Work can mold me into the shape of a frightened turtle. My shoulders rotate forward. My neck lowers and perches in front of my chest. My back rounds. You...

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Work can mold me into the shape of a frightened turtle. My shoulders rotate forward. My neck lowers and perches in front of my chest. My back rounds. You know, the computer-staring position. Add a little stress to cement the pose, and there you have it.

When I get like this, I realize I’ve forgotten to stretch, let alone in a thoughtful way. I’ve even forgotten how to relax. Sometimes, I follow a yoga DVD. Sometimes I seek a massage to work out the kinks. But mostly, I convince myself I have no time to be so passive and charge ahead.

A few months ago, I heard about Thai yoga massage. What’s this, I thought? Yoga and massage at the same time? Why not?

So I went to see Hiu-Hung “Grace” Phong, who owns Graceful Massage ( in Bellevue. She is a veteran practitioner who trained in Thailand and administered the therapy in her homeland of China before coming to Seattle in 2001.

Mind-body connection

“It’s holistic bodywork,” said Phong. “It’s not just stretching. It’s about the connection between the mind and body. The structure of the body can affect the emotional side. It’s about breathing, touch, sensation and stretching. Many people don’t stretch and many who do don’t do it correctly. In America, many people approach stretching like achievement.”

Thai yoga massage, while relatively unknown in the U.S., is about 2,500 years old.

While Phong says the shortcut description of “yoga for lazy people” is apt enough, she notes that the bodywork therapy that was developed in Buddhist temples and by Indian ayurvedic doctors has a strong spiritual component to it. But I was interested in the physical side — and prefer the notion of “active massage” to “lazy yoga.”

And, in fact, Phong helped me achieve yogalike stretching and calmness through hands-on direction and manipulation. You sometimes must accept your limbs being put into challenging stretches. (Because the therapist works with what the customer needs — and should ask about limitations before starting — nearly everyone can do it.)

The actual practice

Through much of it, I lay fully clothed and prone on a floor mat, closed my eyes and focused on my breathing as she used her palms, fingers, thumbs, forearms, knees and feet to knead, push and apply acupressure to my “Sen” line, a channel of energy the Thai believe flows through the body and which roughly corresponds with the Chinese concept of chi.

Phong is a slight woman, but used leverage and clever angles to gently twist, pull and stretch my body into angles. At various points along my body, she cut off blood flow for 30 to 40 seconds so fresh blood would flow into areas she had worked on.

The giver and receiver must have faith in each other, and Phong was good about letting me know what she was about to do so I wasn’t spooked by the newness to me of her techniques.

She seemed careful in gauging my range of motion, which was good. Some of the twisting movements sound scary and take a little faith, like the one in which she put one of her feet in the small of my back as she pulled my bottom arm and my top leg behind me as I lay on my side. She calls it “the bag” because my body was forming a “U.” She was gentle and efficient. I had certainly never stretched that way before.

With “elephant palms,” she leaned over and placed the weight of her palms as she moved up and down my back. Eventually, I was sitting cross-legged while she pulled my arms behind my body to help me open my chest. Throughout the entire exercise, she always seemed to have a hand touching me, to, in her words, keep the connection. It was, in a way, her way of saying, relax.

“In America everyone is all about achievement,” she said. “So some people think, ‘If I can put my leg above my head I will be happy.’ But Thai yoga massage is a more soft way, it’s more about joy than achievement.”

She ended the session with a short prayer, which reminded me that the practice is not all about the body. She charged $100 for the 90-minute session, reminding me that that kind of work is not free. And I stood straighter and felt looser for several days after the session, which reminded me that the fee was worth it, and I need to pay more attention to my body more often.

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or