Yesterday I had my third Thai massage of the year, and though it hurt a lot, today my body feels elongated and unknotted, my mind lighter and calmer. Unlike sleep-inducing treatments such as aromatherapy, shirodara and Indian head massage, Thai massage can be a deeply uncomfortable experience depending on how uptight and stiff you are - for me, it's one of the most effective and stimulating massages around.
Thai massage is based on the theory that we have 10 major life energy lines, known as sen sib, running through our bodies. To balance energy and release blocks, the therapist uses her palms, fingers, elbows, forearms and feet to perform intense stretches and pressure point massage along these 10 lines, pulling, pressing, lifting and loosening muscles and joints. To cover all 10 lines, you really need a good hour and a half. The massage is done on a wide mat, with you dressed in loose comfortable cotton clothing. It's great if you're sick of being oiled and salt-scrubbed and it makes you feel protected and relaxed at the same time. In most places, you will be supplied with the appropriate cotton pyjamas.
The stretches and pressure point massage can feel utterly delicious, and the more you relax and give yourself up to the pain, the more intense and effective the massage will be. If I don't sweat a little when I'm being worked on in particularly tight areas, my therapist is giving me too easy a time of it. I always feel as if I am playing an active part in the treatment, breathing in and out quite consciously through each movement, so the therapist can release on my in-breath, and go deeper on my out-breath. Breathing helps me deeply relax too, and this way, every minute of the precious treatment time counts.
It's a myth, then, that Thai massage, also known as Thai yoga massage, is a "lazy person's yoga", especially when you realise that the treatment releases emotional and mental blocks as well as those you may have on a physical and energetic level. Many times I have come out of a Thai massage having made a decision I've previously laboured for days trying to make, or feeling free of a particularly unattractive emotion that I hadn't been able to shift.
Though Thais are experts at the art, the origins of Thai massage can be traced back to an ayurvedic doctor in India, who is said to have treated the Buddha himself. Thousands of years later some of his notes remained intact, and the Thai King Rama III commissioned the carving of them onto the walls of Wat Po temple in Bangkok, which was founded in 1788 as Thailand's first university. At the temple today you'll find life-size figurines of devotees pulling agonised faces in pretzel-like yoga and massage shapes, but it's not all agony at the Wat Po School of Thai Massage. Set in the grounds of the temple, the school offers authentic and affordable massage in communal fan-cooled rooms with a gentle ambience by practitioners who are trained on site. You can also learn the fine art yourself here - you'll be black and blue by the end of it from enduring each others' mistakes but you'll turn into pretty good masseurs.
Not surprisingly, Thailand remains the best place to have the most authentic Thai massage. Even a two-dollar Thai foot massage at a walk-in massage shop in Bangkok is performed expertly, and every time I have one it makes me weep that back at home I have had to endure inferior, half-hearted massages for a thousand times the price. On any programme at the pristine and lovely Chiva Som at Hua Hin you can have daily Thai massages in an open-air pavilion rather than an air-conditioned treatment room, while the slightly more affordable spa resort of Kamalaya on Koh Samui excels at the ancient art.
If you're not visiting Thailand any time soon, an increasing number of spas outside the country also offer authentic Thai massage. In England, the chintzy, old-fashioned Carey's Manor country house hotel has an unexpectedly contemporary spa where 16 Thai therapists have been specially trained to perform the treatment on stressed-out English couples. For a more luxurious option, the immaculate Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri near Ubud in Bali has it on the menu, while the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai, a place to indulge all your spa fantasies, offers an 80-minute Thai massage for an eye-popping Dh640.