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.

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.