By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If you’re not already familiar with this powerful healing therapy, I’d like to open your eyes to Thai yoga therapy, or Thai massage. Combining aspects of hatha yoga with Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines, Thai yoga therapy can help balance, energize, and relax the body and mind by stimulating the flow of vital energy. I’m a big fan of Thai yoga therapy and have been working with Thai Yoga Therapist Liza Dousson (in this video with me) for several years now. Having done just about every form of therapeutic bodywork there is, including ten years of bioenergetic psychotherapy, or “bioenergetics,” training (bioenergetics is about releasing trapped emotional energy which can contribute to illness through physical postures), I feel Thai yoga therapy is one of the best forms of bodywork out there. As an energy medicine practitioner and strong advocate of massage therapy, I believe that Thai yoga therapy is highly medicinal and truly integrative.
I especially like the stretching component of Thai yoga therapy… let me tell you, you’ve never been stretched until you’re stretched by a Thai yoga therapist. Stretching helps us maintain flexibility, the capacity to bend and move with ease, so that we can continue to engage in moderate regular exercise (not to mention keep up with our grandchildren) to stay healthy. Stretching also improves blood flow to constricted areas of our bodies. When someone else stretches us, we can go further than we would on our own (without causing pain, strain, or soreness, of course) and focus more on the breath. Stretching with a therapist can help us stretch better later at home or in a yoga class because it creates muscle memory.
Benefits of Thai Yoga
- Homeostasis: balances hormones and autonomic nervous system
- Release of muscular tension
- Better blood circulation; oxygenates tissues, clears toxins
- Improved heart rate variability (HRV)
- Removal of energy blocks and promotion of healthy energy flow
- Stimulation of glands and internal organs; improved digestion
- Improved posture and alignment
- Increased flexibility and range of motion; lessened stiffness
- Body/mind/spirit holism in both therapist and client
Interested in learning about the active practice of yoga? It’s never too late to get started. Learn more…
Going With the Flow, Whichever Way You Slice It
Thai yoga therapy is designed to bring about a state of balance in the body by helping release stagnated energy. Through assisted yoga poses, the Thai yoga therapist attempts to manipulate major energy lines in the client’s body, using stretching and gentle twisting techniques.Thai yoga therapists also use acupressure and reflexology techniques to help facilitate the flow of vital energy through the body. While acupressure involves using the fingers, hands, feet, elbows or forearms to trigger pressure points all over the body, reflexology entails applying pressure to specific points on the hands and feet to positively affect corresponding parts of the body. Both techniques are said to improve blood flow, promote relaxation, relieve tension, and calm the mind to foster balance in the receiver’s body.
From a Western perspective, Thai yoga therapy helps harmonize the branches of the autonomic nervous system and establish hormonal balance; both states are crucial for health and wellness. Recognizing the role of chronic emotional stress in degenerative diseases, Western doctors are now advocating the practice of mind-body therapies like yoga, meditation and Tai Chi for stress management. By practicing any or all of these mind-body therapies, we can help trigger parasympathetic nervous system activity in our bodies that will result in a physiological relaxation response. The parasympathetic nervous system is one branch of the autonomic nervous system, which controls how our internal organs (e.g. our hearts, blood vessels, small intestines, and glands) react to external stimuli. The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our physiological responses to stressors, is the other branch.
When we are chronically stressed, we get into the pattern of sympathetic nervous system overdrive; more often than not, parasympathetic activity gets suppressed and we suffer imbalance in autonomic nervous system activity. It’s no wonder that chronic stress is linked to high blood pressure and digestive problems. Chronic stress also results in the excess release of stress hormones, which can also lead to hormonal imbalance in the body. Excess cortisol release by the adrenal glands, for example, can cause insulin and thyroid hormone resistance as well as disrupt sex hormone function, resulting in symptoms like depression, weight gain, and loss of energy or sex drive. By reducing the physiological stress response through mind-body therapies like Thai yoga, we bring the body into better overall hormonal and nervous system balance.
One of the yardsticks cardiologists use to measure excess sympathetic nervous system activity is heart rate variability (HRV), the beat-to-beat alterations of heart rate. People with low heart rate variability are less able to “go with the flow” when faced with stress and are more prone to stress-related health issues, including cardiovascular disease. When we balance sympathetic with parasympathetic nervous system activity our heart rate variability improves. Engaging in deep breathing during Thai yoga therapy, can help us cultivate healthy heart rate variability.
Consciously focuing on our breathing during Thai yoga therapy brings a meditative element to the practice. For some, the practice of Thai yoga therapy may also become a spiritual discipline, incorporating Buddhist principles of mindfulness (focused breathing) and compassion (loving kindness), and bringing mind/body/spirit wholeness.
The Big Picture Abstract: Interconnectedness
Thai yoga therapy is founded upon the idea that a vital life force, which runs along energy lines in the body, animates all living beings. Wellness depends on the continuous free flow of this energy through the body, and dysfunction and disease manifest when this energy is chronically blocked. Another major theme is interconnectedness: what occurs in one part of the body affects other parts of the body. This extends to the relationship between humans (all living beings, really) and the universe we are a part of; as microcosms within a macrocosm, our homeostasis is influenced by what’s what going on immediately around us, and even across the globe.
In Chinese medicine, the life force is called “qi,” and it runs along meridians, or channels in the body. The are 12 main meridians which run throughout body, from the head to the feet and fingers, and vice versa. Each of these pathways corresponds with specific organ functions and carries either carries yin (masculine) or yang (feminine) qi. Maintaining a balance of yin and yang qi is considered essential for health. In Ayurvedic medicine, life force, or “prana” flows through channels known as “nadis.” Ayurvedic medicinal philosophy involves balancing our unique energy patterns as we interact with internal and external factors, i.e. emotional, physical and environmental stressors, to promote health.
A Few Words on Thyroid Function
The practice of yoga can have a profound effect on thyroid function. Located at the base of the neck, the thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone, which is responsible for the regulation of all metabolic activities. Like the heart, the thyroid is crucial for proper functioning of rest of the body and affects all other endocrine glands. Hypothyroidism, a condition where thyroid hormone production is too low, can slow down all the body’s functions and manifest as fatigue, depression, muscle aches and slowness of intellect, memory and thought. Thai yoga therapists can help clients restore thyroid function which has been depressed due to stress. Some yoga asanas, or poses, help stimulate thyroid function by placing pressure on the thyroid gland. “Shoulder-stand” (sarvangasana) and “plough” (halasna) are examples of yoga poses which help the practitioner release thyroid hormone that has stagnated. Similar to these poses in which the neck is angled so that the chin touches the chest, a Thai yoga client may be placed into a passive position that he or she may have difficulty achieving alone, but which achieves the same hormonal effect.
How I Get Into My Thai Yoga Therapy Groove
When home, I try to work with Liza Dousson as much as possible to help maintain flexibility. When I’m on the road and need to get better in tune with my body work after air travel, I like to participate in Thai yoga therapy if it’s available where I’m staying. I’m fortunate enough to find outstanding Thai yoga therapists at both the Venetian in Las Vegas and the Fairmont Inn in Sonoma, CA. When in Florida, I work with Thai Yoga Therapist Denise Glueck, LMT, who is also the director of Yoga Moves Studio in St Petersburg, FL.
Thai Yoga Therapist Liza Dousson
Liza Dousson is a Thai yoga therapist and yoga instructor who, after 12 years of personal yoga study, left the corporate world to further explore her passion for yoga. In 1999 she began studying with regarded yoga teachers and taught yoga classes in Boston, MA. When an opportunity to travel to India appeared, she accepted and spent 7 years traveling and living in India and Southeast Asia. Immersing herself into the cultures and experiencing life lessons in Southeast Asia proved profoundly influential for Liza, and deepened her study and practice of classical hatha yoga, yoga therapy, Thai massage, meditation and Qi Gong.
Liza currently offers yoga, yoga therapy and meditation classes and workshops, as well as private classes and Thai yoga therapy sessions, in Southeastern Connecticut. She also studies with, or assists, resident and visiting teachers when at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA
For more information, go to www.beseeknow.com.
Additional References and Resources:
- Yoga Moves and Denise Gleuck, LMT (St. Petersburg, FL)
- Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (Lenox, MA)
- Thai Healing Alliance International
- Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction, by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
- Lakshmi Prasuna VV. Management of Hypothyroidism in Ayurveda. Positive Health Online (Nov. 2008) 152. Available at www.positivehealth.com/article-view.php?articleid=2500
- Curley PA. Dietary and Lifestyle Interventions to Support Functional Hypothyroidism. Student Pulse Academic Journal Dec. 2009);1:12.
- Knox D. Yoga and Ayurveda. Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health web site.
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