Thai Healing: Learning Traditional Thai Massage

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Ming demonstrates correct technique for back massage

My journey has now taken me to a new country and a new culture. I’ve come to the land of dragons. Thailand’s culture is deeply rooted in Buddhism, and so far it has proved to be the perfect ground for me to explore mind-body healing.

Living in Chiang Mai and Pai, I’ve seen tourism run rampant. Where there are tourists, tradition often feels commercialized to an outsider’s eye. It is true for city temples and Thai massage centers.

Perhaps it is not a wonder. On average, a one hour full-body massage costs only 200 Baht (3 US dollars). Training courses at big massage schools are also commercialized, so I never thought I’d end up studying Thai massage during my time here.

My line of fate had different ideas in mind for me. While in Pai, a new friend found a one-on-one training course in Chiang Mai, and suddenly I found myself heading back to Chiang Mai to study Traditional Thai Massage with Ming, an excellent and patient teacher.

Over the course of 3 days and 15 hours, I learned the skills of performing a full body Thai massage: legs, feet, arms, hands, back, and head & face. Ming estimated it would take roughly 3 hours to complete the full massage, quite exhausting for the massage therapist!

A Thai massage is not a soothing affair: a good massage puts quite strong pressure on the nerves and muscles. The placement of hands must be precise – if the strong pressure falls on a bone, the pain can be quite strong. Some of my friends have shared stories of sore limbs and bruises after a careless massage.

The philosophy behind the massage is that there are “sen” – energy lines flowing through the body. In addition to the body and mind, there is energy, which envelops the two. Energy lines form a second skin, and disturbances or blockages in energy can cause illness.

Sen lines in Thai massage

Sen lines, taken from informative website on Thai massage

Energy lines can be stimulated through massage, which restores the proper flow of life energy.

On my last day in Pai, I had an amazing ceremony to complete my second level of Reiki training. While my course with Ming primarily emphasized the physical technique of hand placement and pressure, I felt I could combine the two energy-based techniques to achieve a strong healing presence.

In fact, I found that performing the massage required patience and while working, I settled into a pattern that felt meditative as a result of its rhythmic nature.

The next step of my journey takes me to the New Life Foundation: a mindfulness-based drug and alcohol addiction recovery center in Chiang Rai (also North Thailand). While here I hope to practice the combination of my newly gained Thai massage and Reiki skills. I am curious to witness the outcome of energy healing firsthand.

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Yogic

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A still river spirit

“Do you know what the word “yoga” means?” my teacher asks me, sitting directly across from me in the Yogashala hall, in the lively crowded part of Mysore. Old Mysore, close to the famous palace.

There are no trendy-yoga-pants-wearing, starbucks-in-hand, gucci-handbag-toting ladies here. For our evening session, 6-8 women come after work, wearing their saris. Donning our sweatpants and t-shirts, we begin the evening practice.

On Saturdays, the ladies don’t come. It’s a coveted time of spending time with their children, resting from work. But Kanchen, my teacher, kindly meets with me one-on-one. I’m glad she does, because this whole Ashtanga yoga thing is very new to me.

The first day when I try to follow along with the other women, I make a lot of mistakes. Something crunches in my tailbone area, the sharp jolt of pain reminding me that I can harm myself trying to keep up with everyone else.

I’ll need to ease into this new practice, my 22-year old body an old soul, more akin to that of a 50-year old human.

To answer Kanchen’s question, I spout out something I’ve heard before: “yoga is a practice that unites the body, mind, and spirit.”

“And…?” she questions. I’m drawing a blank. “And a higher power? The universe?” No, she laughs. I like this teaching method. It feels like I’m being shown up by a wise guru who easily dispatches of me in a martial-arts battle of words. Not in a hurtful way, but in a way that teaches me humility, and more importantly, curiosity.

What is the point of asanas (yoga postures) anyway? What is the point of yoga? First thing that came to my mind was physical health, but our discussion quickly leads me to see that this is just a by-product of yoga practice. It’s not the point.

Yoga, Kanchen explained, means “link.” It links four things: breathing, posture, gaze, and stamina (being able to hold position with comfortable stability). In sitting meditation, we focus on our breathing. Yoga is a form of meditation in which you pay attention to these four elements together. Definitely not an easy task!

So the purpose? The same as meditation. Kanchen referred to it as learning to recognize the “super soul” present within each of us. The higher power isn’t outside of us, it is simply within. We are already enlightened, we just have to realize this, a Zen Buddhist might say.

Yoga, with all of its various branches, is but a means to an end. The ultimate end, then, is for us to connect with our “super soul,” our inner Buddha, the God of Love within us. Humans have many words and guises for this phenomenon, but in the end, it is all the same experience, I believe. The mystic experience can’t be divided by the boundaries of religions.

***

It’s now been almost two weeks since I’ve moved to Mysore. Serendipitously, a friend I made at the Dr. Alan Wallace conference in Bangalore had introduced me to one of her dear friends in Mysore. This kind and loving family has taken me in, and I’ve been staying with them ever since leaving Cochin.

Each morning, Dolly and I get off to an early start at 5:30 am. We take an early morning moped ride to Audrey’s home (Dolly’s sister), moving quickly through the still-dark and crisp morning air.

Though the building’s stairwell is dark, an inviting warm light emanating from under Audrey’s door greets us. Inside, Audrey and Paul (a kind and wise yoga teacher friend from Ireland) have already taken their places on yoga mats. Sneaking in a few minutes late, we sheepishly sit down and Paul begins to lead our 6 am yoga class.

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The early morning Yoga team: Paul, Audrey, little Ava, me (+Dolly)

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Tiny yogi

After a restorative cup of green tea, Paul and I leave to travel to the Yogashala, yoga mats and multiple bags somehow tucked onto a moped already carrying two people.

I love the early morning hours marking the beginning of a new day in India. Lots of people commute to work on their mopeds and motorcycles, children dressed in school uniforms laugh together in small groups, street vendors prepare their vegetable and fruit carts, cows nonchalantly walk on the roads, grazing on grass and (unfortunately) some piles of garbage. Once, I saw a small group of monkeys making their way along the street.

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A small street in the old Mysore neighborhood near my Yogashala

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The Yogashala’s garden

I’ve convinced Kanchen, my yoga teacher, to meet with me one-on-one in the mornings, as the evening session turned out to be too advanced for a beginner like me. Kanchen is very knowledgeable and shares insights into yoga philosophy with me in addition to introducing me to the asanas.

Later, at 11, I join the students enrolled in the teacher training course at the Yogashala for Pranayama lessons. Pranayama is a practice of controlling the breath. Deep, controlled, very slow breathing stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells – Kanchen’s scientific explanation for the practice. More blood cells means more oxygen delivered to all of the body’s tissues, which results in increased strength and health.

Chant studies with Jayashree and Narasimhan DEC2015

Chant studies with Jayashree and Narasimhan (last row, middle). My yoga teachers, Kanchen and Paul (front row, woman wearing purple sari, man wearing white).

The course in Pranayama is taught by Guruji BNS Iyengar, a revered teacher.

Once the Pranayama course ends, I catch an auto rickshaw to ‘I Can’ – a wonderful and ambitious Montessori school founded by Audrey and Dolly. In addition to yoga, I’m also volunteering as a teacher. I’ve started working with the 40 lively young souls in I Can’s kindergarten class – an exhilarating, rewarding, and exhausting experience.

This deserves a post all to itself, and I hope to share with you how my efforts at integrating mindfulness games into the classroom go! For now, I’ve shared what a typical day in Mysore is like for me. Not to say there is anything like a typical day here, but just to share a glimpse. 🙂

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“I Can” kindergarten learns about Rome, dresses as the most adorable army of Roman soldiers you’ve ever seen

Opening Pandora’s Box

The role of a physician is to help nature heal.

-Hippocrates

The best plastic surgeon in the world can’t heal a paper cut. No amount of skill, prestige, and money can fix our most superficial injury. Only the body can heal itself.

Dr. Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk and translator for the Dalai Lama, pronounced these words as part of his Dharma teaching at the School of Ancient Wisdom in Bangalore.

I traveled to Bangalore to take part in his multi-day workshop on the “The Power of the Focused Mind.” This is only one of the many interesting points he brought up, but I want to share two amazing stories with you that illustrate the power of healing contained in our own body and mind.

So, back to the question of the paper cut: why do we think things will change when we move from our smallest injury to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or anxiety and depression? The body’s healing capacity doesn’t change.

The simple logic becomes lost in increasing complexity, but in fact, the body is still the only one capable of healing. Not to be confused, symptoms are a different matter – yes, taking ibuprofen will alleviate a headache. But why did the headache arise in the first place? The problem’s root remains untouched.

If you have ever tried to fend off invading dandelions from your garden, you’ll realize pulling the leaves and flower off might help temporarily, but unless you remove the root, the problem will come back!

I think our health is much the same way. Treating symptoms has its place. I am not an opponent of judiciously used antibiotics, by any means. But I think we need to think deeper: why was our immune system weakened to begin with? Why did our natural line of defense fail against these microscopic invaders at this particular time?

During one of our workshops, Dr. Wallace told us a story about going into a 6-month solitary retreat. One of his students, an elderly woman, offered to host him on her California property for this time, and being retired herself she also decided to practice meditation for a few hours each day.

She was relatively new to the practice, so lying supine, she would simply practice observing her breath and body each day.

As the months went by, she noticed that at certain times feelings of pain would arise in her body during the meditation. She would notice them, follow the movement of the pain, and then watch it dissipate.

In daily life, she noticed that the aches and pains of joints and her back began to recede. These chronic problems had come to resolve themselves parallel to her practice of breath-focused meditation.

Focused meditation, Dr. Wallace explained, could be likened to dreamless sleep where the body (and mind) could truly relax and recharge, an optimal time for the body and mind to heal itself from accumulated injuries.

The California woman’s story amazed me, reminding me of how powerful the body is and how capable of healing it is if we allow it to do so.

The mind, in dynamic unity with the body, can likewise achieve this process of self healing. This is when we open Pandora’s box.

Dr. Wallace shared a second story with us about the depth of wounds carried by the mind. A young boy was constantly criticized by his father, told by him that he wouldn’t ever be good enough for anything.

It came time for the science fair at school, and one teacher encouraged her student to submit a project. “Why?” thought the boy, he’d never be good enough to compete with the others. But, with the encouragement of his teacher, he decided to give it a try.

To his great astonishment, the boy won first place. At the awards ceremony, he was beaming with joy. But his father approached him and said, “you didn’t win that. I won that. Without me, you’re nothing.”

In that moment, the boy’s fragile spirit was crushed. That mental wound, whether inflicted knowingly or unknowingly by his father, stayed in this mind, festering for many years.

As he retold this story an innumerable time, tears came forward to his wrinkled eyes. The old man now felt the pain as freshly as the day his father crushed his spirit at the science fair. He had relived this story so many times, and the wound had never healed.

We all have this within us; we carry mental wounds as well as chronic physical illnesses. To heal these mental wounds, we must open the heavy lid of our Pandora’s box: our mind.

Tie a snake into many knots, and it will be able to loosen itself, given time and space. To loosen the knots of our mind, we need to give our mind time and space to work them out.

To do so, we can begin by “watching the cinema of our mind,” in the words of Dr. Wallace. This means objectively observing our emotions and desires without getting caught by them.

This is a type of meditation that moves beyond watching the breath. We sit openly, receptive to whatever might come up from our subconscious: pleasant or unpleasant.

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Of course, it won’t happen in one 30-minute sitting. Just as the California woman’s body took time to heal itself – several hours of meditation each day for a few months (and continuing) – unraveling the knots of the mind will take time. Sometimes things might surface, sometimes they might not.

Once the emotion or desire rises up, call it by its name. If you observe it neutrally, it won’t find anything to cling to, and risen long enough from the sub-conscious, it will be forced to dissipate like early morning dew on blades of grass met by the rising sun.

To be very honest, both of these practices take patience…and practice. I have yet to progress beyond dabbling, but the stories give great motivation, I think!

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The Odyssey Begins.

One week ago, I left all things familiar behind: family, friends, my home, and set out to travel the world by myself for one year. During this year, I plan to travel through Europe, Asia, and South America, seeking to find places of contemplation, mind-body healing practices, and integrative medicine.

On my journey, I want to explore practices of meditation, energy healing, happiness and kindness, harmonious co-existence with our Earth, spiritual healing, practices of integrative medicine and holistic healing, and so many more that I have yet to discover for myself! Through slow travel, I hope to gain an appreciation of each culture’s essence and to speak to healers from all walks of spiritual faith and cultural backgrounds.

I am so very grateful for the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, whose support makes my project a reality. Without their support, I wouldn’t be able to embark on this life-changing journey. Here, you can read more about my Fellowship.

Likewise, I am incredibly thankful for the Servas International organization, whose unique aim of promoting peace and cultural exchange makes it possible for me to meet such kind, thoughtful, and generous individuals that I’ve already had the great pleasure of encountering on my journey.

The support and encouragement I’ve received from family and friends is so heartwarming and I find that sometimes their messages come at just the perfect time – just when I begin to feel overwhelmed or sad, a familiar ping from my phone reminds me of their kind thoughts and love. It is as though you somehow read my thoughts! 🙂

So far, so many exciting things have been happening and I have nothing that comes close to resembling any sort of routine at the moment (both a wonderful and sometimes challenging thing!) so I’ve found it hard to find time to write. But, I will try very hard to make at least one post per week throughout my journey. I want to share my impressions, thoughts, and some of the practices I learn on my odyssey.

My first week in Germany has been so incredible so far, and my backpack already so unwieldy! I laugh at my pre-departure self who thought that brining a portable mouse for my computer and a voice recorder separate from my phone (redundant, I realize…but those interviews!!) were essential items on my journey. Sooner rather than later, I’ll be sending a parcel back to the US with the goodies that crush some of my spinal nerves…..

Thanks for reading and following me on my journey. If you’d like to receive a notification when I publish more stories of my global adventures, you can do so through the ‘follow’ link on my blog. I hope you enjoy reading! 🙂

The Secret Garden: finding the beautiful silk thread of fate

Reluctantly approaching the pile of books, boxes, pencilcases, strewn clothes, and other colorful assorted belongings near my bookshelf, planning to finally approach the ‘clean up room’ bullet-point of my pre-departure checklist – I did what most people leaving for one year of backpacking around the world would do with only 2 weeks left before their trip, and little planning done: I chose a completely unrelated book and started reading.

It wasn’t any book. It was a book that for some unknown reason I had a strong predjudice against as a child, when it had been given to me as a gift. And so, the beautiful hardcover, illustrated color copy of The Secret Garden sat on various shelves until the day I finally decided that reading a children’s book would be a better way of spending the little time I had left before departing for my odyssey than any sort of necessary planning.

Unexpectedly, the book turned out to be more relevant to my journey than perhaps anything else I could have chosen to read. It was a story of transformation, a story of how thoughts have the power to bring illness and cure illness. A story of healing through belief in one’s ability to heal themselves, and a story that reminded me of the thin silk thread of fate that winds its way through all of life, interconnecting people, places, events – in short, everything. Mysterious, little recognized, and almost invisible thread indeed.

My favorite quote from The Secret Garden is this: “thoughts – just mere thoughts – are as powerful as electric batteries – as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.”

Reading this electrified me, and not just because I love all things that speak to the mind-body connection and my choice of literature had seemingly coincidentally reflected this message. No, it was the realization that an effervescent thread had led me to this book, and in it I found just the message I had needed to hear. For the few previous weeks, I had been feeling really anxious about my upcoming journey. Rather than experience gratitude every day knowing that I had received such a blessing and opportunity to travel, my mind found ways to give into fear and self-doubt. How could I journey for a year completely alone? What if I squandered the opportunity and didn’t accomplish what I wanted? What if everyone else was doing better than me on their projects?

What if. I hope to throw away those words before, during, and after my journey. I hope to shatter them each time they come up, and to place my faith in that mysterious silk thread running through our lives. It is that very thread that led me to my bookshelf, to pick up the book I’d thought I would be least likely to ever read. Those words really are as terrible as the scarlet fever germ, and I hope that I will have the strength and mindful observation to throw them out when I find their seeds stealthily taking root in my mind.

Every detour, every obstacle, every frustration has something hidden in it. Look for the thin thread – it is there. It might be hard to see through anxiety, pain, worry, and emotion, but it is there. Have faith in that thread and in yourself, tend that faith to grow it as you would a garden, and you will overcome the obstacles to ultimately grow and triumph amid adversity.

Delights of A Secret Garden

Delights of A Secret Garden