Nuad Thai: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Wellness (Part 2 of 2)
A man lies face down on a mat as a woman kneels on his lower half, grasping his wrists and pulling his arms behind him, causing his upper body to bend backwards into the “bow” pose. Not exactly what you picture when you hear the word “massage,” is it?
But in traditional Thai massage, or Nuad Thai, this is just one of the many elaborate contortions that can occur—and a common one at that. A Nuad Thai practitioner will use their hands and fingers, forearms, elbows, knees, and perhaps even their feet to work the client’s body. They may also use hot and cold applications or herbal medicine. All this isn’t just to treat a few muscles, but the patient’s whole well-being.
Read on to discover the underlying concepts of this early form of healthcare, the distinctive styles common today, and how the revival of Thai massage has benefited a great number of people.
Traditional theories of Thai massage
A Nuad Thai practitioner considers a person’s entire well-being as understood through two fundamental theories: the Theory of Elements and the Theory of Sen Prathan Sib.
While the Theory of Elements tells us that all things consist of the four elements of earth, water, wind, and fire, Sen Prathan Sib says the human body has thousands of invisible sen or channels through which lom or the element of wind (life force or vital energy) is distributed. Ten of these sen are the principal or prathan ones. They radiate from the navel and run through different parts of the body. According to these theories, if lom is blocked in the sen or imbalanced, it will affect the entire body’s lom, which will eventually affect the other elements and lead to bodily dysfunction and sickness.
A Nuad Thai therapist combines various techniques, from massaging, kneading, rubbing, or stretching muscles to performing acupressure on specific points along the sen prathan sib. This may involve contorting the patient’s body, applying hot or cold compresses, using herbal remedies, or even prescribing meditation.
Read More: The Resurgence of Thai Herbs
According to these theories, this is all to open up any blocked sen and restore the flow of energy, thereby rebalancing the body’s wind element.
So what are the benefits of Nuad Thai you ask? By unblocking the sen and restoring the flow of energy, Thai massage is said to normalize the circulation of blood and oxygen, thereby boosting cell growth, strengthening the heart, and enhancing the patient’s health, all the while relieving pain and other ailments. The assisted limb bending and stretching also increases the patient’s flexibility.
Regardless of the underlying mechanisms at play, the results speak for themselves. Research shows that Nuad Thai reduces the need for painkillers and can boost energy levels as well as reduce stress. A 2015 study, meanwhile, has found that the royal court massage effectively treats chronic tension headaches.
The two styles of Nuad Thai
Because this integration of science and art was practiced in the royal court and also in temples by ordinary individuals, two distinct styles of Nuad Thai emerged. One is called Nuad Ratchasamnak and the other Nuad Chaloeysak.
Nuad Ratchasamnak (literally, “royal court massage”) was developed in the palaces and offered only to the royal family and nobles. It’s therefore a more formal, respectful, and reserved method that limits physical contact. The masseur remains at arm’s length and can only use their hands and fingertips to apply treatment.
For Nuad Ratchasamnak, the therapist will not start with the soles of the patient’s feet unless absolutely necessary. Instead, the masseur will massage from the tops of the feet and work their way up. However, the patient’s head is avoided as, for Thais, this body part is the most sacred.
If a Nuad Ratchasamnak therapist has to move around, they do so on their knees. Meanwhile, the patient may be in a seated position, lying on their side, or face up, but never face down. Side note: Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health (🇹🇭) advises hospitals and community health centers to follow this royal court style of traditional Thai massage.
The Nuad Thai style known as Nuad Chaloeysak (“normal folk massage”) can be found in every region of the kingdom and is the most practiced form of traditional Thai massage. In the past, it was usually performed by the descendants of massage masters or students from recognized schools.
Nuad Chaloeysak evolved from a more relaxed approach since healers and patients belonged to the same community and didn’t feel the need to be courteous or maintain a respectful distance between one another. Thus, therapists are free to apply pressure in any number of ways, making for an eclectic mix of techniques.
A Nuad Chaloeysak patient sits and lies on their back, front, or side. The healer will massage the patient from the soles of their feet to their head and also massage the patient’s back and front. Sometimes the therapist may apply pressure with their feet to the massage recipient’s back.
For Nuad Chaloeysak, the masseur also actively helps the trusting and passive patient gently twist their body into various yoga postures. As so elegantly put by the late practitioner Kam Thye Chow, who resided in Thailand and studied the discipline, “The guide, the masseur, and the guided, the recipient, are joined together in a graceful dance…” The finale involves the practitioner kneeling behind the patient to interlock arms with them and twist the patient’s torso to the left and right.
Reviving ancient wisdom
“Preserving, developing, and disseminating the knowledge of Nuad Thai for the benefit of mankind must be something more valuable than any award or praise.” — Onsiri Paladesh, assistant professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Mahidol University and co-editor of Nuad Thai Celebration, The Intangible Cultural Heritage
With the passage of time came development and the influx of foreign knowledge and know-how resulting in less reliance on traditional Thai massage. But in the early 1980s, the civil society worked with various state agencies to remind people of the forgotten treasure of Nuad Thai via the Thai Massage Revival Project (TMR).
Thanks to TMR, experts came together to develop traditional Thai massage curricula. At present, a student must complete 150 hours of study before they can join the ranks of Thai massage practitioners, who today also have legal status and follow a professional code of ethics.
Nuad Thai establishments, some with their own variations or specialized applications of Nuad Thai, offer classroom instruction and certification. Massage schools for the blind in Bangkok and a massage college for inmates at Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, for example, ensure that more marginalized individuals also receive Nuad Thai education. Nuad Thai schools also have foreigners from as far away as North America and South America enrolling in the courses to practice Nuad Thai abroad.
Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimonmangklaram or Wat Pho, the site of the famous inscribed stone plaques and “Reusi Dadton” (also spelled “Reusi Dat Ton”) contorted hermit figures, continues to play a key role in preserving the ancient wisdom of Nuad Thai. As of this writing, the temple’s famous Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical School has had over 100,000 people complete its Nuad Thai courses.
According to the Venerable Phra Debvajracayrya, Deputy Abbot of Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimonmangklaram, “Before the COVID-19 outbreak, each day an average of no fewer than 6,000 to 8,000 visitors from around the world would come to Wat Pho and during the high tourism season it was no fewer than 10,000 persons.”
Wat Pho now also houses the Nuad Thai Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum, which was officially opened by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on November 12th, 2021 and, as explained by the Venerable Phra Debvajracayrya, was made possible by many parties to “be a center for learning and compiling data related to the art of Nuad Thai” for future generations. Coinciding with the museum’s opening was the unveiling of 82 completely new Reusi Dadton figures displaying the original 80 Reusi Dadton poses, cast to complement the original figures of which only 24 remain.
Thailand’s legacy of wellness
From humble beginnings, Nuad Thai is now an official part of the Thai public health system and is not only practiced alongside modern medicine but also integrated with Western medicine and can be seen in modern-day health packages. It’s accessible to all, beautiful, and beneficial in that it requires no equipment or medicine and not only helps relieve stress but is also therapeutic and boosts health.If you’re feeling a little stiff, then consult a Nuad Thai practitioner or take a visit—even an online one—to Wat Pho to marvel at what’s left of the original Reusi Dadton statues and see the completely new ones, many of whose poses you can actually practice yourself to get a taste of the relaxing and healing effects that Nuad Thai has to offer.