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.