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Can Thai massage deepen your yoga practice?

As a dedicated ashtanga yogi, my hamstrings are twin rubber bands: I can wrap my arms around my straightened calves, and fold in two like croissant dough.

But lotus? Not so much. If I so much as think about sitting in the yogi’s peaceful resting pose, my right hip tightens, my knee buckles, and my back aches in anticipatory rebellion.

Yoga sans lotus is like tennis with no serve, at least for me. So when I heard that Thai massage—often referred to as passive yoga—could transform me into Gumby, I found a therapist, Kirsten Summa, who specializes in helping yogis and signed up for a series of sessions. Our relationship became almost like a physical therapist and client. I was patient with the results because I felt so terrific after each session, and I felt like I was moving toward my goal, however elusive.

Session 1
I’m usually skeptical of any massage that doesn’t involve oils and deep knot work. But Kirsten Summa, a high-spirited wunderkind (she’s just 21-years-old) who earned her certification in Bangkok’s famous Wat Po temple, assures me that Thai massage doesn’t just stretch the muscles—it also heals them, by freeing up energy blockages along the body’s meridians (or qi channels). When I get to her spartan office that she shares with Alive & Well Chiropractic, I change into shorts and a t-shirt, and hop on the futon.

Kirsten Summa
Summa received her training at Wat Po, the Harvard of Thai massage in Thailand

Kirsten props my left leg onto a long, tubular pillow. She pushes three fingers on the inner arch of my foot, then up along my inner calf, until she reaches the inside of my knee. Then she returns back along the same line. In some spots it feels neutral, in others it’s tender. She proceeds to the upper part of my leg, then moves to the other leg. That’s all there is to it, I think, until, Ouch! She reaches a spot along my gall bladder meridian, apparently, and it’s a doozy.

Kirsten finds a pulse at the juncture of my hip and thigh. She holds it for 40 seconds and I feel a pleasant, painless constriction. She lets go, and there’s a warm rush of blood along my leg all the way to my feet. I’m starting to feel spacey. Kirsten instructs me to turn on my side. “Feel free to drop off,” she drones like a hypnotist, and within seconds, I’m asleep—a first during a massage.

The next thing I know, Kirsten’s pulling on my wrists, rocking me from lying to seated, and back down. It’s a a glorious counter-stretch for the backbends I’d been doing earlier in yoga. As we complete our session, she asks me to do a lotus. I pull my left foot easily into my right thigh. My right foot, as usual, refuses to go above the left knee.

Session 2
After today’s massage, Kirsten diagnoses my stiffness as a tightness in the right thigh and lower back instead of a hip issue. She adjusts the basic Thai routine to accommodate those areas. She also shortens the routine so we can try a few aggressive yoga stretches. I sit in easy pose (Indian style), and Kirsten firmly pushes my torso over my legs. The first time, my head stops at chest level. The next time, it goes down to the belly button. Despite Kirsten’s diagnosis, my right hip screams. We intensify our pace to two sessions a week: a 4-hour commitment a week.

Sessions 3 & 4
I’m still falling asleep at every session, and still feeling great afterward. The lotus is making progress. I’m hopeful.

Assisted Thai massage twist
Many Thai massage moves resemble yoga poses

Session 5
At the end of the session, Kirsten says, “Let me see your lotus.” I pull my left foot onto my right thigh, then quickly slide my right foot onto my left ankle. It’s not a perfect lotus, and not anything I can hold for long, but it’s a lotus all the same. Kirsten gives me a high five. We’re laughing. “You did it,” says Kirsten. “Next we’re tackling splits!”

At the next yoga class, my teacher notices the difference. “It’s hot today, isn’t it?” she says, implying that the climate is responsible for my new pliability. I smile serenely, thinking that after 10 years of practice, I’m finally doing ashtanga the way it was intended.

Session 6
The victory turns out to be short-lived. I’m in a half lotus, and Kirsten is easing me forward. Crack! Bang! cries my knee. It doesn’t hurt, but the sound scares me into sitting up straight. Judging from the redness and slight swelling, I pulled a ligament in the outer part of my right knee. Kirsten, a former dancer, is nonchalant. We pushed you, and your body pushed back, she says. She hands me a Thai massage tool, an L-shaped wooden implement, and instructs me to rest, ice, elevate, and apply the tool to the ligament to soften it. It’ll be all right, she assures me.

Session 11
For the past five sessions, we’ve been taking things easy. The crackle of my knee that day has scared me into taking things easier on the stretches. I can still dip lower than before in easy pose. My knee is slowly healing. But lotus is on pause again—for now.

Yes, my new-found lotus has temporarily retreated, but I feel Thai massage is helping me work with my body, and not push so hard against it. Which is really what yoga’s all about, inside and outside the studio. — Jean Tang

Kirsten Summa, L.M.T., 567 3rd Avenue (at 38th St), 914-224-1827; The 2-hour Thai massage typically costs $180 but is currently $115 until December 15, 2010