I am not a flexible person, in either the figurative or the literal sense. The only thing I do worse than bending at the waist is adapting to change, but for the next sixty minutes, except for breathing, these are the only two things I will be doing.
The Thai yoga massage practitioner at Natural Therapy Wellness Center is not my regular therapist, but rather, a young man named George with a face as fresh and friendly as a magnolia bloom, albeit a thinly bearded one. What confidence may be shattered by his youthfulness is more than reclaimed by his namaste greeting and wavy, blond hair swept into a high ponytail. Remove the shoes from his feet, and you’d swear you’d met him once at a plants-based medicine workshop outside of Boulder. Call me provincial, call me a sucker for men in leather necklaces, but he is exactly what I’d imagined.
George leads me to the room he shares with my usual therapist; her massage table has been replaced by a thick, cushiony mat situated on the floor. Though my OCD makes it difficult to shrug off the change in therapists, it leaves me utterly incapable of feeling indifferent about the table (Does her table fold in half or something? How did he get her table out of the room? Did he leave the linens on her table when he moved it, or does he have to strip them all off? And where did he put her table?). My neck begins to tighten. In trying to ignore the absence of the table, I catch only the highlights as George explains his process: he will use a combination of yoga-inspired postures and applied pressure to restore circulation and energy to my muscles; I will be clothed and lying on the mat the entire time; I am to begin and conclude the session with a ten-minute nap.
With that, George excuses himself from the room to stand on his head for a few minutes out in the hallway. This, I learn, is how he centers himself before sessions.
As for me, I am left to lie on my back on the floor mat, which feels for all the world like a luxurious pillow-top mattress. As someone whose comfort normally depends upon countless variables ranging from the alignment of horizontal blinds to the softness of my socks, I am falling in love with this one, simple amenity. I begin to wonder where I might purchase such a mat as I shut my eyes and begin breathing; within a few minutes, I find myself nearly asleep.
What awaits me is a form of bodywork 2,500 years in the making. Since its first practitioner, a yogi and Ayurvedic doctor who treated the Buddha, Thai yoga massage has evolved over millennia; today, the practice of Thai yoga massage is still firmly rooted in the traditions of yoga and Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old Indian system of healing informed by the science and wisdom of life. An important philosophy of Ayurveda is that one’s health is not a function of one’s environment, body, mind, or spirit, but rather, of the balanced integration of all four. This wisdom also asserts that our bodies are physical systems of nature governed by one or more doshas, or body types. In Sanskrit, these physical forms are known as Vata, Pitta, and Kapha (in English, air, fire, and earth, respectively). Every person has his or her own unique balance of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, and we can use this information to understand the patterns of our physical and mental health. Vata types, for example, tend to be full of energy and enthusiasm. Pitta types have fiery systems, resulting in keen intellect and zeal, while those dominated by Kapha tend to be good-natured and nurturing.
I have no idea what my tridoshic composition is, but I suppose it’s George’s job to ferret out that information and use it during our session. His goal will be to restore my energetic balance through simulated yoga postures and the massage-like application of pressure to my muscles. If, for example, I were to exhibit a predominantly vata composition, George might fold me into those yoga postures associated with relaxation and stillness in order to balance my energy — like giving a tranquilizer to a head case, but with a much healthier outcome.
George begins at my feet, kneeling on the floor and applying a mere echo of his body weight to the inside of each foot, back and forth. If this were the only thing he did for an hour, I would be fine with it — that’s how good it feels. As he continues this application of pressure to my legs, George informs me that he is opening my sen lines. My limited vocabulary leaves me caring very little what he’s up to, but still I ask him to explain.
It is suggested that our bodies, in addition to physical tissues and fluids, are composed of energy pathways known as sen lines. In the optimal state of health, energy flows freely through our sen lines — good energy, bad energy, all of it. But should one of our sen pathways become obstructed, we may experience illness or dysfunction in one form or another. Sinus problems, indigestion, fatigue, crankiness — just about any physical or emotional complaint can be tied to restricted flow of energy. Yoga and massage are ways to unblock those energetic bottlenecks and restore energy flow; doing them at the same time, I am now learning, is sort of like inviting Moses to part a sea on your behalf. The results are nothing short of miraculous.
As George bends my limbs into various positions and coaxes my muscles to loosen up, I feel the unmistakable sensation of youthful energy filling my legs, feet, and torso. To restore energy to my arms, George begins with pressure just below my elbow and traverses downwards to my fingertips at a glacial pace; each arm seems to take a couple minutes to complete, and when it’s done, I feel as though I could clean-and-jerk a cow — but too blissed-out to try.
My concerns about limited physical flexibility and range of motion are totally unfounded. At no point during the session have I felt over-stretched or uncomfortable. In fact, everything has been quite the opposite. As the session concludes, George props me upright, pulls my arms straight back, and uses his feet to push me into the shape of a bow. Combined with a few deep breaths, the move dissolves any trace of tension in my back and shoulders.
Before leaving me to nap once again, George offers me a blessing. It’s New Year’s Eve, and he has prepared for himself and the rest of the staff a festive bowl of something he calls date balls — bite-sized snacks made from dates. He offers me one, but I pass. My body feels less like the achy, tired meat suit I normally wear around and more like a steamy sunrise over a placid lake. Why throw a date into that?
Having been raised in Western systems of thought, I tend to want to know, scientifically, why things work. For a moment, during my nap, my head tumbles into the rabbit hole: Why does this form of bodywork feel so insanely good? Maybe it was the act of deep, diaphragmatic breathing for sixty minutes that has left me feeling awakened and full of light. Perhaps my parasympathetic nervous system responded quite favorably to the rocking motions and soothing muscle work. Or, maybe — just maybe — Westerners can learn to invest our faith in forms of healing which have endured for millennia. After all, if it was good enough for the Buddha, it can probably work for me and my OCD.
Then again, people probably didn’t mess with the Buddha’s massage table.