Traditional Thai Massage and Medicine Series

Welcome to this educational series! Being an immense subject that requires years of training to master, coverage will be brief.  My intention is to provide a taste of how this wonderful healing art developed and give a beginning insight to the theory behind the bodywork*.
Topics will include:

As comments and questions may arise, please feel free to call or email!
Phone: 503-481-6627

*DISCLAIMER: reading this information does not qualify someone to practice Thai Massage and/or Medicine, replace medical care by a trained physician, and is not medical advice. Always see a trained physician for your medical needs or a licensed massage therapist for your massage needs.


PART TWO ~ The Branches of Thai Medicine
(if you missed Part One, please scroll down)

You may be surprised to learn that Thai Massage is only one working part of the larger system of Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM). Massage doctors in Thailand learn about all the different branches and while working in their specialty will utilize other areas of medicine, for example herbalism or Buddhist practices, to treat their patient, and vice versa. The focus on bodywork is mostly a result of the significant increase of tourism in Thailand in the late 1970’s; Western people were traveling there wanting to receive and learn Thai Massage. The combination of the tourist having very little time to learn the traditional medical theory, not speaking the language, being unable to commit to a long-term teacher-student relationship, and the willingness of the Thai people to cater to Western desires, Thai Massage and its dramatic stretches was extracted from TTM as a whole, infused with Western practices, and has been taught in other countries without the understanding of WHY and HOW it works. In fact, this lack of knowledge has been filled in with Ayurvedic and Chinese theory which was familiar to Westerners and already quite popular. However, this watering down of native practices began long before with the arrival of American Missionaries in the 1820’s (there was a resurgence during the Vietnam War in the 60’s), followed by the very first medical school (Bangkok 1890) eliminating traditional medicine in favor of western practices by the year 1915. In more recent history when interest in TTM reappeared, the government developed an official 4 year degree program in an effort to preserve tradition while continuing to lean more into Western anatomy and practices.

Today there are four categories of Thai Medicine:
1. Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM) ~ as mentioned above, this is the most recent evolution in the form of a 4 year degree program promoted by the Minsitry of Public Health
2. Traditional Medicine of Thailand (TMofT) ~ this varies from region to region, with practitioner, and which medical texts are used for reference. It is based on texts from the 1800’s and is written in both Thai and Khmer script.
3. Local or Indigenous Medicine ~ these are the village doctors and are based on local practices throughout the country, local texts, and local teachings. This type of medicine predates both TTM and TMofT.
4. Lanna Medicine ~ originating in the most northern part of Thailand, Lanna medicine dates back to the 13th century and is considered the oldest and most well-preserved tradition as well as being the indigenous medicine of the northern region. The texts and teachings are in Lanna script.

The six branches of Thai Medicine are:
1. Internal Medicine: herbs and diet
2. External Medicine: massage and bodywork
3. Divinatory Sciences: the oracular sciences such as numerology, palmistry, astrology, geomancy
4. Spirit Medicine: includes Shamanistic and Animistic practices such as working with spirits and deities, amulets, incantations, magical tattooing, spiritual herbalism, funeral rites, and other metaphysical/animistic practices
5. Buddhism: mental health and harmonious living; Buddhism is infused in all other branches
6. Midwifery: prenatal and postpartum care and medical assistance during childbirth


The external branch encompasses many practices in which practitioners may specialize while utilizing them all.  Some of these you have heard me mention during our sessions or you may have experienced. Can you spot them!?!
* Compression
* Bone setting
* external application of herbs
* Cupping
* Scraping
* Point work
* Sen work (releasing blockages along physical pathways)
* Stretching
* Blood letting
* Tok Sen (percussive therapy using tools and spirit medicine)
* Range of Motion
* Abdominal work
* Beating (creating deep vibration)

Thanks again for reading and as always, please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments!
Phone: 503-481-6627



PART ONE ~ The 3 Figureheads of Thai Medicine

Let’s get started!
My teacher says that it’s important to first learn about the geography because the original source of medicine is the land. Indigenous cultures’ connection with the natural world is where the study and practice of medicine began. When you look carefully at the indigenous medical systems across the globe, you will see the connection. Elemental theory, one of the crucial threads to Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM), was born from this very real, close living relationship with the land. Where we are born has a major influence on the formation of our physical constitution. Land and environment are key players while providing the necessary medicine, in all its forms, to treat imbalances.

Shaped like an elephant’s head Thailand is nestled among multiple countries; Myanmar (formally Burma) to the north, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast, and Malaysia to the south. Though of farther reach, Vietnam, India, China, and Bangladesh are close neighbors! As you can see, Thailand has potential for influence from all directions.

Beyond the land being the primary origin of medicine, the main sources of TM are prehistory indigenous medicine, Mon and Khmer practices (Burmese and Cambodian respectively), pre-Ayurvedic from India, and pre-Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) from China. Another fundamental thread weaving this all together is Buddhism. Even though Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand today, Animism was the spiritual practice of the indigenous population and it continues to show up in the culture of every day living, and in Spirit Medicine (a branch of TTM). Besides the fact that Buddhism is deeply rooted in Thai culture, the lens of the Thai medical system views a person’s well being with the belief that physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health depend on each other to achieve and maintain balance. If someone has a chronic condition, for example, and treatment with herbs, diet, physical therapies etc have not helped, it may be considered as something of a spiritual nature in which case they may be directed to seek spiritual guidance. This is a very simple explanation; the holistic approach to healthy balance can be much more complex.
*Mon refers to Burmese peoples and Khmer to Cambodian peoples.

Now, who do we have to thank for mixing these ingredients and creating TTM?
There are 3 main figureheads to whom we can give our thanks!

1. Buddha
Seen as the Ultimate Healer, Buddha teaches by helping people to understand that there is suffering and that it is possible to alleviate suffering. These teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths:
1. The reality of suffering
2. Understanding the causes of suffering
3. The cessation of suffering
4. The path to the cessation of suffering

2. Doctor Jivaka
For seven years Jivaka Komarabaccha studied with a teacher named Atreya. At the end of his studies, Atreya asked him to go in search of something that was not medicine. Believing he had failed, Jivaka returned empty handed and announced that he could not find anything that was not medicine. In response, his teacher pronounced him a true physician and sent him on his way. Jivaka continued to practice medicine and according to a tale in the Pali Vinaya, was asked to treat Shakyamuni Goutama (The Buddha). Sweet promotion 😉
He then became a lay monk and supported the monastery by donating his medical services, beginning the infusion of Thai Medicine with Buddhism. It is important to note that Doctor Jivaka’s tale is not unique to Thailand. Various versions are told in Tibet and China demonstrating the geographical span of influence his medical knowledge and practice reached, particularly through the spread of Buddhism.

3. Reusi
……variations in appearance and practice it’s often hard to determine what a Reusi is or is not. It’s possible to summarize the term Reusi by saying, the Reusi are the holders of natural law and sciences which have been passed down through the millenia.” writes Nephyr Jacobsen in her book Seven Peppercorns.

The Reusi are an elusive bunch, living mostly solo. They study nature and the natural law under their initiated teacher. Scientists of both exoteric (mathematics etc) and esoteric (astrology for example) realms, they learn through direct experimentation, and direct communcation with deities, spirit helpers, and plants, while following Buddhist precepts and practices. Dr. Jivaka and the Buddha himself are believed to have been Reusi.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed learning a little about the origin of Thai Medicine.
Next Episode: the 6 branches of Thai Medicine
Coming September 1st