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Is practicing Thai massage cultural appropriation?

Non-Thais practicing Thai massage is cultural appropriation, so Westerners need to consider the implications of practicing this tradition.

Healing arts come from traditions and cultures from around the world. While these traditions help many people, we must remember that we are engaged in something from another culture.

Non-Thai people became interested in Thai massage about 40 years ago. People began to travel to Thailand with a short amount of time and no language skills to “learn” something that could take years to understand fully. With language skills, these students could learn the basics. They had no access to ancient texts or time to work with masters.

These students then went home and began to practice and teach Thai massage. Since they did not know the theory of Thai massage or Traditional Thai Medicine, they left out the theory or filled the gaps and expanded on their knowledge with their ideas. With Thai massage, non-Thais often filled the gap with Western, Chinese or Ayurvedic medical theory instead of Thai Traditional Medicine.

Students who learned Thai massage from these non-Thais then travelled to Thailand to continue learning their modified theory instead of traditional Thai theory. They told the Thai teachers they wanted to study their modified Thai massage, so the Thai schools began to change their teaching to appease the non-Thais since that is their livelihood. It is now possible to go to Thailand and learn Thai massage, which is very non-Thai.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture uses elements of a non-dominant culture that supports stereotypes, furthers oppression, misrepresents the culture or does not give credit to the non-dominant culture. But appropriation also occurs when a dominant culture uses part of a non-dominant culture with permission.

Thai massage does not fall under the first definition of appropriation. Thai massage schools purposely instruct non-Thai students and encourage them to share Thai massage with as many people as possible in our countries. So we have been actively encouraged by our Thai teachers to share this knowledge outside of Thailand.

Appropriation, then, is that Western practitioners and teachers have invented many “derived” therapies, add-ons, or specialties around these traditional treatments, which fall under the second category of cultural appropriation.

For instance, Thai Massage was never a Yogic practice in Thailand. However, without knowledge of Traditional Thai Medicine, Western yoga practitioners made associations and started promoting their massage as Thai Yoga Massage. Subsequently, today, many Thai Massage teachers teach Thai Massage as Thai Yoga Massage and focus on stretches rather than teaching any Traditional Thai Medicine.

Before considering how to deal with this ethical issue, we must acknowledge that traditional Thai massage results from cultural appropriation. Thai massage is not an ancient practice that dates from the time of the Buddha. Traditional Thai Medicine emerged from hundreds of years of cultural exchange in the area we now call Thailand, which itself is a synthesis of previous cultures and traditions. So Thai massage is a product of a long history of cultural appropriation by the Thais, incorporating aspects of Buddhist, Tantric, Ayurvedic, Chinese, and indigenous Thai practices.

The Thai massage most often practiced by Westerners represents a very recent synthesis, dating back to the 1950s in its current state. Thai massage was “revived” in the 1980s by the Thai government and leading traditional doctors, specifically to bolster the tourism and spa industries.

Things go in dubious directions when a Western practitioner or a teacher claims their appropriated and modified form of Thai massage is the original. For instance, when a Thai Massage teacher claims that Thai Yoga Massage has existed for 2,500 years in Thailand, that statement is blatantly untrue.

How Can We Prevent Appropriation?

As Thai massage practitioners and teachers, we must appreciate Thai culture and work hard to honour the tradition. Cultural appreciation is the respectful borrowing of elements from another culture to share ideas and diversify oneself. So if we want to practice or teach Thai massage, how can we be appreciative without misusing this privilege?

Don’t Deny the Critique

Before anything else, you need to adopt a proactive approach. Educating yourself about the issues, the ethical problems, and the history of appropriation is essential. You need to see the issues clearly and articulate where you stand, especially if Thai massage is meaningful to you as a livelihood or hobby.

Give a Portion Back to Thailand

If you earn a living from a Thai massage, give a portion of your earnings back to Thailand in charitable giving. Even a small sum goes a long way when converted into Thai currency. Setting a percentage and sticking to it is the best way.

Honour the Thai Traditions and Origins

As Thai massage practitioners or teachers, we need to have enough respect for the tradition to make an effort to try and learn the authentic tradition. While individually, we cannot stop this cultural decline of knowledge; we are responsible for ourselves. We are accountable for our actions and must be aware of how harmful our misconceptions can be to Traditional Thai Medicine.

Thai teachers and schools have given those lucky enough to travel to Thailand a precious tradition, so we must do our best to pass it on in its unadulterated form. We need to resist the urge and the arrogance to think that we have the answers to what we perceive as the gaps by adding things that are not a part of Traditional Thai Medicine. Instead, we need to have enough respect for the tradition that we make an effort to try and learn the authentic tradition.

The onus is educating ourselves about Thai history and culture and discussing, teaching, and practicing this knowledge with others. Remember that we have been able to “borrow” this knowledge because of our privileged position as educated, wealthy Westerners.

If you learn Thai massage and mix it with other practices, don’t call it traditional Thai massage because it isn’t. Don’t practice Thai massage in a way that hurts the tradition. The people of Thailand share a precious tradition, so we must do our best to pass it on in its unadulterated form.

Maintain Humility

If you practice anything from another country, there will be appropriation. Still, if we can do things with humility and respect, there is less risk of us changing and damaging the tradition. So we need to have the humility to acknowledge that, relative to Thai people, we have yet to spend much time learning Thai massage in the context of Traditional Thai Medicine and need to know more.

We must constantly remind ourselves that we are translators, facilitators, and proponents of Thai massage and not the “masters” of this tradition. We should always direct our students’ and clients’ admiration and gratitude back to Thailand as the source of any wisdom we have gained from this practice.

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