Traditional Thai Healing: A Way of Life for the Body and Mind

Nanticha Ocharoenchai

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Traditional Thai Healing: A Way of Life for the Body and Mind

When you think of Thailand, you might think of Thai massages at beautiful spas. But healthcare in Thai culture extends far beyond that.

Around the globe, there has been renewed interest in traditional and natural healing, as people both young and old strive for better health through holistic lifestyle changes. With a focus on not just physical health issues, but also the connection between body, mind, and spirit, Thailand’s centuries-old traditional healing system is drawing attention in the scientific community and gaining recognition among leading healthcare institutions like the World Health Organization.

Now, easily found in different forms in pharmacies and traditional health centers, anyone can learn more about Thai medicine and integrate it into their own lives.

Historical influences on Thai medicine

Stone slabs depicting sen (energy lines) used in Thai traditional healing.
This illustration of sen, or energy lines, is among a set of stone inscriptions for public learning on display at Wat Pho since King Rama III (1787-1851) and still considered the most comprehensive repertoire of knowledge of traditional Thai massage. Source: Helissa Grundemann / Shutterstock.com

Throughout history, Thailand has received a lot of influence from various nations and religions. While it is difficult to trace back its origins to exact cultural diffusions, the Sanskrit and Pali medical texts are believed to have been derived from the Chinese empire and traders, the 5,000-year-old Indian Ayurveda (“ayus” meaning longevity and “veda” meaning knowledge), Greek philosophers, and Arabian schools.

Most notable, though, would be the prominence of Buddhism in Thai traditional healing. For a long time, Buddhist temples have been a source of knowledge for medicine and various other disciplines, where monks and laymen alike trained to become healers to serve their communities.

The earliest record of writings and illustrated body diagrams appears in ancient texts and stone inscriptions on the walls of the Wat Phra Chetuphon, more commonly known as Wat Pho. The records had been commissioned by King Rama III to pass down medical knowledge to future generations. Later on, King Rama V appointed court doctors to consolidate these texts and revise them for future dissemination.

Read More: Nuad Thai: The Road to Intangible Cultural Heritage

Foundation and core principles

Young Buddhist monk pouring water into alms bowl.
Source: venusvi / Shutterstock.com

Today, Thai traditional healing has become very much its own system. Its core principles are built upon the foundation of an intertwined body and mind, of which a harmonious equilibrium between both is the key to good health.

This also takes into account factors including time, environment and seasons—like the alignment of body and external temperature and humidity or how inclement weather can cause a cold. Just as significant are your age and behavior—for instance, any action to force the body beyond the norm, such as overconsumption of food, deprivation of sleep, inappropriate posture, excessive labor and even an extreme temper can affect your immunity, much in accordance with the Buddhist concept of the “middle way” or the path of moderation.

It is believed that the human body consists of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. An imbalance between these elements are thought to cause illness or disease, presented as symptoms in the digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. This concept is similar to the balance of the two Chinese yin and yang, the Greek theory of four elements, as well as the six Ayurvedic elements.

  • Din: the earth element, represents stability and support of the body and its structure, such as the bones, skin, and organs without involving movement.
  • Lom: the wind element, is the lightest and signifies movements like blood flow.
  • Fai: the fire element, is what heats the body, encouraging change and transformation such as the breaking down of food along the digestive tract.
  • Naam: the water element—though fluid and adaptive, is heavy and slow to change—is the binding substance that holds everything in unity.

Though not always mentioned, the existence of the fifth and sixth elements are also acknowledged in traditional Thai healing. Ether and consciousness, or aakat thaat and winyaan thaat, respectively, create the linked space where all the other elements exist in harmony.This resembles the Five Aggregates or parts of human personality in Buddhist teachings called the Khandas—composed of form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness—from which the self is made.

Healing practices

In contrast to modern medicine, which largely focuses on organs and their isolated functions, the Thai traditional healing system views the human body as coordinated parts in a whole and complete organism. This anatomy is connected by sen or threads—referring to the “energy lines” in veins, nerves and filaments of organic tissues, much like electrical circuits—in which tensions and blockages, felt as aches and sores, can be released and tended to through various healing forms.

Disease is diagnosed after a thorough, and traditionally intimate, examination of the patient’s history as well as his or her family. Generally, healing can be divided into external and internal practices, both holding strong correlation to each other. External practices, or physiotherapies, include:

Thai massage therapist kneading a patient's lower back.
Source: PAPA WOR / Shutterstock.com

Massage (nuad thai or nuad boran): using hands to apply pressure to certain parts of the body to compress, stretch, relax, and manipulate muscles. This can help improve not only flexibility, posture, and blood flow, but also alleviate pain, reduce headaches, and lower stress.

Read More: Nuad Thai: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Wellness

Traditional acupuncturist inserting needles into patient's back.
Source: Studio 72 / Shutterstock.com

Acupuncture (fang khem): inserting thin needles in a combination of appropriate areas across the body and retaining them in place for about half an hour in order to increase blood flow and balance energy. If done correctly, the patient will feel no or minimal discomfort and also a satisfying sensation of blood flow connecting to each needle point.

Often performed two to three times a week for up to several months, this treatment is said to help relieve a wide array of illnesses, from digestion issues, chronic pain, migraine, acne, hair loss, and weight fluctuation, to hypertension, menopause, asthma, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Traditional Thai therapist cupping a patient's back.
Source: Yana Perelotova / Shutterstock.com

Cupping: using suction cups to apply pressure on the skin to aid blood flow, aid healing, and detoxify blood by drawing congested blood to the skin surface. Bruises commonly occur after a session, but will naturally disappear within a few weeks.

Thai massage therapist using herbal compress.
Source: PAPA WOR / Shutterstock.com

Hot herbal compress (luk prakob): using a combination of herbs, rolled up in cloth and steamed, then pressed or pounded directly onto the skin to relieve pain and increase blood flow to affected areas. The herbs used also have anti-inflammatory and relaxation effects from the active aromatic oils absorbed and inhaled by the patient. Research has shown its effectiveness on osteoarthritis and various other clinical conditions.

Read More: Build a Thai Spa Ritual with Traditional Self-Care Routines

Essential oils, candles, and salts.
Source: kholywood / Shutterstock.com

Herbal steam: a variety of herbs or an infusion of essential oils is placed in a sauna—traditionally a dry heat, as opposed to modern moist steams—which can heal and soothe. The aromatic scent is inhaled through the nose and absorbed through the skin to cure internal ailments and relax the mind. As body temperature rises and blood vessels expand, sweating also helps detoxification, carrying impurities or excess chemicals from the blood, tissues, and skin out through the pores. Recommended as a session of about 10 minutes, the practice also moisturizes and refreshes the skin and respiratory system.

Meanwhile, internal healing involves not only the ingestion of substances into the body but also creating healthy manifestations from within the mind:

An array of Thai herbs and spices.
Source: Chatrawee Wiratgasem / Shutterstock.com

Food and medicine: local herbs—such as the anti-bacterial green chiretta (fah talai jone), which was recently proven to alleviate COVID-19 symptoms—are combined as a tonic to foster a balance of the elements to alleviate pain and discomfort. Thai cuisine also uses many ingredients with healing properties into its everyday dishes, from galangal, lemongrass, and ginger to turmeric, tamarind, and coconut oil.

The taste of the drugs—either classified as hot, cool, and mild-tasting, or as sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter, and astringent—determine their healing properties. For example, astringent ingredients usually contain tannins, chemical compounds which can help treat diarrhea.

Read More: The Resurgence of Thai Herbs

Thai woman meditating beneath a tree.
Source: KP Suwannasuk / Shutterstock.com

Mindfulness and meditation (vipassana): improving awareness in order to manage and control emotions, thus, creating peace in one’s mind and affecting body functions. By noticing and observing one’s thoughts, breathing patterns, and physical sensations, this practice can help one better understand their own nature and how their feelings affect their state.

Compassion (metta): empathizing with the distress of others in order to remove oneself from solitary ego and foster a sense of interconnectedness among all living things. One of Buddha’s core teachings, this practice invokes one to lessen others’ sufferings and, thus, one’s own.

Given the close relationship between the Buddhist faith and traditional Thai healing—not unlike other healing systems that predate modern medicine—many Thais also wear amulets, chant Buddhist scripture, or make offerings to spirit houses in the name of good health. Whether or not spirits are answering the call of the living, there’s something to be said for one’s peace of mind.

Traditional Thai healing in modern medicine

The conversation around traditional and natural healing has shifted over recent years, losing its stigma with more research, supporting scientific evidence, and standardized accreditations. Nonetheless, despite the growing body of evidence behind certain traditional healing methods, it should not be considered a complete replacement for modern medicine.

As more people look back to their cultural roots for better ways of living, healing, and aging, they’re finding ways to keep these traditions alive for posterity. The traditional Thai healing system is the result of millenia of cosmopolitan influences as well as independent development and conservation.

The preservation and adaptation of this knowledge not only offers new pathways towards healthcare innovations and medical advances, but serves as a bridge between older and younger generations.

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Nanticha Ocharoenchai

A writer, screenwriter, and environmental activist, Nanticha, or Lynn, works as a communications consultant for international environmental organizations. She is passionate about exploring how narratives and solutions-based communications can be used to educate mainstream audiences and inspire environmental action among diverse demographics.

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