that special touch: the art of thai massage with albert lee
Thai massage therapist Albert Lee’s Montreal home and practice space has a special touch. His clean, orderly and minimalist apartment looks over a quiet residential street. His massage space is a double room typical of the neighbourhood, and is adorned with Buddha statues, candles and pictures of his teachers. Like the space he lives and works in, Lee is bright and warm.
He serves up a delicious coconut green tea and prepares to tell me about Thai massage, often known as “Thai Yoga Massage.” And I get the opportunity to ask a question I’ve long wondered: what does a massage technique from Thailand have to do with yoga?
“The massage technique came from India, not Thailand,” Albert tells me. “It was founded by Jīvaka Komarabhācca, who was said to be the Buddha’s physician. He was an Ayurvedic physician and yogic master, and with his knowledge of Ayurveda and yoga, he came up with this form of bodywork that is closely related to both of these traditions.”
When Buddhism moved from India to Burma and Thailand, the massage technique came with it. But it really took root in Thailand where people used it alongside Thai shamanic traditions and traditional herbal medicine for health and well being. Besides the origins, Thai massage bears a close relationship to yoga in its approach to the energy lines in the body. Thai massage practitioners work the sen lines, which are similar to the energy lines in the yogic subtle body.
“In the Thai translation,” says Albert, “there is ittha and pingkhala – even their names sound like yoga’s ida and pingala nadis. The main sen sumana channel is like yoga’s shusumna. We know from these ancient texts that they could have only come from the yogic interpretation of energy: the nadis.”
The Thai massage technique even employs positions similar to yoga asanas. It opens up the energy lines by stretching and compressing the body, much in the same way practicing asanas opens up the nadis.
“I’ll put someone in a stretch and massage them while they’re there. A really balanced Thai massage session leaves the person feeling like they just did the best yoga session of their life. Everything has been worked out, their prana is moving, they feel grounded, calm and free.”
It’s easy to think that Thai massage in its Thai Yoga Massage incarnation might just be smart branding: some savvy massage master noticed that everybody loves yoga, everybody loves massages, and wouldn’t it be brilliant to mix yoga with massage, prefixed by a nationality known for its good beaches and relaxed people.
“But Thai massage does have its roots in yoga, and in Ayurveda,” Lee notes. “This is something that my teachers at Lotus Palm rediscovered and brought back in. I’ve gone to Thailand and studied with the masters there, and they don’t teach the connection. It had been lost.”
Ayurveda is a 5000 year old science of health and healing that originated in India, using the natural energies of the elements of the earth to treat a person as a whole. It incorporates diet, lifestyle, yoga, herbs, cleansing practices, and daily routines in order to bring a person into balance. With his extensive background in meditation, yoga and Ayurveda, Lee also feels driven to reestablish the connection between Thai massage and Ayurveda in his personal practice and upcoming teaching projects.
Lee has had a meditation practice since 1999, after experiencing the deepest and worst depression of his life. The recent university graduate healed himself with meditation, exercise and eating well. He then started practicing yoga asana and attending meditation retreats. This all lead to a yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center in 2002, inspired by reading faculty member Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.
Over the following decade, Lee continued to study yoga, delved into studies at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico with Dr. Vassant Lad, and finally discovered Thai massage, immersing himself in studies at the Lotus Palm school in Montreal where he eventually became an instructor under the close tutelage of its founder Kam Thye Chow. During this time he sat many months in silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts where he met his meditation teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya in 2006. Five years later, he followed his teacher back to Burma to practice at the Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center just outside of Yangon for two months.
Thai massage seems to be the practice and profession that brought together the threads of Lee’s background. “My first teacher described it as the practice metta and mindfulness (metta means lovingkindness in Pali, the ancient Indian language), which are the two wings of the Buddhist path.” This connection to Buddhism, Lee’s foundational practice, resonated with him.
Now Lee is tying it all together and collaborating with Toronto’s Still Light Centre to offer trainings for people, sharing the art of Thai massage with a unique touch.
“I’ve received many massages, and I see that therapists can be really good at form, but sometimes the touch wasn’t there. Or the touch was there, but they didn’t know how to customize the massage. In many trainings, people learn the form, and then how to touch. But why not give people the skills to learn how to touch right from the beginning? Form doesn’t teach you how much pressure to give, how to sense resistance or develop sensitivity.”
This new training, developed by Still Light, is based in a foundation course and a professional training program that focuses on touch, then form. These basics are followed by body mechanics, yoga, meditation and Ayurveda. The module-based structure allows more flexibility for students to take what they need when it fits into their schedules and interests.
Thai massage provides relief for stress, insomnia, poor circulation, and digestion. It assists the endocrine, nervous and respiratory systems, and relieves muscle tension, aches, and pains. The little known fact is that Ayurveda is the framework of this therapeutic and powerful massage.
“Thai massage is yoga therapy,” Lee tells me in closing. “It’s part of a holistic system. Asana is important, but we can’t overlook the healing power of touch, of massage.”
Upcoming opportunities to learn with Albert Lee:
March 23 & 24: Foundations in Thai Yoga Massage
April 8 – 12: Thai Yoga Massage Level 1