girl receiving thai massage


This ancient prescription for total body balance inspires client loyalty and gratitude.—By Andrea Renskoff
Called Thai massage, Thai yoga massage, nuad phaen boran, nuad bo-rarn or nuad Thai, this ancient healing tradition is believed to have been developed in Thailand between 800 and 1200 A.D. An integral aspect of the system known as Traditional Thai Medicine (which addresses energy, body and spirit), Thai massage technique has been used over the centuries to address everything from emotional issues to the common cold to cancer. As an option on a spa menu it not only offers guests rehabilitation and rejuvenation, but a unique experience they are unlikely to forget.

There are several styles of Thai massage but most are performed on a mat on the floor with the recipient remaining clothed. The therapist employs his or her whole body in the treatment, using fingers, palms and feet, and sometimes elbows and knees. “Thai massage began in households,” explains David Roylance, executive director at the Thai Institute of Healing Arts in Arlington, Virginia. “Workers in the fields taught their children how to massage them at night so they could get up and work the next day. Those children taught their children and so on.”

Using a combination of touch styles, point pressure, energy healing, muscle compression and extensive assisted stretching, Thai massage works on the recipient’s entire body. Spas offering the treatment don’t find it hard to sell to clients. “We suggest it to people with pain or stiffness or trouble with range of motion. It can be a little like Pilates and yoga. My male athlete clients love it because they need the stretching, and it’s a way we can do that for them,” says Tracy Whynot, licensed acupuncturist and co-owner of Place 360 Health + Spa in Del Mar, California. “And it’s great for clients who are hesitant to get undressed or who don’t like oils and lotions.”

woman receiving thai massage


Centuries of Practice

There are various schools and lineages of Thai massage. “It’s like a deck of cards,” says Roylance, “and the deck is shuffled based on each Thai master’s knowledge. And it can be customized to the client’s need.” He explains some of the basic principles: “We start with the feet and work toward the head. We go from the outside of the body inward. What we do on one side, we always do on the other. We work on the sen lines, the vessels that move lom, or life energy, through the body. We work on joint mobilization and stretching.”

The numerous massage styles emerged from different regions in Thailand and are influenced by those regions’ proximity to other countries, such as India and China. For instance, the mountain people of Thailand developed a style that uses acupressure points similar to those in Traditional Chinese Medicine, says Janice Vitavec, founder of Spirit Winds School of Thai Massage & International Healing Center in Nevada City, California. The Northern Thai style, developed in the city of Chiang Mai, uses palm pressure more than deep tissue and a rhythmic flow devoid of abrupt moves, to promote a meditative state.

“Thai massage always incorporates a mantra and a spiritual aspect. That’s how the medicine comes through,” Vitavec says. Spirit Winds also offers training in a specific style developed to serve people with mobility impairment and paralysis (visit for more information). “We can modify Thai massage for any level of flexibility, health or age,” she says. “That’s where more advanced training comes in.”

One traditional enhancement is the use of steamed herbal compresses placed onto painful or bruised
joints. Techniques such as back walking and having the therapist hanging from a rope allow for precise pressure variation and accessibility. “Some therapists even use orthopedic walkers to support their weight,” says Roylance.

There are also combination massages that incorporate elements of Thai and European styles. Performed on a table, these massages can be a starting point for spas in terms of training and guest comfort. However, Roylance cautions against straying too far from true technique. “Recognize that this is a healing art,” he advises. “Honor and respect it by doing it in a traditional way and don’t water it down. Guests will have a better experience when it is authentic.”

The Naga Thai treatment at The Spa at the Miraval Resort

The Naga Thai treatment at The Spa at the Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona

Honor Meets Creativity

The Spa at the Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona, incorporates age-old Thai traditions into these dynamic menu offerings:

Naga Named for the Buddhist word meaning half-human serpent, this treatment utilizes the traditional idea of positioning the therapist in air above the client to allow for maximum angles of approach. Silks typically used by aerial artists are suspended from a ceiling fixture. The therapist wraps him- or herself in the silks and is able to move and sway, allowing for pressure changes and fluid movements, producing for the client a sensation akin to being in water. The silks can also be wrapped around clients’ limbs, enabling the therapist to manipulate and stretch muscles beyond their usual capacity. With Naga, a picture says a thousand words, says Miraval’s spa director, Simon Marxer: “We have images of this treatment that are so visually stunning, guests book it immediately.”

Qi Journey This “fusion” service starts with a Thai massage, followed by an acupuncture treatment while the client is still lying on the mat. With acupuncture needles in place, the therapist performs craniosacral therapy. This multi-faceted treatment opens the body physically and energetically, releasing imbalances and restrictions. “It’s a beautiful example of complementary modalities,” says Marxer.

Private Take-Home Thai This therapist-to-client training allows guests to prolong their experience beyond their spa visit. Couples or friends are taught basic Thai tension-relieving moves and assisted stretches to create a routine they can perform on each other. “Guests say that they leave a Thai treatment feeling better than after any other bodywork, so this is a wonderful way for them to take that feeling home,” says Marxer. “Normally, clients buy a product or have some memories, but this really resonates.”

Healing Arts back stretch

Massage demonstration at the Thai Institute of Healing Arts in Arlington, VIrginia

Creating a Space

Other than a well-trained therapist, the essential elements for basic Thai massage are space and a suitable mat. Fortunately, space criteria are flexible. “Typically, Thai massage would not even be done in a private room,” explains Place 360’s Whynot. “There would be an open space where clients were side by side, separated by drapes.”

Mats are available in foams and cottons of various thicknesses, and some can be rolled to stash away if a dedicated area is impossible. “The mat needs to be thick enough to protect the knees of the therapist and dense enough to provide balance while standing on it,” says Spirit Winds’ Vitavec. “Also, you might want to add some pillows and bolsters that can adjust clients’ body alignment and protect the ergonomics of the therapist.”

Whynot has some ideas for setting up a Thai massage practice. “If you can have a dedicated area, let clients use it for treatment-related purposes,” she suggests. “Maybe they can stretch and relax there. You can also make it a tea room.” She suggests Asian music for its trademark soothing wind, string and percussive sounds. A water feature is also appropriate for a Thai massage space.

For Thai massage supplies, visit:
• Massage Warehouse & Spa Essentials, 888.918.2253,
• New Life Systems, 800.852.3082,
• Sa-Wan, 866.680.5149,
• Universal Companies, 800-558-5571,

Learning the Art

When it comes to Thai massage, authentic training is essential for both therapist and client safety. Although many practitioners travel to Thailand to study, there are plenty of training options closer to home. Schools typically offer ongoing programs, weekend intensives, and can even arrange to come to your spa and train an entire massage team. Listed below are some well-respected options from near and far.
In the United States:
• Thai Institute of Healing Arts, Arlington,VA, 703.522.8424,
• Spirit Winds School of Thai Massage & Intl. Healing Center, Nevada City, CA, 530.265.2404,
• Thai Bodywork School of Thai Massage, Evanston, IL, 847.440.7525,
• The Naga Center School of Traditional Thai Massage and Medicine, Portland, OR, 503.473.4268,
In Thailand:
• Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai,
• International Training Massage School,
• WATPO Thai Traditional Medical School,
• Old Medicine Hospital,

To learn more about Thai massage and related therapies, and discover networking and training options, contact the International Thai Therapists Association, 706.358.8646,

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