Hello from Chaing Mai! Yeah I’m still here… It’s been about 6 weeks, and my original plan was only to stay about 4. These things happen, I suppose…
I want to talk today about my Thai massage studies, because that’s what I’m doing with my life these days. It’s my blog and I can write what I want. Deal with it.
The following post is to describe a particularly fascinating form of massage I’ve been learning: Chi Nei Tsang. And I apologize in advance that this post is kind of monstrously long… Make sure you have a good 5 minutes at least, and maybe a cup of coffee.
So anyway, here I am learning the ways of traditional Thai medicine, thinking in terms of energy lines and flow of chi, rather than motor control and fascial chains. Same same, but different.
It almost makes me nervous to be neglecting the application of a scientific approach to working on bodies. “Guilt” isn’t the best word here, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.
Does feel good, though, to abandon the classical, technical side of bodywork, and focus instead on the art of holistic healing. The romantic, side, based on tradition rather than evidence.
And what’s more romantic than organ massage? Yes, today I want to tell you about my experience learning, and receiving Chi Nei Tsang, an abdominal massage for organ detoxification.
Chi Nei Tsang is a trip of a course. Trippy both as a giver and a receiver.
These days, out of the blue I’ll find myself saying things like, “My organs feel weird” or, “I touched someones colon today”, or, “Today was intestine day. I had a really good poo.” Yes, my regularity has been taken to a new level.
And all funnies and TMI aside, I do feel a profound difference, in my body and mind, after a week of practicing, giving and receiving, this beautiful healing art.
Allow me now to go into a little more depth about why Chi Nei Tsang is something you need to try. Whether or not you “believe” in Chinese medicine, have unresolved, mysterious issues for which you want an alternative healing method, or are just curious about it, you should find someone who practices. Make an appointment for tomorrow.
So here we go.
WHAT IS CHI NEI TSANG?
Note that I am not a Chi Nei Tsang master practitioner. Not even close.
I can only really offer a way simplified version of what I understand to be it’s underlying principles. I probably would be better able to explain Chi Nei Tsang if I had a background in Chinese medicine. So yeah basically I don’t really know that much, and please take this information with a grain of salt and understand that I am simply sharing my experience learning this fascinating massage.
That said, to use my woefully insufficient layman’s terms, Chi Nei Tsang is a form of abdominal massage that focuses on the organs to improve their function and so too your overall health. An organ detoxification massage.
FUN FACT: Though Chi Nei Tsang is a traditional Chinese healing art, it is particularly difficult to find a practitioner in China. Don’t ask me why, but that’s what I’ve been told.
What is this “chi” stuff?
Chi is the invisible life force that flows within us. It is carried through the body by “wind” (technical term…). Chi is constantly being recycled, created and used in our bodies. According to Chi Nei Tsang, the body is in a continuous process of matter dissolving into energy, and energy becoming matter. Inevitable, emotional and/or physical stress can cause the chi to become blocked, stagnant at certain areas. When this energy is not flowing freely it causes trouble for the vital organs, among other things.
Because the flow of chi can become blocked by emotional or physical stress, Chi Nei Tsang can often be as much of an emotional release as a physical, muscular release of tension. I love this non-dual approach to massage, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is likely missing from many western schools of massage. There is (in my opinion) no separation of mind and body- It’s all one thing. And Chi Nei Tsang works on that whole thing.
So when I have my hands all up in your liver, I’m not just massaging your liver, I’m massaging your anger. I’m not just massaging your small intestine, but your anxieties and worries. Our teacher was telling us stories of how some (but for sure not all) people have cried, laughed, and even yelled during a Chi Nei Tsang session.
It’s pretty crazy cool like that.
WHY SHOULD YOU TRY CHI NEI TSANG?
Mostly because, like I mentioned above, it feels CRAZY. It’s weird, and good, and bad, and after it’s like your organs are suspended in a tub of jello that is your abdominal cavity.
But also I believe it’s good for your mental and physical health for the reasons mentioned above (chi blockages, blah blah blah). If anyone cares to elaborate on their understanding of the science behind Chi Nei Tsang, that would be cool, because these days my head isn’t in science-mode, and I don’t care to put it back there until I’m back in the Americas.
There is also this thing called the “gut-brain axis” by which we can correlate intestinal health to cognitive health. I know from n=1 experience there is absolutely truth to this: Healthy organs equals superior brain function.
And then I believe that it’s good for us to get our bellies rubbed. Dogs like it, maybe you’ll like it too.
I used to be very uncomfortable with having my stomach touched, and I think this is true for many people. It’s such a vulnerable place. It’s allowing someone to touch your guts, where your ribacage isn’t there to protect your visceral self. It’s allowing someone to press on the place where we feel emotions. Where we get butterflies. We have “gut feelings”.
And some of us feel self-conscious about how our bellies look and want to hide them. It’s a sensitive place to that demands you put a lot of trust in the person you’re allowing to touch you there. It can even take overcoming some fears to get yourself in the massage room.
Forsooth, one of the reasons I signed up for this course was to face my own fear of belly-touching. I wanted to see if my reaction would be as emotional as it was physical. And our teacher even told us that curiosity is the main reason people come to see him for Chi Nei Tsang treatments.
WHO SHOULD GET CHI NEI TSANG?
I think people who struggle with feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, anger, or general stress will benefit a lot from Chi Nei Tsang. You will feel different afterwards, I reckon.
Who else? Those who suffer from constipation, chronic pain, and problems due to misalignment, for sure. Also good for anyone who wants to improve their organ function, maybe as mentioned by your friendly neighbourhood Chinese medicine doctor (but you need to have faith that through manual stimulation the organs can be detoxed).
WHAT DOES THE MASSAGE FEEL LIKE?
During, it feels kind of exactly like how you’d expect it to feel- Like someone’s smooshing your organs around. But every part of the abdomen feels so different to be smooshed upon.
The massage works on all the major organs: Skin, diaphragm, small and large intestines, liver, gall bladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, heart, lungs, bladder, and sexual organs, and some other stuff straight out of the Chinese medicine book that can’t really be considered organs.
For those who are really interested in what I went through in each major phase of the massage, here’s a breakdown that I hope won’t be TMI. Enjoy.
Chi Nei Tsang Play by Play: A week in the life of Monika’s organs
1. Opening windgates and tan tien.
Windgates are zones on the abdomen next to the bellybutton that are stimulated in order to coax “wind” (which carries the Chi, remember) to leave your body. The tan tien is the central energy point, and is located 4 fingers-ish below the belly button.
This part of the massage was so powerful. Felt like I had the crap kicked out of me for the rest of the day, but in a really good, detoxified, kind of way. If that makes sense.
Having these zones pressed upon I felt all kinds of sensations radiating through my body, like through my legs and hips, and at the end felt pretty light headed. Getting up from the floor took a few tries. For the rest of the day I felt light and peaceful, but so very strange in a way I can’t describe just yet.
That same evening I did a yoga class and felt that my “outer core’ muscles were able to activate reflexively rather than me fighting to activate and brace them through my own will. Probably because I wasn’t so limbic. Reduction in sympathetic tone or something. It was so good.
This was much less intense than the windgate/tan tien opening but still quite powerful. And highly relaxing to boot.
I liked that the diaphragm is considered an important structure in Chi Nei Tsang, because if you have been following my blog for a while then you already know how important it is for the function of pretty much everything else in your body. When you have diaphragm dysfunction, you can, and probably will, develop dysfunction anywhere.
Word of warning: Diaphragm massage can be kind of unpleasant-feeling if it’s your first time receiving it. I have had manual therapy done on my diaphragm before, so it wasn’t a complete shock having someone poke their fingers under my ribcage. Call me strange, but I actually quite enjoy it.
We learned 6 or 7 techniques to work on the diaphragm as well as some guided breathing techniques. These will come in handy when working with my dance clients, about 99% of whom have diaphragm facilitation issues.
Afterwards I felt like I could breathe super easily and was 500% more relaxed. Again, I needed about 5 minutes to stand up and come back to reality after we finished the diaphragm work.
3. Small intestine
Accordingly to Chi Nei Tsang, many of our negative emotions are stored in our small intestine. If we are unable to digest all the experiences and feelings we take in, especially if they are stressful and negative, they stick around in the digestive tract a bit longer, fester, and form icky blockages of emotional pain (that might be causing physical pain, too). Much the same like with the food we eat. Too much festering chyme ain’t no good.
This portion of the massage you can expect to feel “stuff”, aka undigested matter and energy, moving around in there. Which I really liked. I am strange, ok.
Also interesting to learn how different emotions are supposedly stored in different locations in the digestive tract, and to feel which portions are more tender or painful to the touch. Not much more to say about the small intestines other than it’s kind of weird to have someone poke around at them. Weird, yet highly satisfying.
4. Large intestine
Oh my God, the large intestine. This was a pretty crazy part as the receiver, and as the giver, probably the most complicated and technical.
As the giver it was really cool because you can feel the large intestine quite easily- Feel gas pockets, places that are more icky (especially if constipated), and it’s pretty weird for sure to indirectly touch someone’s poop and flatulence.
As a receiver, this part of the massage made me feel the most self-conscious. The large intestine is not a notoriously sexy organ. It’s not exceptionally flattering to have someone poke around at the tube that holds all the undigested bits of food you’ve eaten, feel your gassy pockets, and provoke the uncontrollable gurgling sound characteristic of stuff moving into your bowel. Yummy.
FYI It’s best not to eat or drink a lot before the massage because that will feel awful (nothing to eat or drink 2 hours before, and our teacher, Remco, even said the hardcore will fast 24-48 hours prior to the massage).
After this portion was through, I didn’t run to the washroom right away like I expected, but I did feel very “hollowed out” inside. My insides felt invigorated. I think. My mental and physical energy felt chilled-out but stable. A kind of calm mental clarity that I usually can’t achieve. Weird, warm, tingly feelings in my groin area. Probably because of the number of times we practiced this one maneuver in which you press down on the rectum. From the front. Non-invasively. Geez.
Later that evening, had a great poop. Two of ’em, actually. How are your poops? (<—– click the link to learn more about what your poops say about your health).
5. Liver, gallbladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas.
These organs I clump together into one group here because many of the techniques we learned were similar, and this portion wasn’t as quite so lengthy. The pancreas, for example, we worked on using only 2 techniques, compared to the large intestine for which we learned SO MANY .
Anyway, the part focusing on the liver and gallbladder was by far the most intense for me. For about 20 minutes after I felt this weird tingly sensation in the right side of my head, kind of behind my eye. Felt, again, very lightheaded, but especially on the right side (side the liver’s on). Later, a friend of mine who studies Chinese medicine told me that, indeed, it is quite normal to feel weird stuff around the right side of my head when stuff is happening with your liver. Cool.
Also, for me the stomach and spleen were quite tender. Probably some emotional stuff related to years of being told to suck my stomach in and my weird emotional relationship with food during my years as a dancer.
6. Heart and lungs.
You can’t directly work on the lungs because of the rib cage, but in Chi Nei Tsang you work on points and zones that correlate to the heart and lungs, which are on the ribcage, abdomen, chest, and clavicle. Not so much to say about this part. You do a lot of guided breathing and it feels pretty relaxing, unless you have a sensitive or ticklish ribcage, in which case you might not enjoy when the practitioner digs their fingers into your intercostals (I loved it…).
Eughhhh this was by far the weirdest part of the massage.
Imagine someone’s pressing deep into your belly and poking at your kidneys. It feels exactly like that.
I had no idea the kidneys were palpable through the abdomen. Did you? They are! And it feels intense to receive. Kind of like a sharp, pain-like feeling that isn’t quite pain, but definitely isn’t pleasant. After, it felt as if all my organs were suspended, floating. Some abdominal tangles got undid I suppose.
For me, the right kidney was more intense than the left. Not sure exactly what this means yet…
Yes, even though it is a muscle we go after the psoas in Chi Nei Tsang because it is deep in the abdomen, attaching the the spine and diaphragm, which we worked on earlier. Emotional tension, stress, and poor organ function can thus affect the tension and function of the psoas, and visa versa.
Entry to get at the psoas was similar to getting to the kidneys, but with a slightly different angle.
I also really enjoyed that our teacher explained to us that the iliacus and psoas are not the same muscle, which some teachers do. There is no iliopsoas. They are two different muscles with different functions and different insertion points.
Too, I still feel strongly that we should not be attempting to release the psoas unless we have a very good reason to do so, ie, it is actually a facilitated muscle that is compensating for other synergists, antagonists, etc. The psoas can often be inhibited, and causing other muscles to compensate, so if you release it more, making it loose and relaxed and more lazy, that’s not going to fix anything, but can actually cause it to tighten up reflexively and feel worse. So I may or may not use these release techniques on everyone…
But still it was good to learn some psoas release techniques in case I really do need them, and to receive it felt very unpleasant and intense. Is this because my psoas(es) are actually tight, or are they inhibited? In either case a muscle can feel sore to the touch, so for sure there’s some dysfunction there, but whichever is my case, I’m sure I’ll be ok. When I get home to Toronto I’ll get one of my NKT friends to sort that out.
8. Bladder/sexual organ area
I’m getting tired of writing this monster piece so I’ll keep this short. It was also a short portion of the massage so I don’t have much to say about it. Didn’t feel distinctive except for the bladder, which of course, when pressed on makes you feel like you’re going to pee your pants (I didn’t).
Also, by this point of the massage, you’re so used to getting poked in the guts that nothing really surprises you anymore. And if you’re really lucky, you’re so relaxed you can just zone out.
If you’ve made it to this sentence, congratulations. This was a huge, monstery post that I entitles anyone who actually read the whole thing mad respect from yours truly.
I have no real conclusion other than to say that Chi Nei Tsang is a wonderful way to get to know yourself better. For a dancer, this is an invaluable thing. To know oneself is to become a better artist, to be healthier, to make better decisions.
I have for sure noticed some physiological adaptations post-Chi Nei Tsang: Better, more reflexive core activation, feeling more parasympathetic, improved breathing, and even full ROM neck flexion, (which I then lost the next day…). But I would say the real benefit is in the experience– Allowing yourself to become vulnerable, and to release emotionally, and getting in touch with your gut-health.
As for dancers, is dance not about embodying a feeling through movement? Portraying an emotion? And if your ability to emote is impaired because all your feelings are bunged up in your guts, preventing you from performing your best, then maybe you’ll consider an alternative form of healing, like Chi Nei Tsang. Or something. At the very least, you’ll let go of some tension and stress, breathe more easily, take a good poop or two, and have a great day.
I know you’re curious.