Thai traditional massage, “Nuad Boran”’s spirit

My name is Yeshé and I am a traditional Thai massage therapist based in Toulouse, France.

Here I am massaging my friend Marie with “Sugar” the cat – Baan Hom Samunphrai, Chiang Mai, December 2022

When Cindy asked me to write about traditional Thai massage (also known as ‘Nuad Boran’), specifying: “but not about the benefits, because it has been done already”Yes, I can do that, I thought, but I wasn’t much inspired by it. I could have described the feeling of well-being Traditional Thai Massage brings to one’s as if all the  knots were being untangled in one’s body and a new fresh energy allowed to circulate in through one’s whole self. Of course I could have written about the profound physical  effects Thai Massage has on athletes, for example,  or on people who suffer from chronic headaches or debilitating lumbago issues. And yes, I do know how to write scientific articles, I can source my sentences with the utmost serious standardized nomenclature in the world. But scientific literature studies the results, and therefore the benefits… Then I started looking into magazine articles for a source of inspiration — in vain. I found the articles repetitive, written with more or less of an engaging or rather descriptive style. When I started copying and pasting a title and looking for synonyms, I thought this isn’t going to work for me.

Because to be honest, in my own Nuad Boran training I received almost no theoretical knowledge, but on the contrary I had the sense of absorbing wave after wave of non-verbal experience, transmitted orally and by touch, and always out of my teacher’s very own being. My experience was far more non-descriptive, transformative… universal. What is inspiring me to write this article on Traditional Thai Massage is my very particular experience in 2022 in Chiang Mai, and the connection I have made through it with the whole new world of ‘Nuad Boran’.

Deity in Nature – November 2022

Traditional Thai massage: my experience in northern Thailand

Between acupressure, yoga and meditation, traditional Thai massage is a common thing in this fish-filled rivers and rice fields’ Land. Traditional Thai massage is a true cultural heritage, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.

These “ancient pressures” (literal translation) are 2500 years old. It is said that their roots go back to India and to Doctor Shivago (Shivaga Komarapat), contemporary of Buddha and the Buddha’s sangha’s therapist. 

At the bottom right, below the Buddha on the altar is a wooden statue of Doctor Shivago – December 2022

“Walking on the parents”

As for my teacher, Homprang Chaleekanha, thai massage was always practiced at home (in 1958 her village was like one big house!) ) and as a child she called Thai massage “walking on the parents.” 

Today, Traditional Thai massage is an integral part of traditional Thai medicine. Homprang explained that she herself worked in the clinic at the beginning of her practice.

What I find interesting is that Nuad Boran is not just a technique, but a way of being. Slowness, removal of stress seems to be part of the way of life. We in the West, who are wracked with anxiety and depression, could surely benefit from this holistic approach. 

I will try here to describe what I have been able to capture of Nuad Boran’s essence.

Massages in a temple in Chiang Mai – November 2022
Baan Hom Samunphrai School (on the left, the dining room, on the right my accommodation) –
November 2022

Living examples

At school, we meet Homprang, the fierce Homprang, who rebelled against her father as a youngster and against the future he reserved as a farmer. The one who cares for and masterfully leads her own school, allowing a big part of her family to be fed and employed today. Homprang shows the example, the way to practice Nuad Boran and takes away all stress and pain. She is used to making decisions in a determined and confident way. She is also my first Asian teacher. It may be a detail for you, but for me it means a lot. I grew up in the south of France and as a Eurasian, I had never had a role model looking like me. The fact that she is so fierce is just the cherry on top of the cake.

There is also Homprang’s right arm, her sister-in-law nicknamed Baang, the one with whom we spend hours, who corrects and massages us. Baang is of incomparable sweetness and kindness. She works without counting her hours, always with the same slowness, the same calm, the same serenity. She doesn’t own a cell phone, does not have any social media, she doesn’t manage the school, doesn’t really speak English, doesn’t wear any makeup and wears simple comfy clothes. But, above all, she conveys a lot through her way of being.

She corrects my movements by gently taking my hand and putting it in the right place. She speaks quietly. One single word. Sometimes, she would show several movements and I’d feel lost. It’s no big deal. I focus. I will understand next time. We are training every day. She hangs out the laundry slowly, walks quietly, calmly prepares the ginger tea. 

I received a massage from her that lasted more than 3 hours. I was surprised by her touch’s compassion and also by her slow pace. Homprang confirmed that this was, indeed, the way they teach Nuad Boran.

One afternoon, I saw Baang talking under the porch with my mother. I decided to take a break from training and join them. A heart-to-heart discussion ensued. She is authentic, human. Her lack of a hierarchical stance definitely puts me at ease.

Baang showing me a gesture – November 2022

It takes a village (to raise a child)

And the village is in Thailand. My 15-month-old baby at the time is also welcome at the school. Everybody there took such great care of us.

Cuddle in a tuk-tuk – Chiang Mai, 2022

There is not “one” mother, Thai babies have multiple mothers, in the sense that everyone takes care of them. And it’s true that wherever I go with my baby, adults naturally take care of it, and seem very happy about it! How pleasant! At the restaurant, at the café, at school… everywhere, I meet kind and caring people towards him, towards us. This feeling of unity and mutual aid heals me and fills my heart with serenity. Having a baby is already tiring enough as it is, and having to worry about not disturbing others, or worry about being able to be welcomed properly is an additional burden that creates a lot of unnecessary stress for young parents. Here, there is no such problem, everyone participates. I am grateful to every person who smiled at him, handed him a piece of coconut, taro, talked to him, played with him, played guitar, hide and seek, saved him from falling , cooked him something, offered him something, if only a smile or a “tsa ééé” (I deduced that it was the equivalent of the French “coucou”, like many Thai people have fun playing hide and seek while saying the famous “tsa ééé” )

Maw2 Homprang, school founder, herbal doctor and Nuad Boran specialist, picking flowers with baby Noah – November 2022
2 “Maw” means “doctor” – term referring to surgeon or dentist. Homprang is often referred to as Maw Homprang because she is a licensed “Maw Saunphrai”. It literally means a “plant doctor” but is usually translated as “doctor of traditional medicine”. She is also sometimes referred to as “Ajarn” Homprang, by her professional colleagues, meaning Professor.

The bloodline1

The feeling of belonging that is so good is also fostered by our “bloodline” . We talk about “Mothers” , “grandmothers” as any person from which the teaching comes from (no matter the gender from my understanding but I may be wrong!).

Mae” is a respectful term that can be used before the teacher’s first name. Mae means “mother“. All the rivers in Southeast Asia are mothers, like Mae Ping, the brown river which crosses Chiang Mai and on which thousands of Krathongs (small floating baskets with a candle) are placed during the great annual Loy Krathong festival as an offering to the Goddess River.

 1Alternative word to “lineage”, the original word I used. I’ve been told “lineage” might be too much associated with a father-like image, and the notion of succession. We’d like to take away any anxiety from “who the father is” and the pedestal a successor can be put on by using more of a motherly, water-inspired image. “Mothers” or “Grandmothers” do that, no matter the gender. We could also say the flow, the stream, the bloodline.

Loy Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai – November 2022
Krathong of flowering bamboo that I am about to drop on the Ping River – November 2022

In addition to daily yoga, we sing and pay homage to the founder of Thai massage and our “bloodline”. I think of Thai medicine women, as well as all the massage therapists who have massaged me since childhood, in Thailand and elsewhere, instilling in me a taste for it. I am also thinking about the rice farmers who for hundreds of years have also perpetuated and shaped the traditional Thai massage. We mass as we irrigate a rice field. Sometimes to irrigate an area, you have to open the valves elsewhere.


Nuad Boran is practiced on the ground, comfortably lying down or sitting on a mattress. It promotes anchoring. We become aware of our link with Earth, with nature. 

Traditional Thai massage is practiced dressed in Thai pants and a large cotton T-shirt, soft, natural and comfortable. I find it really practical and pleasant. With Thai people, no problem. It is simple, and I like it when things are simple (I’m a mother of 2 young children). It is also something containing, unifying, a mother’s womb like image. It is also reassuring for many people and their insecurities. “No Sylvie, no need to wax yourself.” Nothing will be seen either. All modesty is preserved.

Posture demonstration – December 2022
Cathy massaging mom. Photo taken by myself. My mother and I were the guinea pigs of Catherine Mangematin, trained at Nuad Boran in Thailand – Tarn, 1997
I am 10 years old and sleep in a mezzanine among the Taras, Bosch’s Garden of Delights and Thai cushions – Fiac, 1997

To feel

“Feeel” Homprang repeats. We are talking about a society that has not split the body from the mind (see Descartes’ error, Antonio Damasio, 1995), which has not hierarchized the mind above the body. Mind, body, soul together as one. What is beautiful is the feeling of wholeness. It’s not having a cut. There is a soothing wholeness that prevails. No painful split. 

We have the right to feel, it is even essential! Emotions are normal internal events, which have to pass through us. They need to go out because, yes, it goes without saying, but let’s make it clear: “it’s better afterwards”.

Buddhism is part of the culture, but spirituality is not a religion! Anything with the right intention can be spiritual. It is a question of intention. Statues and carvings of Buddhas are found in nature, covered in moss, vines and foliage, forming one. It is the very spirit of Nature.

Meditative Buddha in nature – November 2022
Noah, here seated on the steps of a flowery moss-covered stupa, quickly figured out how to greet here – December 2022

Nuad Boran is like a river

The silt bed of the Nuad Boran river is in direct connection with the Earth since it is composed of it. Nuad Boran River’s visage is fashioned by the different strata of past mothers. The inscription in the line of these wild women, wise women, and medicine-women – allows to calm the ego and to remember that one is not a “self made woman”. We know what we know thanks to the work of previous generations. 

From this awareness, the emptiness in oneself can be born, allowing one to better listen to one’s receivers. Listening to the words, the pains but also observing the breathing, the body… Listening to one’s feelings and one’s intuition makes it possible to locate knots, blockages, tensions… and in order to adapt to the recipient with as much fluidity as possible… 

Like a river, the practitioner in Nuad Boran will become one with the water element, so as not to shock or block, but to bring transformation through movement. The massage therapist in Nuad Boran seeks to refluidify the solidified fluid elements by series of waves, tapping, pitching…etc (“Thai body therapy, NUAD BORAN, From sources to practice., Charles Breger) 

Finally, the notion of inter-being seems essential (Thich Nhat Hanh), of systemic inter-activity (Charles Breger) or even the notion of mirror neurons, transference, empathy… The awareness that myself as I am impacts the other and vice versa. Energies and diseases can be transmitted and therefore it is important to take care of yourself to take care of the other. To catch nothing and give nothing harmful.

Practice and western adaptation

Today, I practice traditional Thai massage in Toulouse and the Tarn areas in France, adapting it to western constraints. A time constraint: traditional Thai massage can last for hours (3 to 4 hours). I offer a very complete version of 1h30, a shorter one of 1h.

The temperature too: I invested in a mattress heater and we keep our socks on in the winter! I have other training projects in Thai massage (womb lifting, therapeutic, etc.). Slow but steady. One thing at a time. It’s my new mantra. Before each massage, you will see me (or not) join my hands in a lotus bud: I ask for protection, permission to touch the body and to heal it. Then, I drive out the bad energies, and the massage begins. 

Yeshé Dionnet-Barbot, massage therapist

Passaddhi, well-being of the mind & body 

07 70 18 50 29

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Article posted with Homprang Chaleekanha and Cathy Mangematin’s kind permission. Special thanks to Christopher Woodman for conscientiously proofreading the English version. 

Homprang enjoying the moment sitting on her pontoon with my baby – November 2022