The Importance of the Legs and Feet in Thai Massage

I arrived back in Chiang Mai, Thailand about a week ago and almost immediately started receiving massage treatments. It is after all one of my main reasons to visit.

Chai with his pet bird

Chai with his pet bird

Chai, one of my favorite to go practitioners, inquired what needed his attention. I was tempted to say: ” my shoulders”. Like most people it is where I really feel my stress. Yet I knew that I was stiff all over and told him as much.

As is common in Thailand he starts at the feet and by extension my legs. Putting my body in different positions and then using his thumbs, palms, elbows and feet to work the sen lines on the legs and relax the tissue. His work is slow, patient and methodical.

This seems to be missing in the West at times. With a humidity of 95%, perhaps it’s easier to slow down. I’m listening to the sounds of the warm rain, trying to let go

I am struck, almost alarmed, at the stagnation in the legs and the places he finds needing unwinding. Chai could easily work for two hours solely on my legs and feet. I realize I will need to repeat this process multiple times.

In the Asian way of thinking we absorb the yin chi from the earth through the soles of the feet when walking the earth. Remember how good it feels to walk barefoot on the beach.

If the feet, ankles and legs start to stiffen it will affect the overall chi flow in the entire body.

Looking at it from a yogic perspective:

If the back of the legs are tight, it’s hard to bend forward. If the front of the legs are tight, it’s hard to bend back.

When the hips and the groins start to close, often from spending too much time in chairs, we start to wobble. This happens slowly over many decades. We don’t notice it until we do!

In all the above examples the pelvis is pulled out of it’s ideal alignment and back pain follows. Putting it another way, we need to work and open the legs to free the back. Knowing this we can approach the standing poses in yoga with renewed enthusiasm!

Later today, I will visit the Sunday evening market. It is the biggest outdoor market in South East Asia, stretching for miles. Besides fabrics, food, crafts and music there will be hundreds of local people and tourists receiving foot massages. Both in establishments and also in little alleys out on the sidewalk. It is a thing here!

Reflexology center in the old part of town, established in 1996

Reflexology center in the old part of town, established in 1996

When the feet are kneaded extensively and thoroughly the entire body wakes up and feels more alive. The more freedom and mobility we regain in the toe joints, the easier it is to balance.

With this in mind, for the last couple of years opening our feet has become part and parcel for just about every yoga class I teach. So much so that a newcomer recently told me after class: “Well, that’s certainly the most work I’ve ever done on my feet”. It wasn’t meant as a complement and I never saw her since. The students that have practiced with me consistently have noticed a profound difference in their feet as well as the way they connect to the legs.

This essay would be incomplete if I failed to mention what really got me thinking totally different about the feet and by extension the legs.

Practicing Thai massage I came to see my feet as another pair of hands. I use them interchangeable during a session, often both at the same time. Once the work flows, the client is unable to guess whether they feel the hands or the feet. I sometimes joke that I have two pairs of hands.

I discovered that my feet can “feel” just as the hands do. Sadly I also realized how I have abused my feet in narrow shoes, most of my life. My toes needed their space back, especially the pinky ones.

A year or two ago, I purchased a new pair of Birckenstocks. For some reason I didn’t order them on line but went to a little specialty store instead. I had planned to exchange my old pair for an identical pair of new ones. The owner explained to me I could get the same size but slightly wider. He encouraged me in this direction. I followed his advice. For the next two weeks I was cursing under my breath, wishing I had stayed with the originals. Something shifted shortly after that and now I would not even consider going back. It’s like my feet slowly expanded!

Thai reflexology chart

Thai reflexology chart

A few weeks have gone by and I have my last treatment with Chai. He asks me about my wants and needs. “Up to you” I answer,” whatever you feel my body needs”. Chai suggests to work my body from the side position. He starts at my feet and of course followed by the legs.

“You have a different body now! ” he exclaims. He continues with opening my hands and patiently works the channels on the arms, extending into the shoulders.

“I like the hands and feet!” Chai tells me with a broad smile.

“Me too!” I easily concur.

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Robert de Nies


  1. Thank you for the advise and for sharing your knowledge. Yoga works. Foot reflexology really works. I got hundreds of massages in the Far East, and now in my country. But since February it is not allowed anymore, and I realy miss it.

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