To Joy Dunning, LMP, everything is alive.

Growing up in Northern Thailand, she was very close with her grandmother, who was the village healer. She taught Dunning the power of holistic healing and wellness and introduced the concept that everything in the world has energy and, thus, value. So, after attending college in the U.S., Dunning returned to Asia to spend more time with her aging grandmother and began studying Thai massage. Later, back in America, Dunning learned to practice western massage too and subsequently designed a hybrid system, incorporating techniques from both schools of healing.

Here, Dunning shares a bit of her grandmother’s wisdom and explains why finding the courage to do something that scares her makes her happy:

Live The Process: How were wellness and healing reflected in your childhood, culturally and otherwise?

Joy Dunning: I grew up in Thailand in a village called, Nan, which is on the border of Laos. Nan is in a beautiful part of Thailand, surrounded by lush jungles and rolling hills. I come from a very big family and my grandmother, Yai, was the center of all our lives. We had a special connection because, out of her eleven grandchildren, I was the only daughter from a daughter. She was a tiny woman with long, gray hair that she wore in a bun, and she just emanated wisdom and power. She is the first person who got me interested in healing and wellness because she was deeply spiritual. She believed that everything has a spirit. One of my first memories is of her showing me that everything is alive and has value, be it rocks, trees, temples, animals or people. She taught me this by having me hold my hand close to objects to feel that everything that exists gives off energy.

As I grew older, I came to understand that Yai was the village healer. She would make special soups out of plants and herbs for different ailments: to help a new mother start lactating, stop a cough, lower a fever or cure a headache. She made balms for aches, pains and rashes. Yai was one of those people who did not make small talk; she only said something when it was important. But one thing she often said to me was that one must stay in balance because, only then, could energy flow through. She was adamant that she was merely a vessel for healing energy to flow through.

LTP: Was there a point in your wellness journey when you realized that you wanted to make healing and massage your life’s work?

JD: After I graduated from college in Southern California, I moved back to Thailand. Yai was close to ninety years old then and I wanted to be closer to her. I started studying Thai massage and its history. The challenge of the technique and the depth of spirituality and ritual behind the art made it fascinating to me. I began to understand, on a personal level, the things that Yai had said to me as I grew up.

Thai massage has been described as “the lazy person’s yoga” because, during a treatment, the recipient relaxes on a mat on the floor (fully clothed) and receives a full body stretch. The Buddha’s physician, Shivago Komarpaj, developed it over 2,500 years ago. Thai massage differs from western deep tissue massage because of its use of the body’s energy system, known as Sen lines. There are 72,000 Sen (or energy) lines on the frame of the physical body. The Sen lines correspond with Chinese acupuncture points and Indian Ayurvedic energy channels.

One of the things that I love about Thai massage is that I never feel like I have “mastered” it. There is always more to learn, or I will take a course from a teacher who does things I have never seen before or I will watch another practitioner and just be inspired and amazed. I think it is similar to a yoga practice in that way; there is always a deeper and more challenging level that you can go to with it.

I have been studying Thai massage since 2000 and I opened my current practice, Sirin, in 2004. While I was in massage school, I remember one of our teachers telling us that statistically an average massage therapist only stays in the field for four years. It can be a physically and emotionally demanding job. I have found those aspects of the profession to be a positive thing. I am constantly renegotiating my boundaries. I have to keep my own body and spirit in check in order to give a good massage, and the most important thing to me is that I have energy when I come home to my kids.

LTP: What drew you specifically to massage and what makes your philosophy and practice different than others?

JD: What drew me to massage in general is that I love having the opportunity to connect with people in a meaningful way. In the years that I have practiced massage, I find that there are more things that make us similar than separate us. When we’re relaxed and lying down, we are all vulnerable and childlike. Whether a person is a professional athlete, a businessman, a housewife, a student—whatever—they all have the same desire to be free from pain and to be treated in a kind and loving way. Thai massage has been described to me as “the practical expression of loving kindness.” What drew me to it is that it is like a dance or a meditation in motion. It has helped me to maintain a balance in my life. It’s a very physical massage and so I have had to stay in good physical shape in order to give it. It also requires a stillness and concentration, like in meditation, because you have to feel where the energy lines are flowing and where they are blocked. When I moved to Seattle from Thailand in 2003, I studied western massage. Learning anatomy added depth to my Thai massage. Since then, I have created a hybrid technique, combining Thai and western massage.

I did not set out with the intention of working specifically with athletes, but over the years they have become my primary clientele. I believe it is because, to be a successful athlete, you need to have a healthy body. That is attained through a healthy lifestyle with balance, and Thai massage is all about restoring the balance in the body. But I work with all types of people and, during the football season, I work with the Seattle Seahawks. As you know, we won the Super Bowl this year!

LTP: What’s your personal wellness regimen—yoga practice, nutrition, beauty or otherwise?

JD: I have two kids, so what I consider wellness right now and what I considered wellness pre-children is very different. What I really enjoy about having kids is that sometimes being unbalanced is actually balance. For example, the other day after dinner my kids wanted to watch a movie with me, and I happily chose to do that instead of all the chores that “needed” to be done. It took me years of fighting the urge to get everything organized and finished before I finally let go of my former self, and since then I have been a much happier and more present mom.

Now that my kids are older, I have more time to do things for myself, so I take a weekly yoga class, dance class and I go running. I get a facial and a massage once a month and, during the football season, I bump up receiving a massage to once a week because I give so many during those months.

LTP: What advice would you offer someone who is interested in healing and remaining limber, but doesn’t know where to begin?

JD: Many massage therapists have their bios online to read and you can call them and ask them what type of massage they practice and what their philosophy is. I talk to all of my clients before I work on them so that we get a feel for each other. It’s important to feel comfortable with your massage therapist. I find that often my first session with a client is about building trust. Thai massage in particular is an excellent way of staying limber. It is amazing how much further a person can stretch when they are not using their own muscle energy to do it.

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

JD: I always leave work happy; I care so much about my clients and what I do. I love being around my friends and family. My kids and I laugh all the time and that makes me very happy. I am happiest when I am scared of doing something and I do it anyway, when I am of service and live for something bigger than myself, when I am present, when I am grateful for what I have right now and when I surrender to trust that all is going exactly as it should.

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how do you do that every day?

JD: To me, living the process is “being nice to that nice girl.” This is something that a friend said to me years ago when I was being particularly hard on myself. She said, “be nice to that nice girl!” Ever since then, I think it to myself all the time and say it to my family and friends. When I extend kindness to myself first, it overflows into kindness for everything and everyone else around me.

Written and Published by Live the Process