Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thai Massage School Review - Shivagakomarpaj (Old Medicine Hospital)

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The Thai massage school we attended, Shivagakomarpaj (formerly known as the Old Medicine Hospital) teaches traditional northern Thai massage. It is the oldest school of its kind in Chiang Mai to offer courses to the public in this ancient healing practice, and traces its lineage back to the 'Father Doctor' Jivaka Komarabhacca, the physician of Buddha. Thai massage is a systematic healing process that uses yoga stretching, acupressure points and energy line therapy to relax the body and heal specific ailments. Shivagakomarpaj offers four levels of traditional Thai massage training, as well as courses in oil massage, foot massage, and herbal compress massage.

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After a fair amount of research, we chose this school because of the price, favorable reviews, and the included accommodations. We were able to easily reserve our spot in the course online before leaving the states, and chose the option of paying cash on arrival. Here's a breakdown of our thoughts about the school after spending three weeks there:

Staff:

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Every single staff member at this school was incredibly friendly, helpful, and accommodating to our every need. Many spoke very good English, and we had no problems communicating. They helped us with suggestions of where to go for certain things around the city (health clinic, post office, restaurants, etc.), and would write down translations for us to take with us to communicate in Thai. They even helped us out with free rides to Chiang Mai Ram for vaccines.

Courses:

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Each of the Thai massage courses is 5 days long, Monday through Friday. The day begins at 9:00am with group prayers, which consist of giving thanks to the father doctor as well as wishing health, happiness, and freedom to all living beings (similar to a metta loving kindness meditation.

 
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There is a one hour break for lunch from 12:00pm - 1:00pm, and a shorter 'coffee break' both mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Classes finish at 4:00pm, and the day closes again with group prayers.

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For levels one and two, the course format consists of demonstration with note-taking, then taking turns practicing on your fellow students while the instructors walk around and offer help.

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At the beginning of the course, you are given a written manual with each Thai massage "move" illustrated as a picture.

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For each picture, the instructors break down every step one-by-one and have you write them down specifically. It is also fine to take photographs and/or videos during class.

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Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are spent learning and practicing the different "pictures," and then Thursday is devoted entirely to practicing. On Friday, there is an open book "practical exam." Everyone is paired up, and you go through and demonstrate every picture. The teachers watch from the front of the room, and come help you if you get stuck, and nobody fails. One partner goes in the morning, and the other after lunch. Once the practical exam is completed, there is a short written "exam" which is open book as well and completed in groups. Everybody passes. At the end of the day on Friday, there is a graduation ceremony, where each student receives their certificate and a blessing from the instructors.

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We absolutely loved levels one and two, and felt that we learned a lot of new information and skills. A few of the pictures were redundant from level one to level two, but it was mostly new movements.

The level three course was a bit different - the morning portion of the day was lecture in a classroom, and we're still not sure about the relevance of most of the information. The demo/practice portions of the day were more practical, but slightly confusing, because although there was a new written manual, the instructors did not break down each picture into step-by-step instructions. The movements we learned were mostly just variations and options of different ways to do the same movements from levels one and two. One thing we did like about level three was learning about the herbal compress massage, studying the different herbs, and making our own fresh herb balls. There was no practical exam or written exam for level three.

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After making it through the third week of classes, we were ready for a break, so we decided to skip the fourth level for now, in favor of traveling north to Pai for a few days to see another part of the country. We heard from other students at the school that level four provides lots of new information, such as learning what Thai massage moves to use for specific ailments and injuries, so we're definitely interested in completing the fourth level.We plan to return to Thailand during our travels, so we'll take the fourth level when we come back.

Food:

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Delicious, fresh, and sometimes mysterious homemade Thai food was served for lunch every day, included in the price of the courses. They had vegetarian options daily, and in the event that the dishes weren't gluten free, they would cook a special GF plate for Sarah. The food was usually pretty spicy and we didn't always know what we were eating, but it was great to be able to experience traditional Thai cooking that we wouldn't necessarily know to order for ourselves at a restaurant.

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The dining area also offered complimentary coffee, tea, water, and cookies throughout the whole day. They also have a pantry area with a refrigerator where students can store their own groceries. There is a great grocery store around the corner from the school called Rimping, and we kept gluten free muesli and milk in the fridge to eat for breakfast.

Accommodations:

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Also included in the price of the course are dormitory accommodations, which were rather basic, but you can't beat free! You can check in the Sunday before your course begins, and check out the Saturday after it finishes, however as long as they have space, they're pretty flexible if you need to come earlier or stay an extra night. The accommodations consisted of a massage mat on either the floor or a raised platform, with a somewhat uncomfortable pillow, and a light blanket. There's no air conditioning, but plenty of fans, and we found the nights to be cool anyway. There are curtains separating each bed for privacy, and each student is provided a locker for valuables.

The bathroom is shared, with one shower and one toilet each for males and females. We figured out quickly that the women's shower doesn't have hot water, but this didn't bother us too much. The water wasn't ice cold, just not warm, and it was actually refreshing. If we did want a hot shower, we just used the Men's bathroom without any problems.

On the premises there are three washing machines for doing laundry, that take two 10-baht coins to operate. You can buy a small packet of laundry soap at the store and do your own washing. In the dorm rooms there are racks and hangers for drying.

Our one gripe about the dorm was the bugs... not all of the windows had screens, so there were constantly some little flies and ants around, but it didn't bother us much beyond a slight annoyance. Nature is nature. Like I said, the accommodations were very basic, but we don't actually need much... we both know plenty of people who wouldn't last a day in a place like this, but for us, it was all good.

Herbal Steam Room:

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Another little perk about the school is the on-site herbal steam room, which is available to students at a discounted rate that works out to about $1.50 per use. You can also rent a towel and a garment to cover your body if you want, for a very small additional fee. There are separate steam rooms for men and women, and lockers are provided. We learned that what the Thai women do is steam for about 5-10 minutes, then sit in the room-temperature common area for about 5 minutes, followed by a short rinse in a cold shower. You then repeat that process as many times as you'd like. In the locker room area there are also showers stocked with shampoo and conditioner, as well as hair dryers that you can use. We went in a couple of times towards the end of our stay at the school, and our only regret was that we hadn't been using it daily since we arrived. It was super relaxing and refreshing. If you're in Chiang Mai, we recommend a visit, since it is open to the public.

 Final Thoughts:

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We had a great experience at Shivagakomarpaj, and would recommend it highly to anyone seeking to learn traditional Northern-style Thai massage. We met so many great people from all over the world who became dear friends as we studied and explored the city together. I can't compare with other schools from personal experience, but Shivagakomarpaj is definitely worth checking out if you're looking for a school in Chiang Mai. I'm looking forward to returning!

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