Components for a Successful Thai Massage Practice [Interview]

I'm very pleased to share an interview we did recently with Shama Kern. Shama is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy, the top online training institute for therapists and yoga teachers. He has been living in Thailand for 15 years where he practices and teaches.

Shama is married to a Thai woman who is also a Thai Massage therapist and teacher.

I know you'll enjoy this interview, so let's get started!

At Peace Media: Tell us a little about your background, how you became a massage therapist, and how long you’ve been practicing?

Shama Kern: I started practicing yoga when I was 18 years old. At that time I developed a strong lifelong interest in healing - not just on a physical level, but also on an emotional and energetic level.

This was during the heydays of the hippy era in the 1960s and 1970s when lots of young people became interested in eastern culture and meditation practices, and when many Indian gurus started to develop a following in the western world.

During those days lots of people traveled to India to find a guru, to meditate, to learn yoga, and I was one of them. Although the hippy movement faded, my life long interest in eastern culture, healing practices and energy concepts remained.

The main event that set things in motion was when I visited Thailand in 1999. After experiencing Thai Massage, I immediately saw the connection between these two Asian practices.

For me it was an instant love affair and I decided to learn this healing art. I went to the city of Chiang Mai in Thailand, which has the highest concentration of Thai Massage schools on the planet.

From that point on my life totally changed. I decided to stay in Thailand, and now, 15 years later, I am still there. All this resulted in the establishment of Thai Healing Massage Academy.

At Peace Media: Can you describe what it is?

Shama Kern: Thai Massage is not so much a massage in the western sense. It could be described as a combination of several therapies with elements of massage, applied yoga, and to some degree even physical therapy and chiropractic, all rolled into one session. It is sometimes called Thai Yoga Massage or even "lazy man's yoga" since many of the techniques are basically applied yoga poses.

However there is a lot more to it than just physical manipulations. Like most traditional eastern therapies, it is based on the concept that there is a subtle energy system in the body which is the underlying cause of any disease. The flow of this energy can be improved through certain physical manipulations.

This is similar to the idea behind acupuncture. However acupuncture uses needles to influence this energy flow, and Thai Massage uses pressure points.

In addition it is a wonderfully relaxing and rejuvenating modality which can be thoroughly enjoyable. It is generally done on a floor mat with the client fully dressed and without the application of oil.

At Peace Media: What attracted you to Thai Massage as a specialty?

Shama Kern: As I mentioned before, the yoga connection was a major factor for me

I was always attracted by the fact that it was a proven system, something that had worked for centuries to effectively help people. Originally Thai Massage was never seen as a luxury, as a way of pampering yourself, but as a healing system for people with problems.

I liked the cultural integration as well. Thai Massage has been practiced for hundreds of years long before there was modern medical science. It is part of the social fabric in Thailand. It is not just practiced professionally, but often within the family as well.

I always liked the social element of Thai Massage. It just feels very easy going, natural and spontaneous.

Here in Thailand massage happens more spontaneously and more publicly. For example you can relax on a recliner on a sidewalk while enjoying a foot massage and watching the world go by.

Or you can lie down on a mat under a bamboo roof in the middle of a busy market to take a break from shopping. Or you can get a massage on the beach. It is integrated into the social fabric. Often you see people massaging each other in public places, even their work environment.

Here people can walk into any massage shop, no appointment needed. Mostly there is a large room with several floor mats next to each other, and everyone is getting their massage in this public environment. It is more of a social environment, not so much a totally private setting like in the western world.

You don't need a massage table, you don't need oil, you don't even need privacy necessarily. You don't have to deal with shyness issues over undressing since it is done fully clothed.

I liked the fact that Thai Massage allows you to work with many body parts - hands, forearms, elbows, knees and feet. This can be the saving grace for therapists who have issues with their thumbs, hands or wrists. 

At Peace Media: What are the benefits of Thai Massage for clients, compared to other modalities?

Shama Kern: It has significant benefits compared to other modalities. It has all the benefits of massage in general, but it also has additional benefits because it uses hundreds of stretches and manipulations which do not exist in typical western massage. So an easy way of putting it is to say that Thai Massage combines the benefits of massage with many benefits of yoga.

At Peace Media: In your experience, what makes a successful practice?

Shama Kern: I would say specialization. Thai Massage is often done as a fixed sequence of stretches, kind of like a one-size-fits-all treatment. However this is entry level Thai Massage and does not reflect its actual potential.

However therapists who are able to really work therapeutically can achieve excellent results and they will have very little competition.

This form of massage is often perceived as a painful modality. This is far from the truth. The only reason why it would be painful is when practitioners are inexperienced, insensitive or even brutal. It can be done in such a way that clients go into a trance or fall asleep. A cookie cutter approach and a lack of sensitivity are a guaranteed way to doom a Thai Massage practice to mediocrity.

Many schools offer only a very basic education. Many therapists are under the impression that a one week or two week course is enough to practice successfully. However this could not be farther from the truth. Good Thai Massage takes extensive training.

Here is another essential element to success. If Thai Massage is offered as just one more modality along with half a dozen others, clients will often choose more familiar modalities.

In my experience the most successful Thai Massage practitioners are those who offer it as their primary or even their only modality. They will come across as the most experienced, expert, knowledgeable and capable therapists. In my case this has definitely been a major factor in my success. I was always known as the "Thai Massage guy", as someone who is really good at it.

At Peace Media: How can massage therapists who are interested in this modality begin to research and train? Do they need special certification as a Thai Massage Therapist?

Shama Kern: Certification is an issue which depends on where a therapist practices. There are rules which vary from country to country, state to state and even city to city. For example in the US, as of this writing, there are still states which do not require any certification for massage therapy at all. Others require 500 or even 1000 hours of training.

In some parts of the world Thai Massage is treated differently from other massage styles since it does not involve taking clothes off. Then there are yoga teachers who use Thai Massage under the umbrella of their yoga certification. So certification is a subject that needs to be researched locally, especially since rules can and do change all the time.

In regards to training, there are several options:

Thailand Study - Some people prefer to study in Thailand. They think that the training there will be the most authentic and the best. Although this is not necessarily true, it is certainly enjoyable to be immersed in the culture and to enjoy a beautiful country.

It can be cheaper to study in Thailand, although once you add airfare and accommodation into the equation, the savings are not much of a factor. This option works best if someone wants to go to Thailand anyway, not only to attend a Thai Massage school.

Local western school - A second option is to study at a local school in the western world. I would recommend to study with a teacher who has specialized in Thai Massage and the education needs to be at the very least one full month of daily training and practice, and ideally quite a bit more than that.

Online Training - The third way of learning is online training which is the specialty of my company. I would not recommend this as the best solution for someone who has never practiced any massage or yoga. They are better off in a live training environment, at least to start out with.

At Peace Media: Anything else you would like to add?

Shama Kern: During my massage career I have developed several highly specialized therapeutic styles which have proven to be very effective. I have always been a believer in sharing. Knowledge which is kept by oneself and dies with oneself is of limited use. Shared knowledge benefits an unlimited number of people.

Thank you, Shama! I know our readers will find a lot of benefit from you sharing your knowledge.

Do you have any experience with Thai massage? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Additional Resources:

Shama Kern - Thai Healing Massage Academy

Chuck Duff - Thai Bodywork School of Thai Massage

Heath & Nicole Reed - Bodywork Seminars