We sat down with integrative massage therapist Niyaphun (Nina) Ditsayashairoj, a 12-year veteran of the COMO Shambhala wellness team, at COMO’s Turks and Caicos outpost to learn more about the benefits of Thai massage. Nina grew up in northern Thailand at the Shivagakomarpaj Massage School and Old Medicine Hospital, one of the most prestigious traditional medicine centers in the country, which was founded in 1962 by her uncle Ajahn Sintorn Chaichakan. Her mother is also an expert in Thai herbal medicine.
Q: Thai massage is still a relatively unknown therapy in the West. Why do you think that is, and what are the benefits?
There are actually several different styles of massage in Thailand, but the most dominant type is Northern “Lanna” style massage. Lanna massage incorporates a wide variety of techniques, including compression, thumbing, and passive stretching, that are designed to free energy and movement in the body. That’s why it’s so therapeutic – Thai massage is based on the idea that there are “energy lines” throughout our bodies, and by unblocking these pathways with specific sequences that facilitate the flow of blood, nervous impulses and muscular contractions, we can increase our overall levels of energy and health.
Thai massage originally evolved as a corrective, healing practice intended not just to relax the recipient but actually to enhance the body’s capacity for movement, internally and externally. This is why the focus isn’t just on muscle release but also very much on the energy lines, which generally correspond to our tendons, ligaments, veins, nerves and arteries. It’s also why it can involve more pressure than most Western massage modalities. And because most people in the West associate massage with relaxation, that can take them off guard. But while other forms of massage can temporarily ease pain and provide endorphin release and relaxation benefits, in addition to these effects Thai massage can help relieve chronic pain, enhance mobility and flexibility, and mechanically fix certain issues in the long term, like a chiropractor. A real Thai massage should have you feeling lighter right away and if you have pain, will tend to help resolve that within three days, while with a deep tissue massage, you’ll walk out relaxed but may not experience as much of a meaningful, long term impact in terms of pain reduction and overall health.
Q: What kind of problems and specific conditions can Thai massage alleviate?
These days so many people spend all day at a desk. So one of the immediate benefits for many is restructuring their posture and releasing tension in the spine, so you feel like you are actually standing taller and straighter on top of that floaty feeling of relaxation. This is where Thai massage is often compared to yoga, in terms of the body alignment and mobility benefits the stretches can provide. One stretch that benefits virtually everyone is assisted cobra or upward dog pose – whatever your flexibility level, this pose literally reverses the vertebral hunch that we tend to sink into by sitting all day.
Another of the primary purposes of the traditional sequences is to release blockages in the legs, an area of the body where blood tends to get bogged down and stuck, especially with today’s sedentary lifestyles. Also, I don’t want to understate how relaxing Thai massage can be – especially once you’re used to it, people often fall asleep and it’s incredibly helpful for people dealing with high levels of ongoing stress. There are certain spots on the body, such as the top of the head, where many energy lines come together, creating extra reactive epicenters for release of tension – by addressing these that weight of stress in the body and mind can be completely swept away.
Q: Thai massage is also unique in its use of compresses. What’s the purpose of those?
The heat of the compress helps soften muscles and stimulate circulation, while the medicinal properties of the herbs used help enhance the benefits of massage. There are many different compress formulas, but commonly used herbs include kaffir lime leaf and peel, which are used to help draw out toxins; cinnamon and galangal, which boost circulation; and camphor, which helps calm the mind and allows other herbs to better penetrate the skin. You don’t often see compresses used outside of Thailand, because it’s best for the herbs to be fresh, rather than dried. It’s also important to make sure you’re aware of the ingredients in the compress and don’t have any allergies or intolerances.
Q: How often do you recommend Thai massage as a therapeutic treatment?
It depends – once a week is ideal for healthy people, to maintain proper body alignment, stimulate your blood, maintain flexibility and manage stress. Massage is often viewed as a luxury, which it is, but it’s important to point out that holding constant tension in your body isn’t just uncomfortable but can have negative health effects - for example, the natural flow of blood from your heart to your brain goes through your shoulders and neck, so if these areas are tense and constricted with reduced blood flow, it can actually cause headaches and or even migraines in some people. Something that I always recommend before massage is a 10 minute steam room session, which is part of the traditional Thai treatment and helps prep your muscles – the steam process not only aids massage’s detoxifying effect but can make the treatment more comfortable and effective if you’re coming in with muscle tenderness.
Q: Are there any Thai massage techniques that can be incorporated into individual self-care routines?
I recommend adding yoga to your regimen, which in many ways is just a more active form of Thai massage. Of course, from a pure relaxation perspective nothing really replaces lying down and being attended to! And a massage will also tend to have a stronger detoxifying effect. One posture that is both relaxing and promotes detoxification is the lying down twist. Lie on your back, with your arms outstretched to either side, and twist your body to your left while keeping your upper back on the floor, allowing your right knee to twist as well to deepen the stretch and to support you. Then repeat on the other side. Another great stretch, especially for those that hold tension in their upper back and neck, is to open your chest, push back your shoulders, clasp your hands behind your back and gently pull back. Take a few deep breaths while holding this posture – it will open you up and help restore proper breathing after a day hunched in front of the computer.
Many of my guests also carry tension in their calves as a result of wearing heels. To alleviate this, press the pad of your thumb up and down the center line of your gastrocnemius (the muscle running up the back length of the calf) a few times, and then do so on the front of the calf to the outside of your shin bone, along the tibialis. You can just do this while watching TV, or better yet right after a shower with coconut oil – applying this super nourishing oil while your skin is still slightly damp helps it sink in.