Yoga-Like Thai Massage Softens and Lengthens the Body (Maui Vision)

Matthew Galena came to therapeutic massage and stretching – and ultimately Thai massage – intuitively. After a significant muscle injury at age 11, doctors were largely unhelpful, suggesting that he simply “walk it off.” Galena then discovered a large walnut-like lump in his inner thigh, began massaging and stretching it on his own, and eventually recovered almost completely.

Meanwhile, friends were also having problems and wanted to understand what he was doing, but he didn’t have the words to teach what he learned through mostly trial and error. Years later in massage therapy school, a teacher demonstrated Thai massage. “I remember 10 or 15 minutes into it, I was absolutely on the edge of my seat,“ Galena said. He recognized his calling.

Sometimes called “lazy man’s yoga,” Thai bodywork combines several therapeutic techniques and intentions into one unique package. Massage, acupressure and meridian therapy are blended with yoga-like stretching to soften, separate and lengthen the body. “Thai Massage is a traditional physical therapy that creates space for energy flow,” Galena explains. “In a community that works together, each of your muscles is an individual, and everyone needs a little elbow room.”

Thai traditions describe health as a balance between three essences: Body, Energy and Citta (cheet-tah). Body is anything that can be physically measured, Citta (or “Mind-Heart”) is considered your mental and emotional self, while Energy is the unseen force that binds them together. Energy is the natural power that separates life from death. As long as Energy flows freely, the body will harness that innate power to heal itself.

In that spirit, Thai massage promotes energy flow by stimulating and stretching a distinct set of energy meridians that become congested or congealed. Galena calls them “energetic superhighways.” It also incorporates two different elemental theories, representing the body as Earth, Air, Water and Fire. One is similar to its Indian Ayurvedic ancestor, while the second is entirely unique, associating the elements almost literally: Earth is any solid created from plants, proteins and minerals we ingest, while the addition of Water and Air prevent Earth from becoming hard and dehydrated. Galena calls it “one of the simplest, most elegant models of the physical body.”

Soil itself is a great metaphor for muscles in terms of how much air and water are needed to sustain life. Fertile soil is moist, loamy, and easy to work with; dry soil settles and hardens over time, barren and difficult to break up. “When muscles constantly tighten and shorten without getting loosened and stretched, they pack and paste themselves down to where there’s little space for water and air,” Galena explains. “There’s no room for energetic movement. Parts of your body become like a brick if you don’t break them up. These days, I think of myself as an organic gardener.”

But it’s not just about being tended to. In Thai healing, for radiant health, the process is a partnership of community and individual therapy. “Ruesri-Dat-Ton is a traditional Thai practice very much like yoga, designed to help heal yourself,” says Galena. “It’s the ‘Thai Yoga’ to enhance ‘Thai Yoga Massage.’ I am one of the strongest proponents for yoga you’ll ever meet, because I have been seriously injured many times, and it has healed me. Details change from one person to the next, but my advice is usually the same: breathe, relax, move and stretch! You are your own best therapist!”

“I prefer to be a stepping-stone,” Galena explains. “The best I can do for anyone is guide them how to take care of themselves.”

See the complete issue of the October/November Maui Vision Magazine here.