Famous Buddhist Temple Massages Its Way Into Modern Healthcare Industry

By Kalinga Seneviratne, Lotus News Network, June 10, 2016

Bangkok, Thailand -- Wat Po temple in Bangkok is better known for the huge reclining Buddha statue, which attracts millions of tourists each year. Some also quietly walk into the air-conditioned massage clinic inside the monastery premises to try out an “authentic” Thai massage wondering what has the temple and Buddhism got to do with massage?

What is today called Thai Massage is an ancient healing system combining acupressure and energy balancing techniques, based on Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and yoga postures. The founding father of Thai massage is an Indian born  Ayurvedic doctor named Jivaka Kumar Bhacca, who lived during the time of the Buddha and is believed to have treated him as well. He is revered to this day throughout Thailand as the Father of Thai Medicine.

This ancient Thai medical science is now poised to enter the healthcare industry in Thailand in a big way, especially for elderly healthcare. And the Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical school - whose graduates provide the massage services at the temple clinic – is spearheading a foray into modern medical practices.

“Many problem we face cannot be cured by western medicine, especially in elderly heathcare,” argues  Serat Tangtrongchitr, Manager of the Wat Po’s Traditional Medical School. “We need to balance the body and the mind in order (for the elderly) to lead a normal life as possible. Thai Ministry of Public Health feels this is important and cheap way to help people around country.”

With many of the hospitals located in Bangkok and the major cities, the Thai government is expanding smaller healthcare centres in the provinces where Thai massage would form a major component of the treatment.

Serat’s medical school at Wat Po, which was started by his grandfather Kamtorn Tangtrongchit in 1955, is working closely with Public Health Ministry to bring back Thai massage treatment to hospitals and clinics across the kingdom. At the end of this year his centre will be working with Thailand’s leading university Chulalongkorn to incorporate Thai massage theraphy into elderly healthcare by jointly running a specialised clinic there.

 “When it came here, it had a mixture of Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and local herb and local knowledge that developed into Thai traditional medicine,” Serat told Lotus Features.

Massage became an important element of it and the treatment is enhanced when the patient is fully relaxed and breathing deeply.  Thai traditional massage rarely use oils or lotions, and the recipient remains clothed during the treatment.

There is constant body contact between the practitioner and client, but rather than rubbing on muscles, the body is compressed, pulled, stretched and rocked in order to clear energy blockages and relieve tension. Thai massage method focuses on energy lines by pressing on these points in the body to stimulate pressure points along these pathways to breakdown blockages, facilitate energy flow and restore balance and harmony.

The school, which runs a number of training centres outside Bangkok as well, has a basic 1 week and a 1 month course. After which, those who want to specialize to work in the health care industry could do more advanced courses.

Serat says that most of their trainees are already working in the massage (spa) industry and want to advance their careers. “We also have western doctors who come here to learn Thai massage to see if they can incorporate it in their practice” he said adding that every month 10 to 15 overseas students do the 1 month course at their international training school in Salaya outside Bangkok.

“I came here on a holiday but wanted to learn massage. I’m in quality management. Life is very stressful there. Very relaxing here,” Helmet Sponsel, from Germany told Lotus Features, as he was practicing pressure point stimulating on a fellow student guided by a Thai teacher. He is taking the 1 week introductory course.

“In this training (short) we start with orientation, talking about pressure points the anatomy of body, which part of body you are supposed to touch which not to” explained teacher Sompit Pitasingha, who has worked as a practitioner for 11 years and been a teacher for the past 25 years. “We start softly with the body and then go to toe and legs.”

She explained that the 1 week course is not for professionals but for those who just want to learn how to do Thai massage. A further 1 month training will prepare you to practice it professionally while the advance courses from 1 month and more will train you for the medical/healthcare industry. 

“Many people want to learn some go to country (province) and do massage. Some just come to know not to do for money (but, if they want to) can work in spa, saloon, many places,” says Sompit.

Thai student Wanwisa Nuchsem, says she just came to learn Thai massage because “this is a well known place”. She’s already done a 1 month course and is doing the advance 1 month course. “I work in health care sector taking care of old people. This is good to learn. ….. who knows I may work in health sector one day as Thai masseur…… even I cannot work in this area I can help people with physical problem.”

When it was set up in 1832, Wat Po Traditional Medical School was Thailand’s first university, though it is now a private institution. It addition to massage, it also teach traditional Thai medicine,  pharmacy and midwifery. There are many medical inscriptions and illustrations placed on the walls of various buildings around the temple complex, some of which serves as instructions for Thai massage therapists. In December 2011 UNESCO gave it the “Memory of the World” status that lists library collections and archival holdings of significance works.

The very approach to Thai massage has a spiritual leaning in that it incorporates the Buddhist practices of mindfulness (breath awareness) and  loving kindness (focused compassion). These techniques, when shared by the practitioner and client, could help to bring the treatment session to a focused and deep level.
That could also have its drawbacks. Thai massage is today famous around the world, and but perhaps for the wrong reasons.  At the Wat Po training school they closely vet applicants and refuse training for those they may suspect wants to work in the sex industry.

Serat admits that this image sometimes creates a wrong impression of the therapeutic benefits of the treatment.  “It’s been a  problem for a long time” he says,  “because people work close to client … we need to separate it … to let people know this is massage for healthcare not for sex industry.”