Thai Yoga Massage as Self-care & Supplement to Positive Mental Health


Recently, I treated myself to a Thai Yoga Massage at Santosha Yoga & Holistic Health Center in Cranston.  My reasons for exploring this modality were two-fold:

  1. As self-care, I’d heard through word-of-mouth that Thai Yoga Massage (TYM) was relaxing , increased mobility, and provided relief from chronic tension.
  2. As a holistic health practitioner, I am always looking for practices that improve mental health and well-being.  I believe that before anyone can recommend anything, however, one must try it firsthand.  This allows us as providers to share concrete and authentic feedback about experiences and expectations.

And so it was with this two-sided intention that I booked my first ever Thai Yoga Massage. First, for self-care, and second, for curiosity and as a possible recommended supplement to psychotherapy.  My massage was scheduled with Katherine Berrio, a Thai Body-worker, energy healer, and certified yoga instructor.

According to Santosha’s website, “Thai therapy is a relaxing, full-body treatment that includes both stretching of the joints and muscles and compression applied to the energy lines in the body. It’s the combination of touch and stretching that makes it so relaxing yet energizing.”  Contrary to other forms of massage, TYM is done lying down on the floor and fully clothed.

My session began lying on my belly, with the practitioner applying gentle pressure to the backs of my legs, back, and arms.  Occasionally, the practitioner used techniques that felt similar to “traditional” massage, while at other times she used what felt more like acupressure.  She also integrated meditation and active stretching – at times using her hands and feet to pull onor massage my legs, arms, head, and neck, and even taking time to rotate my joints in their sockets.

As I lay on my mat allowing the practitioner to conduct her work, I couldn’t help but reflect on everything I have come to learn as a psychotherapist, yoga practitioner, and general lover of all things neuroscience.  Early on in my career, while studying communications, I learned that people have three different learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.  Lying there, as the practitioner attempted to manipulate the muscles of my legs, I contemplated the value of this type of work for those of us who identify as kinesthetic learners, for whom no amount of talking will everhelp us fully connect the dots.  At one point, Katherine asked me to relax the muscles in my legs.  I tried, but they didn’t respond.  “Let the muscular tension go,” she said.  I told her, intellectually, I knew exactly what she was requesting, but for some reason my body was failing to listen.  I had been running around all day, in nervous system overdrive, trying to get WAY too much done in too little time, and (not surprisingly) my body was having difficulty slowing down.  Also not surprising: my thoughts had been racing all day and I felt more emotionally escalated than normal.  It was only when the muscles of my body were finally able to release, when I allowed Katherine to take over and do her work, that my mental and emotional state began to shift.  This, I believe, provided a direct, concrete experience for my body to slow down, to turn over control, and to ease up on my anxieties.  As a kinesthetic-based learner myself, I can assure you that no amount of talk-therapy or visual presentation would ever allow me to understand (that it was time to slow down), more than the direct, felt experience of doing it within my body.

Another interesting point came to mind when Katherine began massaging my core and paying special attention to the area of my belly.  This is something I had definitely never experienced in “traditional” massage.  Again, my mind went to everything I’ve learned as a yoga and holistic practitioner.  “This is so awesome,” I thought to myself, as research has recently uncovered that we have a whole second nervous system in our gut (known as the “enteric” nervous system), and that as much as 95% of serotonin is found in the intestines.  In yoga, we often hear about the “squeeze & soak” effect – the idea that when we restrict blood flow temporarily to an area, it is flooded with nutrients upon releasing the pose.  The same concept came to mind as Katherine massaged my belly-bits, “aaw man, I am going to get so much serotonin release from this!”

As you can see, a Thai Yoga Massage is not exactly your typical massage.  Should you choose to investigate this modality, you should acquaint yourself with what to expect.  As with any form of bodywork, you should also research your body worker and communicate with them openly and honestly about your goals for treatment and any physical, mental, or emotional issues that may come up during treatment.  For some, bodywork can be triggering.  This doesn’t mean that bodywork is off-the-table, but it would be in the best interest of both client and practitioner if both parties felt adequately prepared.

In closing, I’ll share what my research has uncovered about the benefits of massage:

  • In an article published in 2012 in the Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapy, Field, et al., found that yoga OR massage therapy (research participants were randomly assigned to yoga, massage therapy, or treatment as usual), resulted in a decrease in depression, anxiety, and leg/back pain in prenatally depressed women.
  • The Journal of Clinical Oncology published an article titled the Effectiveness of Aromatherapy Massage in the Management of Anxiety and Depression in Patients with Cancer: A Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial.  This was the first large-scale research study of complementary therapy in conjunction with treatment-as-usual for cancer patients with clinical anxiety and depression.  Results showed that participants receiving aromatherapy massage showed a significant improvement in self-reported anxiety and depression for two weeks post-intervention (post-massage).  This indicates that massage is a valuable tool for helping relieve anxiety and depression, but that in order to reap the benefits, one must engage in the practice consistently (basically: one massage isn’t going to cure your depression or anxiety).
  • Cooke, et al. (2006) published a research study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing indicating that weekly 15-minute aromatherapy massages with music had a direct & immediate impact on stress levels of emergency care nurses, regardless of season (summer or winter).

For more information, or to book a Thai Yoga massage, visit the following resources in Rhode Island: