I love trying out local, authentic treatments when travelling. Whilst staying in Kerala in India for my yoga teacher training in April this year, I was able to experience a very different kind of ‘foot massage’, the Chavutti Thirumal. In this massage, the therapist uses the feet instead of the hands.
What is this different kind of foot massage?
This unique massage with the feet is truly an inseparable part of Keralan Tradition. Chavutti Thirumal literally means foot pressure in the Malayalam language. It is also know as ‘foot massage’ or ‘Indian rope massage’. That is because the therapist holds on to a rope attached above the massage area (typically a firm and supportive floor mattress, similar to the one used for Traditional Thai massage) for balancing. Using his or her body weight to different degrees, the therapist slides one foot over the patient’s body, whilst balancing on the other foot.
This traditional massage technique was developed by the Kalari Martial Artists some 2000 years ago as one of several healing methods, like the said foot massage, a Marma massage, and the application of herbal oils and ointments.
They used these methods to heal from battle wounds, as well as prepare the warrior’s bodies for battle. This powerful and strong therapy is based on the knowledge of nadis and marmas, the energy channels and vital points of the subtle body.
Dr. Unni’s Agastyaa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital
I had my treatment in Kovalam Beach in Kerala at Dr. Unni’s Agastayaa Heritage Ayurvedic Hospital. This government approved institute provides full Ayurvedic Cures with a clinic, a hotel, restaurant, yoga etc. They also have global branch offices in Denmark, Sweden, and Russia.
I just walked in for my treatment, the entire process (CheckIn/Out etc) was pretty efficient, the facility is simple yet pleasant, with an interesting architecture. As there is no artificial air conditioning, the facility was built in such a way, that walls and roofs provide gaps for air to breeze through as a way of natural cooling system.
She danced on my body
Today, Chavutti is offered to everyone, you do not have to be a martial art warrior to enjoy this therapy. And after two long weeks of full-day yoga teacher training, I felt it was time for me to restore my body’s elasticity with a traditional foot massage. (The main focus of the treatment is to increase flexibility.)
My therapist took me to my room, asked me to undress and made me sit on a little stool for a traditional head, scalp, neck and shoulder massage.
After her little ritual (she sang an opening prayer for me whilst holding the oil in her palm like an offering), she applied oil to my head, neck and shoulders and gave me a good rub.
Then she asked me to lie down on a floor mattress. She generously applied warm and heavy Ayurvedic oil all over my body, what turned out to be a pretty slippery affair on the waterproof floor mattress.
The actual foot massage started with my therapist straddling my back whilst holding on to the rope above her head, attached to the ceiling. She would stand on one foot and use the instep of the other foot to slide along my Meridian energy lines in somewhat relaxing, yet powerful strokes. Every few strokes she would change the feet and repeat the exact same pattern with the other foot on the opposite side on my body, hence balancing the sequence delicately. I could clearly identify the Ida and Pingala approach.
I loved the long strokes, that sometimes went all the way from my toes to my fingertips and back. At times she also used her heels or toes for more local pressure on a smaller area.
However this kind of foot massage did not feel primarily relaxing. That is not the main purpose. I almost had to work hard ‘with’ the therapist, holding my limbs in a certain angle at times, or focussing hard on my breathing. Due to the powerful strokes, my entire body would rock back and forth, or sideways. It felt like the therapist danced on my body. It was clearly a performing art of aesthetic and symbolic human movement, that I was able to ‘watch’ with my body instead of my eyes.
The Good and The Bad: Dancing or Kicking?
Actually I had repeat experiences for this kind of massage, that differed greatly from one another.
Whilst the treatment performed by an experienced therapist can be super pleasant and beneficial, it can just be as bad when performed by an untrained or inexperienced person. Besides anatomy knowledge, the therapist needs good coordination, focused concentration and strength applied in the right dose.
My negative experience included the application of the wrong pressure, which was very painful on joints like the elbows and neck. Besides I felt rushed, the therapist was more ‘kicking’ me than ‘dancing’ on me. It felt like she did not know about (or did not pay attention to) proper muscle and bone alignment. Which actually resulted in some neck and back pain the next day.
When to (not) get a Chavutti Thirumal
I don’t think this is the ideal treatment for massage novices. A more gentle general massage with hands may be more suitable for beginners to get used to being massaged.
You may also not like the fact that there is no space for embarrassment. You are literally letting your pants down, for example when you separate your feet wide to give the therapist space to slide along your inner thighs.
I felt great after my Chavutti Massage, with all my little aches and pains from too many sun salutations and leg raises vanished. I felt subtle and relaxed the next day, ready for more yoga challenges.
Yet as mentioned above, it pays to do some research as to with which institute and therapist you want to trust to have your Chavutti Thirumal.
Have you had this foot massage? Love to hear from your experience!