1. Tell us a bit more about you and your practice as it is today? i.e. are you a solo practitioner or a business owner? If solo, what kind of an establishment do you work for, how large is it, what is the clientele like, what is the specialty offered? If it is a business that you own, kindly include the same time of relevant information that will give the reader a good idea about your establishment/practice. Please also include where you live and work?
For the last five years, I’ve owned a private practice as a sole practitioner in San Diego. Before moving here, I had a private practice in Huntsville Alabama for three years. I have years of experience working in hair salons, day spas, wellness centers, in a physical therapy office, and even out of a back room in a bookstore.
My specialty is helping clients find relief from pain, but I also work with clients who have a lot of stress in their lives and just want to relax. My office is set up and designed to help the client relax once they get into the door- even for someone who is coming in for pain relief, it makes my work even easier if they can relax a little before we even begin the session. I live in San Diego and my office is located on the border of the Little Italy and Mission Hills neighborhoods near the downtown airport.
2. Tell us why you chose to go into massage and at what point in your life did you decide to do so? What were you doing at the time? Where did you first hear about the massage career? What factors influenced your decision? What were you looking to get out of this decision?
In my early 20’s I gave away my things and went off on a four year journey hitchhiking and camping and living outside. This was basically a time of self exploration. I traveled around the states, Mexico, the Bahamas, and Venezuela with hardly any money. During this time, every winter, I hitched down to Key West, Florida because it didn’t really get below 68F and at the time, it was legal and easy to camp in the forested areas on that little island.
One winter I met a fellow who owned a massage business in Virginia and he told me all about his massage education and what his work was like. It sounded very interesting. Although I was still in traveling mode, I never forgot the things he told me. That was the first I had ever heard of someone who was a massage therapist. Growing up in the south in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the only thing I ever knew about massage was that rich people got them at fancy resorts.
A few years later, after 5 months hitchhiking around in Venezuela, I realized I wanted to own a sailboat, but selling handmade crochet hats and bags on the streets (which is how I earned my money) wasn’t going to cut it. My mom had offered to pay for me to have an education and learn a trade, so when I returned to the states, I remembered the massage therapist and my mom and I started looking around for a good massage school.
I felt that if would be a good choice for me because I’ve had experience building cabins, carving stone, and of course, the crochet- so I was good with using my hands. And then I had an interest in healing and health, during my travels, I studied using plants as medicine and meditation. Massage seemed to encompass both using the hands and healing, so it really appealed to me.
We found a school that was recommended by a nurse who worked at the local hospital. It was located just outside Nashville in a town called Hendersonville. The owner of the school was a graduate of a well known massage school in Nashville, but felt that the school didn’t teach enough, so she started her own school.
It was a process to get into the program, I had to write an essay of why I wanted to go to massage school and when that was approved, my mom and I drove up to the school for an in-person interview with the owner. The owner cleared me to join the school and so I moved up there and worked waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms to pay my living expenses, but I was fortunate my mom paid for the program itself.
At that time though, my plan was to graduate massage school, and use my massage income to save money to purchase a sailboat. It wasn’t until after I graduated massage school at age 26 and started working in the field, that I realized I wanted to learn more and slowly I lost interest in the boat and instead, became more interested in my work.
3. What were some of your questions and concerns before further pursuing your massage therapy goals? Talk about concerns with school and the profession itself.
I was very fortunate, the school where I went had a decent program, it was great for an introduction into the field of massage. They required you complete anatomy/physiology, kinesiology, pathology, and pharmacology before you could take a hands on class. The first hands on class everyone had to take was Swedish, from there you could learn whatever modalities interested you most. I also took sports, neuromuscular therapy, and a level 1 shiatsu class.
The school had an excellent business class that was taught by the owner of the school. For many of the classes, there would be guest speakers- for instance, for the pathology class, she had a woman come in who had an HIV infection that had developed into AIDS to talk about how the disease affected her life and how receiving massage really helped her cope with the stress.
Because of my previous travel experiences, I have to say that I was very confident that I would do well with this work. It really seemed like a good fit for me. So, I didn’t have a lot of fears about doing well or that I had made the right choice. At the time, my mind was focused on doing what I needed for my sailboat!
4. What is your specialty and what are the top three contributing factors to your success today?
My specialty is helping people find relief from chronic pain and injuries. The path I took in my continuing education plays a large role in my success today I’ve studied under some great names such as John Barnes, Tom Myers, Eric Dalton, Michael Young, James Waslaski. I am a certified orthopedic massage therapist via Whitney Lowe’s OMERI (Orthopedic Massage Education & Research Institute) which means that when a client comes into my office with an orthopedic condition, I know what it is and which techniques may be useful and which may aggravate.
Going through that program was what really helped set me apart from other massage therapists. He also teaches clinical reasoning, which is something that is not taught in massage schools. Learning dermoneuromodulation (DNM), a technique based in neuroscience created by Diane Jacobs, and also the two year Feldenkrais training I completed made a huge difference in how I work with my clients. I would say that although I appreciate all my education, DNM, orthopedic massage, and Feldenkrais are the three most powerful modalities for me in my work so far.
Another reason for my success is that I have a good understanding of customer service. It’s important to keep the session focused on the client- they are paying for my services because there is something I have they feel like they need. When I hear so often other massage therapists say they give the kind of massage they would want someone to give to them, I can guarantee they probably aren’t very busy in their practice.
Many of my clients have shared with me their complaints about other massage therapists. What I hear mostly is, the therapist didn’t listen to what they wanted and the therapist talked too much during the session. Just the other day, a friend was relating a massage experience where the therapist not only talked the whole time, but actually interrupted the session to have my client sit up and look at some before and after photos to market some face cream! It’s so important to keep the focus centered on the client, from the moment they walk into the door, when they are on the table and the moment they walk out.
And, I can’t discount my experiences traveling, that is what helped shape who I am today. I was very shy before I went traveling and had to learn to speak up to sell my hats or I wouldn’t eat. When people gave me a lift while hitchhiking, they did so for company and to talk to someone, I had to learn how to talk to strangers and people with conflicting personalities who I may not normally include in my sphere of friends. My experiences meeting so many people in the world and learning how to communicate with them set me up to be able to communicate with the variety of personalities who come into my office.
5. What do you like about your specialty? What do you like about what you do in general as a career? Why?
It goes without saying that I what I love most is being able to help people find relief from pain that has been keeping them from sleeping, walking, working, from exercise, limiting their movements, etc. I love seeing the client who first comes in to see me with a lot of shoulder tension, can’t turn their head, and suffers regular headaches and then over time, seeing their shoulders naturally become relaxed, they can move better, they no longer experience headaches.
Their faces are no longer pinched and unhappy. I have hundreds of stories similar to that one, I feel fulfilled in my work that I know I’m making a difference in helping people feel better. When people aren’t in pain, or are in less pain, and moving better- they live better and in turn, treat their neighbors better. I know it sounds kind of “hippy like” but, in general, when people feel good, they are good to the world.
I enjoy meeting different people and also running my own business. People come into my office happy to see me, I’ve worked in other jobs in the service industry and I would say that I am very spoiled by the way people perceive me in this job. No one is grumpy to see their massage therapist!
6. What do you not like about what you do? Why?
Of course I’m human, so sometimes I might feel like I don’t want to work or get frazzled when I accidentally forget to schedule my lunch break. Or that rare client who may be a difficult personality and it’s tough keeping a neutral tone and behavior when working with them. Or when I have to clean my office when I don’t feel up to it. Little things like that, but as a whole, there isn’t anything that I specifically can say I “don’t like”.
7. If there were three things you could change about your work or the industry as a whole what would they be? Why would you change them? What would you change them to?
One thing I find really disappointing is the lack of critical thinking in my profession. There are colleagues who believe essential oils can align the spinal vertebrae or certain massage techniques can cure diabetes or other such nonsense. It’s upsetting when massage therapists won’t examine science at all and instead attribute what they see in their practices to be magical powers or superstitions.
Although there is much we don’t understand about massage in particular, there is enough research and evidence out there to explain many of what massage therapists like to attribute to magical thinking. I don’t think this is something that is only found in the field of massage, but I think that it would better serve our profession if we did include more critical thinking in massage school.
Often, I see my colleagues falling for the ionic foot baths, bio-mats, oxygenated water, and other kinds of things that are scams. And what is worse is when they sell these things to the public under the umbrella of our profession.
I would like to see some realism brought into massage education. Being a massage therapist requires an emotional maturity that many just aren’t prepared for when they graduate from massage school. I think schools should do a better job at weeding out the students who would not do well in this field. I once taught massage classes at a vocational school for a short time and this school was accepting students in the program who did not have the right kind of personality for the job.
For example, one of the students had anger management issues for which he wasn’t seeking help and would burst into fits in the classroom. Boundaries are a crucial part of running a successful business, yet schools don’t teach them well. You are in a room with a naked person laying on your table, they will share with you their fears, hopes, and dreams. You have to learn to separate yourself from that and not get wrapped up in trying to counsel them or be their friend.
Boundaries are very important in this work and ignoring them will leave you tired and burned out in a short time. As a massage therapist, you have to know how to listen to people without giving them advice on how to work out their problems, put their needs first in the treatment room (that is what they are paying for!), and learn that passing gas and touching feet are a normal part of the work.
Many schools are just thinking about making money and aren’t up front about the difficulties and requirements that massage entails. They lure in students with claims of making loads of money doing easy work and many are quite disillusioned when they graduate and get out into world.
And I would love to have more public awareness about the separation of professional massage from prostitution. In my city in Alabama there was a law that if a person used the word “massage” in their advertising, and they were not a licensed professional massage therapist, then that person could be fined. This helped prevent escort services from using the same kind of language professional massage therapists use and from confusing the public.
Every year, an inspector came around my office without warning and checked to make sure I had all my paperwork, the office was clean, and I was offering legitimate services. Here in southern CA, where prostitution is much more prominent and rampant, they don’t do anything to help differentiate the two.
No body ever checks anyone’s business to see if they are offering legitimate services and there are no laws to help the public know how to tell the difference. I’ve met so many people here in San Diego who complain they would like to get a massage, but don’t know how to tell if they are legitimate or not. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by our local and state governments and our massage associations.
8. How long do you plan to practice and what do you plan to do after?
Well, I’ve been practicing full time now for almost 16 years. I am planning on working another 10 years at least, but I would like to start cutting back my full time schedule to part time. I’m working on projects that are related to my field but don’t require as much physical work.
9. Do you currently have another job or business whether full time or part time? Tell us a bit more about it and how you are able to juggle that with your massage career?
I’ve learned a great deal over the years and would like to share my knowledge to help my colleagues be successful, so I’m working on developing a small business consulting company to help massage business owners with marketing, client retention, and basic business running skills.
I’ve also started a company called San Diego Pain Summit and have been bringing continuing education classes that are based on current theories of pain science. I’m organizing the first San Diego Pain Summit conference in 2015, and Professor Lorimer Moseley, a famous clinical neuroscientist and physiotherapist from Australia, will be the keynote speaker.
To work on both the consulting business and the San Diego Pain Summit, I schedule several hours each morning to work on these things. I’m an early riser, so give myself plenty of time before starting work at the office, which I take the first client at 10am. I also use strategy to help manage the best of my time, leaving the weekends and vacation time off limits for working.
10. What are some mistakes you made in your career pursuit that you’d like to warn other students about so they can learn from your experience and avoid it?
Definitely set some boundaries for self care. This includes adequate lunch breaks, breaks between clients, and vacation time away from massage work. Strength training or other exercise programs (pick something you enjoy) can help stay fit. It’s a common misconception that we are fit and strong because we work all day moving around a table and using our hands and arms. Nothing could be further from the truth- we are mostly in a flexed position all day and since we use our body weight to apply pressure, we aren’t doing anything to build strength. Develop interests outside of massage to keep life interesting!
Finding a mentor can be really helpful. If you are a member of the AMTA, they offer that service for free. Or join a group of massage therapists. It is normal to deal with the occasional creepy client and/or the client who tries to take advantage of you by making you work more than you would normally or try and take advantage of your promotions or fees. So it can be helpful to know the experiences of other massage therapists and how they have handled these situations.
A big mistake can be to discount technology in your practice. Things like accepting credit cards, having a website (yes, there are still hundreds of business owners out there without a website!), online scheduling, etc. can really help the business move smoothly and successfully. Massage therapists should at least give those things a try before immediately thinking they won’t help or that their business runs fine without them. I used to think the same thing and technology has helped me to become busier and organize my time better.
11. What would you advice someone who is looking at massage therapy schools? What do you recommend they look for and how? How do you recommend they determine whether the school is the right one for them?
The school should be accredited by the state and their program should be accepted by whatever requirements are put out by that state’s massage licensing board. The prospective student can contact the state licensing board to ask for a copy of their requirements of hours and then check that against the program of the school.
Never take the school’s word for it that they are properly accredited- always double check the information yourself. When that checks out, the school should have a strong base in anatomy/physiology, business, pathology, and other science based programs. I would avoid any program that had a lot of energy work type classes, aura reading or other.
There definitely needs to be a business class, even if you don’t plan on running your own practice. I didn’t either when I graduated, and this is my second business! You still want to know what it means to be an Independent Contractor and the difference between that and an employee. Often, spas and other places will take advantage of massage therapists by treating them as employees, yet calling them independent contractors. Massage businesses get in big trouble with the IRS for that.
The school should have a requirement for hands on time in a clinic that serves the public. This is one of the best ways to be prepared before graduating. Working on friends and family doesn’t really count. Putting time in a center where you deal with strangers is much more effective for learning. The school needs a placement program. Are they going to help you find a job? How?
12. What do you recommend for someone who wants to go to massage school but cannot afford it?
I was very fortunate my mom paid for my massage education. If you don’t have family who can help you, try getting a loan from a bank. Many schools, such as the one I graduated, have payment plans and that may be helpful. Although my school was a one year program, I took two years to complete it because I had to work full time to afford living expenses. So that is another option, to drag out the program to fit your payment.
Another option is to check for government grants, there is money for people who quit smoking, who are single parents, etc. You just have to do some sleuthing to find them. Years ago, you would go to the main branch of the public library where they had thick books listing this information. These days you may be able to find all the info online. But I would still check with the library, that info was available for free, whereas online, they may charge a fee.
13. What are your three biggest points of advice for an aspiring massage therapist today? What should they do/not do? What should they think about and consider?
An aspiring massage therapist should definitely get a few massages from various types of places and see if this is the right kind of career choice for them. Do not expect to make a lot of money, but you should be able to make a living wage. Some massage therapists make $100K+ a year, but generally they have supplemental income or they are working with very wealthy or in professional sports. Most massage therapists will not have those kinds of jobs.
When first graduating, don’t expect to have your dream job, it’s nice if it happens, but you will have to refine your skills and learn the ropes before moving up into a position that you really want. Just like with any job, you kind of take what you can get until you have the experience to get what you want. Also, it can be helpful to get as much massage practice under your belt as possible. For example, rather than working a non-related job and massage as part time, how about working multiple part time massage jobs if a full time job can’t be found right away?
14. Any open thoughts / comments – anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, the massage industry, profession, future, etc? If nothing, make one prediction for the future of massage?
The future of massage is unclear. We are at a major crossroads- some massage therapists want to be part of the healthcare system and are demanding better education, while others are fine with minimal education and don’t want to participate in rigorous training programs. There are many political issues amongst the various massage associations.
It seems this profession is either in upheaval or headed for it. We are still trying to define ourselves to the public and define what massage is amongst ourselves! For instance, there is a lot of disagreement over what techniques like “deep tissue” really mean.
There are many techniques being taught that have no basis in reality and definitely no basis in science and yet we are supporting them in our schools and continuing education. There’s a real problem when massage therapists are telling their clients that massage “flushes toxins from the body”, “massage spreads cancer”, “massaging the ankles of a pregnant woman will cause her to miscarry”, or any of the many myths that have since been disproved, yet they are still being taught in massage school.
It all may sound depressing, but it’s an exciting time because who knows what the future will hold. I’m very happy with my choice working as a massage therapist, but I’m also aware of the many limitations and problems within the profession. Fortunately, there are many leaders who are showing themselves on social media platforms to help guide massage therapists to improve critical thinking and clinical reasoning skills so that we may grow as a profession.
15.What is your passion outside of massage? What are your hobbies and interests which you pursue when you are not working? Tell us why you enjoy what you enjoy.
I really enjoy being outdoors and do a lot of hiking, being outside in the natural world really helps keep me rejuvenated. I’m an amateur birder, avid reader of non-fiction, love watching movies, eating good food, wine tasting, picnicking, traveling, and meeting people.
I also provide writing and photography content for the web page of a travel magazine- it’s not a lot of paid work, but I really enjoy it. I wrote a book about my experiences hitchhiking titled Travels With A Road Dog: Hitchhiking Along The Roads Of The Americas, it was finally published in 2012.
Rajam Roose is a Holistic Health Practitioner (HHP) and a Certified Orthopedic Massage Therapist. You can reach Rajam on her website here.