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Tools of Traditional Thai Massage

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-11-10

Following out two previous stories on massage, this week we look at a different style, from Thailand. It is vigorous, based on pressure points and unlike other varieties, uses no oil.

One of the world’s best renowned massage styles is the Thai one. Resident in Okinawa is an expert practitioner in two versions of her home country’s healing art. Tassarin Nemeth trained at Wat Po, one of Bangkok’s main temples which contains a massage school and has a long tradition of imparting the ancient knowledge. She also trained under Lek Chaiya who has been teaching massage in the northern city of Chieng Mai for several decades. One of the differences between the northern and southern style is the use of packs of medicinal herbs.

Tassarin shows me a video of her instructor preparing six different types of herbs for a massage. There is Siamese ginger, yellower than the normal variety, lemon grass, leaves of cinnamon and eucalyptus, lime peel and granulated camphor. These are chopped, ground in a pestle and mortar, then wrapped in a cotton cloth and steamed in a pot. The bunched cloth is about the size of a fist and is used as a pack to pressure points all over the body. The video shows the instructor, known as Mama Lek, doing just this, as well as demonstrating all the other manipulations needed for the massage.

Tassarin has some of these herbs in her kitchen and also grows them in her garden, though her supply was somewhat diminished by the last big typhoon. She shows me a plate of them and bites off a piece of the Siamese ginger. “It’s good for stomach ache”she says. “Put a piece next to an aching tooth and soon the pain will go. It’s good for bad breath too.” She rubs some on her skin and explains it is beneficial for the skin as well.

The type of massage I sample is the non-herbal variety. Thai massage, in contrast to other styles, is dry. It relies on pressuring and kneading muscles rather than soothing the skin with oils, as in aromatherapy. Tassarin however knows oil massage techniques and will do oil massage, if requested.

After the customer has changed into light cotton pajamas and been invited to lie on his/her back, Tassarin starts on the feet. They are stretched by being turned outwards and she works up one leg at a time, pressing hard on the muscles. The legs are pushed to a vertical position and soles of the feet pressured with the elbows. She also stretches the tendons by crooking the legs, jamming her own feet onto the thigh and pulling on one foot at a time with her hands.

The massage not only stretches the muscles but stimulates blood flow and uses the same pressure points known to acupuncture.

The theory is that the pressure points act as hubs controlling the inflow and outflow of invisible lines of energy or meridians, running through the body. When the energy is blocked, pain and illness can result. Western science does not have an explanation for the theory but the inroads acupuncture has made into conventional medicine, show that it gets results. Anyone who has had a good massage can testify to its invigorating effects.

Tassarin does not have set time for her massage sessions, but she reckons she can work over a slim body in about an hour. A bigger body will take more like two hours.

After giving the legs a thorough going over, the massage subject is asked to lie on one side. There is more elbow work on the upper thigh and backside. The same process is then repeated lying on the other side. The customer is then asked to lie on their stomach. A rolling pin is then applied to the backs of the calves and upper legs. Tassarin says this process softens up the muscles and she then massages them by hand.

The back is massaged with thumbs, palms and elbows. In a sitting position more pressure is applied to the back by means of the masseuse’s knees, while she pulls back the subject’s arms. The top of the head is then massaged. Still in a sitting position, fingers, hands and arms are pressured. Finally the face is given the finger treatment while lying back on a pillow.

Anyone who wants to experience genuine Thai massage can make an appointment with Tassarin Nemeth. Sessions cost $30 and $5 of this will be donated to a charity in Thailand which is looking after 150 boys without parents. These are either in jail, (mostly for drug offences) or have been AIDS infected. The children are being cared for in a monastery in Chieng Mai under very basic conditions. When enough money has been collected, land will be bought and a school built for them. Tassarin, who always has some involvement in charitable works, says she fears for these children if they are not given some other influences outside their disastrous family circumstances.

Tassarin asks anyone wanting a massage not to eat anything for an hour beforehand. If the session takes place before lunch or dinner and the customer feels hungry she will cook them a Thai meal at no charge. This is a considerable bonus from someone who recently managed a restaurant and still runs a catering and take-out food service from her home.

The indefatigable lady will also teach Thai massage, Thai cooking and the Thai language to anyone interested in learning. Telephone 098 936 8105 and 090 9587 0961 or e-mail Thai Massage Massage is by appointment only, from 9.00 a.m. - 7 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. 60-120 minutes costs $ 30.

Directions: Coming from Kadena Gate 2 on Highway 23 towards Highway 58, turn right immediately after Book Box and follow the road around to the left for a couple of minutes to Katsu Apartments. A yellow banner outside advertises the Traditional Thai Massage Service and Training Center. It is on the first floor #101.

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