Studying Traditional Thai Massage

General guidelines for study

Since the 1980s, when basic courses were first offered to tourists in Thailand, Thai massage has become one of the most popular and loved Asian healing arts in the West.  For students looking to study Thai massage today, there is some confusion about what is truly Thai and what is not, and about the best ways to study and to choose qualified teachers.


In recent years, mixing Thai massage with other modalities such as Western table massage, yoga, anatomy, osteopathy, Chinese medicine and Ayurveda has become common. These hybrid forms may include elements of Thai massage, but they shouldn’t be confused with traditional Thai massage. For those who wish to learn Thai massage, THAI suggests to stay traditional. A good way to do this is to learn classic sequences from several different teachers, schools and lineages, and then to practice them for a long period of time before expanding the scope of study. A strong foundation in classical Thai techniques, movement, breath and stillness is essential for effective practice. Some knowledge of traditional Thai medicine, Thai herbalism, Thai acupressure protocols and Thai element theory is also important.


Westerners are generally conditioned to pursue education in levels or modules of study, with the eventual goals of completion and validation. This is not the case in the teacher/student model upon which much of the world’s traditional, non-academic education is based, including in Thailand. In order to become a sensitive, accomplished Thai therapist, you need to abandon the concept of levels, and realize that you will be studying for life.


Legal practice in your area

Before you begin to study Thai massage, make sure to investigate the legal parameters in your city, region, and country of residence. If your goal is to study so that you can eventually begin to practice Thai massage professionally, it is extremely important to understand the legal guidelines for doing so in your area. If there are laws for licensing in your region, research can often be done on the internet, since regulatory and governing agencies usually post regulations, laws and ordinances on their web sites.


Some States, Provinces and countries that require licenses in order to practice Western (table) massage also allow those therapists to legally practice or teach Thai massage without reviewing their credentials or study experience. Some new practitioners may study only for a few weeks before beginning to charge money for their services. Some countries have no regulations about massage, but some U.S. States, Canadian provinces and European countries have their own laws and requirements for non-Western healing arts. Because of all of this, it is extremely important to understand the laws in your region, and to base your model of study and choose your teachers according to legal and practical guidelines.


To learn the legalities of practice, be sure to study the regulations and laws in your home state, province, city or country. Pay notice to the words you cannot use to describe your practice. Understand the restrictions and limitations that you face, according to the guidelines of the governing bodies or regulatory agencies in your region. Local governments and massage boards must make these regulations available to the general public, and often, simply by reading the legal documents on the internet, you will understand how to avoid fines and prosecution. Make sure you have liability insurance; avoid using terms that are forbidden; join professional organizations; and always be ethical and professional in your study and practice.


Therapist Training Programs and “Teacher Training” Programs

Some teachers and schools, including some in Thailand, present programs of study ranging in length from 120 to 500 hours. These programs cost large sums of money, and they give an impression that a graduate will be qualified to begin a professional practice as a Thai therapist, or to begin teaching Thai massage as soon as the program is over. Without subsequent affiliation of a licensing body however, these programs are not legally binding in Thailand or in other countries. To compound the situation, programs are often filled with non-traditional elements of training, and accessory modalities such as Thai table and chair massage, oil massage, Chinese-influenced therapies (including stomach massage and stick-style foot reflexology), aromatherapy, hot stones, “Thai oil massage” and other modern or hybrid therapies. Some programs give the impression to unknowing students that they will be legally certified for practice after completion. In some cases, schools in Thailand and elsewhere place logos and seals on their advertising and websites which can give the impression that the certificates legally authorize students, and that they are endorsed by the Thai government for professional practice. But none of these things are true.


In Thailand, Thai massage education aimed at foreigners results in many millions of tourist dollars each year. The Thai government, unfortunately, has made little effort to reach out to the international community of Thai massage students, therapists and teachers. There have been no attempts to standardize programs of study for foreigners, or to educate them about safe, effective and legal practice of Thai massage in their native countries. The schools that choose to be accredited by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education must first have their courses approved by the government. Many schools and teachers, however, teach whatever they wish, including hybrid modalities and other types of therapies that do not have their origins in Thai tradition.


Very often, students who go through “fast-track” programs demonstrate a dearth of knowledge, preparation, and experience on the mat. Some have poor body mechanics, minimal breath awareness, and an unrefined sensitivity to touch. “Practitioner” courses are offered in as little as 3 or 4 weeks of study. There are no requirements for subsequent long-term practice, little ongoing support, and no encouragement for the student to study with other teachers in the future. Some schools who offer “programs” entice students to return to their schools for more advanced programs, or to pay large sums of money to stay on for a few additional weeks in order to receive “certification” as a teacher. Some schools collaborate with Western certifying organizations from different countries, claiming that their programs meet certain licensing requirements. In some cases, students may be left unprepared, with inflated egos, and lacking strong ethics and standards for safe and effective practice of traditional Thai massage.


Choose teachers wisely

For all these reasons, it’s important for students of Thai massage to pursue study only with highly qualified teachers. When searching for a teacher, check their study and training history. If this information is not listed on their web site or in their promotional information, ask them. How long have they studied Thai massage, and with whom? Have they studied in Thailand? If so, when was the last time they were there? How many hours of Thai massage study have they completed, and how many years have they been in practice? Do the descriptions of their services use western anatomical language or Eastern healing terminology? Do they blend Thai massage with other modalities or are they teaching traditional Thai massage? Thai Healing Alliance proposes a minimum of 500 hours of study with three or more teachers or schools over a period of not less than 3 years. Make sure that the teachers you choose are experienced, and that they meet these standards.


Before you make an appointment or register for a course, check into each person’s background just as you would for a prospective employee or a babysitter for your child. If you use good judgment when you select teachers, you will probably be rewarded.

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