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Published June 12, 2010, 12:00 AM

Knots un-Thai'd

Eastern massage method draws wider interest in Fargo-Moorhead
Amy Meidinger was skeptical. A neuro­psychologist with a scientific bent, Meidinger does not readily buy into what she calls “granola-crunching, tree-hugging” philosophies.

Amy Meidinger was skeptical.

A neuro­psychologist with a scientific bent, Meidinger does not readily buy into what she calls “granola-crunching, tree-hugging” philosophies.

But when she learned her yoga teacher, Juliet Trnka, offered a form of massage that uses yoga-like poses and compression techniques to stretch muscles, she was intrigued.

Meidinger has a congenital hip problem and was nursing a shoulder injury. She wondered if Trnka’s specialty, clinical Thai massage, would help.

“I was doing physical therapy and thought it might be a nice adjunct to what I was doing in PT,” says the 36-year-old Fargo woman. “I was kind of tentative about it at first because I wasn’t sure how it would be different from other kinds of massage, but you can’t argue with the results.”

Since Meidinger began working with Trnka at Five Element Yoga and Thai Massage a year ago, she says she’s experienced fewer hip-related injuries. And she feels stronger, healthier and more grounded, even though her job involves hours spent hunched over a computer.

“I feel better. I think it’s one of those things that taught me to pay attention to my body a little bit better,” Meidinger says. “I had been doing PT over and over, so it’s nice to be able to do something on the front end.”

Meidinger is one of many local people who have discovered the deep muscle stretching and feel-good benefits of Thai massage. Now many local masseuses have added the Eastern specialty to their menu of treatments, and some U.S. schools specialize in Thai bodywork.

“It’s starting to become more popular in the U.S., which is a good thing,” says Brenda Haugstad, a licensed massage therapist who offers Thai massage through her Moorhead business, YogiCare. “But I don’t like to say it’s new because it’s not.”

Indeed, this modality is based on the 2,500-year-old principle of “nuat phaen boran,” which translates into “ancient-manner massage” in Thailand.

Thai massage and traditional table massage both have great benefits; they just achieve them in different ways, says Trnka, a licensed massage therapist who studied an additional 150 hours to learn Thai techniques.

Table-massage therapists usually work on bare skin, but Thai massage therapists work on clients dressed in loose, comfortable clothing. With Thai bodywork, oils aren’t typically used, and the client lies on a padded mat on the floor. Instead of working the muscles with long, stroking movements, the therapist stretches and elongates muscles by moving the client’s body into different yoga poses and performing rhythmic compressions along muscles in the body. She will also use joint mobilization and acupressure.

Placing the client on the floor gives the therapist several advantages, Trnka says. It allows the therapist to position herself at different angles and levels so she can reach oft-neglected muscle groups. And it allows her to use her feet or knees to apply enough pressure to certain areas – something that can be difficult if only using her arms and hands at waist level.

True to its Eastern roots, Thai massage also involves energy work. Similar to Chinese medicine, Thai practitioners believe there are thousands of energy channels – called “sen” – that run throughout the body. When those channels are blocked, health issues and disease can surface, so the therapist will push points along the sen, much like how some doctors manipulate acupressure points, to open up those pathways and introduce fresh “prana,” or energy, Haugstad says.

A typical Thai massage is usually longer than a standard table massage – anywhere from 75 minutes to more than two hours in length. The therapist works in a very fluid and measured manner while soothing music plays in the background. “It’s like a meditation in motion,” Trnka says.

Although the massage looks incredibly physical to the casual observer, almost anyone can receive one, Haugstad says. A person doesn’t need to know anything about yoga, as the therapist will move the client into the required positions. And a person needn’t be flexible or in great shape, as the masseuse will only stretch the client as far as feels comfortable, Haugstad says.

In fact, the therapist will be able to stretch the muscles even further if the receiver is as passive and relaxed as possible, says Haugstad, who completed training at Thai Yoga Bodywork in Minneapolis and is a registered Thai therapist. For that reason, it’s sometimes called “lazy-man’s yoga.”

Yet Trnka and Haugstad say this seemingly passive treatment yields dynamic results: increased lymph circulation, relief of tension and soreness, better digestion, enhanced breathing capacity, improved range of motion in joints, headache relief, healthier muscles and connective tissue, as well as reduced symptoms of auto-immune disorders such as fibromyalgia.

Clients, themselves, swear by this form of massage.

‘100 percent change’

After rallying back from whooping cough and breast cancer, Fargo business owner Beth McNea felt like a shell of her former body-builder self.

The scar tissue from her surgeries severely limited her range of motion, and the cancer drugs caused her body to freeze up. She felt a persistent pain in her side. One day, her physical therapist suggested Thai massage.

McNea started sessions with Thai practitioner Charmaine Schmidt one and a half years ago and now works with Haugstad. “I’ve noticed a 100 percent change in my body, my attitude, everything,” she says. “I’ve gotten the movement and my flexibility back. I’ve dropped 10 pounds, basically because I can move again. My energy level is up. It’s a combination of everything that feels good in one.”

McNea says she feels simultaneously relaxed and energized after the treatments. “I feel like I’m ready to take on the world,” she says.

Already, variations of this ancient method have emerged. Some therapists practice Swe-Thai – a Swedish-Thai hybrid. Elite Therapeutic Massage in Fargo offers Ashiatsu-Thai massage, in which clients lie on a table and the therapist hangs onto bars overhead while stretching muscles with their hands, knees, forearms and feet. This approach can be easier on a therapist’s ankles and feet than floor massage, says owner Shelle Moran, adding that Elite will soon offer traditional floor massage, too.

Trnka actually practices clinical Thai massage, which incorporates western practices like trigger-point therapy into the age-old modality. Trigger-point therapy involves placing pressure on tender muscle tissue in order to relieve pain, help a contracted muscle release and increase range of motion. The combination of trigger-point therapy and stretching works because the muscle is more likely to release when it’s being stretched, Trnka says.

The cost of a Thai massage can run anywhere from $75 for a 75-minute massage to $115 for a two-hour session. But for someone like Amy Meidinger, it’s worth it. “After an hour and a half, it’s heaven,” she says. “Some ladies color their hair and get their nails done. This is my treat.”

For more info

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525