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.


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.  

What my teacher said

I'm organizing my notes from when my teacher was here earlier this month and thought I would share some direct quotes.

"listening to the body means we work on a place, listen to what is happening in the body, and adjust our treatment to meet the needs of the body"

"if you don’t go layer by layer, it’s like an assault on the body"

“Many techniques are not necessary - do the same technique over rather than switching it up a bunch.  It's better for sensing if you stick with one technique as you can get feedback from the body easier.  If you keep switching, the body is trying to settle and adjust, and then you switch it up, and the body has to settle and adjust again.  Sometimes it’s good, but not always."

"Medicine and bodywork is no different from any other art form.  Anyone who is really good at music, dance etc., has practiced for a long time.  In medicine the body of knowledge is the same, the techniques are the same, but how it’s expressed is individual to the doctors - but just like piano, they have to first study deeply the proper way."

naga center altar, stylized

Letting go of certificates

After thinking about it for a long time, I have stopped giving certificates out at the end of most of my workshop courses.  They have always made me a bit itchy, but I gave them out because it seemed to be the thing that teachers did.  The thing is, I've always known that these sorts of certificates are meaningless at best, and misleading at worst. 

You see, anyone, and I mean anyone, can make a certificate, for anything.  You can order certificate paper online, or get it at a local paper or office supply store.  A fancy certificate that says you completed a course carries no legal weight.  It isn't a license or a degree, nor does it generally signify state or local educational governance approval or authorization to practice Thai bodywork.  It doesn't signal that you are now qualified to do anything; it's just a piece of paper that shows that you took a class.  Use of the word"certification" in advertising in a way that implies that you will be earning some sort of official title is just marketing. 

The idea of official looking certificates given for completing, say, a five day workshop, strikes me as carrying the potential to create an inflated sense of ability and accomplishment.  After thinking about it for many years, I finally realized that I just felt like I was giving people a medal that outstripped the deed, and it rang a false bell. 

Don't get me wrong; I love workshops, I love my students, and I can see that most of my students put an enormous amount of effort into being in class.  About 40% of my students travel from other states (and sometimes even other countries) to attend my classes; the amount of energy this takes is not lost on me and I bow to all of you who work extra hard to take a week off in devotion to deepening your knowledge.  It's just that, when I look at my own file full of all the certificates I've accumulated over the years, I know that I'll never hang them on a wall.  At this point honestly I could probably coat several walls in them, but it doesn't sit right with me. If I could put them all together, into one single beautiful certificate that demonstrates a lifetime of studying healing arts, I would feel pride in that piece of paper.  But the certificate that shows that I took a two day foot massage class?  I got a certificate for two days of work? I just have to question this, and question myself for having given out similar pieces of paper.

And so for now, my plan is to give certificates for the two courses I currently offer that require a substantial extra amount of energy: My ten week online theory course, and my 250 hour Thai Massage Specialist Program.  For my other classes I'll still give proof of completion, such that those needing to demonstrate CE hours for their local licensure have their needs met, but my appreciation of their time in my shorter workshops will be given not in an official piece of paper, but instead in my heartfelt and sincere speeches of gratitude given in person, with eye contact and hugs. 

Thai Massage Elevator Speech

Awhile back I wrote a note on The Naga Center's Facebook page, in which I created an elevator speech answer to the question of "You do Thai massage huh.  What's that?"  I'm copying that elevator speech here, as I think is a useful conglomeration of words, and because I hope that it assists in opening our awareness to the vastness of this modality.

While most Thai massage being practiced by non-Thais, and at street shops in Thailand, is simply a combination of compression (palm pressing), Thumbing of lines, and passive stretching, this spiel is designed to encompass the larger potential of Thai bodywork.

Elevator Speech
Thai bodywork is an entire branch of traditional Thai medicine that consists of a multitude of traditional therapies ranging from bone setting (traditional chiropractics) to use of herbal balms, liniments and hot compresses.  In-between is a wide range of bodywork techniques such as Thai deep tissue, passive stretching, and work that focuses on freeing pathways of movement in the body such as tendons, muscles, ligaments and nerves. Thai bodywork can be calming and relaxing, but also holds the potential to be the most physically intensive deep tissue work there is.  It employs esoteric folk healing techniques such as Thai fire cupping, Thai scraping, and tok sen. 

Being a branch of traditional Thai medicine, Thai bodywork is steeped in traditional Thai medical theory.   Like Rolfing® it can restructure our body alignment, and like medical massage it can be used to treat acute traumatic injury.  Unlike these western modalities, Thai bodywork integrates a deep spiritual component based on Buddhism as medicine, and the idea that the mental, energetic, emotional and physical bodies are not separate.