Spirituality of Thai massage

It seems a contradiction to look for spirituality in a massage, especially in  the Thai massage which is very often associated in the popular imagination, to the practice of prostitution, but let’s try to just think about this: why is the Thai massage, if done by a qualified person,bringing us s a deep and lasting sense of well-being?

It means that the work is not only limited to the physical level, because this type of well being is not only a physical sensation, but it involves our being in all its parts: in fact, the Thai massage is a work on the vital energy (Prana) and it concerns the deepest aspects of our being.

A massage well done  goes well beyond the physical sensations of the body, reaches the soul and spirit, like music.

How can we explain this well being?

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In the tradition the legendary patron of Thai massage is Jivaka Kumar Baccha, who is revered throughout Thailand as the one who introduced the practice in the area.

Jivaka Kumar Baccha is remembered in the legend as the personal friend and physician of the Buddha’s Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order, but it is also named in the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada form of Buddhism nowadays practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

In reality there are  historical information about a doctor with that name, who lived in northern India during the reign of Asoka, king of Magadha between 270 and 230 B.C. The Mahajanapada of Magadha was one of the most powerful kingdoms of northern India, it was the largest in the history of the subcontinent and it extended from today’s Afghanistan to Bengal.

Asoka was a very important figure, about whom we have historical information thanks to decrees promulgated by him and carved on stone slabs throughout the territory under its control, many of which have come down to our days.He was Candragupta nephew, who had also connections with Alexander the Great; he established many contacts with Greeks, Iranians, Arabs and Chinese.

He was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism in Asia, he established public hospitals, sponsored the third Buddhist council (Pataliputra, 244 BC), by providing very precise and democratic rules for the debates , he carved on stone edicts in various languages, disseminate all over his kingdom , to spread the culture of “Metta”.

It is not easy to translate the word Metta: we can try with “compassion” as understood as with-passion, to “feel with”, but also loving kindness, compassionate love, the equivalent of agape, caritas.

Just in memory of the fame of that enlightened king , the author of this book, Asokananda, when he was ordained as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, he wanted to take his name together with the suffix  Ananda, which means joy, happiness, and is one of the epithets of Shiva: “Being of eternal bliss.”

About the origin of Jivaka Kumar baccha we have less certain records. It seems to have been adopted as a child and raised by Asoka in his court, then chose to go to study with renowned doctors to be able to maintain and reciprocate benefits received and when he returned to Magadha was already famous.

His assistance was required everywhere, was also sent by Asoka to cure Pradyota, king of Avanti, who had requested his help and did not stop him not even the long journey of almost 1000 km. between Rajgit and Ujjain.  he especially used herbs as medicines and his fame had spread to a large part of South Asia not only for its ability to heal, but also for his ability to go to treat anyone in need, even far away, facing grueling journeys, without expecting any reward. Probablyfor this reason also the masage  techniques , which were introduced to Thailand from India, were attributed to him and considered under his blessing.

Even Asokananda, inthe last years  years, had reached the conviction that Jivaka Kumar baccha not only had never been to Thailand, but that he had not even ever practiced massage and it was considered the instigator of this technique because of the fame of his attitude to do what is necessary at all times for the welfare of someone, without hesitation and without expectations, and this corresponds to the concept of Metta.

It is likely that the inhabitants of the Northern Thailand have asked Asoka to send someone to teach them the medicine, but it is equally likely that Kumar Baccha did not go in person, but some of his disciples.

However, although the origin and history of Thai massage are not clear, it is almost certain that the tradition comes from Ayurvedic medicine, as can be inferred from the terminology, which clearly refers to the Sanskrit, the ancient language of India , even from the very meaning of the massage itself which, according to yoga philosophy, operates on five levels, called sheaths or bodies-one of which is the physical body-and is designed to restore balance.

Asokananda spent most of his life in Asia, studying Buddhism, Vipassana meditation and Yoga in Sri Lanka, where he was ordained as a monk; he did long meditation retreats in India, Myanmar and Nepal. When he arrived in Thailand, he began to study massage with two masters in Chiang Mai,  Chaiyuth Priyasith and Piched Boonthumme, deepening the energy aspect of the work and understanding the connection with Yoga.

His research work was instrumental in the revival of the tradition of Thai massage, nowadays distorted by the fact that even in Thailand, as throughout the world, was associated with prostitution, which  spread in the country following the arrival of American troops during the war Vietnam and, later from an unhealthy tourism.

Following his studies, the publication of his book-in that time the only one in Thailand and a subsequent search of the University of Bangkok, from the 80”s onwards there was a revaluation of the art of Thai  massage, with the subsequent opening of many schools and treatment centers at last serious.

But his classes were the first to spread in Thailand and in Europe the spirituality of the Traditional Thai Massage and his teaching continues even now through the work of some of his students, who persist in teaching Vipassana Meditation, Tai Chi and Yoga in addition to specific techniques.

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This book can be the basis for a first encounter with the art of Thai massage which , in fact, looks like a manual. But if you are let with the desire to deepen the knowledge, it becomes essential the second step: the guidance of a qualified teacher. A qualified teacher is not only a teacher who teaches you exercises and postures, is someone who has a real personal experience of mindfulness (awareness).

A serious course not only teaches the technique, but also includes starting the “mindful” practice of Metta.

In fact, learning the right technique is certainly the first important step, but only the first step. To become masters of the technique requires several weeks or months of practice, depends on the individual talent and previous experience and, at this level, massage can already be an enjoyable and relaxing experience.

But at this point you can – and must, if you want to practice a good massage – make a quantum leap. A good massage therapist has not only mastered the technique, but is also able to practice the spiritual quality of Metta.

To enter the true meaning of Thai massage, you must be able to practice consciously the “Metta”. The practice of massage is traditionally an exercise in giving well being. The masseure gets his satisfaction from the knowledge of giving and to do good for the other.

We all know how pleasant it is to make a nice gift to a loved one: having the right idea, to look for the appropriate object, to imagine the pleasure that the other will draw, these are things so rewarding, that in order to address it, we would  spend hours of our time sometimes valuable. Because satisfaction is implicit in the act of giving we feel powerful, rich enough to give.

“… Learn to love … to give … for the pleasure of loving and giving … for the joy to love fully! Knowing how to love and that can love is the fullness that goes beyond the reward … (Marnati-Schnöller, 1999).

If you think about this, is easy to understand the satisfaction of the masseur. It is not a job, the person that give you trust  is a person  to love and then in that moment you can give the best of yourself, one empathizes with her feelings to tune their work on her, we are sensitive to any minimum signal to see if you’re going in the right direction.

It ‘a relationship very similar to that between mother and child or between lovers, the overcoming of duality I-you and the becoming of  a single being, with the same feeling shared by two people simultaneously. And in that moment it manifests that miracle of unity in which we feel that the more we give the more we receive, everything we do for the other is our own inner satisfaction.

But the “mindfulness” is not only a good idea that you can immediately decide to live in the present and put into practice immediately, having only heard about it. It is instead more similar to a form of “art” that develops over time and is greatly enhanced through the discipline of regular practice, daily, of meditation.

Meditation.

This word is sometimes scary, conjures up images of saints and hermits, of privations and sacrifices, because we do not know how easy it is and how often we practice it unconsciously.

The first step of meditation simply consists in being totally focused on what is we are doing, a total adherence to the present, be able to control our mind so we  can choose on what to focus our attention.

At a very simple level it is  the child’s situation so intent on the game that does not feel cold or hunger. Everyone can remember a situation where it was so taken by the activity of the moment to lose track of time or the surrounding reality. This concentration is a pure meditative state.

“Meditation can be defined as a work of the self, a cultivation of the mind, a technique of consciousness, sensitivity training, mental discipline, which considers  primarily two objectives: the acquisition of a greater degree of awareness and the  recovery of the sense of being, constantly overshadowed by the events of life and mental activities. “(C. Lamparelli, 1995)

The problem is how to make this process voluntary in order to create such a state in a conscious way.

The practice of meditation is a true and proper exercise.

We go to the gym for strength training with methodical and repetitive exercises, becoming aware of our limitations and our physical capabilities and we find satisfaction in this because we know that we will enjoy more a trip to the mountains or cycling, or at least, we will  feel better in the relationship with our body.

Likewise we dedicate time to daily exercises of the mind to become aware of its continuous workings,  to be able to better utilize its potential, to learn how to eliminate the noise of the main channel of attention and to overcome  the boredom of repetitive exercises because we know that we will feel more able to use the mind, we will enjoy the benefits and of a quicker memory , of an easier concentration, and of a  greater ability to discern the problems and a general sense of well being.

“There is not only the great and amazing power to understand and change everything at once, but also the ‘small’ power to understand and change something in our lives, day after day. And this is the function of daily meditation … is more important to understand something of our lives, than to levitate in the air or walk on water. “(C. Lamparelli, 1995)

Arnold Mindell (1990) says about meditation: “It’s goal is to be who we are and live our own Buddha nature, which translated into psychological terms is roughly equivalent to know ourself and be consistent at all times.”

It is precisely this element that allows to work at a deeper level, beyond the physical body.

According to the physiology of yoga, in fact, we are made of five bodies, always in constant interaction with each other, of which only one – the physical body or Anna-maya Kosha – is physically visible. We can thus simplify the meaning of the other four: Prana-maya Kosha is the energy body, Mana-maya Kosha is the mental body, Vijnana-maya Kosha’s the body made of intellect and Ananda-maya Kosha the body of bliss, of cosmic consciousness, of love.

During a massage done in the spirit of Metta we work on the physical body, but we affect the energy body in which prana circulatres, the vital energy, influencing all the other bodies. the Prana is distributed along energy lines, the Prana Nadis, which have nothing to do with anatomy, but that circulate in the body like an invisible net. It seems that the lines are 72,000, but the main ones that are acted upon during the massage, are only 10 (called “Sen” by Thais), and on these are also located the main acupressure points.

Through the points and lines it’s possible an exchange with the cosmic energy, to ensure that balance is established in the body and consequently the well-being. They are, in fact, blocks of energy, due for example to physical or mental or emotional stress, to cause a decrease in the flow of Prana and therefore a state of malaise, which can be revealed at any of the five Kosha.

Even Western medicine is accepting connections between different levels: it is a growing belief, for example, that stress lowers the immune system or predisposes to psychosomatic illnesses.

Thai massage is therefore not only a body work, even though some of the well-being that you feel during and after the massage is due to the release of  muscle tension, which can, in turn, be created by psychic tensions.

All of our daily frustrations, small and large aggressions that we experience in relationships with others, having to force into patterns not conforming to our true being, the misunderstandings, the trade-offs between what we are and what we should look like , are causing contractions of the body time after time.

Every feeling, if repressed and not expressed at the right time, lurks and hides somewhere in the body in the form of tension, contraction voluntary or involuntary muscular systems, of hyper-or hypo-glandular activity, that when they become important and perceptible can generate psychosomatic illnesses.

Nowadays this relationship is well known and there are detailed ‘maps’ that connect disorders to the related emotional tensions ( Biodynamic massage, Bioenergy massage, psychosomatic illnesses, etc..)

In Thailand the traditional massage is not used only for physical ailments, but also to alleviate mental disorders such as depression, hysteria, schizophrenia and other mental disorders.

Even the feelings of those who receive massage are not only physical, but they involve all other levels. The treatment is not limited to alleviate small physical problems or to relax body and mind, it goes much deeper, and also touches on other aspects of personality.

The first feeling at the moment when start to receive a massage, which is sometimes the hardest to accept, is that of having to leave the responsibility of our body to another, of having to be completely passive and receptive, as if it was like returning  in the condition of the newborn.

During the massage we have to be with ourselves, we cannot look for distractions in doing, we have no excuses, there is no telephone, colleagues, children who require our attention, we cannot find anything suddenly urgent that may distract us from ourselves.

For some, at the beginning is very difficult to relinquish control, but at the moment when we can do that and we let go at that moment the well-being takes over.

We are ‘obliged’ to devote a certain time to ourselves, without doing anything. It is almost a state of “forced meditation”, in fact, even those who received massage has an experience of meditation: often, without realizing it, enters into a state of attention/awareness that allows him to enjoy his own individual completeness, in the pleasure body and spirit.

The rediscovery of the body through the attention and care by another, through contact, is a primary experience comparable to the experience of being nurtured and cared for as a children.

By means of the sensations aroused by contact he rediscovers his own body, its shape, its limitations, through the hands of the other one feels again molded and the body ‘remembers’ the first caresses, awakening  the certainty of being loved. As in the contact with the mother or with the loved one.

Very often the body, in today’s society, is considered only for the pleasure that can give:we care for the beauty, the elegance, and we enjoy the reflection of us that we see in the admiration of others; the awareness of the body and wellness outside the sexual contact is considered unusually “guilty” in the conventionality of the common thought, that condemns the pleasure not finalized to  something useful. During the massage, we  can abandon all sense of guilt: it is a ‘private pleasure’, inner, profound, that there is no need to share, we are ‘inside’ ourselves.

It is an inner satisfaction that makes us less dependent on external rewards.

Letting go to the massage means accepting ourselves, and feeling accepted in our entirety, for what we are at that time, even with the negatives aspects, defect, illness, bad feelings…

We return to love our body because we  feel it loved, and this reinforces self-esteem, but the more I love myself, the more I give to others, the more my self-esteem  grows, the more balanced are my reactions to events of everyday life.

This recovery of the relationship with our body takes, as in many Eastern practices of meditation (Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, Qi Gong, Tantra, etc..), to restore balance between mind and body, to sedate the hyperactivity of body and mind, to shift the attention within us  to be able to observe ourselves  objectively and to ‘take distance’ from anything that normally bother us.

“Retrieving this feeling of pleasantness, the feeling of being at ease here and now, to be an integral part of all, is one of the fundamental tasks of meditation.” (C. Lamparelli, 1995)

‘The awareness of being a integral part of  all’. is not just a pretty phrase, it means the recovery of the sense of unity, the overcoming of solitude, the mind-body dualism on which is based on our culture since the times of ancient Greeks, the recovery of harmony.

“It ‘s only in the perfect harmony between body, mind and emotions that we can achieve a sense of moral and personal integrity, of love for others and relationship with the divine. Thanks to this sublime balance is possible to  achieve that ‘state of grace’ so difficult to achieve in life today. “(A. Lowen, 1991)

“I savor the purity and lightness of the energy of the air entering  in me … I wake up to the true reality of life … of the universe … To live for the pleasure and the joy of loving is the deepest meaning of life.” (Marnati / Schnöller, 1999)

(Roma 2011 – Anna Carla Possanzini)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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