Chapter 31


1992-04-04, Kathmandu

"Archetypes don't exist, the Body does."

               'Foucalt's Pendulum'     Umberto Eco

"OM NAMO SHIVAGO SILASA ............."

The prayers drone on, for fifteen minutes every morning. I and others, my classmates, friends and staff at the Hospital, stand before this stucco structure built like a cave, just outside the classroom.

Inside, the plaster statue of Doctor Moh Shivago, a spare and gentle looking man with beard and soft eyes. The statue is painted in that sparkling bright Thai fashion that lends a S. E. Asian appearance to otherwise Indian features. He is surrounded by flowers, incense, candles and food offerings.

We make this Puja, or ritual offering, giving thanks and asking that all our efforts be rewarded.

At the end of the day, in late afternoon, tired, sore, sometimes overwhelmed by the teachings and information here, again, another Puja, giving thanks for the guidance and all the lessons we have learned that day. 'They' take this seriously. I play along.

This is the Thai way, a ritual for everything. I am studying the ancient techniques of Thai Massage.

Chiang Mai is a travelers' hangout. A relatively modern town that once was a village, now grown up and prosperous. Typically Thai, the streets neat, well-kept, and clean. And the people are casual about most everything.

A northern retreat from the hustle, pollution, heat and traffic of Bangkok. That place was too much, finally. The girls on Patpong and Soi Cowboy were getting to me. Especially Patpong, the Las Vegas of Sex.

A civilized place, Chiang Mai, really. Still, action, drugs and sex if you want. It's just not as overt and constant as the Big City, Bangkok. When everything is Madison Avenue in leather it's hard to stay focused. And of course, the famous Night Market, a Bazaar for all and everything.

Amidst the houses and shops a few Wats, or Temples are scattered. And by the old fortress-like walls of this medium-sized town, all manner of goods and services for the road-maven are available.

This northern center is ideally located for trips to the hill tribes, small Indigenous villages to the North, situated amidst rough mountainous terrain and farmland near Burma, a perpetual war zone.

A few of these tribes are inaccessible due to the terrain and their desire for privacy and security. North of here the Poppy fields bloom, pink, white and red every spring, and Opium is the heady perfume that fills the air.

I hang out near the old Chiang Mai Gate at the eastern end of the town. Rows of hotels provide opportunities for all kinds of connections. When boredom sets in there's always restaurants serving traditional Thai food and Western fare. Pizza is Big. 'America' Restaurant is a Western Cafe good for 'making the scene', sipping an honest cup of coffee. Even serves a down home Mexican Enchilada.

Ignoring all the Travel agencies and trekking guides, I just wander the streets avoiding the Motorbikes and Tuktuks, those bone-shattering Thai rickshaws zipping along the boulevards. Many locals carry cellular telephones in their pockets and drink Mekong, the local firewater.

If you want, a solid pipe of Opium can be had for less than two dollars. "You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant".

Palm Press, Finger Press, Thumb Press, Circling. A gentle pressure, starting with my feet, then moving slowly up the legs toward the pelvis. It seems methodical, technical. And yet, something else. I feel odd sensations in my body as the Therapist moves and manipulates me in a deliberate, strong motion.

Along the soles of my feet, heel to toes, point by point, a deep slow pressure, releasing tension and opening energy lines. Movement, stretching, flexing feet, my muscles are expanding and relaxing. Then, slowly up invisible lines on the inside and outside of both legs. Some points feel like a cool spring day lazing by the creek, others have tension. A few bring explosions of brilliant fireworks, a jarring pain.

'Nuad Bo Rarn' we are told, is the ancient form of Thai Medical Massage. I am writing furiously, trying to keep up. And it's hard, my fingers cramping as I try to get this all down. Hey! I'm impressed!

Now for the basics. It is part Yoga, Meditation, Stretching, Acupressure, Massage and Healing Art. Brought to Thailand hundreds of years ago by an Indian Yogin, Doctor Moh Shivago, its roots are grounded in Yogic healing practices and Chinese Medicine.

An instructor wanting western acceptance, an instructor with a permanent attachment to his ear, communication gaps, painful walking, an evening in search of the bizarre, an evening with a Rasta Man at a teahouse. All in good time.

The first two days, classes are intense. We are receiving a full day's lesson in one three-hour morning period, and another full day's lesson during the three-hour afternoon session. What I don't realize yet, the whole fourteen days of the course becomes intense. I was looking forward to a leisurely process. Not here.

Palm Press, Finger Press, Thumb Press, Circling. Stretch, pull, bend, push up and down legs.

The Traditional Medicine Hospital here has a reputation for being one of the two best schools to study this ancient form of Massage. The other is a monastery in downtown Bangkok.

While taking breaks from class, I notice patients shuffle in for herbal medicines prescribed by the Doctors on staff and to be treated for a variety of illnesses from headache to arthritis to organic problems just using Massage. At least that is reassuring, the locals come for help.

Palm Press, Finger Press, Thumb Press, Circling. Rotate, inner, outer, six points, nine points.

The work is creating all sorts of novel experiences in my body.

I can feel pain and tension release, yet also feel like I am part of some chaotic dance, a manequin moved around the floor at will. All dressed up and moved like a puppet. Up chest, ribs, shoulders. down arms then hands pull, press palms up, pull fingers, rotate, bend, bend, bend, stretch.

I have a background in bodywork and yet this is strange to me. It seems too methodical and severe. I feel like a new student with no knowledge at all, a novice again.

The instructors even give homework for the evening. No respite! The written questions are an evil annoyance. Practice is what counts. And hours and hours of practice. Back and forth, changing, giving, receiving. The way these people teach is backward, they treat me like a child. And all that damn smiling! 'Here Johnny, do your lessons, then you can eat Ice-cream!' Maybe it's just my own inability. The only way to own this, for me, is in the doing.

Chongol Setthakorn stands about five feet seven. Sturdy, a round jovial face, small piercing eyes and a permanent lip-closed smile. Call him 'John'.

Chongol was, well, a shyster, a hacker, a barrister. In short, a Lawyer, before becoming a Thai Massage Therapist. Now he teaches. A career and lifestyle change that reminds me of my own transitions.

He is the Master here. Soft-spoken, easy-going, always that permanent lip-closed smile. He teaches in the West, speaks English well. All this belies a taskmaster, determined to teach us all the methods, techniques and practices we will need to become proficient in 'Nuad Bo Rarn'.

I am deep into it now, no return. Maybe I could just hang out in Chiang Mai for awhile. Maybe another meditation retreat, where I can 'just' sit and meditate. Maybe curled up in some native bungalow with a long-stemmed Opium pipe hanging out of my mouth, a shriveled old dope fiend feeding me dreams of glory through a hazy cloud of smoke.

It is not just one method, rather a whole set of diverse movements, postures and techniques that have been blended to form a complete system. I feel resistance to the amount of material, sense resistance from others in the class as well.

Chongol is smiling and relentless.

There is nothing for it but to do it. This must be dedicated time to get anything of value for myself. I recognize the intensity I so often have experienced in the past around learning something new, in college. This is similar, yet different.

Maybe if I can just maintain the focus on my body, what I am experiencing, I will learn something. Really, it is not that difficult! Maybe I have been too long without discipline, and subconsciously want to avoid it like a case of amoebas.

Wai Khru. Kneeling before two feet, the body stretched out in front. Kneeling, Zen fashion, hands forming lotus, just below chin, eyes closed. Centering, breath slowing, coming into harmony with this body lying silently on the mat. Coming into harmony with my own body and spirit. Focusing on the task ahead and letting go all outside thoughts and feelings.

Wai Khru, a prayer, an invocation that this work, this massage, is healing and the client receives health. A prayer of gratitude to the Indian Doctor, Moh Shivago, for his teaching.

I am the kneeler. My client before me. Legs and arms. Arms and legs. A torso in between, round oval of a head supported above. Slowly pressing, back and forth, forth and back.

Starting at feet, palm presses up both legs, down both legs. stopping just below pelvis, letting my weight sink in. Stopping the gush of life down the legs. Feeling the pulse, feeling the life, applying pressure, a temporary valve, closed. Then release, a spurt, a torrent rushing down toward feet, the river resumes.

The movement becomes a dance, slowly, as my concentration is totally focused on the body beneath my hands. Yet, time crawls like a turtle as the deliberate movement carries me around the body, touching, pressing, circling.

Chongol mentions that a complete Massage can last for three hours!

Finally, the hands. Manipulation similar to the feet. One at a time. Pressing. Thumb press, pulling, twisting wrists, palms, stretching muscle, releasing cartilage. And of course, opening up energy points.

I am an empty vessel. Just moving with the flow, allowing my hands to do the work. I don't feel much at first. Slowly, slowly, my body begins to get a sense of what is happening energetically to the body beneath me.

Slowly I begin to sense from somewhere outside rational thought, in some altogether different place, the energy points and flow of life beneath my fingers.

After class, riding bicycles through Chiang Mai, dodging cars, taxis, motorcycles, a few of us students meet at a local restaurant near the East Gate for fruit juice and company. Thought I was the only one getting lost in class, and many of the others are admitting that too! At least there is some laughter amidst my tears, and I'll try that move that Ananda suggests tomorrow. For now, just talking about my confusion clears the air.

Then on to 'AUM' Restaurant, a little dive with a casual flavor, for vegetarian food, sitting on floor cushions, drinking ginger tea, eating curries over brown rice and bamboo shoot soup. The food, cooked with healing energy and traditional Thai love helps restore my tired body.

These classmates I am hanging out with invigorate me in other ways. A host of travelers. Different sizes, shapes, colors, sexes, appetites. experiences, bound by this common unity: massage school.

Ananda has dark eyes, long frizzy curly hair, perfect teeth, perfect smile. The open friendliness of a perpetual student and seeker. Ananda is a mid-thirties bodyworker from the East Coast, New York accent, and has lived in India off and on for ten years.

She fills me with stories and tales of the sub-continent, how she studied Indian dance, traveled and lived in a twenty-four-hour-a-day panorama and recites a catalog of exotic diseases that have afflicted her. I am impressed that she is still alive.

Corinne is a French Doctor doing part of her residency among the Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand. Administering modern vaccines and treating the Indigenous culture's illnesses in Western fashion. Albeit rustic Western. Tents in the mountains seldom have the tools and staff that a modern clinic deems mandatory. Whatever is available must be used in conditions that are not always the most hygienic.

She is experiencing a uniquely different lifestyle, training and tradition from her contemporaries back in France.

Millie is an energetic Italian antique dealer: 'Verhy nizzze!' Then Bart, the gangly and gregarious Swiss traveler. And of course, Nora, a young college student from my community back in Big Sur. We share tidbits of information about home, and the mutual friends back there. A welcome surprise for me, and warm feelings of camaraderie.

Bart's an interesting guy, always cheerful. Nora's witty, and something else; yes, attractive; I'm attracted. May be trouble. Jayme is still upset about my intimate encounters down on the Islands just a short while back. We are doing this training together and I don't want to get lost in drama.

Still I like this camaraderie. It is not just me out here, alone. I have done that too, yet this feels comfortable, and these travelers are a unique interesting breed. We support each other, as day to day, we work together with homework and practice. I sense we are becoming a temporary community of travelers, a transient family.

Sen Lines on the body, all over the body. 82,000 lines in fact. We need only learn ten. This is the essence of Thai Massage.

The lines are subtle highways throughout the body where the life force moves and circulates. They won't be found in any Western medical textbooks, yet are accepted as 'real' here in Asia.

The energy moving through these channels nurture and maintain all the physical processes in the body. We access the energy points along these lines, opening gateways, clearing blockages, balancing energy, curing a variety of ills and diseases through the body's own resources.

These lines are similar to the meridians in Chinese Acupuncture. There are so many points to learn. Where to press, how to press, what to press. Working lines day in, day out. working lines constantly, intently, meticulously. Working lines, head, face trunk, arms, belly, hips, legs, hands, feet. Working the lines. Sen Lines.

This is exciting for me! Discovering new ways to manipulate the body, new paths for energy and releasing. While staying directed in the class to each new move, I am beginning to feel the energy movements inside the clients I work on! I can also feel changes in my own body as I lie on the mat, a subject.

In class at the Traditional Medicine Hospital we practice on each other, and on the Thai Massage Therapists who come to our class each afternoon to provide guidance and assistance.

I worked on one Therapist yesterday, she kept making a funny face as I squeezed her leg. Could not understand what she was expressing, till she finally grabbed my leg and demonstrated the correct pressure. Hope she isn't permanently crippled.

Almost all the therapists here speak only Thai. And they have that perpetual Thai smile for everything. Whatever the occasion or happening for them it's always; 'Mai Pen Rai!' or 'It doesn't matter!'

We communicate through action. Most times this works, and even though our languages are different, our bodies are similar. Here is the connection.

I am anxious to visit the Night Bazaar one evening. This is an Institution. Cycling home from class, homework, rest, shower and dinner, then on my bike across town. Just to the east of Tai Pei Gate, a fifteen minute ride past a stream and a river and suddenly surrounded by traffic that seems endless lights, endless tuktuks, bicycles, cars, taxis, motorcycles, lights, bumps, horns, screams, all endless.

Squeezing my bike into a curbside space between another and a motorcycle, locking it to a fence so that it does not become instant 'merchandise', I step onto a sidewalk.

And enter this kaleidoscopic cyclone: push, shove, Bob Marley blaring through a dozen speakers, sidewalk vendors, clothing, silk, jewelry, toys, clothes, antiques, ice cream, drinks, food, beads, handicrafts, t-shirts, electronics, watches, pens, hustle, selling, gazing, mashing, dealing, bargaining, Tracy Chapman on another dozen speakers, alleyways open to rows of shops, vendors hawking coats, pants, pillows, games, Rod Stewart on another dozen speakers, lights flash, 'What you give? Good bargain!', Rolex, Gucci, Pierre Cardin. Rolex??

Theatre of the Extreme.

Working my way through the stalls, touching silk vests, rough cotton shirts, eyes resting on bronze Buddhas and silver amulets, I stop at one of the makeshift stalls selling long cotton jackets. The material is woven in an intricate multicolored pattern with embroidery. Traditional hill tribe design, the dyes all natural, cut and sewn into a piece of modern design.

The bargaining begins at 1,400 Bhat, the Thai currency. An old thin Chinese/Thai man with graying hair and a face lined with the furrows of a harsh life educates me. He carefully explains the usual as I amusingly listen; very high quality, only one of a kind, fits you perfectly, very good price.

Trying it on, gazing in the mirror, the coat fits perfectly, and looks great. I notice my desire and notice I can let it go.

Yet, it would be nice .........

Let's see; 1,400 Bhat! I offer him 400 Bhat. Immediately the old man's brow wrinkles, a look of pain and despair crosses his face. He acts offended. Look! This is a fair price, the best I can do, that 1,400 Bhat is much too high. I can find the same thing cheaper down the road, I don't have much money.

On and on. At least it's not as cutthroat as Indonesia. Those guys were too much!

I know this is expected, he knows it is too. This is the game, Everyone has their rules and their roles to play. Each accepts the formalities as a part of the process. A time-honored tradition.

He comes down 100 Bhat. Grudgingly I offer up 50 more after serious deliberation. We seem so far apart, I continue to look over his goods, though appearing somewhat disinterested. He comes down a little more, I hesitantly go up a little. Finally we meet at 800 Bhat.

A smile suddenly appears across his lips and the often repeated Thai phrase, "Good for you, Good for me!"

The third day of class falls on a Buddhist holiday. Praise the Buddha! I need a day off to catch up on homework, practice and sleep. I feel overwhelmed and chaotic. Remembering my Buddhist lessons from the monastery, this is all transient, but it feels permanent. Confusion is getting to me as I try to absorb all the material.

All this practice begins to feel like a burden. There is no time for play, for parties for any excursions. Nora keeps smiling at me. Jayme is giving me sour looks. I am caught on a seesaw. Back and forth. This is like University! I want to have fun!

My mind is deluged in a downpour of study and learning. There are not enough trained instructors in the class for students to practice with. In class I grab who I can. Any available body will do, and hope that whoever I work on can provide some guidance.

This has resulted in a lot of wasted energy due to trial and error. More than a little frustrating. There will be one more holiday toward the end of the course. Maybe then I will correct any misunderstandings and mistakes. Maybe then I can relax and just allow all this to integrate.

Now we are working on bodies lying front, lying back, on side, sitting. A variety of positions and postures. Many of the stretches seem to me like structural manipulations. I feel in my own body ligaments relaxing, vertebrae and joints expanding and popping.

This feels good and somewhat offsets the tremendous vulnerability and fragility I feel from daily working energy points during all the Sen Line practice. My feet are sore and tender as I walk on them. Everything is exposed and raw.

This has left me vulnerable psychologically as well. I have become more than a little sensitive to the outer chaos. I begin avoiding busy streets and the daily hustle of the city. It is too chaotic for my exposed nerves. All this energy work during class, with constant practice on my body, has heightened my sensitivity to precarious levels.

The class schedule has left little time for meditation, I miss that. The only calm and serenity I find for myself is crashing out in bed at the end of the day.

Amnat, a thin, gangly, bright-eyed, hysterical young Thai leads the morning Yoga and afternoon class instruction. His English is good, except when he mixes a few words, then it becomes amusing. "Place your hand on the Bus-Stop!"

"Amnat, that's buttock!" For him it will forever be 'Bus-Stop!'

Amnat is like many young, hip, upwardly mobile Thais. He has his 'Gucci' watch, pair of Nikes, a motorbike, shades. He never leaves home without his portable cellular telephone. During class, while he is teaching, it rings.

He excuses himself from teaching to answer. At first it is a few calls. As time continues, he mentions that it's his mother. The days roll by, the phone becomes more insistent. We kid him about his girlfriends. He blushes.

More days pass, a rhythm has set in, the phone seems to take on a life of it's own, demanding attention. I ask him who his stockbroker is.

It's good to be Home! Long strenuous days, little rest. Home now has become La Maloon Guest House. Wat, the owner with his wife Poopay and I sit outside in the open air drinking fruit juices as their five-year-old original, brilliant, cheerful boy, Maung, pesters us for attention. I don't feel like playing right now, get along little Maung!

There is a lot of pleasure and acceptance coming home, relaxing in the restaurant, a little talk with other travelers, and playing games with Maung. He is always entertaining, speaking perfect English and demanding attention. Perhaps a little precocious. Wat and Poopay, ever watchful, create this welcoming atmosphere through their quiet daily activity. They are always available and cheerfully provide food and solace. Being and living.

Meanwhile, anxiety and nervousness are becoming a common burden, perhaps moving into my system permanently. Whatever happened to my meditative equilibrium? All I can think of now are those damn Sen Lines. Dreams of highways of chaotic light are filling my nights.

These past two weeks have flown by like a blur of intensity. My concentration and focus has been constantly in the moment, much of the time only aware of my body, the bodies touching me, and those I touch.

Occasional distractions have helped, yet, they only provide temporary relief from all this directed attention. Still, I am beginning to notice subtle changes in my sensitivity.

The sensitivity required to work with this energy demands a subtle perception. An altered state of awareness is entered each time I lay hands on a body now.

This does not come about through any drug or trance-inducing chant or activity. It is far more meditative, with an object of focus, the body's energy, coursing through all those Sen Lines. I am becoming more in tune with the energy flows in my body as well as in the bodies of others.

All the physical manipulations, muscular movement and joint flexing are all well and good. They can provide toning and increased flexibility to a body bound up in straight jackets of tension.

These Energy Channels are the key to deep work. Far below the musculature, this energy access and flow provide the basis for healing and restoration of natural physical processes.

Is it Bob Marley? Jimmy Cliff? No, it's the hottest local band in Chiang Mai playing at the Tea House. A long-haired Thai guitarist strutting his stuff, playing a mix of Jamaican Rasta Jams and good old American Rock'n'Roll. His voice evokes that yearning wailing quality so typical with the Caribbean lyrics. The Thais will copy anything, and come damn close to a perfect imitation.

Yeah! The other night after class and a rest, went down to the Jam. Dancing to the beat, shaking loose all those long hours of Massage practice is like a bath in the rapids up on the Mekong Delta.

Within the musky Mekong Whiskey mixed with Ganja and Tobacco smelling mahogany walls of the best little Rock'n'Roll Joint this side of California a group of us Massage desperados unwind and renew our bodies and spirits through a frenzied guitar riff and that bluesy, challenging Reggae beat.

The head of the Hospital, our daily ritual master, whom we have named affectionately 'Dr. OM NAMO', assures us that we must prepare for our final examinations. Only if we pass written and practical tests will we be certified to practice Thai Massage. I shudder with alarm. Have I practiced enough? Do I know how to provide a good Thai Massage?

The final days are here. Study, practice, study, practice. All day long I am tested on different body parts. Different positions, techniques, moves, Sen Points. My final practical examination is with Amnat. As I work on him, he seems unconscious.

Letting go of any expectations and just moving with the movement. I am doing good work, it has all come together, somehow. And even Amnat's telephone, constantly ringing, does not bother me.

He is in sitting position, phone to ear as I work on his neck and head. Pressing energy points, manipulating joints. The telephone is permanently glued to him. As it rings, all he can do is answer. He does not even know I am there. I move from one side of his head to the other, taking his additional appendage and transferring it from right to left ear. He is unconscious, and I do not even care.

The written examination, including a recitation of the prayer to Dr. Moh Shivago, is a breeze. A five-page test full of essay questions. Easy simple clear.

We all cheat.

And the final ceremony. Dr. Om Namo and Chongol hand out our certificates. As each of us stands before them, we are handed our graduation certificates, a prayer is recited, our foreheads anointed with sacred white paste. Completion and elation. I am now a Certified Thai Massage Therapist!

Wrapping up a couple of odds and ends, bidding goodbye to newfound friends, I headed North, past Chiang Rai up to Mai Sai, on the river, a small bungalow just across from Burma. It rains here sporadically and with the mountains and forests, a much cooler climate.

Relaxing and taking time for myself, I visited hill tribes in the area. I meet an ex-Vietnam Veteran living along the border and we take trailbikes into the poppy-growing regions. Criss-crossing the Thai-Burmese border, avoiding Military checkpoints and gun-toting Opium Smugglers, I spend days visiting tribal people who have never seen a white face before.

Walking, biking, savoring freedom and preparing for India and Nepal. A new chapter, whose urgency I have held in abeyance even as desire flowered like an unanswered hunger deep inside.

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

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