She’s doing something interesting, getting deeper into Thai traditions and theory. She wrote “Seven Peppercorns: Traditional Thai Medical Theory for Bodyworkers“.
Nephyr teaches Thai Medical Theory for Bodyworkers at the Naga School, Portland, Oregon
The abdomen is our physical centre, the core of our being. When we curl up in foetal position, we are protecting our vital organs, as opposed to our head. The abdomen is a place that is intricately linked to our emotions. This is the place where our emotions are felt and expressed.
When we have a strong instinct, we call it a gut feeling. When some one is willing to take a risk, we say they “have guts”. As Stephen Colbert says: “This is where the truth comes from – the gut. Facts come from the brain – and some people think that makes facts better. But did you know you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your brain… You can look it up.”
Technically known as “the enteric nervous system” (ENS), our guts begin at the esophagus and ending at the anus, and are lined with sheaths of neurons, up to 100 million neurons – less than the brain, but more than either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.
The function of this nervous system is the daily grind of digestion: breaking down food, absorbing nutrients and expelling waste requires chemical processing, mechanical mixing and rhythmic contractions to keep everything moving in the right direction.
Evolutionary wise, this abdominal brain is our primary one. The most primitive nervous systems were seen in simple tubular animals, which stuck to rocks on the sea floor and waited for food to float by. As life evolved, animals required a more complex brain and so developed a central nervous system (CNS), capable of movement, procreation, and assessment. Nature did not combine the two nervous systems – but rather preserved the Enteric nervous system as an independent circuit fully active from birth and mostly functioning without instruction from the Cerebral brain.
The two nervous systems are formed out of the same tissue during development: a clump of tissue called the neural crest forms early in embryonic genesis. One clump turns into the CNS, another piece migrates down to become the ENS. Only later do the two become connected by the vagus nerve.
Suprisingly, 90% of fibres in the vagus nerve carry information from the gut to the brain, not the other way round. The abdomen informs our state of mind in other ways too – and it is likely that our emotions are influenced by nerves in our gut.
Researchers at McMaster University have conclusive evidence that bacteria residing in the gut influence brain chemistry and behaviour. The gut is home to about 1,000 trillion bacteria with which we live in harmony. These bacteria perform a number of functions vital to health: they harvest energy from the diet, protect against infections and provide nutrition to cells in the gut.
Previous studies have suggested gut bacteria may communicate with the brain. For instance, some people with liver disease experience changes in mental abilities that improve after they are given antibiotics.
To further investigate the link, researchers gave healthy adult mice antibiotics to disturb their natural gut bacteria. The mice become less anxious and more eager to explore. This also appears to affect brain chemistry: mice had an increased amount of a brain protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Changes in the levels of BDNF have previously been linked to depression and anxiety. When oral antibiotics were discontinued, bacteria in the gut returned to normal. This was accompanied by restoration of normal behaviour and brain chemistry.
Next the researchers carried out some gut bacteria swapping. Different strains of mice are known to exhibit different behaviour patterns. Some are more anxious while others are aggressive and hyperactive. The researchers took mice from both extremes and exchanged their gut bacteria. The behaviour flipped with the new bacteria: aggressive mice became passive and vice versa.
Researchers suspect the bacteria are producing chemicals that can access and influence the brain.
It is possible therapies that aim to restore normal gut flora, such as using probiotics, may be helpful not only in gastrointestinal disease, but also correct behaviour and mood changes in frequently associated diseases such as anxiety, depression, and late onset autism.
This brings us to examine emotions – and where they come from. One tends to assume that an emotion is experienced in the brain, and afterwards we have corresponding body changes: we are embarrassed, and so we blush, for example. But changing bodily states may trigger our emotions also: our hearts race causing us we feel elated. Like Siamese twins, the mind and body are interconnected: when one changes the other does too.
Meditation is simply any mind-based practice. During a meditation, one focuses the mind rather than allowing it to follow it’s usual chattering. Focus itself isn’t a mythic power: a burglar needs incredible focus in order to steal, an Olympic athlete needs incredible focus to jump the hurdle. But focusing the mind means that the activity that you are performing becomes your whole being: nothing else exists. Everything is flowing and operating in one direction. This is the meditative mind that we are talking about.
When we start a Thai Massage, we always start with a prayer (wai-khru). Traditionally this is given to Dr Shivago, although some may choose a different teacher, or perhaps will use the time to centre themselves and focus. This prayer is the beginning of the meditative practice. It’s purpose: to set your intention, and align your focus to make sure the direction we are setting off in is correct. To ask that we will be protected, and that the true medicine in the universe will bring health and wellness to our client.
During this time, we are emptying our mind of our personal clutter. All day, every day, we see the world through our own filters, everything we see is coloured by our desires: what we want looks more delectable, what we despise looks more disgusting. We see nothing as it truly is, only as we believe it to be: and that includes our client. If we want to aid them in any way, we must be really careful not to transfer on to them our own feelings, our own issues. Emptying our mind gives us space to be with our client without our projections. To feel them, sensing with our hearts, rather than our minds. To feel what is there without our judgements blinding us.
And from here we can start to flow into our massage.
Our massage too, is a moving meditation. We have many techniques, but when we are truly “in the flow” we may not know what we are doing, it just feels right. We are acting and reacting, we are touching and we are being touched at the same time. At every instant, everything changes, and everything has the potential for change. Nothing is fixed, everything is impermanent.
This can induce a sense of liminality. The root of this word comes from “threshold”, and liminality is used refer to in-between situations and conditions. Liminal Time itself represents a moment in which time stops passing. The actual definition is a moment “outside of time”.
It is common during a massage to have lost a sense of time and place: to be in a dream-like state, but not sleeping; to feel the touch of the therapist, and yet to feel that you are somewhere else entirely. In the midst of all the movement, you feel quite still. This space is the key to healing: in this place there is space for the brain to sort through and de-clutter, and for healing to take place on a cellular level. Here we are in touch with a different level of consciousness: the subconscious – which is more suited to solving complex problems. Thus when the massage is over, you may feel “changed” and in a way you are.
There are many types of meditation, and Thai massage can an avenue to enter into this state – for both the giver and receiver. Free your mind and the rest will follow.
Ajahn Pichest often talks about weight, it is one of his essential teachings. In a nutshell, you should not use any “pressure” as this will cause tension not only in your client’s body, as the tension causes them to unconsciously protect themselves, but also in our own body, which over time lead to becoming blocks in our own body, especially when we repeat our movements with every massage.
Instead we can learn how to control our own “weight“: let gravity do the work and give yourself space to become totally relaxed whilst sinking as deep as you can go into the client’s body.
So lets look at some of the adjustments that will give us control over own weight:
Firstly, we can look at distance: the further you are from your client’s body, the less you are supporting your own weight, and the more of your weight is being given to your client:
Secondly, think about height: the higher you are above your client, the more you weight you can transfer.
The final position has the weight of the whole body coming down through one knee. This is extreme weight and not suitable for most people. You might notice that I am holding off giving my full weight in this position as it was not suitable.
Be careful never to injure your client – their limitations are more important than our own need to practice technique! Ajahn Pichest often uses “technique” as a insult when he sees someone trying to perform a move without paying attention to what they should actually be doing.
“Technique! Bok bok!”