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.

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