The Abdominal Brain

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.

Posted in viscera | 1 Comment

Jack Chia


Posted in Chiang Mai, massage videos, teachers | 4 Comments

The Meditative Mind in Thai Massage

You may have heard that a Thai massage is conducted whilst maintaining a meditative mind.  That the practice is a meditation.

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.

Posted in meditation, mind | Leave a comment

How to use weight.

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.

And finally we can look at focus: increasing your weight into one focal point

First it is important that you are in the right place, when you are sure, you can shift your weight.  The hip must be directly above the knee as weight always travels vertically.

If that is not enough weight, you can lift up the opposing knee without changing your position.  Just the intention to lift the knee may give you enough weight!

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!”

Posted in how to, teachers, weight | 3 Comments

How to Touch

When massaging, what we are doing, at its most basic, is simply touching.  Touching, feeling, responding, engaging.  Yet very few schools talk about how to touch, curriculums tending more often to focus on where to touch.

So how should we touch? Kaline, wonderful teacher and brilliant woman, once told me when you massage you should imagine you were walking along a river, unable to see the ground beneath the water.  There may be sharp rocks beneath the surface, or there may be mud or sand.

So when you walk, you walk slowly and carefully, like a blind person.  Gently feeling the way and making sure that it is safe, before you shift your body weight.  Because you never know what lies there: what pains, what traumas from the past, what suffering lie beneath the smooth surface, waiting to be heard.

And listen.  Listen well with your hands.  What do you feel?  Is it hot?  Is it cold?  Is it swollen?  Is it flaccid?  Can you feel the pulse, fluid of life, coursing through the flesh?   Is it hard like a rock?  Is it stringy?  Is it spongy?  Don’t just assume – listen.  And the body beneath your hands, or knees, or feet will talk.

The body you are touching has a story behind it, has a direction ahead.  But today, just now, in this moment, let that body be your teacher.  Let that body tell you what to do.  Not your own mind, which thinks “they’re a little crooked there – I can fix that” or “they’re a little too ____, I think they should be more ____, so I’ll do this”

We, who are performing the massage, are the servants, and we are following our master: the client’s body, who is telling us quite clearly what to do.

So we listen and we trust and we follow, and we start by simply touching.

Posted in blind massage, how to | 3 Comments

Prayer to Dr Shivago

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhasa (3x) 

Hommage to the blessed One, the Worthy One, the Perfectly Self-awakened One

Om Namo Shivago Silasa A-hang/Karuniko Sapasatanang O-satha/Tippamantang Paphaso Suriya-jantang/Gomarapato Pagasesi Vantami/Pandito Sumethaso Aloka Sumana-homi (3x)

Hommage to our founder, the father doctor, Shivago who comes to us through his saintly life.  Please bring to us the knowledge of the nature, that this prayer will show us the true medicine in the universe.  In the name of this mantra, we respect your help and pray that through our bodies you will bring wellness and health to the body of our client.

Piyo-tewa manussanang Piyo-proma namutammo/Piyo-naga supananang/Pininsiyang nama mihang Namo Buddhaya Navon-navian/Nasatit-nasatian Ehi-mama Navian-nave Napai-tang-vian/Navian-mahaku Ehi-mama Piyong-mama Namo-puttaya (1x)

The god of healing dwells in the heavens high while mankind stays in the world below.  In the name of the founder, may the heavens be reflected in the earth below so this healing medicine may encircle the world.

Na-a Nava Roga Payati Vinasanti (3x)

We pray for the one we touch, that they will be happy and illness will be released from them.

Translation: Leo Rhee

I’ve often wondered if there is a link to the Hindu mantra “Om Namah Shivaya” (it does sounds so similar to “Om Namo Shivago”) – but if there was a link to the god Shiva: Supreme Being, creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer and concealer of all that is; history does not relate….  and, Dr Jivaka is a very practical focal point to direct our devotion, service and emulation: a compassionate, blessed being with great healing powers.

Video uploaded by Kei from the Shivago Thai School in Edinburgh

Posted in ritual, teachers | 2 Comments

Harnessing the placebo effect

The word placebo means “I shall please” and originally comes from Church liturgy “I shall please the Lord”, and was later used for any attempt to flatter or please another. By the 19th Century, physicians used placebo to refer to any ineffective ‘medicine’ given to a patient not to cure, but merely to please.  Soon physicians saw that if the patient expected the sugar pill to help, it did.

Recent research has shown that the effect is strongest for those disorders that are predominantly mental and subjective: in the case of the depression, placebo pills produce almost the same effect as conventional medicine.

Pain is another nerve-related symptom which is susceptible to treatment by placebo.

Expectations: Patient’s expectations influence the potency, so placebo morphine will provide more relief than placebo aspirin.

Placebo effect has a neurological foundation: Neuro-imaging shows that placebo works by stimulating the production of naturally occurring pain-killers in the brain.  Placebo-activated opioids not only relieve pain, they also modulate heart rate and respiration.  The neurotransmitter dopamine, when released by placebo treatment, help improve motor function in Parkinson’s patients, they can also elevate mood, sharpen cognitive ability, alleviate digestive disorders, relieve insomnia, and limit the secretion of stress-related hormones like insulin and cortisol.  An inert placebo may, by definition, have no effect, but under the right conditions it can act as a catalyst for the body’s endogenous health care system.

Drama is important: Placebo injections are better than placebo pills.  And sham surgery is the most effective of all.  The pill itself will make a difference: shape, size, branding, and price all influence its effects on the body. Soothing blue capsules make more effective tranquilizers than angry red ones, except among Italian men, for whom the color blue is associated with their national soccer team.

Positivity: The more positive a doctor is when telling the patient about the placebo, the more likely it will do the patient good.  We are constantly parsing the reactions of those around us – such as the tone a doctor uses to deliver a diagnosis – to generate more accurate estimations of our fate.

Is alternative medicine a placebo?  Dr Edzard Ernst, professor of Complementary Medicine at Peninsula Medical School has pioneered rigorous study of many alternative treatments: he found that 95% of treatments were statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments.  Ernst’s listed treatments that “demonstrably generate more good than harm” were: St John’s wort for depression; hawthorn for congestive heart failure; guargum for diabetes; acupuncture for nausea and osteoarthritis; aromatherapy as a palliative treatment for cancer; hypnosis for labour pain; and massage, music therapy, and relaxation therapy for anxiety and insomnia.  He also said that practioners of alternative medicine often excel at harnessing the placebo effect through:

  • long relaxed consultations with their clients
  • a strong passionate belief in their treatments
  • treatments that are often delivered with great and reassuring ceremony.

The effect of the placebo may persist even if the patient is told they are getting placebo treatments:  Indeed patients have been able to wean themselves from addictive medicines using something they know to be a placebo.

Although there it is an ethical question whether doctors should hand out placebos, the fact that doctors may be handing out unnecessary medication,  side effects included, is also questionable.  An American study of 8,000 people who had been treated for depression found that a quarter of them were not clinically sick, but had just undergone a normal life event such as bereavement.  Everybody hurts: but people are being needlessly drugged because the natural state of feeling unhappy is viewed as an illness, rather than a ­normal part of life that we should experience and learn from.

And if we can harness body’s inherent healing ability, unmedicated, all the better.

Further reading: Why are placebos getting more effective

Posted in mind, pain, placebo | Leave a comment

Lunar Eclipse ritual

Lunar Eclipse ritual

Tonight (15th June 2011) there is a full lunar eclipse.

For the Lanna ritual for a full moon eclipse, you will need the following:

  • White table
  • Coconut water
  • 12x Purple Lotus flowers
  • 12x Black Candles
  • 12x Black Incense
  • 12x Black Rice Grains
  • 12x Black Sesame Seeds
  • 12x Black Cookies
  • 12x Mangosteen
  • or similar black fruit, candles, incense and foods (Coca-cola?)

As the moon darkens into full eclipse, ask for the elipse energy to bless and cleanse your offerings, to give long life and protection to you, your mama, papa, teacher and loved ones.

Lahu Massamin Ja Puta Gun Nang
Lahu Massamin Tamma Nang
Lahu Massamin Ja Sangkha Nang
Sa Pa Lokha Paya Mi
Wa Che Yasa Pata Pang
Pa Wan Tu Mei
Posted in ritual | Leave a comment

Cross your arms to relieve pain

Crossing your arms after burning your hand or suffering an injury could lessen pain, research suggests.

Scientists found that crossing the arms across the body may confuse the brain about where pain is occurring.  Researchers think the theory has most impact on pain felt in the hands, and have not yet tested it on other parts of the body.

A team from University College London (UCL) used a laser to generate a four millisecond pin prick of pure pain (without touch) on the hands of eight people.  The test was then repeated with the arms crossed.  The participants recorded their perception of the intensity of the pain, and their electrical brain responses were also measured using scans.

The reports and the scans revealed that people’s perception of pain was weaker when the arms were crossed.  Dr Giandomenico Iannetti, lead author of the paper from the UCL department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, said: ‘Perhaps when we get hurt, we should not only ‘rub it better’ but also cross our arms.’

In everyday life you mostly use your left hand to touch things on the left side of the world, and your right hand for the right side of the world – for example when picking up a glass of water on your right side you generally use your right hand.’  This means that the areas of the brain that contain the map of the right body and the map of right external space are usually activated together, leading to highly effective processing of sensory stimuli.

‘When you cross your arms these maps are not activated together anymore, leading to less effective brain processing of sensory stimuli, including pain, being perceived as weaker.’

The study, published in the journal Pain, involved crossing arms over the midline (an imaginary line running vertically down the centre of the body), as happens when people cross their arms naturally.

According to the researchers, the discovery could lead to therapies to reduce pain.

Posted in mind, pain, science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Thai Massage for Tigers?

Don’t try this at home, folks!

Posted in awwww, massage videos | Tagged | 1 Comment