By Aditya Dev Sood
She begins with the soles of my feet, tracing out nodes and ridges into which all my wanderings in the world are graven. She is a rehabilitating prisoner at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, halfway out of the system, learning massage as a trade that may keep her out of trouble once she’s released. The massage parlour is a long shed of a room, grimly institutional, the green-blue sheets on the mattresses on the floor match the uniforms the masseuses are wearing. Her touch is light, I close my eyes, the memories and impressions she is unleashing are vivid, the idea of this piece has already taken form.
To be massaged by the opposite gender is a pleasure no longer available in India. Islamic social norms, the demise of courtly and courtesanal culture, Victorian prudence, and Gandhian puritanism have all surely conspired to ensure that when a man and woman are on a mattress together, it must be a flagrant scandal. But varieties of massage survive across East and South-East Asia, as techniques of wellness propagated in Buddhist monasteries, and now more widely available in more and less commercialized spas and treatment centers. The massage services offered by the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison may be a novelty, but they also demonstrate how widely and well established is the practice of massage in the culture and institutions of Thailand.
Mister, you lay down now, she said, without introducing herself. She is small and round, and reminds me of Lotta from the comic strip. I am wearing a kind of Karate outfit of cotton pyjama and jacket with two tie-strips, which I was given to wear before entering the massage hall. Here, six or eight mattresses sit on the floor, backpackers and travelers, all of us, laying upon them. They are melting away under Lotta’s hands, I am only dimly aware, my selfhood dissolving into pure patience, a knower only of pleasure.
I had my first formal foot massage in Beijing almost four years ago, where I was doing fieldwork, perhaps too soon after defending my doctoral dissertation. All of us customers sat in the window of a small well-appointed shop in a trendy district of the city. The attendant worked the soles of my feet with small wooden and plastic tools that one might use to sculpt clay. I barely registered the flutter all round the massage center as I crumpled into my arm-chair, the masseur having discovered and unraveled all the years of tension that kept my body taut, holding together the dissertation, which I’d only just bound, submitted and defended.
Lotta is on to my calves and shins now, which release pleasure and pain on each compression, like a sour but dry wine that one still returns too quickly to the lips. My Bua’s legs used to hurt in a way that this massage would have alleviated, it was one of my last chores when I would visit and stay over at her house. One might seek out massage as a source of pleasure-pain, one might enjoy the gentle high that and purdures after it is over, but I think I’m most captivated by the ways in which physical stimulus can trigger memories, and even thought. This is not the way I normally think about my mindbody, rather it is the other way around – the behaviors of my mind and the character and content of my thought leave their impress on the body, not necessarily to the good. The experience of massage allows the mindbody to know itself in union and unison again.
Lotta is sitting between my legs now, lifting them on to her shoulders, stretching the hamstrings behind the knee, a nadi that runs all the way through the body up the neck and jaw. When my brain is on Facebook, avoiding pressing business, this is where I begin, unconsciously, almost involuntarily, to clamp and clench the knee around the office’s roller chair. I used to begin my Yoga routine with a dozen suryanamaskar-s, which would open out the hamstrings and relax my entire head, neck and jaw, but the season has been hectic, and my routine has lapsed.
My friend Mo Ling took me for a couples’ massage in Beijing several years ago, and had a man massage her while a woman did me. At one point the masseuse climbed atop my spreadeagled body, and with her knees between my legs clasped on to my hips with both hands. With all her might she raised them up and then slammed my buttocks back onto the mattress, again and again, in a way that in those dry and lonely days, my hips seemed to need and understand. It was a tropic form of coitus, it was not in itself a sexual act. In Northern Europe and North America, East Asian massage is read as a code for prostitution, as in a massage with a ‘happy ending.’ But this is a narrow understanding of the challenge of inhabiting a body — the point of massage is to restore the body to better alignment with its own energies and rhythms, the better to serve as a seat for the self. One happy consequence of this renewed alignment may be the natural springing forth of sexual energy, which may or in fact may not be dealt with in the moment.
Like the spindle of a spinning wheel, the spine balances a wooly consciousness atop itself. As Lotta strokes my back, the thread of consciousness begins to unravel into cloudy, timeless, thoughtlessness. Here we are, my body and I, joined in this delicate stalk of awareness, this elongated transition between the abstract individual self and organic, material, emobodied life. Teachers were always telling me to sit up straight, stand more erect, walk less like Danny Zuko, but I never listened, and so this mind has always been precariously poised.
A few years ago, in Cambodia, I had a massage from an inspired healer named Phally. She spoke hardly any English, but she would sit on top of my back and probe my neck and jaw with the fingers of both her hands, asking “Pain? Pain?” Nyaah, ho ho, I’m fine, I grimaced a few times, before giving in: Pain, yes, pain. At this confirmation she would squeeze in deeper and longer while I groaned in agony and my eyes rolled up into their sockets. After she was done, Phally called in her French supervisor, who then explained to me that she thought I would not live long because something was stuck in my neck. The next morning, in the shower, I was overcome with dry heaving sobs and visions of the fraught and fateful day, over a decade earlier, when I left my home and family. The knots of one’s personal history are stored in different parts of the body, like fatty deposits of karma, yet to be metabolized, continuing to reverberate through the narrative arc of one’s future life-story.
Lotta is folding one of my knees, so the palm of the foot comes in and touches the upper thigh of my other leg, just as it does in vrikshasana, the Posture of the Tree. Thai massage is believed to have its origins in India, and some of these contortions would suggest a genetic link with Hatha Yoga, the Yoga of Stubbornness, of Forcing the Body into Postures. I can imagine a frustrated Yoga teacher in the distant past, dealing with a particularly recalcitrant student’s body, inventing this form of massage because the fool could not be taught to hold a Yoga asana.
Yoga may be taught and even practiced in group sessions, but it is an autonomous technology of the self, an advanced form of self-grooming. It may be even be compared with religious uses of the body in contexts such as sitting, kneeling and standing in prayer at various times during a Christian service. Or with the mass collective practice of namaaz, which may involve standing, kneeling, bowing down one’s head several times a day. Outside Hillels and other Jewish centers in the United States, I have seen small groups of men davening, standing in a loose group together and reciting verses as they oscillate forward and back sometimes shuffling from one leg to the other. These diverse uses of the body are all associated with particular configurations of the self in relation to a social group or collective.
But massage is necessarily an interactional technology, involving agent and patient as distinct role inhabitances. It is a structured and unidirectional form of social grooming, with only limited back-channels for assent and confirmation, afforded through phatic grunts, gasps and similar vocalizations along with the internal resistances provided by the body's sinew and mu.scle. While the benefits of Thai massage may overlap to a small extent with that of Hatha Yoga, on account of the use of similar postures and configurations of the body, its social-interactional nature has othere kinds of entailments as well. Yoga is to Massage, perhaps, as Meditation is to Psycho-analysis, or even Masturbation as to Sexual Union.
Massage requires empathy, but also promotes it, for it requires one to imagine and envision intricate, hidden relationships within the other’s mindbody, and also to comb them out, to unravel them. Massage silently transcend the corporeal limits of our individuation, creating sensations and proto-thoughts whose only meaning is mutuality, sharing, communion. I am no massage specialist, yet I can imagine that the practice of massage also confers cognitive and physical benefits upon the practitioner, fine-tuning his or her ability to intuit the coils of a patient’s body, mind, and self, and therefore the kinds of corporeal actions and configurations that might best unravel them. And while I have only anecdotal evidence to adduce here, it seems to me that the cultural valorization and propagation of massage ought to result in greater mutuality and orientation to the Other, greater social trust and social connectedness.
Lotta has grasped me in a headlock now, and wrapped her legs around me from the back. She is pulling me backwards into her bosom, but I will not let go my self-possession and awkwardness, my awareness of this tube-lit prison hall and all its masseuses, clients, and the lone pudgy prison guard of indeterminate gender, till I am finally, truly, wracked and on top of her, flying and falling briefly, and then being laid down, to rest.