Starting Thai massage school

This was me on Monday, my first day of school.

I wish that I had a picture of my first day of kindergarten to place beside it — as the emotions that I felt that day as a five-year-old weren’t so vastly different from the emotions I felt this week as a 34-year-old.

The excitement, the anxiety, the wanting to make a good first impression, the knowing that you’re on the brink of learning many new things — it has been a while since I experienced this bouquet of emotions that only comes with the first day of school or a new job.

This week I began a massage course at the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai, otherwise known as TMC. The goal is simple: Learn basic Thai massage skills that I can take back with me to Chicago.

Already several days into the program, I am loving the education and the experience.

First, I feel like a student — and not just a student of the world in the general sense of things, but a real¬†student-student. Attendance at this school entails most of the things I remember while attending elementary school, junior high and high school. It’s nostalgia that I didn’t necessarily crave, but it’s something that I am now embracing wholeheartedly.

I have a “school bus stop,” where a red taxi-truck picks me up each morning and drops me off each evening. I have a locker, a course book, homework and tests. I have a fixed daily schedule, in which teachers signal class start times, lunch and tea breaks with the sound of a small gong. I even have a “school uniform” that I need to wear while in class (stylish blue scrubs).

I guess it helps that I was a nerd who loved school. These things don’t have the traumatizing effect that they might (understandably) have with some people.

The only thing that’s slightly more unique than what I had in elementary school, junior high and high school … is our “lunchroom.” As massage students, we ¬†journey across the street during our lunch break to a local market that boasts some pretty exotic options for the adventurous foodie.

Disclaimer: I have decided to stick with a local woman at this market who mixes up homemade soups to order. When I tell her, “I’ll see you tomorrow!” — it is a promise that I keep. Her soups are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. And I don’t say that because the alternative would be bugs.

Lunch novelties aside, TMC is really is top-notch from what I have so far experienced. It is extremely well run, and I feel like the staff truly cares about students’ comfort and progress. I noted this before I even set foot at the school. It was obvious in the ping-pong of emails that I had with administration in the weeks leading up to my first day: They were all answered promptly, with all of the requested and necessary details, plus a dose of compassion to sooth any worrying that I might have indicated through my words.

I am grateful for the structure that this program brings to my days. At 6 a.m. I wake up to the sound of a neighbor’s rooster and some strange bird that sounds like it on it’s way to the world’s best orgasm. I do a morning yoga practice. I dress and get my school bag ready. At 7:40 a.m., I stop at a coffee shop for to-go breakfast before heading to my “bus stop,” which is around the corner from my guest house. Then it’s off to school with a handful of other students who get picked up in my neighborhood. The school is about a 15-minute ride outside of the city center.

Once at the school, administration takes our temperatures to ensure we don’t have a fever. (Those with fevers cannot participate, since the curriculum involves so much direct bodily contact.) Then we have tea before the first gong signals the start of school. We file up the stairs to our designated classroom.

Yes, this is our classroom. (Hey, we cannot learn these massage techniques by sitting behind a desk.)

There are just eight students in my class, including another American and others from France, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy. Because the class size is relatively small, we get a good amount of attention from the teacher. It is one of the reasons I selected this school out of there dozens and dozens of massage schools in Chiang Mai — the class sizes are purposely kept small.

Our class begins with washing of the feet with a hot towel, a few Buddhist prayers (optional to those who wish to pray according to their own faith), some yoga exercises and a three-minute meditation. What a way to kick off the school day, eh?

The rest of the class time consists of a series of show-and-tells by the teacher, where she demonstrates and explains specific Thai massage skills — followed by lots and lots and lots of hands-on practice. We partner up each day with somebody new, so that we can experience different body types and acquire fresh feedback. The teacher circulates throughout the room to correct us and answer questions. We are in class until 4 p.m. When it is time to wrap up, we wipe down the mats, change the sheets, change out of our uniforms — and head outside to climb aboard our designated taxi-truck for the journey back to Chiang Mai’s city center and our respective “school bus stops.”

This might sound like too much structure to someone who thinks that I am on holiday. (Tests? Uniforms? No free time during the day?)

But, remember this: I am not on holiday.

Each time some one makes a comment that suggests this, I cringe. I am abroad to learn. I am abroad to acquire new skills and experiences. I am abroad not to escape or relax or any of the traditional motivators behind a vacation. This is not a vacation. And that is why this school fits so well into my agenda.

I feel like I am really accomplishing something by attending this course, something that will ultimately benefit others, which is uplifting unto itself. It is a life skill that will come in handy, both in yoga and in the everyday. I am getting more comfortable and confident with touching other people. It goes beyond the act of giving someone a massage that feels good …

Working with another person’s breath, sensing when pressure is too much/too little and activating specific pressure points … it’s an amazing thing to be learning, and I look forward to gifting it to friends and family in the future.

And I have a feeling that certain friends will be queuing up for a massage upon my return home. You know who you are, and I love you for it.

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