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Traditional Thai Therapy and Traditional Thai Massage

Origins and Development

The authentic Nuat Phaen Boran (oftentimes also called Nuad Boran or Nuad Bo Rarn) awkwardly translated in the
West as Thai massage, is a therapy which has little in common with the classical understanding of massage. Being
one of the physical therapies, it is one of the five components of traditional medicine of Thailand (apart from medical
therapy, spiritual practice, ritual magic and Buddhist tradition). Traditional medicine of Thailand derives from the
Buddhist medicine.

It should be stressed at the beginning that Traditional Medicine of Thailand and TTM practiced nowadays in Thailand
and worldwide are not the same tradition.

The origin of traditional medicine in Thailand, and hence of Nuat Phaen Boran as well, is shrouded in a veil of mystery,
because it dates way back to a remote past. Somewhere between the 10th and the 12th century, Thai people migrated
from southern China, Laos and Vietnam to the territory of Siam, populated at that time by Mon and Khmer peoples. It
is assumed that even before their arrival to Siam, Thai people practiced certain disciplines that were influenced both
by other traditions around the continent and by native practices. Thai Yuan people (the people of present northern
Thailand) experienced a strong cultural boom, which finally resulted in the creation of the kingdom of Lanna in the
13th century. It is exactly the tradition of Lanna that is at present day one of the strongest surviving genuine traditions.
Traditional Lanna medicine is now practiced by local population in the same way as many centuries ago. Ample
scientific knowledge of Thai Yuan, including medicine, was later taken to the kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya,
which is held to be the commencement of the modern history of Thailand. When Ayutthaya was demolished in 1767
by Burmese conquerors, the majority of medical texts were lost forever. Since the establishment of Chakri dynasty in
1782, kings Rama I, Rama II and Rama III successively ordered that existing texts be collected around the country, and
the remaining fragments of knowledge analyzed and used as foundation for the famous reliefs carved in stone, which
the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok is adorned with up to the present day. Unfortunately, it was only a collection, and not a
preservation of the living tradition. During the rule of Rama V, at the end of the 19th century, western medicine arrived
in Thailand and it slowly but inevitably came to prevail, which eventually culminated in two decrees from 1923 and
1936, when a vast number of doctors practicing traditional Thai medicine were deprived of their right to legal work,
which is still the case today. So what is traditional Thai medicine (TTM) and Thai massage that we can see today both
in Thailand and in the West? Here is what they are:
Modern TTM and Thai Massage

As already mentioned, in the early 20th century, traditional medicine of Thailand as spiritual tradition was almost
outlawed. Likewise, all the knowledge about it gathered during the 19th century, was forcefully standardized so as to
conform to the ideas and the theory of Western medicine. In mid 20th century, traditional medicine was entirely driven
out, while Western medicine became the official medicine in Thailand. Many doctors in traditional medicine had to
cease with their practice because they could not get a license for work, and many of them even burnt texts fearing
repercussions because they were made illegal. And that is how this tradition began to really die out.

When the World Health Organization (WTO) adopted the Declaration of Alma-Ata in 1978, calling its members to return
their respective traditional medical systems into their official health services systems, TTM “renewal” (“new” traditional
Thai medicine, hereinafter referred to as TTM) was undertaken in Thailand by the local “elite” fascinated by Western
values. In the course of 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, a standardized four-year curriculum for the training of TTM doctors
was created on the national level. How much this curriculum has to do with the genuine tradition can be gathered
also from the mandatory syllabi which are part of the training course, such as: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry,
medical botany, pharmacology and microbiology. Therefore, even nowadays, many real doctors in traditional medicine
cannot have a license because they definitely refuse to learn something that is in its essence contradictory to the
fundamental tenets of their knowledge. In the wake of the economic crisis in Thailand in 1997, when thousands of
people were left without work, local Ministry of Health created 4 curriculums for training in traditional Thai massage,
for the requirements of fast-growing wellness-spa-massage parlor market. These 4 curriculums, in the duration of 60,
150, 372 and 800 hours respectively, have been completed by thousands of Thais. Subsequently, these 4 curriculums
have been rendered in 3 levels.

Nowadays, a great number of Thais who dedicate themselves to massage have completed some of these levels in any
one out of dozens of newly-opened schools, and now they work in Thailand or in wellness and spa centers around the
world. Given that this standardized form of training has nothing to do with the way knowledge is transmitted in genuine
tradition, the mere fact that a therapist in spa treatment is a Thai does not guarantee true knowledge and real quality.

Today globally well-known, “Thai massage” has little to do with the original Nuat Phaen Boran. Present day “Thai
massage” is only several decades old; it was created by Thai “elite” under the influence of the West, and then spread
from the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, through the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai, all over Thailand, and
subsequently throughout the world. In order to make it acceptable to the Western world, it was emptied of all the
magical and ritual elements and all physical therapies that might be dangerous, unbecoming or difficult to learn. It
has been deliberately standardized as a “sequence”, so that it might be taught through mass courses.

In general, now popular and officially supported by the Ministry of Health, theoretical foundations of modern TTM are
strongly influenced by Hindu disciplines, primarily Yoga. Therefore, instead of theories of Elements and Khwan, which
are at the heart of traditional practice, the theory of 10 Sen lines (Sen Phra Tahn Sip) has been set on a pedestal. In the
real Thai tradition, there is no theory of 10 abstract Sen Lines, which stand as energy lines that are treated by means
of massage. This theory is an artificial hybrid of Yoga tradition and traditional Chinese medicine. In Yoga it corresponds
to the theory of Nadis, while in TCM it corresponds to the theory of 14 meridians that are connected to body organs
and functions and treated in a reflexive way, something which doesn’t exist in Thai tradition. When Thai massage was
first presented to the world, in 1980s and 1990s, in the beginning, it was Yoga practitioners from the West who first
became interested in it, so they eagerly embraced the theory of 10 Sen lines. That is the fountainhead of the myth that
Thai massage originates from Yoga, which is why it is often called “Thai Yoga massage” or “Yoga for the lazy”. However,
Nuat Boran does not originate from Yoga. Likewise, the theory of 10 Sen lines does not match the practice and
techniques of Thai massage. As a theory about energy channels in the body, it has been unnaturally affixed to the
existing practice, which is easily felt by every experienced practitioner. Sen treated with medicine and massage are
not abstract, psychic or energy pathways.

Likewise, it is always emphasized that “Thai massage” is an ancient practice, some 2,500 years old, and that its founder
was Doctor Jivaka Kumarbhaccha. He was a famous physician in his time, contemporary and personal friend of Buddha.
In Thailand, he is celebrated as the founder of traditional Thai medicine. However, there is no mention of anything like
Thai massage in manuscripts about him, nor has he ever set his foot near Thailand.
Finally, it still should be stressed – because there is a lot of confusion about it – that Nuad Boran is not any kind of
service of sexual nature. The root of the problem also lies within Thailand. During the Vietnam War, a great number of
soldiers went on leave to Thailand, which resulted in a sudden boom in sex tourism. Sex-trafficking lobby, which has
grown extremely strong, abuses the name of Thai massage as a smokescreen for prostitution taking place in thousands
of brothels. So Thai massage has been utterly discredited and defamed, to the extent that this therapy is now largely
misunderstood and misinterpreted around the world.

Genuine Traditional Medicine of Thailand

For a genuine tradition to stay alive, there are three necessary factors:

1. Texts containing fundamental knowledge, which stem from the founders of the tradition.

It is not necessary for texts to be in the form of a book. They must contain essential information of a given system.
Such information must come from the source of the tradition and, through the text, reach the last generation of
practitioners. If texts are lost, it is generally held that the tradition has died out. The essential information of Traditional
Medicine of Thailand can be found in the following Buddhist Suttas and Thai and Lanna ancient texts : Dhatuvibhanga
Sutta, Kalama Sutta, Maha Hatthipadopama Sutta, Kayagatasati Sutta, Maha Rahulovada Sutta, Girimananda Sutta,
Vimuttimagga, Dhammapada, Abhidhamma Pitaka, Vināya Pitaka, Kam Phi Chanta Saht, Kam Phi Thaht Wiwawn, Kam
Phi Thaht Ban Jop, Kam Phi Thaht Wiphang, Kam Phi Roknithan, Kam Phi Samutthan Winichai, Kam Phi Takkasila, Kam
Phi Wechasaht Meung Lampang, Tamra Nuad Meung Chiang Mai, Tamra Yah Lanna and other ...

2. Oral tradition and instructions

Text is not sufficient by itself. Ancient texts are often unclear, abstract and full of esoteric meaning. Therefore, it is
necessary to have oral instructions from a teacher who helps student understand the information. This instruction
by word of mouth is of key importance, and it is passed on from one generation to another. Likewise, the element of
magic in the practice is transmitted only by word of mouth. However, in every serious spiritual discipline, knowledge
is never transmitted in plain and simple manner. For a person to receive genuine knowledge, he must first become
initiated into the tradition. This initiation means receiving a blessing from the teacher, that is, personal teacher and the
entire lineage of teachers going all the way back to the founder of the tradition. The rites of initiation provide blessing,
knowledge and protection to the initiate, granting him possibility, right and responsibility to learn and to practice.

3. Experience and realization

The third condition is that practitioners have become learned in the texts, and having received oral instructions, apply
the acquired knowledge under teacher’s guidance, until they gain enough experience and realize themselves through
this practice.

It is the second and the third factor that are missing from the contemporary TTM, which is why it cannot be considered
spiritual tradition. Studies in modern TTM are done in a standardized manner, according to Westernized academic
principles, without the rites of initiation into the discipline. There is no personal relationship between teacher and
student anymore, just as the ancient mode of teaching is gone.

Genuine Traditional medicine of Thailand has five roots:

1. Medical therapies
Dietary instructions, medicaments of herbal, animal and mineral origin

2. Physical therapies
Reusi Dat Ton, Nuat Phaen Boran, herbal compresses, sauna, etc.

3. Oracular sciences
Astrology, palmistry, divination, clairvoyance, numerology, etc.
4. Magic
Animism, incantations, charms, ceremonies, Wai Kru, Sak Yant,

5. Buddhism
Meditation, texts studies, psychology

Any traditional medicine in any country cannot be successfully applied out of range of its geographical origin without
adjustments, because in its foundations is embedded the observation of the local habitat and nature and its impact
on humans, including atmospheric conditions, seasons, daytime and night-time, as well as local flora and fauna.
In traditional medicine of Thailand, additional attention is paid to the relation the individual has with the commu-
nity he belongs to, and his connection with it. In order to become a doctor in traditional medicine, it is not enough
for a person to acquire only technical knowledge, as is the case in the West. He must have deep understanding of
local culturally-laden idea of health and illness, he must be initiated into the practice, he must be in contact with
the supernatural world, and lastly, his entire practice must naturally stem from his everyday existence. In northern
Thailand, a person becomes a healer by decision of the community he/she belongs to, not by personal declaration.

It must be emphasized that, although they are usually specialized in a specific root of traditional medicine, all doc-
tors in traditional medicine (in northern Thailand, they are generally called Maw), are well versed in other roots too.
They mostly preserve and carry on family tradition, they become initiated by their parents and relatives, and then
they spend years learning through common practice, until they become able to carry it out independently, on their
own. Apart from the technical knowledge, it is of great importance that they receive magical knowledge in the form
of enchantments (khatha). The power that a healer has largely depends on his/her virtues and personal morality.
Their practice is very dynamic, so if they realize that their knowledge cannot help the patient, they actively cooper-
ate with other doctors.

Physical Therapies

Reusi Dat Ton

It is an ancient system of exercises used by Reusis to maintain good physical condition and cleansing of Sen channels.
It consists of:

1. Breathing exercises
2. Self-massage
3. Acupressure
4. Dynamic exercises
5. Postures
6. Stretching exercises
7. Mantras
8. Visualizations
9. Meditation

Nuat Phaen Boran

A physical therapy developed from Reusi Dat Ton that consists of following techniques:

1. Rubbing
2. Heating
3. Pressing
4. Squeezing
5. Kneading
6. Rolling
7. Beating
8. Stepping
9. Chopping
10. Twisting
11. Unwinding
12. Digging
13. Plucking
14. Stretching
15. Ironing
16. Point Pressing
17. Range of Motion
18. Vibration
19. Traction
20. Setting

Tok Sen

Today we can witness Tok Sen, a traditional therapy of Northern Thailand, becoming completely corrupted by modern-
ization. It is frequently talked about as “pok, pok, pok,” a simplified hitting of the client’s body with the mallet and the
peg along the sen. With this gross generalization it is being taught as a short course for a quick profit.

Tok Sen actually has a long history in the Lanna tradition of medicine. It most likely originated with the Shan people,
perhaps somewhere around the city of Lampang, and later spread across the area of Northern Thailand. Like most
traditional practices, it is a combination of both physical therapeutic techniques as well as magical or spiritual healing
methods. As with all traditional methods of healing in the Lanna tradition, the ways in which it is learned, taught and
practiced are governed by specific methods and initiations which have been passed on for generations. As it treats
both physical as well as spiritual causes of illness it is necessary to receive the complete teaching and not separate
out one aspect. To do this one should receive initiation from a qualified teacher. Then they should learn the practical
application of Tok Sen. Learning the technique alone is not complete nor is it sufficient to practice Tok Sen as it was
passed on for generations. The practitioner should obtain the proper tools from his/her teacher. The type of wood,
shape and weight is determined by the lineage and has specific use and meaning. For example, the most prized wood
for the peg is a tree that has been struck by lightning. This type of wood has a special quality for moving out negative
energy from the body and protection from malicious spirits. Ivory may be used for removing toxins from the body as
well. These tools must be blessed and empowered by the teacher. To do this the tools will be part of a ritual in which
they are offered up to the lineage for blessing. After this, the teacher will inscribe sacred incantations on the mallet
and pegs in order to promote healing for the patient and protect the practitioner. The practitioner should learn the
appropriate incantations for blessing the instruments before a treatment, incantations for making offerings on behalf
of the patient, incantations for healing as he/she is using the tools for healing and finally, incantations for cleansing.
Today there are a few different lineages of Tok Sen practitioners. Each has his/her own methods and incantations but
generally they are very similar. When we say lineages we mean traditional doctors who have been initiated themselves
and are practicing in a traditional way. The schools which are teaching Tok Sen as a purely physical technique without
initiation, incantations or the like cannot be consider a tradition or part of a lineage.

Other physical therapies used in genuine Traditional Thai medicine :

1. Bone setting
2. Cupping
3. Scraping
4. Burning
5. Bleeding
6. Liniments/Balms
7. Compresses
8. Poultices
9. Saunas
10. Yam Khang
11. Chet Haek
12. Jawp Khai
13. Bpao
14. Midwifery ( sometimes considered as the 6th root of Traditional medicine )