From the chapter “Guidelines for Effortless and Effective Work”
Some students of massage and bodywork learn many techniques over a short period of time. Naturally, they are eager to use them, but using too many techniques in a treatment can sometimes interfere with the overall healing effect.
In the healing arts, techniques are tools to reach a deeper purpose. It’s important to have a lot of tools in the “toolbox”, but highly skilled carpenters can create solid and beautiful structures using only a few simple instruments. Once we understand the most efficient ways of doing things, we can focus our attention on the whole person, and engage in a deeper process of healing.
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Work only within your reach
When I first began to study traditional Thai massage, the sequences that I learned contained some postures and positions that didn’t feel good to me. The techniques were numbered, and taught in rote fashion without giving much consideration to relative body type. I remember one technique that always bothered me. With the receiver in supine position, you place your outside foot against his thigh, and you bend his leg inward so his sole touches his other thigh. With your foot wedged between his calf and his thigh, you extend your arms, lean forward and begin to work on his uppermost leg lines with your fingers. This technique was part of a fixed sequence, and everyone was supposed to do it, but my legs seemed too long to work on many of my fellow students. I couldn’t project my body forward enough to be comfortable because my foot was wedged in the receiver’s leg. That particular technique may have worked well for two height-appropriate people, but not when people of different sizes were working together. My back hurt every time I did it, but I was never encouraged to move my body freely as I worked, or to remove my wedged foot so I could reach further with my hands. I wasn’t shown how to work those same leg lines in a different way, and I wasn’t given permission to simply avoid using techniques that didn’t feel right.
Always avoid using techniques that feel uncomfortable or cause strain to your body. When you are comfortable, your work becomes easier and more effective. Move your body as you work, and work only within your reach.
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The power of stillness
In some styles of Thai massage that resulted from the blending of lineages or that were influenced by Western forms or modern fusions, continual movement seems to be the thing. Techniques are sometimes carried out mechanically, and the body of the receiver is moved, manipulated, twisted, stretched and compressed almost continuously during a treatment. In basic training programs, students are taught to follow sequences, and to quickly move from one technique to another in order to memorize a treatment routine. This is a logical way to learn an entire sequence of techniques, but due to time constraints and the limitations of group teaching, many students are left without an understanding of when to stop and remain motionless during a session. Some of the most traditional and most effective approaches to Thai bodywork are carried out with extended periods of pressure, and with a variety of other static techniques.
A lesson about stillness
I remember a Thai massage treatment I received from a teacher and friend many years ago at her school in Chiang Mai. After working on my feet and my legs, she made contact with my abdomen by warming my entire belly with palm-circles and palm-presses. Then she began to circle slowly with her fingers, sensing, feeling, and stopping occasionally to press a small point inward. She continued in this way for a few moments until she came to a complete stop with only one or two fingers. She pressed slightly downward, but rather than continuing to apply incremental pressure, she released most of the pressure until her fingers came to a resting position in that place, and she remained completely still for quite a long time. Her touch was so light, as if she were gently holding a feather tuft in place. This type of touch brought me a sense of peace and solace, and after about twenty seconds I began to feel something. A slight warming sensation was arising from my stomach to the surface of my skin, right at the place she was touching. It continued to get warmer and warmer until it started to burn. The point of contact between her fingers and my skin eventually became so burning hot that it surprised me. She wasn’t “doing” anything, yet something was happening inside my body. I lifted my head, opened my eyes, and I said “hot.” She whispered a sound of agreement. I closed my eyes again, and after a few more seconds of intense heat, something happened. I felt a movement inside my belly, and the hot sensation was gone. She also sensed that a release had occurred, and she moved on to another place.
I’ll never forget the lesson I learned that day: the power of stillness. That experience taught me many things. I learned that sensing and intuition are powerful tools for healing. I also learned that by stopping all action to remain in one place, even with the slightest touch, we can encourage a person to engage in a process of self-healing. I could never have brought about that release through self-treatment. I needed to feel the support and the patience and the metta of someone whom I trusted.
It takes time to develop the intuitive abilities and the heightened sensitivity required to work in this way. Self-discipline, non-thinking, non-judgment and awareness are important. Some people stay in their heads as they work, always processing and thinking about all the different techniques they can use. They often miss the point because they don’t remain calm and still enough to maximize their sensing abilities, and to encourage self-healing. Here are two wonderful quotes:
“The natural healing force within each of us is the greatest force in getting well” - Hippocrates
“No medicine can heal us better than the power of our own bodies” - Thai proverb
Skilled therapists hone their sensing and intuitive abilities over time when they master the art of becoming still and empty, and when they direct all their sensory awareness not only to the spot they are touching or treating, but also to the whole person. Once these abilities are developed, we can begin to tune in to what the receiver’s body and energy tell us, and this, in turn, inspires us to use certain postures and techniques without thinking very much at all.2 A well-known Thai expression is “Same-same, but different.” If we apply it to Thai massage, it suggests that Thai therapists shouldn’t treat every person in the same way, or use the same routine or the same techniques every time. Try to be as “empty” as possible as you work. Feel, sense, be compassionate, surrender to your inner guidance, and remember to occasionally remain still so you can serve as a witness to each person’s self-healing.
Use resting poses
A receiver’s relationship to time and space in a motionless pose allows him to relax, to unwind, to assimilate positive energy, and to become renewed. Periods of inaction also help a therapist to remain calm and focused, and to rest for brief moments during a treatment.
After a particularly strenuous or difficult posture, or if a client had a strong reaction or an emotional release, consider using a resting pose. To calm things down, use a technique or a posture that requires little or no movement on your part, and yet continues to apply healing touch.
Therapeutic rest can be offered in all body positions, using hands, feet, knees, and forearms. Working the wind gates; applying continuous or incremental pressure with palms or feet; and placing a client in child’s pose for an extended period are a few ways we can allow the receiver to rest and to assimilate therapy in a peaceful way.
In supine position, for example, you may gently work sen sumana (the central line on the upper anterior body) with two fingers of one hand. This requires very little effort on the part of the therapist, but it is extremely calming and reassuring for the receiver.3 Another excellent resting technique, described in the “Using Feet” chapter of this book, provides grounded, relaxing compression to the shoulders and the neck area, and is good to use at the very end of a treatment, right before you begin working on the head and the face.
Extended child’s pose techniques can be very helpful for repose, especially after bending or twisting the body. They are good to use after assisted cobra techniques, backward leg pulls, and for clients with lower back pain. One version is done with the therapist sitting on the receiver’s lower back. After helping your client into child’s pose and adjusting her body as needed, turn around to face her feet and gently sit on her sacrum. Support your own bodyweight with your feet, and sink your weight down very gradually and incrementally. Keep your back straight, and breathe in and out as you feel your client’s body expand and contract. Whenever she inhales, release a little bit of your pressure by engaging your core and your leg muscles, and when she exhales again, immediately follow her exhalation with a return to your original level of pressure. Sit comfortably, keep your legs relaxed and free of tension, and always support some of your bodyweight with your feet. If this position seems sustainable for both people, you may take the stretch to a deeper level. To do this, after sinking your weight down, shift your hara forward and downward to an imaginary place on the floor. Engage your partner’s sacrum with your gluteal muscles as you slide downward at an angle of approximately 35 degrees. Whenever the person inhales, release the intensity of the stretch and slide your body toward the starting position with your leg muscles. When she exhales again, sink downward once again. Hold for as long as you wish, and when you’re finished, release all of your weight gradually as you both inhale, and as you come to a full standing position.