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Feeling the Pull of Thai Massage

By Dana Scarton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page HE01

The demands of Tim Prue's combined roles of production engineer and business owner, from booking clients to building a set, can leave him exhausted. But he's found a way to manage the stress.

Twice a month he gets a Thai massage, a form of bodywork that has little to do with a Swedish-style rubdown. In Thai massage, the practitioner's table is replaced by a floor mat, no oils or lotions are used, and clients wear clothing suitable for exercise. The practitioner uses his hands, knees and feet to manipulate the client's body into a series of postures and stretches that resemble yoga positions. In fact, some call Thai massage "lazy man's yoga."

Thai Massage
Thai Massage
A Thai massage client gets a stretch from a practitioner's hands and feet. (Photodisc/Punchstock Image)

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"Thai massage is the one type that really worked for me," said Prue, 41, of Gaithersburg. "I usually feel rejuvenated when I finish. That's why I keep going back." Prue's treatment is provided in-home by Tony Jackson, who also offers the therapy at Studio Infinity in D.C.'s Glover Park and at the YWCA Fitness and Aquatics Center in Chinatown.

Although it's been popular on the West Coast for years and in Asian countries for centuries, Thai massage is in its infancy in the Washington area. By most estimates, the therapy is catching on here.

"In our first six months, we saw eight to 10 [Thai massage] clients a week," said David Roylance, who along with his wife, Tukta, founded Touch of Asia in Sterling 18 months ago. "Now we see 40 people per week. We could see more if we had the capacity."

Steven Brown of D.C. Massage Therapies in Tenleytown estimated that 30 percent of his business is devoted to Thai massage, which he began offering three years ago.

Pierce Salguero says the technique evolved in Thailand as early as the 17th century. Salguero spent five years in Thailand, completed a master's degree in East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia and now operates Tao Mountain, a nonprofit association in Charlottesville that teaches the form of massage Thai physicians learn as part of their formal training.

Essentially the method is acupressure combined with stretches and postures achieved through interaction with the practitioner. In the plow, for example, the practitioner carefully lifts your legs over your head while you rest on your back.

"In most villages in Thailand, every grandmother knows how to do this," said Salguero, author of The Encyclopedia of Thai Massage (2004, Findhorn Press). "It is part of family life and is done weekly to promote longevity and flexibility."

The Treatment

I arrived at Touch of Asia in a T-shirt and sweat pants to learn what Thai massage was like from the receiving end.

After completing a two-page health questionnaire, I was escorted to a room furnished with a thin mattress in the middle of the floor. Lights were dim, and relaxing New Age music played as I got comfortable on my back, my head propped on a pillow. The 90-minute treatment began with Tukta Roylance kneeling at my feet and gently kneading each one, from the ankle to the tips of each toe. Nothing new here, I thought.

Moments later, though, Tukta, a Thai who trained at Bangkok's premier massage school, Wat Po, began using her body to stretch mine. In one move she sat facing me, slightly off to one side, while I lay on my back. She pressed the soles of her feet against the hamstrings of my left leg while tugging my left ankle toward her. This gentle push-pull maneuver had the effect of stretching my left quadriceps, a deep, gentle, sustained stretch much more satisfying than any quad stretches I'd done on my own. An identical stretch was performed on my right leg.

Things continued, with Tukta maneuvering me into various poses. The cobra involved my lying on my stomach while Tukta crouched over my rear end and, gripping my forearms, leaned back, causing my head and upper chest to lift off the ground. Between stretches, Tukta used her thumbs to knead muscles.

Without my saying a word, she was able to gauge precisely how far to push or pull to attain a maximum stretch while avoiding injury and pain. My job was simply to inhale prior to a stretch and exhale during it. I didn't have to move a muscle, at least not voluntarily. It felt fabulous.

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