Bodywork Newbies (unsolicited advice)

A friend and student of mine just posted on Facebook asking what people's advice to someone thinking about becoming a massage therapist would be.  I immediately knew I had more to say than would fit in a Facebook thread.  So I came over here.  I'm pressed for time right now, so this might be a bit clumsy, but here goes... My advice to those just deciding to dip their toes in the study of bodywork.

1) take good body science classes. If where you live doesn't require that you learn anatomy/kinesiology/pathology then go take some community college classes.  You don't have to be able to name every muscle in the body to be a good therapist, and knowing anatomy certainly isn't what makes someone a good massage practitioner unto itself as it doesn't teach touch sensitivity, but it can be a key ingredient in making someone who is good at touch into a great practitioner.  Having the ability to visualize what is under the skin you are touching is game changing. 

2) Then, if you don't know what modality you are interested in, dabble for a bit getting different sorts of sessions and taking workshops in different modalities at first. Remember that not every practitioner is the same, so don't judge a modality based on one treatment from one person. Spend some time finding out the potential of different modalities.  If one interests you, talk to a variety of people who practice it.  You are looking for something to sink your learning teeth into, so it's worth putting in the time to sass out what you want to do. 

3) Eventually figure out a modality that you like and go deep with it. Find something that you can study for years (not that it has to take years before you can practice, just that there will be ever more to learn) and get really good at it. Be careful of the tendency common to massage therapists to think that they need to have a laundry list of modalities that they have studied. Too many people become a Jack Of All Trades Master of None - I'd rather see someone who is serious about a modality, even if it's not my favorite modality, than someone who has taken a class or two in a modality that I like and tacked it onto a list of 10 other modalities. When I see those websites and business cards that list 10 modalities I think "yeah, but what are you good at?" 

4) Learn to do deep work - gentle light touch relaxation massages are a dime a dozen.  For people who like deep work finding a skillful deep tissue practitioner (and I use the term deep tissue to apply to a variety of modalities - for instance, I do deep tissue Thai massage) is like finding treasure.  Being skillful at deep work, you can still do the light gentle work as needed of course, but you bring more to the table for those who need and want more. 

5) If you go to one of those massage schools - the ones that are hundreds (or in some places thousands) of hours of training, remember that even though you are learning a lot, you are not graduating suddenly a masterful massage therapist or a doctor.  Those schools usually take about a year to complete.  Doctors go to school for significantly longer and becoming a highly skillful massage therapist requires having a practice beyond your school time - experience touching many many bodies.  I see a lot of people fresh out of massage school who seem to think that because they know what the greater trochanter is they are now a medic.  26 years ago my first massage teacher said to me "on Friday I'm going to give you all a certificate.  Remember that when you complete any course of study, whether it's a course like this, or law school, or medical school, the piece of paper that you get in the end doesn't mean you are now qualified.  It means that you now have what it takes to go out and learn your skill".  All the schooling is is a launch pad - it gives you the foundation that will allow you to then truly learn. Yes, you can immediately start your massage practice; and you should, for that is a huge part of how you learn your skill, but you aren't done studying.  After massage school, seek out individual teachers to guide you into your specialization.  Never stop taking classes.  And practice practice practice.  I've been a massage therapist for 26 years and I still take classes.  There is always more to learn. 

6) Know going in, that in addition to becoming a massage therapist, you are becoming a business. Most people who are attracted to learning massage are kind and compassionate people who want to spend their days nurturing others.  This is wonderful, but you need to realize that unless you plan on working for others (like in a spa or chiropractic office), then you also have to become a business person.  You have to deal with marketing, maintaining a website, social media outreach, all of the nuts and bolts of getting clients.  They rarely just show up.  Your social community of friends and family is rarely enough to create a viable massage practice.  The number one thing that I see cause people who became massage therapists to leave it behind is that they didn't realize going in that they would have to wear a business hat in addition to wearing a loving caregiver hat.  It's very hard to build a private massage practice that has enough clients to pay the rent.  Being a great therapist isn't enough - you have to also decide whether or not it makes sense to use Google Adwords, and if print advertising is dead or not, and should you give away sessions?  Should you try to give lectures at local events? And what is SEO and does it matter?
If you want to have a private practice, something about this side of things needs to be appealing.  I don't like it all, but for the most part I actually find the business part to be interesting and fun.  I like the creativity of business,  I like working on my website, and I like learning so much that I can even enjoy a well written business book. When I started The Naga Center I went to the library and I got a stack of books on how to write a business plan, and I wrote one.  I went to the local SCORE office where you can get free business mentorship and I paid attention.  I suck at a lot of the business stuff (hello pile of receipts tossed in a drawer to be looked at with horror come tax time), but I don't hate it.  Those who do usually move on to other professions. 

7) Massage can be a very solitary profession.  Most of the time it's just you and your clients.  Most of the time you aren't around others who are doing the same thing as you.  I've heard a lot of massage therapists talk about feeling isolated.  Seek out other massage therapists.  Join massage Facebook groups.  You'll want to talk to others who understand what you do sometimes. 

I think there is a lot more to say, but I have to fly to Thailand day after tomorrow and much to do.  I will probably come back and edit this - add more to it and smooth out the edges. 

Do I Teach Lanna Medicine?

I've been hearing rumors for awhile now that I, and the handful of other instructors who study with my teacher, practice, study, and teach, traditional Lanna medicine rather than traditional Thai medicine.  While I would love to practice more Lanna medicine, the truth is that very little of what I do and teach is Lanna.  In order to clear this up, I think we need to begin by demystifying some of the various categories of medicine practiced in Thailand.

  • Pâet păen tai (แพทย์แผนไทย), which translates simply as "Thai medicine", is the most recent evolution of Thai medicine, having been codified in the 20th century and continuing to be modified in modern times. This systemized form of Thai medicine is taught at government approved schools. It stems from Bangkok, being promoted by the Ministry of Public Health and is taught in traditional medicine degree programs. 
  • Pâet păe boh-raan (แพทย์แผโบราณ), which translates simply as "traditional medicine", is also a more recent incarnation, being based on texts dating back to the 1800s.  It is written primarily in Thai and Khmer script.  The practice of this system varies according to region, practitioner, and which texts are referenced.  This and the first category, Pâet păen tai, are where you see the more modern concept of sen sip (a subject for another day). 
     
  • Pâet péun bâan (แพทยพื้นบ้าน), which translates as "local medicine", is likely the most pervasive as it encompasses local practices found throughout the country.  Doctors who fall into this category utilize regional variations of theory and techniques that pre-date, and often contribute to, the first two categories above.  These systems are based on local texts and teachings and are generally quite old.
     
  • Pâet péun bâan kŏng laan-naa (แพทยพื้นบ้านของลานนา ), which translates as "local medicine of Lanna", is a sub-category of Local/Indigenous medicine (Pâet péun bâan). Lanna medicine is based on texts and teaching in the Lanna language found in the northernmost reaches of Thailand. The term pâet péun bâan khawng laan-naa,while accurate, is not colloquially in use, and local doctors prefer the term mŏr-meuang (หมอเมือง), which simply means "town doctor".  This is perhaps the oldest system of medicine in Thailand as local medicine has been best preserved in the north. 
     
  • Hill Tribe medicine is another umbrella term that covers the many different ethnic/cultural groups commonly called Hill Tribes. Since there is no one "hill tribe", it's a catch all term that is a bit overly generic in that it fails to acknowledge the many and decidedly separate Hill Tribe cultures. 

In addition to what is listed above you can find Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Burmese medicine and of course, modern western medicine being practiced in Thailand.  But what we are primarily concerned with here is the traditional medicine of Thailand, which all of the above categories fall into, with some being older than others. 

The Lanna (or to be more Thai about it, the láan naa ล้านนา) kingdom was one of the oldest cultures of Thailand, dating from around 1262 C.E. to the late 1700s.  It existed in northern Thailand, beginning around Chiang Rai and expanding across to Mae Hong Son and down to around Chiang Mai.  Today the people of northern Thailand consider themselves to be Lanna, a separate culture from mainstream Thai culture, and speak Lanna language in addition to modern Thai.  Lanna culture has in many ways been preserved where other parts of Thailand have adapted more to global influences.  Because of this the medical practices of northern Thailand are some of the most rooted in consistent history; although of course, these days things are changing fast and the strong presence of western healing arts practitioners in northern Thailand is having a rapid and considerable impact. 

While there is much cross over between Thai and Lanna medicine, Lanna medicine is a separate system with theoretical ideas and techniques not found in mainstream Thai culture. 

My teacher is a traditional Thai medicine doctor who has studied extensively in both Northern and Central Thailand.  He has gone through the Ministry of Traditional Thai Medicine's traditional medicine degree program in Bangkok, and has personal teachers in various parts of the country including some primary teacher's in the north.  While it is true that some of his most in-depth and ongoing studies have been and are with Lanna doctors, what he teaches his western students like me is primarily Thai medicine, not Lanna. 

What I, and others who have had the fortune to study with him have been taught has been a mix of all the different aspects of Thai medicine that he knows, but it has been heavily weighted on the general medicine of Thailand.  Some Lanna medicine techniques have made their way into his teachings, such as tok sen, some traditional northern stretches, and cupping, but as one of his first students I have watched him teach for many years now and can easily confirm that I have only very recently seen him offer the tip of the ice berg of Lanna medical theory, something I believe he has only taught in one or two classes at this point and certainly has not taught enough for any of us to be practiced enough in it to implement or teach it ourselves.  Far and away the vast majority of what I know, practice and teach, is traditional Thai medicine.  I would love to say it is Lanna, as I am quite attracted to Lanna medicine, but that simply would not be true.  I know a handful of lovely techniques, and so little theory as to be firmly in the infancy of study. 

It's important to me to address this because to allow the rumor to spread that what we teach is Lanna is misleading.  The differences in what I and my study siblings practice and teach from what most westerners are teaching lay not in a regional source separation, but more simply in having studied with different teachers, texts and levels of Thai healing arts. 

In the mountains of northern Thailand

In the mountains of northern Thailand

Where's The Theory?

And one more from the archives of my old blog.  Written in March 2011

 

I find people frequently saying that Thai massage either has no medical theory behind it, or that the theory is all Indian or Chinese.  While it is true that India and China share some theory with Thailand, it is not correct to simply say that Thai theory is in fact Chinese, or Indian.  Thailand has it’s own distinct traditional medical theory that is influenced by the culture, the geography, the climate, and yes, the neighbors; but what comes from the neighbors is only one of the many influences.  Even at that, as outside knowledge is brought in to any culture it is rarely copycatted, but rather adapted, evolved, and enfolded into the existing knowledge of the region.

So why is it that so many westerners who have studied Thai massage in Thailand come away believing that there is no traditional medical theory underlying the techniques they have learned?  Or that if there is, it is not Thai?  I think there are several factors including the historical culture of how knowledge is shared, language barriers, time, and a protectiveness on the part of many Thais.  I’m going to break this down a bit here.

Historical Culture of How Knowledge is Shared
Most of us are accustomed to being able to learn pretty much whatever we want so long as we have the money to pay someone to teach us, and the time to engage ourselves in learning.  With a subject such as healing arts however, this has not traditionally been enough to warrant instruction.  Historically if you wished to become a traditional medicine practitioner such as a massage therapist, you had to find a master who would accept you as a student.  A master might only accept a few students in his or her lifetime, so having a teacher was fortunate indeed.  There weren’t classes that started on Monday, cost X amount of dollars and ended two weeks from Friday with a certificate.  Instead, the student would apprentice to the master for years, following him or her around, watching treatments, eventually helping out, someday becoming a practitioner.  This is true even for massage, for we must remember that massage on a deeply therapeutic level was a part of the traditional medicine of Thailand, and those who practiced it on this level were considered massage doctors.
It must be understood that the whole teacher student relationship is different in Thailand than it is in the west.  In Thailand they differentiate from the teacher who teaches a class, or teaches you for a short time such as a week or even six months, and the teacher who you spend years of your life with and will likely care for when he or she becomes old.  Westerners may develop strong respect and affection for a teacher such as the well known master Pichest Boomthame, who maybe they visit every year, but even after many years of spending a handful of weeks per year in Thailand it is unlikely that Pichest will ever see any of us as true students.   We remain one of hundreds who seek him out, and to the best of my knowledge, he has never taken on a true student.  To do so is a commitment on the part of the student that simply cannot be met without a long term move to Thailand.
And so it must be understood that without the traditional student teacher relationship being met, the teachers we find in Thailand are not inclined to teach to the level of real Thai medical theory.

Language Barriers
If you went to massage school (or some other path toward having a license to touch, such as nursing, physical therapy etc.), you know that learning to work with the healing arts required a new language; the language of anatomy.  Muscle names, anatomical directions, physiological terminology, pathologies; being able to speak shop with health care providers took enormous effort even within your own country.  So imagine if someone were to come to say, an english speaking country, with limited english, but wanting to learn in somewhere between a week to a year, a medical modality; even one as potentially simple as Swedish massage.  Can you imagine getting through massage school without speaking english?  You might be able to learn the massage strokes, but it would be hard to get the anatomy and physiology.  Yet when people go to Thailand, not speaking Thai, they come to the conclusion that the absence of theory in their massage lessons must equate to an absence of theory in the modality itself.

Even if you have taken the time to learn to speak Thai fluently, as in the states you must learn the language of anatomy even though you speak English, so must a student of traditional medicine in Thailand learn the language of medicine there.  And so we have a double language barrier; for to learn the theory of traditional Thai medicine in most circumstances a person must speak Thai fluently, and also know how to communicate about the science of the body through the traditional medical lens.  In my experience in Thailand, even most ex patriots who have moved there do not learn the language fluently; and most massage therapists going there on vacation to learn massage learn only basic needs based tourist Thai.  This all must be seriously considered when wishing to know the theory in Traditional Thai Medicine for, unlike Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, not much as been written about Thai medicine in English.  We do not have schools teaching it as we do traditional Chinese or Indian medicine; we must go to the source, and the source rarely speaks fluent English, let alone medical English.

Time
This one is easy and obvious; the vast majority of westerners studying Thai massage in Thailand have limited time.  Whether you go for two weeks, six months or a year, time limits the depths to which the art may be studied.  Thai massage is a modality that incorporates thousands of techniques,and these techniques tie into a vast system of medical theory; it would be quite simple, given the presence of the right teacher, to spend a large portion of your life studying Thai bodywork and still have more to learn.  And so it is easy to keep visitors happy learning and refining the gross techniques of Thai massage without ever getting to the underlying theory.

Protectiveness of Cultural Knowledge
Yes, it’s true; Thai people, while happy to make a living sharing a lot of their culture with us, have limits as to how much of their knowledge they wish to give away to the non-Thai world.  After all, they have been burned in the past.  A couple of years ago Thailand fought against the attempts of a Japanese business man to trademark the term “reusi da ton”, the Thai name for Thailand’s traditional self care system, and there have been stories of American attempts to trademark the term “nuad boran”, meaning “traditional massage” in Thai.  This sort of non-Thai ownership attempt at Thai cultural/intellectual property leads to a wariness in Thais who feel a deep personal and patriotic connection to the knowledge when it comes to outsiders wishing to learn all they can.

Look around the non-Thai, Thai massage world and it is easy to find even westerners who live full time in Thailand saying that Thai massage lacks theory.  This idea is backed up by multiple books and well known non-Thai teachers who state plainly that the theory is all Indian or Chinese, if there is any theory at all.  What I see happening is that people go to Thailand where they are taught the physical techniques of Thai massage; then they return to America (or Germany or Canada or France or …) where they decide to teach what they have learned, in books and in classes.  They are faced with an audience who wants to know what is behind the techniques, but since the teachers and authors themselves have most likely only gotten at best a tiny smidgeon of theory, they are forced to extrapolate, to jump to the most logical conclusion about theory without having any real training on the subject.  What most end up doing is overlaying Indian or Chinese theory on top of Thai techniques.

Most prominently we see Thai techniques being mixed with Ayurvedic theory.  This has been put forth in so many english language books on Thai massage that it has come full circle to the point where even many Thai people will say that the theory all comes from India.  It is true that India has influence on Thai medicine, but to say that Thai theory is Ayurvedic theory is to dismiss a long history of medicine in the geographical region that has come to be known as Thailand.

Firstly, as my teacher says, medicine goes with the land.  The climate produces certain disease tendencies, the geography allows for certain plants to grow, and whatever peoples are in an area will always have medicinal knowledge.  It is my personal belief that as long as there have been humans, there has been medicine.  People have always sought to bring relief to pain and disease.  Even the simple act of putting your inflamed aching foot into the cool creek is, in effect, medicine.  And so the first source of Thai medical theory must be the land of Thailand; inclusive of the first pre-historic humans to have populated the area and all that they may have passed from generation to generation throughout time.

Other sources of traditional Thai medical knowledge include China (pre-traditional Chinese medicine as known today), India (pre Ayurvedic medicine), and the T’ai people; the ethnic group that came to inhabit the area.  We must also take into account the Mon peoples from Burma and the Khmer people from Cambodia who inhabited the area before the T’ai people moved in; although with the Mon and the Khmer, I believe we are connecting to the first source, the region itself and it’s pre-historic peoples.

Traditional Thai medical theory, like traditional medical theory all over the world, is based in element theory; the idea that all things, from stones to trees, from animals to thoughts, are made of combination of earth, water, fire and wind that varies only in the balance of the four elements.  This idea is found in ancient Mayan medicine, ancient Greek medicine, ancient Tibetian medicine; ancient medicine from all corners of the globe.  What differentiates Thai medical theory from other cultures is the degree of focus on the elements as well as the integration of channel (sen line) theory, point theory, and Buddhism into the medical system.

Traditional Thai medicine has much in common with Indian and Tibetian medicine, and even with ancient Greek medicine, and to a lesser degree, Chinese medicine.  This said, one cannot simply insert Indian theory on top of Thai techniques and still call it Thai.  Thai medicine does not use the chalkra system, doshas are not exactly what is used in Thai element theory, and the stretches of Thai massage are not yoga poses; although some will look like it due to the fact that bodies stretch the same all over the world.  The confluence of ideas that permeates medical knowledge across the globe is a sharing that I rejoice in, however it does not mean that we can substitute so easily one theory for another.  Thai massage is a component part of the physical/orthopedic medicine root of Thai healing arts, and it is supported by a complex and ancient medical system of its own.

Goodbye Massage Table: With a Heart Twinge

Another old blog post from April 2011  ~ wish I had a picture of that table

 

My first massage table was handmade by a guy named Perry.  I know his name was Perry because on the bottom of the table there is a picture of a pear followed by the letter E.  The hunters green vinyl is covered in cracks now, and I gave up table work years ago, but still there is a part of me that doesn’t want to let it go.  When I was twenty it was my prize possession; something to take loving care of.  I had rules about my massage table; no one could touch it without my permission, and no having sex on my table.  This is the sort of rule you have to make when you are in your early twenties, living with roommates.

When I was twenty three I spent a summer and fall traveling around the country doing massage at skydiving events called boogies.  Boogies usually happen at small town airports; hundreds of skydivers converge to set up tents between the runways.  Loud speakers blast rock and roll all day, interrupted by announcements and the sound of planes taking off and landing.  I would set up my table, working in the chaos; people literally falling out of the sky around me.  It was my first grand adventure, and all I had was my backpack, my tent and my massage table.  I didn’t even own a car, so the journey across America and back started with a train ride to a drop zone in Montana and included a long time traveling with a friend who paid his way by packing parachutes at the Boogies.  There was also some hitching rides on jumper planes going from one airport or drop zone to the next.  Jumper planes are usually little Cessnas or Otters, with no seats – just a side door that opens for the jump.

My first jump was in Quincy Illinois at the biggest Boogie of the year.  It was a tandom jump, with me strapped to a base jumper who snuck me onto the plane in exchange for a massage.   My second jump was another tandom, strapped   in the early morning to a jump master named Junk Yard Dog who I met  the night before at the nitrous tank he managed (thank goodness we survive our twenties!).  Skydivers party.  I did that jump sans clothing, figuring that if you are going to fall fifteen thousand feet you might as well do it naked.  The moon was still out, hanging with the morning sun.

After that I got a ride in a little jumper going from Illinois to Arizona. Or damn, did Tennessee come first?  The pilot set the plane on go and promptly fell asleep.  We woke him up when the lightning storm hit us, causing an impromptu landing in some little airport in the middle of nowhere.

Arizona was end of summer hot.  I set up my tent in the desert on the edge of the drop zone and spent my nights listening to the coyote footfalls in the sand.  I liked the coyotes being around because I figured if wild things like them hung out around my tent it meant there weren’t any bad guys nearby.  In the days I did the occasional massage as skydiving teams from around the world slowly trickled in to train for World Meet; the olympics of skydiving.  There wasn’t really all that much massage business so I started driving the bus that took teams out to the runway, in exchange for skydiving lessons.  I got stick shift driving lessons on the job, figuring out how to drive the bus while the jumpers in the back laughed at me lurching them around the tarmac.

Once World Meet was in full swing massage business picked up so me and my table got back to bonding.  I’m not sure how long I was in Arizona.  Long enough to find a mattress for my tent and learn a lot about immersion in a male dominated extreme sport.  Eventually I put my backpack and table in a kind strangers car, accepting a ride back to California that led to a train ride to Oregon where I fell off the road without noticing.  For a few years I practiced massage under the radar since I wasn’t licensed in Oregon and I kept thinking I was about to get back on the road.  I dabbled in skydiving at a small Oregon drop zone that I won’t name.  I should have known from the duct tape on their parachutes that there was something amiss with them; I thought I was completing my training, but it turns out they were not qualified to give me a certification that would be accepted anywhere else.  The experience ended my jumping days since I could not afford to re-do the training jumps elsewhere.

Eventually I realized I might not be leaving Oregon, so I went back to school to get my Oregon LMT license.  My table was set up in my shack in Cannon Beach (a real shack, with raccoons underneath, rats in the walls, and plants from the outside growing into the inside) and I commuted four days a week to Portland for school.  My table never lost the smell of its desert time, and so even as years passed, it became a symbol of the kind of turning point that only happens at a certain age.  That table was connected to my first sense of adult worth; having a skill that I could take anywhere and support myself with.  And it was connected to this time when I learned that I could fling myself into the world with nothing and survive.  And of course, that table will always be imbedded with the visceral knowledge of free fall, literally and metaphorically.

Just me; my backpack, my tent, and my green massage table.  That was all I needed for one of the most self creating times of my life.

After getting licensed in Oregon I went down to Eugene and picked out a new table from Custom Craftworks.  It was bigger and cushier, “wine” colored, and designed to be climbed on.  It wasn’t cracked and dirty and rickety, but it didn’t smell like the desert or carry the vibrations of my twenties either.

The old hunter green table has lived in my basement for ten years now.  Unused.  I don’t even use the plush wine one since I devoted myself to Thai massage, but I’ll keep that one just in case.  At this very moment, as I write, my son is outside running a garage sale in our driveway.  My old table is out there with a lot of other junk.  I can’t think of a reason to keep something that big around that I don’t use other than material attachment; but it deserves an ode, so here I am, writing.  Maybe it wont’ sell today.  Maybe this isn’t goodbye quite yet; but it’s coming.  Because twenty years later I am still a growing and changing human, and right now is about a different kind of free fall.  Let go.

Dana ~ The Art of Voluntary Donation

Another post from an old blog I kept.  This one I wrote in April of 2011

 

Dana is a gift joyfully given.  It is the art of voluntary donation.  In Buddhism it is in Dana that we find the heart of the symbiotic relationship between the Sangha and the layperson.  The Sangha cannot exist without the support of the householders; through donations of food, clothing and other necessities; and the householder’s spiritual growth is accelerated through hearing the dhamma that is taught by the community of renunciates that makes up the Sangha.

When the householder gives to a renunciate, ascetic, teacher, or any in need, a multitude of good results.  In the act of giving, the layperson experiences non-attachment as they let go of the food or money or other gift, and so right there exists already a lesson.  Also in the act of joyful giving is inherent generosity, goodwill, compassion and empathy.  Giving is never a one way action, for if it is done with joy, immediately the giver benefits and progresses on their spiritual path.  For this reason Dana is one of the three practices that The Buddha laid out for the layperson to embrace.

 

Dana can be a complete act unto itself, but it is often part of a larger exchange between those who offer dhamma teachings and those who would hear them.  Bhikkus and Bhikunis do not exist on the goodwill of society without giving back; indeed, what they offer back is one of the most precious gifts possible as they give us the teachings of the Buddha, guidance in our exploration of the teachings, and support in our spiritual journey.  In Thailand the monks with their begging bowls are not simply receiving, they are providing the laypeople with a chance to be generous, to earn merit, to experience right action.  These rewards for giving should not be the reason for giving, but simply a realistic side effect.

The Buddhist Sangha is not the only place where the Dana relationship exists.  Anyone who chooses not to set prices for their services, but rather to accept voluntary donations enters into an alternate realm of exchange in which the service must inspire true generosity.  In Thailand there are many walks of life that do not allow for required payment for services, but instead must rely upon voluntary giving.  Shamans and medicine men, midwives and magical tattoo artists, those who work with spirits, and of course, any who teach the dhamma; they must all give their healing treatments, lessons and other services to all who ask, with no expectation of specific payment.  Like the layperson who gives food to an ascetic with no intention of receiving reward, yet reward comes, these people give their services because they are called to do so, and in a culture that understands dana, they are supported; their needs are met.

My teacher is a traditional medicine practitioner and a yogi; as such he does not set prices for his time teaching individuals such as myself, or even formal classes such as those I sometimes host for him.  In the U.S. this causes a certain amount of distress for the students as they struggle to know what is correct payment for his teachings and treatments.  They ask me frequently “how much should I give”?  It is the hardest question I face from my students, and one I struggle with myself, because there is no answer.  Having said this, I’ll do my best.

In deciding how much to give to a teacher or service provider, it is good to think of how much you appreciate and value the teachings and/or services.  Also think of what these teachings/services might cost in a space where prices are set.  Of course, if the teaching/service touches you deeply and inspires a desire to give generously, preconceived ideas of what a class is worth become irrelevant as you instead look to your own reality as to what you can afford to give.  It is important to keep in mind that those who work for donation only, have many of the same needs as the rest of us.  They have travel expenses, clothing needs; they often have their own teachers who they may wish to donate to (and you learn from that teacher as well through the vessel of your own teacher).  In the case of my teacher, he is a traditional Thai medicine practitioner, so he also has the expense of medicines, which he gives freely to those he treats.  And so whatever you give to the one teacher may reach far beyond the single gift.  We must also keep in mind that dana is part of the treatment or lesson process; without it, the treatment efficacy is potentially decreased, the lesson may not sink as deep, for we have not completed the energetic exchange.

Generosity is relative term.  A rich person who gives large sums of money may be a terribly important factor in the existence of dana based systems, yet this person is not necessarily more or less generous than a poor person who gives a small donation.  Sometimes the rich person giving large sums may be less generous than the poor person if perhaps the rich person gives without joy, or gives what they have so much of that it cannot be missed while the poor person sacrifices something from their life in the process; like maybe they cannot have coffee for a week because they gave ten dollars, or because they have no money they instead find the time to sweep the temple daily.  It is not for us to judge whose donation carries greater weight, it is not a system of judgment or competition, right or wrong.  Simply give what you can realistically and joyfully afford to give and trust that the receiver, if they give healings, teachings, services in the same light, are likewise doing so joyfully as their own process and unconnected to your dana.

Dana is not only about renunciates, ascetics and healers.  Giving to a homeless person panhandling in the streets is dana.  Giving to charity is dana.  Paying for the car behind you crossing a toll bridge is dana.  Nor is dana only about money and goods.  Caring for stray animals is dana.  Volunteering in a children’s hospital is dana.  Teaching yoga to prisoners in your spare time is dana.  Cleaning a sick friend’s house is dana.  And at the end of the day, dedicating any merit you have acquired, through goodness you have knowingly or unknowingly done, to other sentient beings who may need it, is dana.

There are many ways to give joyfully.

To learn more about Dana, here are some resources for you.

Dana: Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism by Ellison Banks Findly
This book closely examines the relationship between the layperson and the sangha with a specific focus on dana.  It does not address dana in other facets of life.

Dana: The Practice of Giving edited by Bhikku Bodhi
This little book contains several essays focused on the subject of dana.

Some good websites:

http://www.usamyanmar.net/Buddha/Article/Dana-Sila-Bhavana.pdf

http://www.purifymind.com/Givings.htm

http://asiarecipe.com/thaigiving.html

Sen & Lysol

This was originally posted on a different blog of mine in 2011

I am moving a handful of old posts over to this blog; enjoy!
 

I was vegetarian by the time I was nine years old, and a massage therapist by the time I was twenty-one.  I don’t even remember choosing organic, organic just is.  So when I was in my late twenties and a friend watching me clean my house said “Nephyr, why are you using all that toxic crap?”, it actually surprised me to look at the Lysol and blue window cleaner in my hands.  Somehow, despite all of my natural living, I had not gotten around to questioning my cleaning agents.  They were the products my parents used, and so by some sort of default cleaning system, they were the products I used.  As soon as my friend asked the question I saw the toxic products for what they were, and knew that they would never again be utilized in my house.  What surprised me was that I hadn’t noticed such an obvious thing on my own.

I’m having another of those duh moments, only this time it’s not about cleaning, it’s about Thai massage.  When I first began learning Thai massage it wasn’t so much with individual teachers as it is now, but in efficient established classes with workbooks and sequences.  And while each class I took might have some variance in techniques, one basic sequential progression was common to all of them; toward the beginning of the massage you palm press the legs, then you thumb press the sen on the legs. It was always after thumbing the lines that stretches and other techniques came into play.   Later, when you reached the arms, you palm pressed the arms followed by thumb pressing the lines on the arms.  Same for the posterior legs and the back.  Arrive at an area, palm press it, thumb press it, then do “other stuff”.

When I created my first Thai massage class I modeled it after one that had been modeled after a course at the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai.  Since most of the prominent teachers training westerners in the Chiang Mai area stemmed in one way or another from Old Medicine Hospital, some variety of this sequence was quite commonly taught to beginning students.  And they all launched from palm pressing to thumbing the lines early on.  As did my beginning Thai massage course at The Naga Center.  Over the years I have changed various things in that class, but the early palming and thumbing has remained, unquestioned, like Lysol.

What makes my lack of questioning in this area extra blind is that my teacher has been telling me about the different layers of the body for a few years now.  Telling me about how one path of disease comes from the outside in: first hitting the skin (a chill wind, a pathogen, extreme heat…), then moving into the next layer, the tissue (muscle, fascia…), then moving to the next layer, the channels (sen/lines), before moving to the bone, followed by the organs (first hollow organs, then solid).  We have talked about this progression quite a bit in relation to how dis-ease moves both into and out of the body.  Sometime in the last year he made a comment about how even though Thai bodywork is ultimately about reaching and working with the sen, you often have to spend a lot of time working on the layer of the tissue or else you can’t reach the lines.

It was a Lysol moment.  As a massage therapist for over 20 years, I know full well that you have to go in layer by layer, moving from superficial to deep.  I understood this when I practiced deep tissue swedish massage; but something happened when I learned Thai massage that caused me to hand over some basic common sense in the face of a foreign culture saying this is how we do this.  I went right along, for almost twelve years now, with the idea that you could approach say a leg, and go straight from some gentle palm pressing to working deep channels.  Of course, some part of me knew that this wasn’t really working; it’s why, despite so many years of practicing and teaching Thai bodywork, I have never connected with sen line work as much as I wanted to.  Even while recent years have brought more and more understanding of how the sen work, how to make intelligent choices in how I approach them, still they didn’t seem fully there for me.  I know now that this is due to the automatic knee jerk pattern of always working the lines, whether I had actually gotten to them or not.

So lately the channels come last, or close to last, if there is any resistance in the tissue (and we all know that there generally is).  I palm, I stretch, I use hot herbal compresses, I use percussion,  I use deep compression, I apply balms and liniments, I utilize Thai neuromuscular release points, I use tok sen,  I do everything I can to free the layer of the tissue; and then, only then, when I know I can really get in, I work the sen.

Let Us Treat One Another With Kindness

*This piece was originally written as a "note" on the Naga Center's Facebook Page*

Let us speak to one another with kindness when we play in this realm of social media. Let us speak to one another as if we were always addressing our dearest deeply loved friend. This is a letter to the Thai massage community, especially the teaching community. It is in regards to a tendency I see of tearing down one another’s Facebook posts from time to time. We must keep in mind that those who write about Thai massage and medicine online are usually teachers and practitioners. What this means is that we are people who earn our livelihoods through Thai massage. It is how we keep a roof over our heads, it is how we feed our children, it is how we care for our aging parents, it is how we give dana donations to our teachers, and it is how we hopefully have a bit left over to give to important charities, working to save the world on many fronts; although I know that many of us live hand to mouth and have little to give. Our clients and students may be following us online. When we publicly tear one another down, we potentially cost one another business; a real life consequence. We potentially take from a student, what might have been an important learning experience as we may cause them to doubt an excellent teacher. We potentially take from a suffering person the possibility of an amazing healing experience with a practitioner who we caused them to doubt. And all too often, this is done as a strange form of marketing ourselves at the expense of our community. Let me show the world how clever I am by publicly telling someone else that they are wrong.

We can talk all we want about the importance of being free to say what we like, what we think, what we believe, and we can call public malignment “friendly debate”. But let us take a moment to consider our words carefully. To consider just how important it is to insert ourselves, to be critical, to be right. Let us treat one another with kindness, and if we do not agree with something someone said, we might want to consider the golden rule. Let us be mindful of our actions. The other day a Thai massage teacher asked me about something online, in a public format. As soon as I realized that my answer might in some small way have the potential to be read as critical (even though my perception was not critical), I did what I always do; I moved the conversation into a private chat. I didn’t know this teacher, but I decided to default to respecting him and his students enough to err on the side of excessive caution. I would not want, for a moment, for my words to cause one of his students to lose faith in him, nor would I want to appear to be “one upping” him, or trying to lure his students my way. It is highly likely (but as yet unknown) that he teaches in a way that I would not agree with or like, for I am an outlier in the western Thai massage world. But this does not make me want to hurt him and/or his family by even accidentally discrediting him.

There are seriously horrible things going on in this world. There are things that we need to stand up and shout about. All over the world xenophobia is rearing its ugly head. People’s rights are being taken away. The earth’s rights are being taken away. Humans and animals are suffering and dying in thousands of horrible ways. Whether or not I agree with some little thing you said about Thai massage is not so important as for me to shout about it or to cause you potential harm. And yes, given that Facebook has become most people’s primary way of marketing their businesses, to publicly denounce one another’s Thai massage posts is to potentially hurt one another’s livelihoods. Why would we do this?

We all have our own platforms now. Those who like to mix and match Thai massage with other modalities and say that this is the natural evolution of the art can sing about this all they want on their own blogs, Facebook pages, essays and books. And those, like me, who like to preserve the art as it has historically been practiced, we can sing it about it all we want on our blogs and social media and such. I will never go onto your Facebook post and tell you that your approach is bad, that your prices are too high, that your theory is incorrect, that you are wrong wrong wrong. Because I see your Facebook post as being both the welcome room of your business, and a couch in your living room, and I had better know you awfully well if I am going to go sit on your couch and point my fingers at you.

Let us treat one another as we would like to be treated. Let us care for one another as we care for our clients. Let us not live in fear of someone else’s theory taking something away from us. Let us remember that if we trace things back far enough, we are all lineage siblings. Let us treat one another with kindness. Peace and thriving practices to you all.

 

How Herbal Compresses Actually Work

I got asked this question again the other day that I get asked variations of fairly frequently, so I thought I'd share my answer here.  The question is essentially, "how does a body absorb any benefit from the herbs in Thai hot herbal compresses (luk pra kob) through cloth?"

Steaming the herbs releases herbal alkaloids into the steamy watery herb mix - just like how if you steep a tea bag in hot water, the herbs infuse the water - you can then remove the tea bag, but your water now has herbal properties in it. So your herbal compress is kind of like a cup of tea that is packed with herbs - If that cup of tea is still hot, you can smell the herbs in the steam that drifts off of the cup. The reason you can smell the herbs, is because that steam is actually infused with tiny particulates of the herbs. This is why in Thai medicine we say that the sense of smell is related to earth element - because if there are no earth particulates, things don't have a smell. So we know that the steam that smells herby, actually contains bits of herbs that are too small to see or separate out. 

Teacup (1 of 1).jpg

Now, how those herbs get into the body of the person we are using the compresses on? The heat/steam from the compress is transferred to your client via convection, the method of heat transference in which heat moves to colder areas. Your client's body is colder than the compress and so it absorbs the heat and steam from the compress. Your clients should be able to feel that the compresses cause a softening in the skin and tissue as the moist heat opens pores and calms the tissue. The key word here with these compresses is "moist heat", as, in addition to the general relaxing properties of warmth, we have a transference of the herbally infused steam. Steam and heat travel easily through cloth to the skin. To help this out, most Thai herbal compresses have camphor in them, which is an herb that serves as a vehicle for transporting other herbs into the skin and on to the other layers of the body.  

Many people use Thai hot herbal compresses wrapped in a face towel, and through the client's clothes.  Despite these layers of cloth, the compresses still work; and it's not simply the effects of heat.  If you do an easy experiment of applying a clay or gel hot pack to one side of your body and a hot herbal compress to other side, you will most likely be able to feel a difference.  To my body, simple hot packs are wonderful, but the herbal compresses are noticeably better.  This said, while the compresses do work though multiple layers of cloth, they work even better when applied straight to skin. But when applying straight to skin you must be extra careful of the potential to burn your client, and some would hold that these compresses should not be used on more than one client (since the compresses are steamed between uses, they are effectively sterilized, plus many of the herbs in the compresses have antibacterial properties, so the single use requirement is debatable).  Increase the potency of the compresses by dipping them in clear alcohol (such as vodka) before applying to the client's skin. 

photography credit for both images to Django Boletus Special thanks to Tevijjo Yogi for this knowledge and so much more. 

photography credit for both images to Django Boletus
Special thanks to Tevijjo Yogi for this knowledge and so much more. 

Love Tithing

Yesterday I gave Naga Center money to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and to Greenpeace.  I like to post on Facebook when I do these things for two reasons: One, because if the money comes from student's tuitions I feel that it is a matter of transparency, and Two, because I believe that people are more inclined to give when they see others giving, and so I have come to reject the idea that it is better to be humbly anonymous in our generosities.  I think we should shout and sing when we help each other; not out of ego, but in the spirit of encouraging all who can to do likewise. 

I have loved Greenpeace from the moment my 1970s child eyes saw that clip of them in that tiny boat between the whaling ship and the whale. 

I have loved Greenpeace from the moment my 1970s child eyes saw that clip of them in that tiny boat between the whaling ship and the whale. 

In my Facebook post I said I gave out of a commitment to "love tithing".  After I wrote it, I thought about this term that I had just made up.  I didn't simply say "tithing", because that word alone has not always sat right with me, although now I have come to feel very warmly towards it. When I was younger, the word "tithe" conjured images of hats going around in churches.  My impression of the word was connected to ideas of higher ups in religious communities getting fat off of the faithful pennies of those in the pews. Not having been raised around churches, it always seemed a bit suspect.  As I grew older I came to understand that it is indeed sometimes the case that tithing is an extortion of the community for the benefit of a few, but other times the truth is more about people taking good care of other people. Still, the word maintained an uncomfortable religious connotation for me. 

No More Deaths is out there putting little caches of food and water in the U.S. desert for refugees/immigrants coming in from our southern border - directly saving lives every day. I deeply love this organization and fantasize about someday volunteering for them. 

No More Deaths is out there putting little caches of food and water in the U.S. desert for refugees/immigrants coming in from our southern border - directly saving lives every day. I deeply love this organization and fantasize about someday volunteering for them. 

Later I learned about the alms rounds of Buddhist monks.  We see them in Thailand, walking orange robed and barefoot through the streets in the mornings with their alms bowls like children in slings hanging from their necks and shoulders or cradled in hands and arms. The daily outpouring of people placing careful bundles of food in those bowls is another form of tithing and it was through this one that I realized the benefit of tithing to the one who tithes.  I learned of the symbiotic relationship between lay people and monks.  How the lay people feed and clothe the monks, and in return the monks teach and guide the lay people, and how, embedded in the exchange is the first lesson, which is the importance of generosity.   

Back from Thailand one day I sat shotgun in a friend's car, his preschool aged daughter in the backseat.  A red light, and a man holding a "anything helps" sign standing at the side of the road.  My friend, rolling down his window, handed the man a dollar.  We drove off and from the back seat we hear "daddy, what just happened?", to which my friend replied "that man just gave me the opportunity to be generous, and I took it". 

In the current U.S. political crisis, which is a civil rights crisis (amongst other things), I cannot imagine how we would have hope without the ACLU

In the current U.S. political crisis, which is a civil rights crisis (amongst other things), I cannot imagine how we would have hope without the ACLU

I have always given to those who stand on the sidewalks asking, sometimes even when giving was literally handing over my last pocket of change, but my friend's words changed my understanding of the dynamic. That man gave me the opportunity to be generous, and I took it.  I had thought that giving was about helping out our fellow humans, but in one short sentence I came to see that it was a gift to self.  This is what dana, a Pali/Sanskrit word that means joyful voluntary giving, is about. 

For the last 13 years I have had a Thai medicine teacher who happens to be a spiritual ascetic.  One way that this plays out in his life is that his vows don't allow him to set prices for his work as a healer and a teacher.  All money that comes into his life is given voluntarily.  I make my living by passing on the things he has taught me to others, and so it is only proper and right that I share some of that with him, knowing that he in turn gives a portion of any money he gets to his teachers; the direct care-taking of lineage.  Over the years I came to see the money I would periodically send my teacher, as tithing, and finally the word stopped being directly about religion.  With time, I started attaching the word to other forms of joyful giving in my life, like a dollar here and there to those living on the streets, or the small bits I send along to Greenpeace, MOAS, the ACLU, The Sierra Club, and No More Deaths. Somehow calling it tithing allows me to do it more.  It's a self imposed business tax that feels as mandatory as the one the IRS requires of me.  It's the tithing of being a part of the human community on planet earth.  It is tithing for love of clean air, protected peoples, trees and basic humanity.  It is love tithing.

These good folk are literally scooping drowning refugees out of the ocean!  This organization is amazing.

These good folk are literally scooping drowning refugees out of the ocean!  This organization is amazing.

I believe deeply that healing arts doesn't stop at the edge of your mat, massage table, or office doors.  I believe that being a healing arts practitioner means doing what you can to alleviate suffering in any form or place.  If we do not have clean air to breathe, we cannot be healthy?  If we do not have food to eat, and basic human rights, we cannot be healthy.  If we are oppressed and living in fear, we cannot be healthy.  This is why I am an activist.  When I march in a political protest, I am being a healing arts practitioner.  The is why I agitate.  When I call my senators, I am being a healing arts practitioner.  This is why I love tithe.  When I give to organizations that are doing the hard work, fighting the good fight, even if only in the small amounts that may be possible, when I do this, I am being a healing arts practitioner. 

To learn more about any of the wonderful organizations pictured here you can click on the photos.  Except for the monk's feet - that picture's just there for pretty.  There are many more organizations out there doing good work that I love, I just chose a few of my favorites to feature here. 

Got my first gynecological exam from the good doctors at Planned Parenthood when I was a young woman.  They do so much more to save lives than many realize.  

Got my first gynecological exam from the good doctors at Planned Parenthood when I was a young woman.  They do so much more to save lives than many realize.  

What's New

Okay, so I have a lot of things I want to write about, but first I need to get everyone up to speed on things going on around The Naga Center.

The Move

First, in case you missed my last blog post, I'm in a teacher transition.  I've moved to the outskirts of Portland to a lovely little piece of property with trees and a creek.  This is my new home, and new headquarters of my Thai healing arts work.  I've put up a sweet yurt that is almost done, and gotten all of my jars of herbs out of boxes and onto shelves where I can gaze upon their loveliness.  I have a handful of already scheduled workshops to complete, and then a lot of contemplating to do as I move toward a more traditional model of teaching, with smaller classes and/or individual home stay apprenticeship.  More on that as it clarifies. 

Extending Out

Even as I pull my tentacles in closer here in Oregon, with an intentional softening and downsizing of my teaching practice, I am simultaneously extending myself outward toward a larger audience of students on a global level.  My online Thai Medical Theory for Bodyworkers course is forming an ever more international community that transitions into my ongoing online study group, consisting of those who have completed the theory course.  And so I find myself daily in conversation with students around the world.  Along these lines, I'll be teaching in London this coming June, where I hope to meet more of my international students who have not yet been able to make the journey to the U.S.

Naga Center Teacher's Guild

The last bit of news I want to share is really exciting.  I have recently invited a handful of students of mine to begin teaching certain classes from my curriculum.  Last September they came from all over the country and as far away as the UK, to gather as a group for the first time.  Collectively they are The Naga Center Teacher's Guild, and they are the kindest, most supportive and lovely group of teachers you can imagine.  In the years that I have been teaching Thai massage I have often been stunned at the competitive nature of the teaching world.  Seeing these sweet souls actively cheering one another on in their quest to share knowledge, leaning on one another for inspiration, and teaching each other, is pure loveliness. 
Students who take foundational classes with any of these teachers are eligible for my more advanced classes and have the opportunity to repeat the classes as interns with other Naga Center Guild teachers (myself included) so long as there is space.
Some of the Guild teachers have already been teaching their own classes for many years and some are brand new to instruction.  All of them are dedicated to studying and sharing Thai bodywork Thai medical theory and authentic practices.

Changes Beautiful Changes

As soon as I have time, I'm going to write an expanded blog post about this, but for now I just want to make sure that everyone knows that The Naga Center has moved!  I'm going through a deep transition as a teacher, simultaneously connecting with students on a global level (through online teaching and now, starting with a soon to be announced workshop in London, occasional international travels) and bringing the teaching experience closer to home. Literally. I have bought a beautiful little piece of property a stone's throw outside of Portland, where I will be teaching in a more intimate and traditional fashion to individuals and smaller classes through homestay apprenticeship and local workshops.  Right now I'm in the thick of the move in process, still unpacking boxes, building a lovely yurt, and making space.  Look for more information when the dust settles.  Peace.

 

Ganesha and me, in brief


When I was about 20 I had a powerful dream in which I was on a hillside in India, a place I had never been, watching beautifully painted elephants being washed in a river.  Suddenly someone pulled the skin off of one of the elephants in one smooth pull and the painted elephant skin sailed up into the air like heavy silk, and landed at my feet.  Somehow this was not gory; it was beautiful and potent.  A couple of days later I heard of the Indian elephant headed god Ganesha for the first time and I knew deep inside that he was the elephant of my dream.

The first time I met the well known Thai massage instructor Pichest Boonthame, about 17 years ago, he told me to close my eyes and see who was helping me.  I didn't understand what he meant.  He kept prodding me to figure out who my helper was, until in a fit of frustration and tears I cried out "I don't know, all I see is elephants!"

When I got married my father and stepmother gave me a lovely large statue of Ganesha as a wedding present.  They told me that it was that or a washing machine. 

I buy little tiny statuettes of Ganesha by the handful in the Indian district of Bangkok, before or after finding the street samosa seller.  Once, the statue shop owner accidentally dropped one of the statuettes on the ground, swiftly picked it up, and kissed it tenderly in apology. 

I give little tiny statuettes of Ganesha to friends embarking on journeys, or struggling with challenge.

I lose little tiny statuettes of Ganesha frequently, and trust that it is because someone else needed that one.  And that one.  And that one.

A few weeks ago I buried one along a forest path in Powell Butte park.

Piercing the upper edge of my ear in Chiang Mai, years ago, I tell the piercer that I am vegan, and he tells me that he is vegetarian one day a week, in honor of Ganesha.

In Thailand Ganesha is called Prá Pí-ká-nâyt (พระพิฆเนศ) and there is a marvelous museum just south of Chiang Mai that is dedicated to images of him.

The Thai medicine teaching lineage that I am some small part of, is linked to Buddha, Jivaka, the reusis, Prá Mâe Tor-rá-nee (พระแม่ธรณี ~ Mother Earth), and Prá Pí-ká-nâyt , our friend Ganesha.  My teacher's teacher has a 3 dimensional image made of painted medicinal herbs of Ganesha covering a section of his office. 

Every evening I chant pages of Pali and Thai and Lanna verses.  Even when I am grumpy and wishing I hadn't made this commitment to daily chanting, verse after verse of religiousness, when I do not consider myself to be a very religious being, when I get to the part where I pay homage to Mother Earth and Ganesha, I become something soft and grateful.

On the airplane, when I am frightened by turbulence, I turn my mala beads hidden beneath one of those thin and questionable airplane blankets, chanting silently in my head with each bead, "Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha", homage to Ganesha. 

Do I believe in an elephant headed god? I'm not sure.  I was raised sans religion, and have never considered myself a seeker, yet Mother Earth and Ganesha each fell into my heart the moment I heard their names, the moment I learned that they were considered deities.  It does not matter to me if there is such a thing as a deity, or if they are energies created by our collective imaginings, or if they are archetypal metaphors that provide understanding and anchorage in humanity.  What matters is that they provide solace in a complicated world.  When I am worried there are three things I find myself turning to: Mother Earth, The Bene Gesserit fear mantra from the book Dune, and Prá Pí-ká-nâyt (because apparently I am a pagan, a geek, and one of those Thai Buddhists who incorporate many deities).

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha
Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha
Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha

Going to Massage School

I get asked several times a month, about how one becomes a licensed massage therapist.  My students come from all over the place, especially my online students, who I love as dearly as the ones who show up in person.  So it's not really possible for me to address all of your possible licensure situations.  But for those of you wishing to practice massage in Oregon, until I reach my someday goal of turning The Naga Center into a licensure school (currently it's a continuing education school, although anyone can take classes here) here is some information.

In the United States massage laws vary by state (and sometimes even by county).  In Oregon, in order to practice any form of bodywork professionally, you must have 625 hours of training at an accredited Department of Education approved school.  In some states people will circumvent state massage training requirements by calling Thai massage "yoga massage", or "Thai yoga therapy", or "energy work", or any number of other misnomers.  Know that in the state of Oregon changing what you call it will not exempt you from state laws.  The Oregon Board of Massage Therapists is quite clear that if you are touching the body, your work will most likely fall under massage laws regardless of what you call it. 
From the Oregon Board of Massage Therapist's website:

“massage” or “massage therapy” means the use of pressure, friction, stroking, tapping or kneading on the human body, or the use of vibration or stretching on the human body by manual or mechanical means or gymnastics, with or without appliances such as vibrators, infrared heat, sun lamps and external baths and with or without lubricants such as salts, powders, liquids or creams for the purpose of but not limited to, maintaining good health and establishing and maintaining good physical condition.

So, if you live in Oregon and you have fallen in love with Thai massage and you want to practice it professionally (professionally, in the eyes of the state, means in exchange for anything, including money, cookies, and trades), by law you must hold a massage license unless you are licensed in another medical field that allows you to touch people.  These are generally professions that require more training than massage such as physical therapy, chiropractics, registered nurse, medical doctor etc.  For the record, the last time I checked, being a minister with The Universal Life Church or any other religious institution does not give you license to touch in Oregon.

So, where to go to school.  We have many options in Oregon, but I will just discuss the schools that I primarily find myself recommending.  Each of these schools is recommended for different reasons, so I suggest reading through to see what best fits your needs and disposition.

Massage schools for Oregon residents
 

Western States Chiropractic College massage program. 
The reason I recommend Western States is because it is my understanding that they have the most advanced and comprehensive science classes.  Wherever you go to school you must study anatomy, physiology and pathology.  Most massage therapists never study these subjects again once they have graduated from massage school, so I think it is worthwhile to get the best training you can while you are in massage school.  Unlike other massage schools, the science classes that you will take at Western States are college level courses that can be applied should you decide to go into higher level medical training at a later date.  What I mean by this is that if you decide to say, become a nurse or a chiropractor some day, the time that you spent studying anatomy at Western States will count - whereas you could spend the same amount of time studying anatomy at another massage school and have it not apply toward further training. 
Edit: I'm sad to say that as of fall 2017, Western States is discontinuing its massage program.  I'm leaving the recommendation here as a I believe that it speaks to a need to look at the sciences offered in any school you attend.

Oregon School of Massage
For those who want a more warm and fuzzy massage school experience, I recommend Oregon School of Massage.  Last time I checked, they still had the delightful tradition of a school field trip to Brietenbush hot springs each year.  It's a solid local school with fair prices and kind teachers that seems to have a lot of heart.

Ashland Institute of Massage
I have heard nothing but lovely things about the Ashland Institute of Massage down in the southern edge of our state.  The main reason I recommend them is because they are unique in that they offer an accelerated training that allows you to complete massage school in just six months.  To do this you have to be able to live in Ashland and engage in school full time.  Along with the Oregon School of Massage above, this is also one of the least expensive options outside of community college courses.

Soma Institute
The Soma Institute is actually located in Washington, but is an important one for me to mention.  Classes are held in weekend intensive modules in which students lives on site in a bunkhouse.  So Portland students can make the 3 hour drive, stay for the intensive, and return home.  The Soma Institute is on a rural piece of property that serves as the owner's home and farm.  I'm told that it is a beautiful place to study, but the reason I recommend it is because of the quality of the work I see coming out of there.  Students are learning a form of structural integration, which, a deeply physically intensive body restructuring method.  This is not your average massage school.  It's the most expensive school I have on here, but for those who can afford it and want a unique learning experience, it's worth looking into.

Some thoughts about massage school
 

• Massage school is not where we become experts, specialists, or masters of our craft.  Massage school, no matter how fancy the brochures, is a place to get foundational training, jump through state mandated hoops, and learn your sciences.  I have rarely encountered anyone fresh out of massage school who I would call an excellent therapist, and those I have encountered inevitably had healing arts training prior to going to massage school.  Do not think of massage school as an end goal, think of it as a jumping off point.  It is after massage school, when you seek out individual teachers who are highly skilled, for continuing education; this is where you will truly advance your training and bloom as a therapist.  And it is through years of practice that you become an expert.  

• Beware the temptation to learn every modality.  Many massage modalities require years of training and practice to become highly skilled.  Some, like Thai massage, can be studied for a lifetime.  Find a modality to love, and go deep with it rather than taking multiple superficial courses in multiple modalities.  For the latter will make of you a jack of all trades and a master of none.  When I see someone's website or business card that has a laundry list of modalities I think "yes, but what are they really good at?".  I would rather get a massage from someone who has studied one modality for many years, even if it's not my favorite modality, than someone who once took a course in my favorite modality and tacked it onto a list.

• I call most massage schools "schools of how not to touch", because they have a habit of making massage seem very dangerous.  They fill our heads with contraindications and areas of endangerment to the point where massage practitioners can walk away thinking that they are in a profession filled with accidental murders.  In truth most massage modalities are extraordinarily safe.  It's mostly a money game.  The more dangerous massage schools can make massage seem, the higher the number of training hours states will require, which means more money for the schools.  But if you look at money from another angle you can see that massage is a relatively safe profession.  For about $150 you can get over 2 million dollars of liability massage insurance coverage.  Insurance is a statistically driven business, which means that if people were reporting injuries from massage therapists left and right, our insurance coverage would be significantly more expensive.  To give a little perspective, physical therapists can expect insurance to begin at $5000 a year and go up from there, and according to The Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, your average midwife must spend over $11,000 a year for liability coverage.  Where I'm going with all of this is, don't be afraid to touch people.  Learn the contraindications and areas of endangerment so that you can do well on your exams, but don't start thinking that you are going to kill someone with effluerage.  Be wise and knowledgeable, but be not afraid.  And keep in mind that Thai massage is probably the most dangerous massage modality there is, so if this is your passion, get really good training and be careful.  Ironically, in most states as long as you got your Swedish massage based state mandated training, you can practice Thai massage legally without ever having taken a class in it.

• You might notice that I'm not mentioning every school in Oregon.  You might notice that some schools with the most prominent marketing and the most students are not on here.  That's because this is my recommendation list, not a comprehensive accounting of all the schools in Oregon.  It's based on the quality of knowledge that I see students emerging from school with, and also the satisfaction they report to me about their training experience. 

Do I really have to go to massage school?

Well, in Oregon, if you want to practice massage professionally and be legal, then yes, yes you do.  But I know some of you are thinking "yeah, but can't I just stay under the radar and practice without a license?".  Well, yes, you could do that.  And honestly I have a lot of ranting I can do about massage schools (did a bit up there talking about the danger and money thing) and how wanting I think most of the training is, and how sad it is when people have to go to school to learn Swedish massage when all they really want to study is Thai or Hawaiian massage.  But when it comes right down to it, I recommend going to school.  Even with all of the flaws, the truth is that I think that it's best to know anatomy and physiology if you are going to work on bodies.  These courses are like instruction manuals for our bodies! And I know that it takes time and money, but really, how many professions out there can one get licensed in in less than a year and under $20,000?  The requirements to become a licensed massage therapist may seem hard, but in comparison to other careers, it's very little.  And most likely, you are going to enjoy massage school.  You'll get tons of massage while you are there, make new friends, you will love some of your teachers, and you will learn a lot about these amazing bodies we live in. 

Thoughts About Learning

My teacher says you need three things to learn:

1. A teacher
You know, a teacher whose knowledge you have faith in.  A teacher you stay in contact with. Someone you really consider to be your teacher.  It's possible to have more than one of these, but at least one is needed for in-depth learning. 

2. Texts
The written preservation of knowledge.  When my teacher says texts, he is talking about old texts.  When we talk about old texts in relation to Thai medicine, I should note that traditionally one way that knowledge was passed on and maintained, was that students would copy, by hand, their teacher's texts.  This served a dual purpose; students would deepen their learning, and in a tropical climate that eats books (parchment, palm leaves etc.), it was a way of always renewing the text.  Because of this, the words in Thai medical texts are often much older than the paper by which historians may date their age.  I've done my best with my books to present information as taught in the old texts, because I know that most of my western Thai massage community does not have the ability to read the old Thai medical texts.

3. Personal experience and the revelation it leads to.
In other words, practice practice practice.  There is a level of understanding when our teacher shows us something.  Then there is a level of understanding as we mimic it.  At this point, we often think we know the thing.  But then with practice comes the new understanding, the subtle knowing, the shifting revelation.

we are all a work in progress

we are all a work in progress

My teacher says there is a prescribed way of being a good student:

First, you must listen to what your teacher is teaching.  At this point, you do not ask questions.
Next, you think about what your teacher taught you, perhaps you practice too; you try it out.
After thinking and trying, if you still have questions, then you go to your teacher and ask your questions.
Then you listen again.  Think and ponder and practice again.  Return with questions again. 

Things I say to my students about learning Thai medicine:

• When you enter a classroom, leave your prior training at the door with your shoes.  Not just your Thai massage training, but your Chinese medicine training, your Ayurvedic medicine training, your culturally infused western biomedical understanding; leave it all there by the door with your shoes.  It will be there for you to pick up again on the way out.  For now, clear your mind and come listen. 

bare feet and spacious minds

bare feet and spacious minds

• When you are with one teacher, be with that teacher.  Don't sit around with other students having conversations in front of your teacher about studying with other teachers.  Especially if the teacher you are with is a Thai teacher in Thailand; recommending other teachers inside of another teacher's classroom is considered extremely rude.  It is also taking everyone away from being present with the learning at hand.

• Do not challenge, undermine, or try to one up your teacher.  This isn't only for the sake of politeness, although of course that is a factor.  It is because when you do this, you injure the other student's experience.  Faith in a teacher is important for learning, so if you deliberately weaken a teacher, you do not only undermine that teacher, but you undermine the other student's ability to learn and benefit from the class.  I am not saying that you shouldn't have a critical mind, and I am not saying that we should have blind faith in every teacher we encounter.  Not by a long shot.  But ask your questions mindfully.  Test the information mindfully.  Wear your student hat, even if you yourself, are sometimes a teacher. 

• Books, in Thailand, are considered sacred objects.  This is because they contain words, and words are sacred.  If you are in a Thai classroom in Thailand, or studying in the west with a teacher who has spent enough time in Thailand to develop some Thai sensitivities, do not step over books.  Try to keep them off the floor, but if they are there, treat them as sacred.  On a side note, your mouth is also a sacred place, because words come out of there.  Knowing this gives me pause about what words I choose to speak. 

• In the beginning, when you are new to Thai bodywork, you will learn dozens of new techniques in each class you take.  Then, as you become more experienced, there will be less new "moves" to learn in each class, and you will move on to a different level of learning, in which you seek quality more than quantity.  When I take a class now, if I walk away with ONE new piece of information that will become a part of my healing arts repertoire, that will help to alleviate suffering in those I encounter - even if it alleviates the suffering of only one person, then I consider that class a success.  Keep this in mind as you move through the world of Thai healing arts training - ultimately it's not about dozens of fancy acrobatics and tricky body dances.  It's about anything that alleviates suffering; for that is what our practice is about. 

• If you are a teacher, as many of my students are, then every class you take becomes a double class.  Every class is both a class on the curriculum subject, but also a class on teaching.  As teachers we learn from one another.  Even the worst class is a fantastic learning ground for a teacher.  I have avoided at least some teacher pit falls because I watched other teachers fall into them in front of me, and I took notes thinking "be careful of this".  I am equally indebted to those teachers as I am to the ones who inspired and taught me great things about teaching.  Perhaps I am even more indebted to the ones who fell in front of me, as theirs were the harder lessons to teach.  I can only hope that if I have fallen in front of you, it was an excellent learning moment. 

• Do not cling to knowledge.  We are always learning.  And the subject that we study in particular is one that is still brand new to the western world.  We have so much more to learn, and much to unlearn.  It can be particularly difficult to let go of understanding once we have written about it or taught others, but fluidity is necessary in this field because so much has been unknown, so much guessed at, and so much lies before us in the evolution of revelation. 

• Be kind to one another.  This one goes especially to the Thai massage teachers.  There is so much meanness in the Thai massage teaching community, fueled by competition.  So much undermining and one upping of one another in public spaces like Facebook.  It's often disguised as "friendly debate" or sharing of information, but if you look closely, it's usually teachers hurting one another.  Remember the Buddhist precept of using your words harmoniously.  Remember that people are keeping roofs over their heads, food in their children's bellies, and caring for their aging parents; do nothing to hurt someone else's businesses, for in doing so we are not being in the healing arts; instead we are creating suffering.  Remember that ultimately we are a family - somewhere along the line, your teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher, is the same person.  Somewhere along the lineage connect the dots, we become lineage siblings. 

• And, to everyone new to learning something, as we all are from time to time, I tell this story:
When I was in my late teens, I was struggling to learn something and feeling frustrated.  A man who was known in my town as being slightly crazy, but friendly and harmless, saw me and said to me "relish your novicehood; you only have it once".  I think this every time I am struggling to learn something (which is most of the time really).  Relish your novicehood. 
 

learning, we see through the tangle

learning, we see through the tangle

Getting Ready for Herbal Medicine Making

I have an herbal medicine workshop coming up at the end of next week.  So now I get to think about what we will make this time around.  It's a lovely time of year for herb lore, as we can leave the classroom and go pick plantain and mint for making a cooling liniment just in time for summer. 

My herbal workshop is always my most labor intensive and expensive workshop to prep for.  I run around town going from Asian market to Asian market, to the Chinese herb supply store (to buy herbs found in both Thai and Chinese medicine), to the company I buy oil from and a liquor store for alcohol for tincturing.  If I'm low on jars I'll find myself at the wholesale packaging supply warehouse over in the industrial side of town, watching the warehouse guys drive through the stacks putting together my order.  No other class requires so much driving, so much schlepping stuff around, so many trips between my herb room and my classroom, so much equipment dug out of closets and cupboards (bowls, hot plates, knives, cutting boards, jars, towels, strainers, mortles and pestles...), so much clean up.

So. Much. Fun.

I love my herbal medicine workshops.  I love the smells.  I love the moment a student discovers that there is something magically satisfying about crushing a whole nutmeg seed with a pestle (they crush easily, with this perfect popping crunch, releasing one of the loveliest scents on earth).  I love the inherent space these workshops give for friendly conversation as we patiently heat oils and herbs, or sit rolling herbal pills with our hands, stained yellow from turmeric.  I love going from casual conversation to chanting magical healing incantations in Pali over our accomplishments. 

Exploring Thai herbal medicine is exploring the Thai taste system, and so we get to eat things, from sweet to oh my god is that what astringent is?  We make medicinal teas and discover who has the "I can taste bitter" gene as some sip happily and others make interesting faces while setting their cups aside.  We eat durian.  Oh yes.  Which takes us to food as medicine, and discussions of how to incorporate what we are learning into how we approach basic eating. 


Everyone leaves with treasures.  Little jars of Thai herbal massage balms and liniments, bags of hand rolled pills bound with lime juice or honey, tiny vials of aromatic inhalers whose vapors will ward off a profusion of problems.  There is no promise in this paragraph for those coming to class.  What we make changes from workshop to workshop, so I do not know exactly what you will walk away with; only that it will be something delightful and beneficial. 

At the end, when the supplies are back in their cupboards, the jars of dried herbs back in their alphabetically correct position on the shelves in my herb room, and all of the twigs and dust is vacuumed from the floor, I will be exhausted.  And I probably won't have made much money, as my herbal classes tend to be a low student draw, and high supply cost.  But I will have gotten to share my passion with a little group of wonderful people (for my students tend to be wonderful people), my stock of balms and teas will be replenished, and I will have had so.  much.  fun. 

The Library

The library at The Naga Center might not look so big.  But in that sweet room sits what I believe is the largest traditional Thai medicine library in the world outside of Thailand.  It's no small thing.  When I lived in Thailand, my teacher entrusted me with most of his library, and I mailed home a quarter of a ton of books; this collection occupies one wall of the library.  Many of these books are extremely hard to find medical texts.  Most of them are in Thai, and quite a few are in archaic medical Thai, such that only a small handful of people in the world will be able to read them.  Sadly I am not one of those people; but my teacher is, and when he comes to teach he frequently spends time going through and translating bits of these old texts. 

Along the other walls of the library is an assortment of English language medical texts ranging from the common Thai massage sequence books (yes, I have supported each of you out there who has written a book on Thai bodywork), to books on the medicinal herbs of Thailand.  There is one shelf devoted to books on Buddhism, another to Thai language studies, and even a little corner of the room occupied by western medical books including anatomy and physiology books, and western herbal therapies.  Oh, and there is also a spot for children's books including many Jātaka tales.

It's a medicine library.  Sometimes I go in there and find myself overwhelmed by how much I still have to read.  Other times, most of the time, I'm comforted by the presence of these papery tombs of knowledge.  I look at the wall of Thai language books and I hope that someday a gifted translator with Thai medical know how, will hunker down in there and turn them into texts available in English.  I thumb through books that I cannot read, looking at diagrams and drawings of strange plants, stumbling along with my kindergarten Thai reading abilities, knowing it is not enough for real comprehension. I fear fire.  Most of these volumes are irreplaceable, and I feel the weight of being their caretaker.

Unlike Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, Thai medicine has not really been studied in the west.  Other than a handful of books on massage techniques, and the few more theory based books put out by myself and Pierce Salguero, there is very little written in English or other western languages.  Westerners are fond of saying that Thai medical knowledge doesn't really exist; that it is all borrowed from other countries, or that all knowledge was lost with the destruction of Ayutthaya.  I've heard people say there is almost nothing written even in Thai.  Yet here I have a wall containing a quarter ton of texts, all of them on the subject of Thai medicine; ranging from herbal therapies to deep visceral manipulations, and from magical spirit medicine to basic food nutrition.  The fact that they have not yet been translated into English does not mean that the knowledge isn't there.  It sits waiting like a secret in plain sight.

When you come to take a class at The Naga Center, I encourage you to sit in the library.  I encourage you to peek inside some of these mysterious old books.  And if you happen to be able to read archaic medical Thai, with the comprehension of one who practices medicine, I invite you to take up residence in the library.  I'll make you muffins and tea. 

Scraping Addendum

Adding to the scraping post of the other day, I want to make clear that while scraping marks are sometimes very dramatic and potentially alarming visually (as in the picture in the last post), when done correctly, scraping is not painful.  It can feel excellent (like an itch being scratched) and it can feel uncomfortable; something that you have to breathe through a little bit; but if it is painful then the practitioner needs to lighten their touch.  The sensation of being scraped should never come close to what the marks make it look like it would feel like. 

Also, scraping should never be done on extremely depleted weak people as it is inherently a depleting therapy (as are all detoxifying therapies.  They are removing things from the body as opposed to nourishing therapies such as heat, application of oils, and nurturing touch).  Everything has its place.

Scraping

Awhile back I came across this article that is mostly about what western type scientific studies have learned about scraping (Khoodt in Thai).  I wrote most of the following for my ongoing online apprentices, and thought I'd copy it over here to share more widely.  It was all phrased as gua sha since western medicine mostly knows about scraping through Chinese medicine, but I'm just gonna use the word scraping because they are just talking about the mechanical effects really, of the main motion of it that is found in all systems of medicine that use it.

Here is the article

And here is my condensation, simplified bullet points of what I got out of the article

•  Scraping produces temporary therapeutic petachiae (pronounced peh-ti-ki-ee, I know!). Petachiae is a western term for the red dotty/bumpy markings. It generally refers to mild vascular hemorrage, but in this case it is considered beneficial

•  Studies showed that scraping produced a 400% increase in superficial blood circulation (that’s a lot!) that stayed that way for about 7 minutes, and took 2 days to fully return to normal.  Think about this - in an area that has had blockage or is in any way dead/numb/depleted, scraping is going to bring an immediate huge flush of circulation, thereby removing toxins, and delivering nutrients to an area.



•  Every subject in the study experienced decreased or resolved pain and reported a greater sense of well being.

•  Scraping has provable anti-inflammatory and immune boosting effects - Yes, traditional medicine has known this forever and day.  Read on to see the western perspective of why.

• It can reduce a fever and alter the course of an acute infectious illness, as well as reduce inflammatory symptoms in chronic illness.  Again, traditional medicine already knew this.

• Okay, here is where we get to the oh so interesting why.  Cruel studies on a mouse showed that scraping upregulates (meaning increases) gene expression for an enzyme that is an anti-oxidant and cytoprotectant (meaning a thing that protects the cells from harm), heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1), was present at multiple internal organ sites immediately after treatment and over a period of days following gua sha treatment.
(what that just said up there is that it causes an increase in an enzyme that protects cells, and this was found around many organs.)

•  Also, this enzyme is anti-inflammatory and antioxidive - it can reduce allergic inflammation, AND it boosts immune response AND it relieves symptoms of Hepatitis B and C, AND it might heal internal organs AND it helps with all kinds of other nasty things like asthma, organ transplant rejection, inflammatory bowel disease and experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis.  No, I'm not saying that scraping is the new/ancient cure all.  But it has been used for a lot more than muscle aches over the centuries.

• This is all in addition to all the stuff we already knew that scraping can do - Here is a nice list I made that combines things this article said, with stuff I already had on it from Thai medicine.

Releasing excess heat
Treating colds, flus and fevers
Treating many forms of headache including tension affected migraines
Dispersing stagnation
Releasing fascial restriction
Breaking down scar tissue
Reducing inflammation
Treating heatstroke
Relaxing bound muscles
Releasing adhesions
Releasing accumulated waste
Increasing circulation (400% increase in surface circulation of blood)
Releasing stuck wind
Reducing inflammatory symptoms in chronic illness

Scraping is done throughout southeast Asia and in northern Thailand you can find traditional doctors who specialize in it, complete with ceremony and incantations to boost the effect and protect the recipient.  But scraping is also kitchen medicine.  It's done by mothers to the children, and friends to friends.

Knowing Thai medical theory takes it from the realm of folk healing into more advanced therapy, and it is an amazing addition to any Thai bodywork practice.  Personally it's a technique that I have a particular affinity for.  Mostly I use porcelain soup spoons to do scraping, but you can see part of my collection of traditional tools in the photo below.