaint, or a temporary condition, such as pre- and post-natal, or sometimes less definably physical concerns, like when a client arrives in a state of emotional distress. But let’s say someone comes in with a specific complaint like tense shoulders or lower back. I always begin by offering tea and a set of loose clothes, then I leave people to change while I go collect a foot bath for them. While they enjoy the foot bath, I have the chance to review their complaint, their basic physical history, their familiarity with bodywork, and get to know them a little. Then we move to the mat. In some cases, I start right away by working on the area of concern. In other cases, I begin with something to help them relax into the space, for example a series of pressure points “to calm the mental winds,” or a simple foot and leg protocol. When addressing an area, I always try to warm it up in some way first, sometimes by vigorous rubbing, often with herbal compresses, sometimes just with gentle slow pressure from my warm hands. As I go deeper into the body, I might find it’s appropriate to stretch the tissues, mobilise joints, or work directly on the abdomen and the organs. Sometimes not. Depending on the person, some treatments might be very even, with both sides of the body receiving equal treatment, but others might be more focused on one area or side. At the end of the treatment, I often try to leave the client in a restful pose, sometimes with head or face or feet being touched last, but sometimes it is more appropriate to finish with some invigorating stretching and movements while seated. Each treatment is truly a different experience, although sometimes the same person will get pretty similar treatments from session to session.

Monique: What is the benefit being fully clothed as opposed to an oil based massage?

Sharon: As I’ve heard it, the aspect of being clothed comes from both that Thai culture is very body-modest, and also from its roots in Buddhist practice, at temples, previously only by and for men then needing to be modest when shared by both genders. However, I think that the wearing of loose-fitting clothing for a massage is actually really helpful in many cases. Deep muscle work in the groin area, including hip-opening stretches, are much less invasive when done clothed, therefore easier for most people to relax into. The fabric can be used for friction when that’s useful. It keeps the client warmer without as much draping, because even in very hot seasons, many people get a chill when receiving bodywork. The loose-fitting Thai fisherman pants and loose-fitting blouses that are customary in Thailand, and which I keep for my clients as needed, are very easy to move out of the way to reach areas that need oil or balms or other herbal treatments. A shirt can easily be taken off or partially off if more oiled work, or scraping or cupping, is indicated.

I also think that being clothed makes bodywork accessible for people who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with being unclothed.

Monique: How should you feel after a session?

Sharon: Ha! I’m not a big fan of the word “should,” as my husband knows. 🙂 But peccadillos aside, there really is no one way that someone might feel afterwards. It depends on what the purpose was of the massage. If the purpose was to relax or soothe or nurture, one should feel relaxed. If the purpose was to energize, one should hopefully feel energized. If the purpose was to release some deep tension, one might feel quite drained and tired, but could also feel loose and ecstatic. Sometimes people feel quite stiff or sore the next day, like a good workout, but much better the day after that. Abdominal work tends to bring out the most interesting sensations, with emotions often coming up. So it will depend on the client, their relationship to bodywork, the purpose of that session, and other factors as well.

Monique: How often would you recommend someone sees a Thai bodyworker?

Sharon: Again, this depends on your situation. Some types of treatment call for several sessions close together but then more time between them. Normal maintenance for most people, maybe once every 2, 3, or 4 weeks, depending on how they use their body or what their lifestyle is like. Since I use my body pretty heavily, I honestly think I do best with bodywork every week, but I don’t necessarily get the same type of treatment every week. I have regularly-scheduled sessions with two other massage professionals each month, one for Thai massage and one for table-based massage, and I try to see others when I remember to, but I also sometimes see the physiotherapist (currently once a week) or the chiropractor. For a long time I was getting monthly abdominal work as well, but it became difficult to schedule with that particular colleague, and I haven’t found a replacement yet.

Monique: What are some things that Thai massage can help with that we wouldn’t normally think of?

Sharon: The scope and breadth of Thai bodywork has surprised me more often than not. In the beginning, I was blown away when a teacher managed to rid me of knee pain I’d been suffering for months. It wasn’t permanent, but it made a huge difference in how I understood chronic pain. Later, I became fascinated by how we so frequently carry emotional trauma in our bodies, and how treating the physical body can affect change to the mental health in some cases. Most recently, I’ve had positive feedback on abdominal massage from clients who’d been struggling to regulate their menstruation and hormones in order to conceive. Who knows what I’ll be surprised by next?!?

Monique: What type of changes have you seen with your regular clients?

Sharon: Physical changes, such as more supple muscle tone and loosening of stiff joints. Easing of chronic pain and openness to self-care and responsibility. Emotional changes in some cases… body therapy is definitely still therapy. I can’t take responsibility for all of this. I think it’s really important to teach my clients how to also care for themselves, whether that’s techniques for self-massage or relaxation, but ultimately that they have to also be active in their own healing.

Monique: Do you go through any sort of routine or practice to become more present and in tune with your clients before your sessions?

Sharon: Absolutely! I do a daily Wai Khru before I begin my practice. This literally translates as a greeting of respect to teachers, and is a series of spoken passages acknowledging the wisdom and teaching of those who came before. I like to chant it in a sing-song, but it doesn’t need to be chanted. It is faster to just speak it, if I’m in a big hurry for whatever reason. It takes about 10 minutes or so to chant, and is a way for me to settle into my space and my intent. I usually try to do it after I’ve done the first bit of morning admin, when I’m already starting to feel a little settled and not rushed. It’s important not to be feeling rushed before starting with clients.

Monique: What are you personally working on right now in your massage journey?

Sharon: I’ve been studying with Nephyr Jacobsen for the past few years. Her passion is the study, practice, and teaching of traditional Thai medicine, and I’ve learned a lot from her, particularly Thai element theory and the incorporation of external herbal recipes. I have been making my own balms, liniments, tinctures, poultices and compresses. I’ve also made a few internal recipes, for my own benefit.

Monique: Can you tell us a bit about how you ‘feel’ and interpret the body and especially the pain and tightness – what guides you to take a certain path or to focus on certain areas or techniques during your session.

Sharon: Before I studied massage, I thought I could hide the sore places from a bodyworker by carefully not reacting. It seemed like magic that they always found them and stayed there to work on them. In reality, informed and attentive hands have no trouble with it. Tissues feel different when they hold a lot of tension. Sometimes something that should be malleable feels like an extra bone! Then I want to give that area some extra attention. Some of what I do is searching for spots like that and trying to loosen them up. Everything I’m doing in every session is chosen to help allow movement, but that movement can be interpreted in many ways. I’m afraid I would need an entire essay on the topic of choosing what techniques and focus I choose for a client or session.

Monique: Are there any trends you are currently seeing in Thai massage right now?

Sharon: There are always trends in bodywork practices. In Thai massage, it’s common for people to combine it with whatever other toolkit they are more familiar with or also learning about. Lately I see more and more osteo-Thai workshops, for example. A few years back there was a lot of Thai – myofascial release. Probably by the time I finish answering all these very involved questions there will be new trends! 😉

Monique: In your opinion, what’s one simple thing we can do for our health?

Sharon: Breathe. No, seriously. Just step off the hamster wheel for a minute now and then. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? ha.

Monique: Love it, breathing is VERY important. How can someone find good Thai massage therapists in their area – is there something they should be looking out for? 

Sharon: Bob Haddad (a wonderful practitioner and teacher) has been running a site called Thai Healing Alliance for quite some time. It’s undergoing some changes, but it’s always the first place I look if I don’t have contacts already in an area. If that fails, or if no one in an area has websites listed, I do Google searches. Make sure you use words like “therapist” and “traditional,” or you’re likely to get a lot of sketchy options! Look for schools in a region and contact them.

Monique: Can you share any references that we can go to for more information on Thai massage?

Sharon: That same website, has a lot of reference material. Further, I can strongly recommend my teacher Nephyr’s book, Seven Peppercorns, and her website. C. Pierce Salguero PhD has also written several excellent books. And of course, go to Thailand and receive as many massages from different practitioners as you can!

Monique: That sounds amazing. How can people find you?

Sharon: Through my website, I also have a FB page and Instagram.

I take appointments only by email.

Image credits: Vijay Kiran, Robin Benzrihem, Tuva Mathilde Løland, Igor Miske, Peter Hershey

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