Body + Soul: Twist And Shout

It’s no canyon ranch experience, but traditional Thai massage gets the kinks out.
Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

I WASN’T sleeping well, unable to get comfortable because of my back, which felt like it had been struck repeatedly by a metal folding chair. That’s how I found myself lying on a mat as Wilai Johnson twisted my body into what I think might have been a figure-four leglock (a pro wrestling move, for those not in the know). She had spent the previous hour pulling and stretching me into various positions like a petite Dick the Bruiser. But she was not trying to bind me into submission but, rather, to loosen up my sore, tight muscles. Thus, I received my introduction to the art of Thai massage.

When most people think of massage, I’m sure they imagine a room with dim lights and New Age music gently emanating from a Bose speaker in the corner while a masseuse named Sven or Hilda slowly rubs their shoulders and back. I’ve gotten a few of these types of massages over the years, but Thai massage is an entirely different beast. Thai massage practitioners not only use their hands, but they also use their feet, knees, elbows, and more to stretch and bend your body.

Wilai learned the practice from her grandmother in her native Thailand. Growing up, she lived in a small village with few roads and no electricity. Her grandparents were the village healers, helping their neighbors with various ailments, including sore bodies from working in the fields.

When Wilai was older, she learned additional techniques at the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai, where she later became a teacher herself. Wilai hit it off with a traveling Hoosier, who brought her to Indianapolis to both visit and teach. In Indy, she met her husband Dave Johnson, who, until his recent semi-retirement, practiced the Polynesian lomilomi style of massage. The pair now operate their studio from their beautiful home near Castleton, where I was greeted and ushered into a mindfully sparse room with a fairly standard massage table and a mat on the floor.

After I changed into loose-fitting pants, Wilai entered. Before starting our session, she said a short prayer to Shivago Komparaj, the founder of Thai massage, who is said to have been a friend and personal doctor to Buddha more than a millennium ago. Many clients come in merely for bodywork, but there’s a spiritual element, as well.

Wilai keyed in on “energy points,” using her appendages like acupuncturists use needles. After being drawn into deeper and deeper stretches, I began to understand why Thai massage is sometimes called “lazy person’s yoga.” With her decades of experience, Wilai knew exactly how much pressure to use as she forced my body into opposing directions without me shrieking.

That’s not to say the experience was pleasant. But it’s what you might call a “good pain.” Afterward, Dave had me hop onto the massage table, where he used a traditional wood mallet to further loosen my muscles. With each strike, I felt like a dilapidated midcentury modern house on HGTV that needs a remodel to become livable again.

Wilai gave me homework: a few stretches to keep my back and shoulders from tightening up again. Walking back to my car, my body felt more limber. And that night, I slept better than I had in ages.

Aloha-Sawasdee By appointment. 20-minute to two-hour sessions. $60-150. 317-985-7940