A few years ago, I went to Chiang Mai for three weeks. And, like most people do while in Thailand, I went to get a Thai massage.
I’d never gotten a Thai massage before, but from the way it is always presented – in curvy, exotic-looking letters often accompanied by lotus flowers or other symbols of meditative peace – I assumed it would be a relaxing experience. I was vaguely aware that some sort of stretching is involved, as promotional photographs always depicted a woman smiling serenely as her masseuse appeared to pull back her arms. That was the extent of my knowledge.
After some research, I’d found a reasonably priced place that was recommended by enough people on the Internet to lend it sufficient credibility. I walked in, was instructed to change, and learned what a Thai massage feels like.
It started with stretching and manipulation of my legs and ankles, which felt pretty good. From there, it eventually escalated to sitting up with my hands behind my head, my arms interlocked with my masseuse as she swung my upper half around first to the right, then to the left.
“Oh…my god,” I thought.
Like most Japanese people, I have almost perfected the art of pretending any uncomfortable reality is not actually happening. In the middle of a humid Tokyo summer, I can sit in a train car that has suddenly turned into my private hell due a homeless person sitting directly upwind of me, as if nothing is wrong. When a drunk man rolled off the train seat onto the floor, unconsciously inebriated at my feet, I’ve simply moved back 30cm, keeping my gaze purposely fixed elsewhere.
So, I kept my cool, pretending like being contorted was an absolutely normal part of a relaxing massage. Then, the masseuse planted her foot in the middle of my back and braced her weight back while holding my arms behind me.
“Wai—,” I started.
It was too late. I imagined irreparable harm to my back as she almost bent me in half.
Like most uncomfortable situations, I’ve somehow been able to think back fondly on that massage, going so far as to tell people it felt good, that I’d go back. That’s not a lie, but unfamiliarity with the process lent a fair bit of discomfort that I wasn’t prepared for.
I was reminded of that massage a few weeks ago when a chronically tight and painful lower back forced me to seek out acupuncture treatment.
Unlike in the U.S., acupuncture is readily and widely available in Tokyo. Suggestions to go to an acupuncturist were fairly common at my gym, but the idea of someone jabbing me with needles – however thin – remained a terrifying concept. It didn’t help that most of the people suggesting acupuncture were male and capable of enduring the pain of prolonged exercise. They’d assure me that “it doesn’t hurt at all,” but the phrase immediately seemed suspect given the source. It’s like when people say “oh, but it’s nothing compared to childbirth,” which only gives me a vague metric of “not painless but definitely better than the experience you haven’t had of a small human body squeezing through your cervix.”
But when a good friend recommended her acupuncturist and told me that it wasn’t that bad, I was curious.
“They give you a massage, first, of the places they’re going to needle you,” she said.
Somehow, this gave me some reassurance. If they cared enough to go through the pretense of trying to relax you first, didn’t that mean they were good people? Didn’t that mean that, should I ever have the courage to ask them to stop, that they would?
By this point, my glute pain had spread to my lower back. Front squats hurt. Back squats also kind of hurt. Sitting was beginning to hurt. I was getting close to being forced to do something to actually address this problem.
I made an appointment online that week and walked into the recommended clinic for my first ever acupuncture experience.
As this was my first appointment, and my first time getting acupuncture, my acupuncturist, N-san, poked and prodded at my lower back and hip, and pressed and massaged the sides of my back and shoulders while asking me questions about pain and soreness. He told me that my issue was definitely due to my glutes and hamstrings, not my back, and that he probably couldn’t fix me in one appointment. He spent time explaining how acupuncture can feel different to different people: some people just don’t like the tingling feeling of acupuncture, others find it super relaxing. Some people find it more painful than relaxing. It just depends.
After the massage, N-san chose a fleshy part of my hip for my first acupuncture needle. He tapped the needle in, twice, and other than something much less than a pinprick, I felt nothing.
“This is what it feels like,” he said, “is that ok?”
I told him it was, because it really wasn’t painful at all, and he tap-tapped more needles into my right hip and glute. After the sensation of the double-tap, I eventually started to feel the “vibration” that people often talk about. You know the needle is going into one place, but it feels like an entire area is released of tension. It’s a weird, half-numbing sensation that feels like trigger point therapy on steroids.
After inserting a bunch of needles, N-san then used a small box to pass a weak, electric current between the needles. It feels like a deep, trigger point therapy massage; you can’t call it relaxing, but it’s not unpleasant. After about 5 minutes of this, I went home feeling a bit sore but better, with advice to come back in about a week.
The next week, I went back for more treatment. This time, there was a short massage of my hamstrings and calves, then the acupuncture started. From my ankles to my knees, N-san started inserting needles to fix some muscle imbalances. N-san would probe my lower legs, find a knot, and promptly insert a needle into it. This time, I felt the entire range of possible sensations when undergoing acupuncture: some pinprick pain, tingling, a weird numbing feeling that spread over my foot at one point, the releasing sensation, and some discomfort. I also felt like a human pin cushion.
“What is happening?” I thought.
By the time N-san finished with my right glute, all I could do was cling to the body pillow used to elevate my leg as I lay on my left side, my butt-cheek twitching from the electroacupuncture, seriously considering N-san’s advice to maybe just lay off the lifting for a while.
But like that Thai massage from a few years ago, once it was over, I felt renewed. Or maybe I’m discounting the effect of an electric charge to my butt-cheek. In any case, high on my own self-congratulations for doing something that was not completely awful to my body, I asked when I should come back on the way out.