Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nuad Bo-Rarn

I have just finished my fourth week at the International Thai Massage School in Chiang Mai. Exams were passed and diplomas awarded, but I feel that I have barely scratched the surface. It was an amazing experience and I look forward to getting back home and practicing on some willing bodies. Because that is what I need: lots and lots of practice. Knowing the movements is one thing; making it flow together seamlessly with the correct pressure is something else. I realize that I am at the beginning of a long journey, rather similar to the feeling that I had when I finished teacher training for yoga – I felt like I was ready to start to learn. It was not the finish of a learning program but rather the beginning of a practicum.

I must say that this ancient form of Thai massage – Nuad Bo-Rarn – never ceases to amaze me. Each time that I have laid down and given my body for someone else's practice, I have closed my eyes and just floated off to some other place. As soon as their hands touched my feet, I was gone, in some other Universe. It was extraordinary. It felt like the rhythmic movements were directly in synch with the natural frequency of my body. When thumbs or fingers touched those acupressure points or stimulated those “SEN” energy lines I could feel buzzing all down my legs and arms. I walked back from class at the end of each day and my legs were like jelly. This was no ordinary massage; this was different.

At the beginning, when we practiced, we had difficulty in locating the acupressure points, since they are very precise. But now, when someone finds one on my leg or arm or torso, it is like an electric shock through my nervous system. My whole body lights up as the energy is stimulated – chi or ki or prana or whatever you wish to call it. This truly is the Universe at work.

It is at times like this that I feel a renewal of faith, a sense of comfort that at the heart of things, at the center of all of us, is an energy, a chi, a life force, a soul or spirit. It is not dependent on breath or food for its existence; it exists already. That spirit is not dependent on other people to maintain its purity or to prepare it for a better life: it needs no third party or translator. It just needs our own attention.

I believe this: we are given bodies for a while to allow the chi to move and live in a different dimension, a physical form. Then, when that time is over, there is another form, maybe the original or real form to which we revert. And that is why I realize now that I am not afraid of the concept of death; it is just a transition from one form to another. But the energy, the chi, the soul or spirit, will continue unaffected. I may regret that physical loss or even fear the act of dying, but the result is inevitable: I live now so that I may die at some future point. Bearing that in mind certainly helps me keep a perspective on the world around me. Remember the Delai Lama's comments on the humanity of Man.

There is a writing in the Bahá'i faith that draws a perfect analogy: 

“To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed after the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage.” 

A good friend of mine sent me those words after Marianne died. They helped me then and they continue to help me now.

Each time I have practiced this ancient form of massage I have been reminded that the chi is there within me. I cannot measure it on an instrument; I cannot see it deflect a dial. But I can recognize its presence in the buzzing in my limbs, in the way I feel. It is my job to cherish it, to maintain it, to protect it so that it is fit and healthy for me when I need it the most – in my next life. I hope this ancient Nuad Bo-Rarn will be another way to do that.

I did not expect that studying this ancient form of massage would bring me to these conclusions. I don't know why I am surprised. It is really just one more way to open a door to the core of our being – another way to make that journey from the outside in. It is a connection between the body and the mind and eventually the spirit – just another kind of yoga.  

Same, same but different.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Art of Thai Motor Cycling

There are motor cycles everywhere in Thailand - from little mopeds to big Harleys. And everybody rides them.  Here are my observations on the art of motor cycling in Thailand.

1.  The little basket in front of the handlebars is for your crash helmet. If you have a helmet, do not wear it but display it proudly in the little basket.

2.  All the lanes on the road are available to you, regardless of the direction in which you are traveling.  The side walks are available to you. The inside of shops are available to you. You are allowed to tak special pleasure in whizzing up the very, very inside lane, close to "farangs" and scaring them to death. If the "farang" is walking on the sidewalk, then you may also use the same sidewalk for the express purpose of scaring the shit out of the "farang".

3.  Thais are made small enough so that three or four can easily fit on the same motor cycle at the same time.  This is to ease traffic congestion.  This would not work in America because the American butt is just too damn big.  The answer is smaller butts for America not bigger motor cycles.

4.  The space between the front of the seat and the handlebars is for very small children.  This is perfectly safe;  you can even install a special seat there.  Dogs may also ride in this space, although dogs prefer to sit on the flat platform of a sidecar so they can bark very loudly at the people next to them in traffic.  The preferred order from the front is therefore small child, driver, spouse, granny, larger child, dog.  Small dogs, up to labrador size, may also ride in the little basket if there is no helmet being carried.

5.  If no passengers are being carried, then the space on the seat behind the driver is for extremely large and heavy objects, such as propane gas cylinders, concrete construction blocks and very long steel poles.  They may be secured by a single, fragile, nylon bungee - preferably fraying at the end.  The cargo being carried should be large enough so that it will certainly kill an innocent pedestrian when it rolls off the seat.

6. You may park your motor cycle anywhere;  in shopping malls, the second floor is preferable – use the escalator for easy access.  In Boots the Chemist, park your motor cycle between Ladies intimate items and the cough sweets.

7.  When giving a ride to a "farang", never allow your speed to drop below 50 kph regardless of traffic conditions.  The relationship between "farang" passenger to Thai driver must never be less than 3:1.

8.  The appropriate rain protection for a driver of a motor cycle is a passenger holding an umbrella over the driver's head – preferably low enough so that the driver cannot see where they are going.  There is no reason to reduce speed when an open umbrella is being used.

9.  Texting when driving is permitted as long as the smart phone is held in the braking hand, not the throttle hand.  In this way, the driver can always accelerate out of a tight spot instead of braking.

10.  The appropriate clothing for a Thai teenage girl riding her motor cycle is platform shoes of at least four inches; the shortest skirt in the wardrobe; helmet in the basket; smart phone in the braking hand; and lastly, a similarly attired female passenger in case of inclement weather.  Toy dog goes in the basket if there is no helmet.

11.  Eating while motor cycling is perfectly acceptable for both driver and passenger.  That is why there are so many road side stalls selling food.  This may also explain why Thais use a fork and spoon and not chopsticks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This has recently been posted on Facebook.  I urge everybody to read this, absorb it, accept it and then live your life accordingly.

I have read no better observation on the frailty of Man's humanity than this.  I wish I had read this when I was twenty-something instead of now when I am sixty-something. But then I am heartened by the fact that sixty-something is no age – it is just starting.  There is always time to start anew, to change, to begin again.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Haiku: Thailand meets Bikram

Sequence stays intact
But class is always new.
Same same but different.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Same, same – but different

Sunday morning in Chiang Mai – a good time to pause and reflect at the end of the first week of this Thai Massage program, or Nuad Bo-Rarn in Thai. This week has produced a few surprises: for example, I did not expect to be spending Friday morning performing Qi Gong in the local park. After an hour of that I was ready to step onto the production line in a Toyota plant and start installing gearboxes. You have to keep an open mind to live here in Asia.

There is always a certain amount of adaption required to settling into a new environment: the climate, the language, the food, the culture. Life here is certainly different to my life in rural Spain. Chiang Mai is hot, humid and wet where Spain was hot, dry, and more hot. (Spain is often defined by Einstein's famous E=mc2, where E= España, m=mañana and c=calor or heat). The recent flooding has brought disaster to some other lower lying parts of the country but not so much to Chiang Mai in the north, where we are on higher ground. English is widely spoken and understood in the city, whereas in Spain, where I was living at least, you were pretty much left to find your way in Spanish. There are a reasonable number of expatriates and tourists here in Chiang Mai all year round; in rural Spain there was a local community of expatriate British, Dutch and Belgians but no tourists in the area where I was living. The Thai approach to eating is to graze all day long – lots of little meals throughout the day; in Spain, the tradition of the big lunch and afternoon siesta is alive and well. Life in Spain was very quiet – the villa was in a fairly remote location, far away from the busy beaches; in Chiang Mai, it is busy all the time. In fact, I have yet to find a time where there are not people on the street and motor cycles, scooters, taxis and tuk-tuks on the roads.

And then there is the Thai culture to figure out.  There is a saying in Thai that has come up a few times since I have been here. It is the answer to many of the questions that we put to the teachers at the International Thai Massage school – same, same but different. In fact, they even have T-shirts with the expression printed on them. It's a reflection of the culture where nobody wants to expressly disagree with you. It's akin to saying “yes, yes but no”. For example, we are learning a new posture in Thai massage and it looks like one we did earlier in the day, so we ask “isn't this like the one we did this morning?” and the answer is “same, same but different”. A simple “no” would have worked just as well.  This is a different culture.

Regular readers of this blog will see the yoga connection coming, but before I connect the big dots here, let me tell you about the Thai massage. It is simply quite an extraordinary and powerful body therapy. The origins of Nuad Bo-Rarn, or “ancient Thai massage”, can be traced back to India in the second millennium B.C. It is thought that the Indian physician, Shivago Komarpaj, was the father of Thai massage as we know it today. Shivago was thought to be a contemporary of the Lord Buddha, and the traditions of Thai massage have a distinctive Buddhist feel to them.

There are two principal families of Thai massage in modern Thailand: the southern or Bangkok style, often called the Wat Po style after the temple in Bangkok where it has been taught, and the northern or Chiang Mai style. Both styles are a mixture of yoga and acupressure, performed on a mat on the floor, where the giver uses his or her body weight rather than muscular force to transmit pressure and energy to the receiver. Bangkok style has more acupressure and less yoga, leading to a strong and deep massage. The northern style tends to emphasize the yoga stretching and a little less acupressure, resulting in a somewhat gentler massage, with a little more flexibility and mobility. A wide variety of stretching movements are used while pressure is applied with thumbs, hands and feet along energy lines of the body. The result for the receiver is an extraordinary feeling of relaxation and well-being. It has been called “yoga for lazy people”, since the giver does all of the work and the receiver is passive. So far, I am thoroughly hooked.

And this leads me back to the yoga connection that I hinted at earlier. It's a simple connection to the twenty six postures and two breathing exercises that make up the Bikram sequence: always the same set of postures but never the same class.  Same, same but different. 

No matter how many years that we practice, every class is different. We come into the room each time with a new set of experiences; our diet may be different; the people around us may be different, and they too bring an ever-changing set of conditions. May be the teacher is different; may be the studio is different. I took a couple of classes a while ago in Madrid in Spanish and they were certainly different. May be it's hotter than usual or perhaps it's cooler. For whatever the reason, the fact remains that each class is unique and our bodies respond in a new way each time. We are tested and pushed to a new place in each class.  Same, same but different.

I have heard a few people complain that they have found the Bikram sequence to be boring or repetitive after a while. Life can be a little that way too. But each day we have the opportunity to look inside and see something new. It is often hidden, deep in that corner of the room that we enter with each asana, suspended in that fleeting moment of stillness. Yoga is a journey from the outside in. The conditions are always changing, but each time we step onto the mat we have a chance to break through, to go a little deeper, to find a new place. How can that ever be boring or repetitive?

Same, same – but different.