Thai Massage Interview with Gabriel Azoulay

by ThaiMasseur on September 11, 2010

Gabriel Azoulay

Once you read these words of Gabriel Azoulay, you’ll surely find that he is someone who truly carries the spirit of a healer in his heart. He’s working on an interesting project at www.IntegrativeThai.com, where he shares a lot of his knowledge, expertise, thoughts and insights about the practice of Thai massage as a form of therapy.

I asked him a couple of questions about his experience with and feelings about Thai massage, and here are his answers.

He teaches classes, workshops and retreats all over the world.

To find out what Gabriel is up to and how to get in touch with him, visit his website at www.GabrielAzoulay.com

When did you receive your first Thai massage?

Funny thing is that when I was working for the Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, AZ, I was leading the week yoga retreat and staying on property. Included with my week as the leading instructor I got a free massage. When I called the Spa all they had was “Thai Massage” and when I asked further they told me it was like ‘yoga for the lazy person.’ I still recall telling the receptionist, ‘well, I do enough yoga, you don’t  have anything else?’ and they did not. So I ended up without getting a Thai Massage then.

A few days after the retreat the yoga director asked me about my time and my massage and when I told her the story she could not believe I would pass up such a wonderful session, which peeked my curiosity and I started researching Thai Massage and discovering a lifestyle and philosophy that was rooted in all I had been studying.

I had the honor of getting a Thai Massage session a few weeks later by a friend who also inspired me to change my itinerary on an upcoming trip to India and go to Thailand first and meet Pichest Boonthume.

How is Thai Yoga different from traditional Thai massage?

I use the words Thai Yoga to describe what the average person considers Traditional Thai Massage. Thai Yoga is the experience behind Thai Massage, that you can get in any Thai Massage shop on any street in Chaing Mai.

The real question for me and my client is what is our intention? What is One’s intention when they use these words?

Traditional Thai Massage for me, is the sequence taught in the Old Medicine School. It is a very specific and unique sequence of movements and presses that the client should be taken through.

By its very nature, that of being a sequence, it is very similar to Ashtanga Yoga, where the same sequence is done every day as a means of meditation and healing.

After months with Pichest, I learned that not only does Pichest understand the sequence he grew up with, he knows every part of it by heart. More so, the way he moves around the client is very efficient and very specific. He might perform the same sequence on different people, but what and where he presses on the client, is just as important as where his body is in every step of the way.

When you combine the sequence, AND the direct intention of the practitioner to know and to feel where their body is, and how to transition from one position to the next, that is THAI YOGA. A yoga practice that involves opening the bodies of both practitioners.

This is why Pichest constantly says: ‘good for me, good for you, good for everybody,’ and ‘Thai Massage – good for me (the giver), heals my (the practitioner) body, but can also destroy (if we do it with out being aware of where we are, only doing for the sake of the client, we will hurt ourselves).’

I call it Thai Yoga, because if we follow the sequence, then we are doing the same thing on every one. Which is very relaxing, very opening, and very connecting, both to the mind-body of the client, but also between the client and the practitioner. Everyone connects, gets to move their body, and like any yoga practice it is very nurturing.

I like to say:  ‘It’s like dusting and doing laundry.’ We all need to clean out ‘our home,’ our bodies.

That’s what the sequence of Nuad Bo’ran does, in my opinion.

Have you ever noticed how amazing it is to walk into your home when it is spotlessly clean?

It is so refreshing, reviving, healing even.

The same is true in the body, if the body feels “clean,” “refreshed,” “polished” we feel that much closer to being “healthy,” “happy,” spacious.” The qualities we are looking to establish in our clients.

You can also work like Master Pichest, where after years of practice, and paying attention to the effect of the postures, we “feel” what our clients needs are, and we will not work according to the sequence. We will drop the order and follow a sequence that we feel will serve our clients the most. We might not even do the same thing on both sides. That is true Therapy, but that is something that you develop into, not something we learn. That’s why I keep going to Pichest. It’s like learning to paint while living with a master. He can not teach you painting any more, but he can guide and inspire the painting in new directions as he watches you perform your “art.”

I write on that in my new WebBook – www.integrativethai.com, the difference between what I call Thai Yoga, or Traditional Thai Massage, and what I simply call Integrative Thai – where Integrative Thai is applying what we learn from Thai Massage, from any other massage modality we know, like sports, or myofacia, or A.R.T, or neuromuscular, or any other you know, we apply all our tools, in a Thai fashion (on a futon, with clothes on), to help our clients reach balance.

To make the point come home, remember how we said, TTM, or TY, is just like cleaning and dusting. I am sure you clean and dust your house the same way every week, you have a habit on how you do it, that you like. Well, TTM, the sequence taught by Dr. Shivaga, in my opinion is an incredible, efficient way to clean out the house.

However, when you spill red wine on the carpet, do you go and clean it the same way you clean the house? With your vacuum and such?

Probably not. At best you would go mix new cleaning ingredients and spend an hour just with the spot trying to get it out, at worst you would go rent a heavy duty cleaner. In either situation you would only work on the stain and you would use a new set of tools.

Therapy, in the way that I talk about it with my clients, is like cleaning out the stain, while Traditional Thai Massage, or Thai Yoga is like cleaning the whole house.

Different intentions – are we trying to relax and sooth the entire system? Or are we trying to work out and get rid of a specific stain?

When and why did you decide to study Thai massage?

I presume I decided to study Thai that day that I learned that I had misjudged what Thai Massage was, boxing it into ‘yoga,’ where in fact it had a whole lot more.

What made the deepest impact though was my first week with Pichest.

I was only going to him to study Thai Massage before I went to Mysore, India, and here I met a man who truly considered Thai massage a very deep and spiritual practice, a Yoga practice (yoga is not the poses we see people doing at the gym, that is Asana practice, nice and amazing, but Yoga, in the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is ‘discovering God’).

The fact that he used the words Yoga often in relation to Thai Massage, constantly asking us to break away from a sequence (though the worst part for me then, is that I did not even know a sequence very well), and to drop our own desires, let go.

Something which we are constantly trying to do in Yoga. To just let go and accept things as they are.

It was that week that changed my life forever, making me aware that Thai was the real Yoga practice, for me. Where in Yoga only one person benefits through meditating, or Asana practice, where as in Thai Yoga, two people were benefitting, both people we meditating and expanding the energies of their bodies.

Ashtanga will always be my Asana Yoga practice, my personal connection to the existence we call God, but Thai Massage, that has become my ability to serve others, in a way that is deeper than just my Yoga teachings.

I like to believe that Dr. Shivaga created Nuad Bor’an as a practice for the monks to gain the benefits of Yoga, while serving the community. Serving others is the Buddha’s main teaching, it is through serving others that we reduce the suffering that we are already making, that is constant. By serving others we let go of our suffering and help others release from theirs.


You studied with Pichest Boonthume and Enzo Coribello. Why did you chose to study with them? Can you talk about their teaching styles and your experiences as a student?

I chose to study with Pichest because my friend in Tucson told me that is who she studied with and that he was an amazing person. She had spent two weeks with him. I had no idea what to expect, coming from the Yoga world, I thought he would teach me what to do step by step, and thus I went to Thailand with very minimal training, just one weekend worth of Thai Massage in the local Massage school.

I was not very good.

But Pichest inspired me, from the first meeting we had at his house on the Sunday I landed, and seeing how his garage is like a temple, to the last time I saw him right after my son was born 18 months ago.
At the end of the first week though, I went and studied at Loi Kroh, and that taught me the entire sequence.

So when I landed in Mysore, I had learned the entire sequence of Traditional Thai Massage, though having hardly any practice in it.

But India is cheap, and I was offering my massages for $5. I was able to practice 2 and 3 hour sessions, watching my memory of the exact sequence, because even in my one week with Pichest I saw him once go through his sequence, and he knew the sequence like the back of his hand.

Like a pianist playing the scales.

Pichest knew each and every step, not like what we see today, where practitioners are not quite sure about the steps or the order.

Pichest knew, and would modifiy when he “worked” based on what he “felt” the client needed, but he sure knew the entire sequence.

A week before I left the USA I was practicing at my primary teacher’s Ashtanga Studio, and one of the students and I chatted at the end of Mysore that morning about my upcoming trip to Mysore, India, and Thai Massage came up, when she mentioned that there was a guy in India that does Thai and that she thought he was amazing.

I did not remember his name when I arrived, but one morning sitting at a local breakfast hangout, about two weeks after I arrived to Mysore, my breakfast buddy pointed Enzo out at a near by table, as the only one who does Thai Massage in Mysore.

I had booked a Thai Massage session with Enzo, we chatted about Thailand and my experience with Pichest, whom he had heard about but never met.

At that first massage Enzo explained how he was very traditional and will be going through a modified portion of the TTM sequence as taught in Old Medicine School. It was a 90 minute, silent, very sequence based experience, which left me glowing.

I knew Enzo had mastered transitions and manipulations and when I heard he was teaching a small group, I signed up.

Where Pichest demonstartes exact knowledge of where to be, how to step in order to transition from one move to the other, Enzo describes it, in great detail.

It was Enzo that inspired me to teach Thai Massage like I teach Yoga, “your foot here, your knee there, your hand here, now lean 1-2-3-2-1.”

I constantly give thanks to Pichest, Enzo, and my best friend David Johnson, who has taught me how to talk with simplicity and the difference between Massage and Therapy.

How many years have you been practicing Thai yoga massage now? What were particularly memorable experiences you had?

I have been practicing Thai Yoga now 7 years. The most memorable experiences I have had… there are many. But I will choose two:

The first Monday with Pichest, at the end of the  morning prayer, Pichest turned to face us and asked: ‘what do Yogi do?’ in his beautifully Thai accented English. Such a question I now know is repeated often, yet that was the first time I had ever heard it, yet I have yet to be in the room where Pichest did not have to repeat it twice, as if we English speakers did not understand ‘what do yogi do?’

It’s just such a bizarre question, as most of us think we know the answer, ‘yogi does yoga.’

But no one ever really offers an answer, and no one ever says the right answer (and those of us who know the answer simply enjoy watching Pichest say it).

Pichest will then sit tall, and tracing a fingers in a large circle around his body he will say: “Yogi sits, Yogi feels.” Meaning, a yogi sits and feels his body from the inside out.

Thai Massage is something we should learn to feel from the inside.

Which makes this second experience so dramatic for me. This was many months after I first met Pichest. Perhaps my 5th visit, where my last few were long extended ones, where I learned a little about Pichest’s life with Thai, how a specific lady helped him reframe how he worked with Thai, and more importantly how he prayed and taught Thai. On this late morning, Pichest was working on someone’s shoulder, in an advanced position, where he looks at me and pointed out where and why he was pressing. Helping the side of the neck of the client, though the way he was sitting, and the way his forearm fit into his stomach as he was shifting his body weight onto the student, was massaging his own internal organs.

It was clear to me that moment that every movement he was doing took into consideration how to help the other, but also how to help himself.

It was clear to me one of the messages that he teaches, Thai Massage is the way the practitioner helps their body, or not.

You either act like a Yogi and know step by step where you are and what is happening, or you are not.

And if you are not, you are risking a chance to hurt yourself.

‘And then who help you?’ Pichest likes to ask. ‘You do, do, you dodo, help others, but no help yourself. You no feel, only do, but no feel.’

What’s the most common thing you hear people saying about how they feel after your treatments?

Amazing. This was the best massage I every had. I feel so energized. How come I never heard of this before.

These and similar type sentiments or words are things I head over and over again.

Especially when all we do is Traditional Thai Massage (a sequence based, full body session).

What are the physical requirements a person should possess if he or she wants to study with you?

You should be comfortable moving on your knees, that’s all that is required to study with me.

Whether you will practice it or not…that is the real question.

Thai Massage is an active practice. That’s why I use the word Yoga again. It is a Yoga practice for the one giving it.

If you are not comfortable doing Sun Salutation (not ashtanga where you jump back and forward, but rather the sivananda one, where you step one leg back), chances are you will never give a Thai Massage session.

However, you might never have done Sun Salutation, and never worked out in your life before, but are looking for something that you can feel moves your body, Thai Yoga is the best thing for you.

You learn very specific positions of where your body goes, and now you get to go practice them. If you practice what I teach you, the way I teach you once a day, you will be surprised at the levels of fitness, flexibility and happiness you experience within a week.

The only issue with that is that you need to have someone to work on every day… Something that can prove more challenging, to find someone we can just “use” to help us clean our home, while “cleaning” out their house.


What qualities should a good Thai Yoga practitioner develop in your opinion?

A good Thai Practitioner needs to develop the skills of connecting with their breath, being able to follow their breath for the duration of practice (if you can stay with your own breath, you will be amazed at how connected your session will become).

Lightness, or open heart, which simply means you are forgiving, to yourself, when you make a mistake, and to the client, when you realize they are not as flexible as you had hoped, or if they are super flexible.

These two skills can also be thought of as mindfulness, where mindfulness simply teaches us to be “aware” – aware of your body or your breath, where are they at any one time, and just as important “acceptance” – accept what ever is happening as you continue doing what you are suppose to be doing. Be aware that you forgot where you are going, or that you are breathing too fast, and then accept the situation without trying to control it, rather keep flowing with what you are doing, or simply notice the next breath and allow it to be more relaxed than the previous one.

Mindfulness will automatically fill you with metta – which is loving-kindness. If you are aware and are accepting of yourself moment by moment, you naturally become aware and accepting of any one else, which is the actual experience of Metta.

When you give a Thai Yoga treatment – how much of your work is based on anatomical and physiological knowledge, and how much on intuitive awareness?

I firmly believe that you should have a solid understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the body if you ever call your work Therapy. If you are simply doing Thai Yoga, you should have a base, but the same base you have as a yoga teacher, or personal trainer is sufficient (believe me, most massage therapists have a very rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physiology).

As for my work – When the client and I decide that the session will be connecting and relaxing, I.E. Thai Yoga – a sequence based routine, I am not very concerned with anatomy and physiology, those are there, but our intention is to relax, press and work the entire body in a dance like fashion, and I will either trust the traditional sequence, or I will trust my intuition to guide me into a different expression of the traditional song (remember the traditional Thai Yoga sequence if done without every repeating a movement and never skipping any part of the dance lasts 3 hrs).

I have seen great practitioners and my own teachers, and while Pichest uses words such as ‘feel’ and ‘see inside,’ his fingers truly know exactly where he wants to press.

Pichest does not spend the time studying the body from Western anatomy and physiology terms, though he applies those terms when he can.

Those of us in the West, we grew up with these terms, there is no reason why we should not use them, especially when our intution is not nearly as refined as Master Pichest, or other Masters in Thailand.

My best friend and teacher, David Johnson, has taught me that by knowing the physiology of the body, with guided experience and time, we can all FEEL exactly where muscles spindles are bunched together, where there is a lack of blood circulation along the myalin sheet, whether a joint is stuck, or a muscle is actually in a concentrically long (i.e. Restricted in an extended position) or concentrically short (restricted in a short position) and how to treat that body part.

But that is more Therapy, understanding how to take the stain out of the carpet, not so much the deep, full house cleaning which is Traditional Thai Massage (or Thai Yoga).

You taught in Thailand for 18 months – what are your favorite places in the Land of Smiles?

I lived in Thailand for a little over 18 months over a course of 4 years. I taught Yoga at Absolute Yoga and helped develop and lead their first Hot Yoga Teacher Training program. I never try and teach Thai Massage in Thailand, as after all, it’s Thailand, and you can study it for cheaper any where else.

I do hope that I can one day teach in Thailand where costs can be less than in the US, simply to share a different experience in how the traditional dance can be taught.

Enzo and Pichest showed me that there is a better way to teach beginners, so that they are set off in the best way possible, and not because it is a better massage for the client, but because it will be a better experience for the giver, their bodies will not break down quickly, and in fact, if you understand why Pichest insists on position the way he teaches them, your body will actually heal, get stronger and be better, without needing to pay someone else to work on you.

I have lived in Chaing Mai, Bangkok and Samui, and traveled in Krabi.

I must admit that I love the water and the sun in the Islands, but Thailand will always be the home of my teacher, Pichest, and when ever I am in Thailand, if I am not in Chaing Mai, I feel as if I am away from ‘home.’

Chaing Mai is my favorite city in Thailand, and now not only because it is so close to Hang Dong where my teacher lives, but also because the culture in the North seems more rooted in it’s Buddhist tradition. Obviously it is every where, but where else can you see a three hour parade of all the temples, with the school students dressed up and performoing traditional dances and offerings as they walk through the town from the East gate to the West gate, while the entire town is still going crazy with the water festival that marks the new year (the festival of Pi Mai, the new year), or the gathering of people along the river to send up into the sky, in a unison fashion the Krathongs, on Loi Krathog, the river festival?

– End of Interview –

And finally, watch Gabriel demonstrating some steps so you get a visual impression of how he teaches:

For more about Gabriel, visit www.GabrielAzoulay.com

You can also download a PDF version of the interview here.

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