Thai massage is new to modern spas, but it is actually an ancient form of massage thought to have been developed by Buddhist monks in Thailand 2,500 years ago. It uses passive stretching and gentle pressure along the body’s energy lines to increase flexibility, relieve muscle and joint tension, and balance the body’s energy systems.
Because Thai massage is done fully clothed, some people recommend it if you feel uncomfortable with the nudity or draping. However, Thai massage is not the best choice for first-time spa-goers. Why? First, you're going to be lying on a futon with a therapist crouched over you, pressing on your legs, just to start. They might use the weight of their body to move your body into various positions to achieve passive stretching.
A lot of what the therapist does is unusual and unexpected — and you have to feel comfortable enough with bodywork that you can relax while they're doing it. If taking off your clothes to get a Swedish massage is an issue, try reflexology — the therapist is working just on your feet, but the benefits are felt throughout the body.
What Happens During a Thai Massage
Thai massage typically works with compression — rhythmic pressing movements directed into muscle tissues by either the hand or fingers. Thai massage usually takes place on a futon mat on the floor, with the client wearing loose or stretchy clothing like yoga gear. The therapist is also on the mat and moves your body into various stretches and positions, without any work on your part. This is why it is sometimes called "lazy man's yoga". Thai massage can be both relaxing and energizing, so it is a good choice if you want to be active after your massage.
The therapist uses a variety of different sequences of techniques on clients, who are either lying face up, lying face down, seated, or on their side. There is constant body contact between the therapist and the client, but rather than rubbing on muscles, the body is compressed, pulled, stretched, and rocked.
Watch Now: How Does Thai Massage Work?
Thai Massage in America
Thai massage has been practiced in America since the 1990s when Westerners began practicing it. Thai massage is more commonly found than it used to be at American spas, but you can't find it everywhere for two reasons. First, the spa needs a room with a large, padded mat in order to offer Thai massage. It's easiest if the room is always set up for Thai massage, and yet it is more of a specialty request. It just makes more economic sense to have the room set up with a table for a Swedish massage. (Some places do offer "table Thai" a modified form of Thai massage that can be performed on a regular massage table.)
The second reason it is not that commonly found is that it requires special training. Many American massage therapists are serious students who have traveled to Asia for intensive programs, but others might have to take a weekend workshop. You might want to inquire about their training before you sign up. If you live in a major city, you might be able to get a high quality, no-frills Thai massage for a reasonable price.
Thai massage has its roots in a spiritual tradition, and its purpose is to heal a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It should not be confused with sensual massage.
What About Thai Massage in Thailand?
In Thailand, it can be found just about anywhere, at stalls on the streets, and for a very low price. Wat Pho in Bangkok is both a 16th-century temple and home to Thailand’s oldest traditional massage schools. After touring the temple, travelers can get a student massage there for 30 minutes or for a full hour.
Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok is also a wonderful place to learn how to actually perform Thai Massage. Classes are offered in English. You don't have to be a licensed massage therapist to take the class, but you do have to be licensed to perform it when you come back to the U.S.