How Thai Massage Relates to Yoga

Winter Pemberton shares with Jenna Lynne Roberts about Thai Massage and how it relates to yoga.

How did you get into teaching yoga?

I got into teaching yoga when I moved my Thai massage practice into Yoga Union. It all just came together. I discovered yoga, I discovered Thai massage, and boom, here we are 7 years later.

I practiced yoga at Yoga Union for 4 years before I started considering actually teaching yoga. In the past, I taught aerobics, personal training, and weightlifting at 24-hour Fitness. When I got passionate about yoga, it felt like a natural thing to do.

How did you get into practicing Thai massage therapy?

It was out of necessity that I got into Thai massage. I had been practicing massage therapy for about 10 years, and my body was beginning to speak to me. When you’re working on a massage table, it’s really challenging to stay in healthy alignment with the body. You’re leaning over the table, so a lot of the stress goes up into your shoulders and your neck.

With Thai massage, you’re never doing anything that’s out of alignment with your body. As a practitioner, it’s like practicing yoga. In Thai massage, I’m essentially always in yoga positions. I am never in a position that causes stress or injury. So I can practice Thai massage for the rest of my life, it’s sustainable for me.

People often say Thai massage looks like yoga, what do you think?

Thai massage can look like yoga if you need to have stretches in order to have a balanced body. If you’re already hyper flexible, or your nervous system is already over-taxed, then stretching isn’t the best thing for you. You need more grounding things like compressions or acupressure. It can even end up looking like a Swedish massage, if the most grounding thing that can be done is for your body to be rubbed down with sesame oil. A Thai massage can look like a Swedish massage if that’s the best choice for your constitution.

How are Thai massage and yoga the same or different?

Thai massage and yoga are different in that, in most yoga classes you’re going to be strengthening and lengthening your muscles. There’s a format. When you come into a Thai massage, there’s no format, so it can always look different.

I think Thai massage and yoga are similar because in both you’re working on cultivating an awareness and finding a way to release for yourself. For everyone that looks different. Some people cultivate balance with strength, some need to get soft, or to find stability. Thai massage is a building of awareness to become more aligned and capable of finding ease in your body.

What practice is Thai massage medically based in?

Thai massage medical theory is similar to Chinese medicine in that it’s all based on elemental theory. The basic Thai massage training is all about the elements and the gunas, or qualities, of the elements. You first start practicing seeing the elements in nature, then in yourself, in your personality, your behavior. Then you begin to see the elements in other humans.

In the Thai massage training, you do meditations on the elements to get more personally connected with them. That helps you become more intuitive when you’re working with a massage client and looking at what is their constitution and what is just happening right now.

Does Thai massage use acupressure or reflexology?

There are energy lines that we work in Thai massage to find where it’s flowing or blocked. I use acupressure points that are connected to energy lines that look very similar to reflexology on the bottoms of the feet and hands.

What is Thai massage’s essential philosophy?

Thai massage is based in elemental theory and Buddhism. Part of being a Thai massage practitioner is having what’s called a Wai Khru, which is a ceremony you do everyday and before each client. You take time to honor your teachers and invite them into the experience with you. You honor your ancestors and the person in front of you.

The 4 qualities that you try to embody as you’re doing the Thai massage work are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and of equanimity.  That’s the practice as the giver. Thai massage is not trying to fix the client, but to hold them in such a loving way that, as a receiver, you have the space to heal yourself.

How does Thai massage compare to other styles of massage?

On a more physical level, in a deep tissue massage, if I was to find that your IT band was really tight, I can take my thumb and give cross-fiber friction across the muscle until it released. There can be a very localized release, but you’ve got maybe 24-hours of relief before it ‘ll go back to its’ original state. There was no shift that happened between your IT band, kinesthetically, and your brain and heart.

Instead of doing cross-fiber friction, in Thai massage I usually would look for a way to give it a compression that would bring your awareness to the IT band, to help you breathe and relax to get it to release. In Thai massage, there is a dance that happens with your awareness. If you can consciously be there with your IT band, whatever release you get is going to stay, or at least for a lot longer.  That kinesthetic shift that happened between your brain and the muscle is what we do in Thai massage. I give you what you need to practice releasing for yourself.

What do you love about Thai massage?

In doing Thai massage, my specialty has become long relationships. I work with the same people for years. The work never becomes stagnant, because you’re never in the same place constitutionally. Everyday you’re different. Working with the reality of where a person really is, you never end up doing the same massage twice.

How do you feel your yoga teaching interplays with Thai massage?

They are so intertwined. Yoga and Thai massage feed each other. Getting to be in a yoga class and watch people in their active form moving and breathing. Then, in the Thai massage room I work with people in their passive form. So, a lot of people who I work with in my Thai massage room I get to see them in the yoga classes and understand their body even more. It’s so different to see the body in active form and then a passive form. As a practitioner, yoga and Thai massage give me a deeper access to my clients in getting to know what’s going on with their bodies and how they’re using their bodies. I feel like I am of better service to my clients when they are doing both. Also, both yoga and massage are about being 100% present and in service to people.

Thai massage and yoga are both the foundation of my passionate expression of living.

To experience Winter’s yoga classes, see the schedule HERE