"Thai massage - a sacred art or improvisation?"
Interview with Mukti, Michael Buck
How do you describe the art that you are teaching? You told me that it is not just one of the schools of Thai massage but something more than that.
Mukti: It is called Vedic Thai bodywork and it has its particular distinction. It includes and honors traditions of Thailand and all the Asian cultures. So also we deal with marmas, chakras, nadis and also use pranayam, breath consciousness, but most people know it as a Thai massage or Thai bodywork. The only distinction is that we are honoring not just Jivaka Kumara who was 2500 years ago, we are honoring the one, who he was probably honoring - Shree Danvantari, who is a medical incarnation of Vishnu. If we look at the king and queen of Thailand, they have Ram in their name and also their most beloved city is Ayudhia. And all of that is straight out of the Vedic culture.
Yes, before Buddhism I think they had a Vedic culture.
Mukti: And in Hinduism, Buddha was considered a reincarnation of Vishnu, as one of the 12 reincarnations. And in their belief system he was preaching Monotheism. But actually he was mostly preaching atheism. But in the belief system that Hindus use he was actually conscientiously tricking people, and in a sense it kind of looks that way. Because he said in Buddhism: “have no statutes no altars no pictures no images”. And in Thailand there are thousands and thousands of images of Buddha. You wonder if this Hindu take on Buddhism is actually correct where he was tricking people into loving a God and not just loving Nirvana or Shunyavadi, which is empty space. Because, in fact, everybody is worshiping Buddha and that’s exactly what he didn't want. But anyway, the art of bodywork has few distinctions, it’s difficult to describe it and even say it and I barely ever say it ... but mostly what you are learning - is me.
You are learning my particular presentation. I don't want to compare myself with anything grandiose, but if you ask Mozart what style is he representing, he would not be able to define it. So mostly what you are seeing is 35 years of my style and of course the influence of being in Hare Krishna with Shrila Prabhupad and all of that, because we were not just talking about the Vedic culture, we were living it. We were walking and talking it. And as a monk, when you surrender to that style, you don’t think, “ I’m going to surrender for 2 years and then I’m going to leave“. No, in your whole spirit you know it’s the end of the line - there is nothing else beyond this. In a way it was very fortunate for me, because I got to represent that feeling for people now.
Ok, and the second question is about two approaches to bodywork. First one - very traditional very strict, where we should study particular sequences and we have no right to change them, and we should master them year by year and then may be give our disciples the same sequence. This is an old school, traditional approach. The second one, which we can find in the west, is based on improvisation, intuition more than some particular strict tradition. We can see that each of these approaches has some good sides and bad sides. So what is your opinion about it, how to balance them, or what is more important - which approach is more suitable for Asian culture or western culture?
Mukti: Well, honestly, I liked what you said when I first met you about that even if we trace back to when tradition was strongest or even before they were changing anything, somebody had created it. Everything always comes back to a person. The same is true here, there is no way you can stop the compliments of so many styles. You are Shivait, I am a Vaishnava, we love each other, and we are not going to polarize each other. So it’s inevitable that there is going to be merging of cultures and styles. Traditionalists are valuable but they have to be careful not to polarize. And that’s what happening in Palestine and other countries, you know. They are not willing to bend, those fanatics. And there are fanatics in our art and in yoga too. It just takes a particular personality to see that bending or softening a tradition is valuable. We can take an example of Shrila Prabhupad, for sure, who was very strict sanyasi, and coming to this country (USA) with a whole bunch of traditions, and one of the strictest rules that they were following was “no women“. But in no time, because of the sincerity of women in this country, here is the very strict traditional sanyasi turns all around and had women cooking for him and traveling with him. So that’s a wonderful inspiration on how to change traditions. I realize that what I do with some of these traditions. You are like Bruce Lee, when he came to America and all the martial art teachers in San Francisco came and ask: “will you be representing a style?” He said: ”I’m not representing a style, I will do whatever works“. And all martial arts teachers in San Francisco said: “No, you are going to represent a style”. And he said: ”No, I’m not”. And he had to fight for that literally and physically. So, I’m doing the same thing. I am taking a lot of liberties, only because, you know, I have worked very hard on this in the early years to bring balance to a person. I’m not concerned which tradition I was using. The person is hurting, he is suffering somehow and I’m going to use whatever works. So I put it under the umbrella called “Vedic“. But “ Vedic “ is a limited umbrella. Ultimately what you are studying - is a particular teacher and whatever influences that teacher.
Yes, but anyway, for a student to start the improvisation he should have some base, like in music also one should study the scale before one can play.
Mukti: So I am representing just Asian really, because I’m licensed in Anma, which is the mother of Shiatsu, I have License in Shiatsu also. Also I became the top instructor in Association called ITTA, International Thai Therapy Association. And so there are three different styles. There are 2 Japanese and one in Thai and of course there is a Vedic influence also. So yes, you have to start with some ABC ‘s, some fundamentals, and I do that also. But I cannot pin point it also. I don’t like to call it Thai Yoga bodywork or Thai Yoga massage, putting myself in a box. Does that answer the question at all?
Yeah. Can you tell us something about your early years? What influenced the choice of your lifestyle?
Mukti: Bhagavat Gita says that we search for the truth because of 3 or 4 influences. And I don't remember all of them, but one of them is suffering, the other one is money, than goes knowledge and there is something else. Most likely I went into the yoga world because of suffering. I was suffering. You know - Identity, environmental, family influences caused a lot of pain in my life.
Do you remember your fist meeting with Asian philosophy or Asian culture?
Mukti: It was a book called: “Be here Now “ by Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass. Then Paramahamsa Yogananda. And then I took initiation from Muktananda in New York City. Actually from him personally I received his peacock feather Shakti pat. And later I went to study at University of Miami. And then the Hare Krishna came by and invited me for a feast. And I was like “what is a feast?” “Sunday Feast with singing and dancing?” But previous to that I also received initiation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with Transcendental Mediation. I loved it; I loved working with Bija sound. It really was effective; I did it every morning, 15 min every morning and evening. But later I gravitated towards Hare Krishna. So there were several spiritual influences on me before I settled then. And now I consider myself mostly Buddhist and very Zen. I’m not interested in waiving the flag for any cult or organization. I have seen too much. Although, I think, it is sometimes valuable for some people. Like you said, you need those fundamentals to start out with and I don’t regret any of those initiations. It is just now that I moved on from everything.
Tell us please about your first meeting with massage?
Mukti: That was with a swami. I was his personal attaché and we were on our way to India. He was formerly an astrologer to Grateful Dead band, a black guy, Sudama Swami.
Was he an American?
Mukti: Yes, he was from San Francisco. A very cool guy and I became his very good friend. He gave me a massage in a hotel. And all that I remember is that he started the massage and I don't remember anything else. I just remember him afterwards washing his hands or walking out of the room. But I just remember that I had such a profound sense of rest and such a profound sense of positive something that I just knew that there was something behind it. And then I was in Princeton, New Jersey, I was hanging around this nondescript developing ashram by Sham Bhatnagar. And this guy gave me massage a couple of times, and each time I just went somewhere. I don't know where I went, but it was so refreshing and so positive. And while I was living there a little tribe had developed, and we started doing group massages. And then I went to Swedish institute in Manhattan and did the 700 hours program there.
So that was Swedish massage course, a classical western style, right?
Mukti: Yes. I was going to the Swedish institute and also to Ohashi in New York City at the same time. And then I traveled to San Francisco and I went to the Anma Institute and then I am just doing bodywork all the time.
Do you remember your first visit to Thailand? How was that?
Mukti: Yes, it was in 1996 and I went helping one of my teachers, Anthony James. He was not my first teacher, probably - 3rd, but I gravitated to him because he was a martial artist also. He said: “help me to go to Thailand”. And I grabbed some of the people from my camp and we went for a month. It was just a great experience. The schooling there was rather fundamental, but I kept coming back in 1997, 1998. In 1999 I went there just with my buddy and we found a teacher, whose name was Chayu. He was great teacher and very famous public figure and dancer. His pictures always had these brightly colored clothes. I went to him and I said I want to study with you and I demonstrated a little bit to him. And he looked me over and he looked at my brochures and said: “You know, I was in the garden this morning, tending the garden with my wife and I smelled a new fragrance, and I didn’t know what it was” Then I was talking to him later that afternoon, he said: ”Now I see what are you doing, now I know what that new fragrance it was“. So my friend started balling, because we just realized we just got a blessing from this major shaman. He said you are not going to study with me nor am I going to give a private session. “ He said: “You go and teach. You are a teacher.” And that was it. That was very cool. After that I came back with a group and then a couple years later again. You know, I had a reader told me that my past life was not Vedic but Asian and my house has been always decorated in Asian style more than in Indian one. Even when I was in Hare Krishna, when I was strict, ninja basically, book distributor, when I had a break I would go to the book store and I would gravitate straight towards the Tibetan Buddhism. If I were discovered doing that by my god brothers or godfathers, I would have been beaten up, literally physically beaten up. They would consider this subversive. They would say you are Mayavadi you, are rascal, you are a cheater. I was always wondering why was I gravitated to those books, you now, spiritual materialism, Meta freedom, etc.
I see. And my next question is, how important Asian bodywork and in general folk medicine for a modern western society is? For example, do you think here, in USA, there is an opposition from official medicine? Do you think that medical organizations are trying to suppress folk medicine development, because they are so interested in pharmacology business, they control the business and they are not interested in people starting to heal themselves? What is your opinion about it?
Mukti: I believe that the folk art as valuable as any sophisticated medicine out there, and I can be very confident with my statement because of my experience. Aside from what I have read, beside from what I have heard from other people saying abut the Rockefeller’s controlling the medical Universities and all of that. And despite the fact that 300 000 people lost their lives last year because MPS prescribed medications and 2 million people were permanently disabled, aside from all of that I know from working with people, who were going through a variety of different challenges, I know that what this art is producing is equal to anything else out there. And mostly this happens as a result of 2-3 people that I had as my clients. One of them was a top psychiatric nurse at Carrier Clinic in New Jersey by Princeton University. She took a session with me every single week for years. She was dealing with a serious illness, and she would visit a psycho pharmacologist in Manhattan and then she would go to many specialists and she was telling to all those professionals: “You know what I’m having most success with? – Massage!“ And then I had a number of people who would say the same. I had a client who was a prima ballerina in American Ballet Theater, and she was the one who knew Rudolf Nuriev. Her name is Virginia Grossman, her husband owns the Colombia Artist Management Company. She was suffering from a depilating virus as a ballerina and her limo used to bring her to my house where I live out in a ranch. I didn’t know who she was; I just kept working on a person. She would come very regularly, sometimes they would have to pick her up and put her on the massage table and I kept working on her still not knowing whom she was. I knew that she was dealing with the problem and she said that they were going to see a specialist about it, and of course, they were. And her husband told me too: “Do you know what we are having success with mostly?” And they said massage again.
Than she herself went to Ohashi institute and another massage school as she was continuing as a ballet teacher. And of course, there are other examples. But mainstream medicine holds nothing at what we are doing. It’s just as if we were on bottom of the totem pole, yoga is on the bottom of the totem pole as well. But we are celebrating right now because the totem pole is lying on its side, and its all equal. We have many people choosing yoga to help themselves with different disorders instead of surgery for example. But the mainstream medicine knows that the people pay out of their pockets for the folk medicine. When a person comes to me with the problem I don’t send them to medical professionals I sent them to either breathing therapy or a yoga class or a massage therapy way before anything else, like surgery etc.
The question is about spirituality and sexuality. We can see two paths: in the west, previously in Christian culture the sexuality was mostly suppressed. Then pop culture came and we see a lot of sexuality in movies and magazines, but it’s not a sacred sexuality, it is very primitive. In the east we can also see, mostly in society, that sexuality is suppressed, but there are ancient scriptures that describe sacred sexuality. So what is your opinion about the connection of spirituality and sexuality?
Mukti: I’m not really an expert in this.
But just give us your opinion on how to connect these two things, on how to make sexuality spiritual? What do you think about it?
Mukti: You know, if I was speaking with a daughter or a son, whom I don’t have, I would be very liberal. There is a lot of knowledge in sexual realm, and I don't think there should be a strong suppression, because now that produced very insidious results. It’s almost like the pendulum swing to the other side. And we see that in such a strict movements like Hare Krishna, most of the swamis had to give up that artificial suppression of sexuality. But for myself, I think, that these two things should be integrated and be respectful, and the west has botched it up terribly, you know with Judaism, Muslims and Christianity. I think it was a control issue. I cannot claim to know Tantra, I have an idea about Tantra. It’s a huge subject, you know. In my personal life I’m a liberalist and I encourage people to experience whatever they experience.
Let’s connect it with the massage subject. I think some people have some types of muscular blocks connected with suppressed sexuality.
Mukti: Well, I am a student of Wilhelm Reich. I read several of his books and I definitely respect and appreciate him fully. And in massage therapy I can say that there is probably no place that I have not been sexually affected with massage therapy. I believe that if licensing board knew what I was experiencing there would not be an appreciation of it for sure. But from all of that, I have learned - be focused on what you are supposed to be focused on, represent what you are supposed to represent. And at the same time there are people who absolutely need sexual massage. For example, I had one woman as a client, she was a yoga teacher, and I worked on her very intensely with lots of concentration and doing my best, and at the end of the session I stepped aside and asked her, why was she still really contracted and tight and resistant. Than she had an emotional release - started to weep and explained that she was not happy with the sexual life with her husband. And I am a true believer that the orgasm is important for achieving balance.
And the next question is a bit metaphysical. It is about intuition, how to develop intuition? For example, for the body worker to know the techniques is not enough, we need to feel the receiver and we need a strong intuition for it, because usually we don't have a long time to listen to all the problems of the person, and may be we don’t need to understand it intellectually. So how to develop that intuition? May be there is something mystical behind it? May be we have to work in a shaman way, to have some connection with some spiritual being or somebody who can help us from the subtle world? What do you think about it?
Mukti: Oh my goodness! How to develop your intuition? I have two fundamental techniques and you have heard them already a million times probably. The intuition techniques are where you ask yourself questions internally and then you submit the same question to the receiver to see if there is a match. Definitely it is a dialog therapy. And you develop intuition through lots and lots of practice. I also asked for spiritual guidance from other beings and I recommend it to my students. I say it all the time: the key to becoming successful and to becoming an expert shaman or a mystic is to remember our deity. And I am sure that all I had in the beginning of my profession, having been trained in Bhakti yoga, I know that I was not particularly talented in bodywork, and yet I was very tentative about going in the session, all I had was remembering my deity. And apparently it has produced something, and even today when I begin a session that’s where I am.
So which deity do you remember?
Mukti: For whatever reason, even though I want to break out of that orbit sometimes, it is Shamasundara. And Shaymasudara is the flute playing reincarnation of Vishnu, also known as Govinda, and he has a particular form of his body and particular environment, he is in a jungle. So when I pass, if I’m going to be conscious when I’m dying I am going to fix that image in my mind. I would like to fix Tara, but Shaymasundara is not letting me go. And who is your deity? I think I know but what particular image? Nataraja?
Yes, probably Nataraja. But it’s also different, because Siva does not have avatars, so there is no difference - there is only one. Siva has 11 forms but they are not avatars, because he is not reincarnated on the earth, so they are just different images of him.
Mukti: Nice. I am very good friends with Siva, and he knows that definitely.
And one more mystical question, about reincarnation and remembering past lives. May be you had some experiences of it, or some glimpses of memories?
Mukti: Well, it is not a novelty to me, as it is to so many people that are involved in yoga. I noticed they still holding it as a novelty. Reincarnation is very real to me, and I did do a past life regression one time and I got a lot out of that. And ultimately what I got out of that is that you choose, how you are going to die. In regression therapy y
ou are asked to think of three most horrible situations in three life times. One of mine was in Bulgaria, dirty clothes muddy road, mother and father were fighting, and as a matter of fact my father killed my mother, strangled her. Because the regression therapist asked me: “Ok, where are you? What is happening?” And then I said: “I am standing outside listening to my father and mother arguing.“ Then she said: “Go inside.“ And I said: “I can not - there is no door.“ And then she said: “Oh yes, there is - create a door. “ So I created a door and walked in. And she said: “Explain to me what is happening now.” And I said: "My father is explaining to my mother something that does not seem to be true and then the fight developed and he strangled her. Then he convinced me that that was not true and I followed him around until he rolled of the cliff. “ Then regression therapist asked me, how I was feeling about my father just died, and I said: “I’m not particularly bothered by it.“ So all of that was really getting you to know how you are going to die. Of course, my reaction was: “I don’t know how I am going to die!“ And she said: “Oh yes, you do - you can choose it, you can choose exactly how are you going to die.” So I don’t remember much of my past lives, I can barely remember what happened last week. I don’t know how necessary it is, I believe we have been through everything and every body.
What I have noticed especially in the west. There are a lot of people, who are now interested in yoga and Asian spiritual traditions. And there is a theory that people started to reincarnate in the west from Asian spiritual traditions, to reconstruct spiritual things in the west. So may be we were not satisfied with our lives in Asia, may be we need to bring this knowledge here. May be we have to understand something from those traditions in order to live here in this world.
Mukti: Do you consider Russia a western country?
Half - half, but mostly yes. It’s about 70% of western culture here, I think. We have some Asian and Muslim republics but they are not a part of central Russia.
Mukti: I agree with you. I have heard this philosophy. It feels right. Probably for whatever dissatisfaction we had from our past life, we reincarnated, we found ourselves in the area where we can and then we propagate this belief, which is more liberal than the one we came from. Yes, i believe that also, I feel strongly about this.
Vedic Conservatory - school of Michael Buck