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hercules-hydraMassage Therapy in the United States, is in a state of accelerated change, conflict and chaos. Up until 2008 I had been living in a vacuum having a very definitive idea of what massage therapy was, and assumed everyone, for the most part, was approaching it the same way I was taught to, and had been. In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to share with high level massage therapy professionals from all over the United States and beyond… and I would like to share the information I have assimilated, along with my unique historical perspective, and my opinion.

Where I am coming from: I went to Massage Therapy School at the “Harvard of Massage Schools” the Boulder School of Massage Therapy in 1990. I studied there for 2 years. While I was there, I was taught a great deal of science, ethics, bodywork, theory and holistic principles. The school had an emphasis on holism, and taught us that what we were thinking or feeling as we touched our clients would impact the quality of our touch, and what our clients would feel. For example, if I was thinking of the meatloaf I was going to make for dinner during my session, the client would feel I was not present. If I was thinking that my client had cellulite, the client would pick up on my judgmental energy. If I was thinking my client was attractive and I wanted to date him, my client may have a feeling of being violated or aroused. Made sense to me so I became vigilant over my thoughts when I worked, and did my best to stay present.

I had some instructors who were wild dreamers. I had instructors who had trained with the source of traditional modalities. I was taught ancient ideas and concepts that had no scientific evidence, but had been practiced and been helping people deal with the many different types of pain in life for over 5000 years. I learned a bit about Ayurveda, Shiatsu, quite a bit about Neuromuscular Therapy, MyoFascial Release, Swedish, and Integrative Massage Therapy. We learned about Rolfing, Structural Integration, Trager, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Bindesewebsmassage, etc. We learned about transference, counter-transference, projection, and coping. We learned communication skills, body centered therapy, and talked about sexuality. We learned about the human potential movement and our lineage to that group of visionaries. We learned about human disease, how to run our business, how to communicate, and how to move our bodies when we worked. We learned about honor and we learned that since we wanted to touch people for a living, we had to be extremely careful with our boundaries and our own emotional/mental/physical health.

I had instructors who trained me to “ground” myself so I would not pick up my clients energy. I had instructors who told us not to massage pregnant mothers in the first trimester of their pregnancy. I had instructors teach me that massage released toxins and the drinking water after the massage would help flush those toxins out of the body. I had an instructor teach me that sound carries energy and events leave energetic residue that can be diffused by sound. The same therapist used to “sing” the spine, whereas she would make the sounds she could hear in her head when she touched the spine in order to diffuse and open up the energy in that area and create change.

Many of my fellow students were choosing to specialize in energy work. That work was so intense it spooked the hell out of me, so I focused on the body. It was not ALL mystical and magical, there was a ton of college level science too and I carved my path. I was fortunate to train with people I would not hesitate to call Masters. School was exciting, challenging and fun and I bought it all, as did the other 300 or so international graduates per year coming out of that system for 30 years. Naropa University was right down the street teaching Transpersonal Psychology, so we all had access to mental/emotional processing. We were all processing our baggage all the time, and using new and alternative methods to achieve a greater sense of holistic health and wellness.

During this time, my mom owned a new age book store in Boulder Colorado. Her store was an iconic new age hub of information where people could find books on anything and everything from Aliens to Astrology to Crop Circles. There was always a psychic of some kind sitting in the corner ready to tell you the mysteries of yourself. Boulder was extra special in these days. Not unusual to go to a hear a trance channeler speak, and follow that up with a community hot tub experience to watch the aliens land behind the mountains on a first date. It was an era, and I was young and quite gullible. I WANTED and NEEDED there to be magic in the universe because life had been pretty tough. I was not in this desire alone. Many need life to have something MORE…to give us hope. We craved ceremony and community ritual. We craved spirituality and answers to the deep mysteries of life, and we found them. It was an era… and times change.

Flash forward into reality: My dad is a physician. He triggered my desire to help others and to explore the human body. I LOVE science. My DAD helped me latch onto that which is real and can be proven. I went into massage practice and the years went by. I ended up doing an enormous amount of massage therapy and my client’s needs and pain dictated that I became a deep bodyworker. In 1995 I was in a car accident and found that the work I needed to receive was of a core or deeper nature and I sought out therapists who had the ability to touch and manipulate the holding in my deeper core tissues. This continued to develop my propensity toward core tissue manipulation as a therapist.

I have gone on to massage all types of people for 25 years. I have not just touched their body, I have touched their lives. I have listened to them. I have been compassionate. I have seen clients through the death of their grandparents, the birth of their babies, graduate school, their divorce, their second marriage, the birth of their first grandchild and breast cancer. I have been a massage therapist, a loving, compassionate, listening, caring, person who supports my client’s journey into a greater awareness of their relationship to their body and lives by providing touch, unconditional listening and care. I have supported them in finding relief from pain, by helping them discover what conditions are in effect that are leading to musculoskeletal dysfunction = pain, and helped them find ways to change behaviors that are putting those conditions into effect. For whatever reason, the manipulation of their muscular system using my approach provided relief and restoration for them. I have had a deeply rich therapeutic practice, and the work I have done with my clients has taught me 10,000% more than I learned at massage therapy school.

I have grown into a passionate massage therapy educator. Beyond the education I always provided for my clients, I have been training Massage Therapists for 10 years now. Massage Therapy is evolving so fast I’m trying to keep up for the benefit of my students. If I don’t keep up with the evolution and progression of massage therapy I am doing a disservice to my students and I should leave my career. I have tried to stay on top of things, and through the technology of the internet, I’ve been able to communicate with Massage Therapy professionals and experts across the globe. It’s been a real blessing. In the midst of running my school, I’m doing my best to pay close attention to the movement in the profession, and found myself exposed to some interesting dynamics in the U.S Massage Therapy Scene. Here is what I believe I have witnessed.

  1. Canada is, and has been approaching massage therapy as a health care profession. They have high standards for education and competencies for massage therapists. Canadian Massage Therapists are respected by the collective health care community, are reasonably compensated, and are able to serve patients with massage therapy similar to the way nurses and physical therapists are able to serve patients. We can learn a lot from the Canadians.
  1. Due to the sluggish regulation of massage therapy at the state level in the U.S. the varied educational approaches to massage therapy, and the lack of organization by our leadership organizations, Massage Therapy in the United States has evolved into a multi – headed monster. Those practicing come from MANY different schools of thought, MANY different qualities of education, and MANY massage therapists should not be practicing at all. Many who should not be practicing at all have been in practice for decades and are teaching a new generation of massage therapists who should not be practicing at all. From what I have witnessed online, we have 9 distinct groups of therapists. Here is my attempt to categorize and describe my impressions of the groups:
  1. The Incompetents: This is a group of massage therapists who took a 100 – 250 hour course. They did not learn anything about ethics, know nothing about pathology, anatomy or physiology, learned a few Swedish strokes and somehow fell through the cracks of the regulatory system and are in full blown practice making huge errors with their clients every single day. Many in this group have great intentions, but don’t know the first thing about universal precautions or hygiene etc. because they were never taught.
  1. The All Powerful Healers: These are those who claim to be doing some form of magical special healing that is associated with massage therapy or bodywork with the agenda to heal, and a claim that they can.  They have major ego issues, and a story. They have told the story about their magical special powers so many times that they believe it. They may have a certification or training. This usually involves the manipulation of what they call energy. They claim they can feel your energy from a distance and have the nerve to diagnose you from afar. They have beliefs that I would classify as religious or spiritual, but they have no boundaries with their clients and actually use their spiritual or religious beliefs to work with and manipulate clients. These people are dangerous. Clients who benefit from this type of work are probably benefiting from the placebo effect. They believe it and so on some level it works for them.
  1. The Scientists: This is a small but growing group of great minds that have good intentions to abandon the dark ages of bogus claims and woo woo in Massage Therapy. It is my impression that if you do not subscribe to exactly what they are declaring, you should be exiled from the world of Massage Therapy. I believe the Science group feels that if you are not of the science group you are a FREAK (see above). From what I gather (and I may be wrong) these folks want more of what Canada has. The science group believes nothing should be taught or practiced that has no bases in solid scientific evidence. Here is what I have gathered (from minimal exposure) are some of the reasons behind their goals.
  1. Indigent people cannot receive massage therapy through socialized programs, and they should have access.
  2. Many “therapists” are being unethical by making false claims.
  3. The public is hurt by the false claims.
  4. We (massage therapists) look ridiculous when associated with sooth sayers and snake oil salesmen.
  5. Other members of the health care profession do not take us seriously, and this prevents massage therapy from getting to those who need it the most.

My impression is also that they want Massage therapy to be a globally defined, standardized and consistent as a health care profession.

This is an extreme group, and they are making people aware of things that must change. Unfortunately, in the process, they are wanting to eradicate anything and everything that is not scientifically proven. This threatens a great percentage of the massage therapists who are practicing ethically and effectively today. I would love to see the science group build a remedial education bridge to ethical massage therapists who are making a positive impact on their client’s lives without trying to eliminate them completely. I believe that some of the massage therapists making false claims are doing so not because they are bad therapists, but because that is how they were taught. These people deserve patience and re-education.

When myths are debunked, and new evidence becomes available the masses of massage therapists in the US need to be reached and educated. I would like to think our leadership organizations would be able to pull that off. Schools need to be absolutely clear to teach the Ethics of False Claims, the importance of staying up to date, and Ethical Codes need to include some language stressing the importance of this. I hope the science group will realize that you can’t dig a big hole and throw everyone in it that is not 100% with them. As far as I’m concerned this is an Ethics, Scope and Boundary Issue. Some people need to be brought up to speed. Many others are doing incredible work right now that is not all based in evidence, but does not promote false claims.

  1. The Cogs: These are the massage therapists who were recruited off of their couches by a television commercial at 3:00am to go to X, Y, or Z Corporate Massage School/Diploma Mill, got a huge student loan, made it through massage school, and got a job at a franchise. This “chew them up and spit em out” branch of massage therapy is all about the franchise and many of these therapists will have a shelf life of 3 years. It’s a sad state of affairs for this group. Luckily there are exceptions to the rule. Some of these MTs will escape the franchise and discover something deeper within themselves, connect with an amazing mentor or continuing education and jump the exploitation track to get a job that is worthy of them. Most of these graduates are not qualified at entry level to work with all demographics.
  1. The Ethical Linear Massage Therapists: This group of massage therapists were not taught about holistic principles, power of intention, bodywork as art, psychology, and seem to do beautiful work providing massage therapy without that knowledge. From my perspective, they simply come from a different school of thought, and help a lot of people by providing ethical and professional massage therapy. They do not make false claims. They are compassionate, supportive, knowledgeable and professional massage therapists. Holistic Massage Therapists and Linear Massage Therapists have difficulty collaborating and/or in peer review because their foundation, and what is critically important to them philosophically is completely different.
  1. The Ethical Holistic Massage Therapists: These are the massage therapists, like myself, most of my colleagues, and all of my students, who do not make false claims, and approach massage therapy as a holistic healing art. We integrate traditional and modern techniques to serve our clients ever changing needs. We would not have the audacity to assume or claim we understand the magnitude of what is happening when we touch another human being, nor would we limit it by trying to define it. WE understand that our intent is extremely important because we are interacting with human beings who have feelings, and who will be able to be more vulnerable when with someone they trust, and who they know cares for them. We know we must be knowledgeable and stay appraised of, and integrate new scientific evidence that is being introduced, and drop what we learned decades ago that has been proven to be mythological. We follow ethical codes at a high level, continue to learn, and study the human body, somantics, psycho/emotional phenomena, and we practice self-care to the point that we work with our own issues so they we don’t project those onto our clients experience. We honor a strict set of hygienic and record keeping practices. We represent the profession at an extremely high level whether we are in the treatment room or not. We are authentic in our compassion for the human condition. Emotional, psychological, mental and physical boundaries are honored at all times. We can adapt to practice work, spa work and a medical environment. Partnerships with mental/emotional health care teams are especially positive and productive.
  1. The Ethical Energy Workers and/or traditionalists: These are the energy workers who do not make false claims. They are using traditional or modern methods of energy focused bodywork and they inform their clients of the rich history, limitations, and unproven nature of the method. They often will share the benefits clients have experienced from receiving the work. They would never recommend treatment in lieu of medical treatment for medium to high risk conditions. There have been many scientific studies done on the manipulation of electromagnetic energy which are worthy of exploring. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.
  1. The Medical Massage Therapists: These are our new cutting edge progressive pioneers who are carving our path to the medical environment. They are setting new standards for performing massage therapy in hospitals and other treatment facilities. They are helping us learn how to adapt our approach so that we can serve the patient population who can greatly benefit from massage therapy when their health requires medical intervention.
  1. The Revolutionary Inventors: These are the educators who have invented or developed something new that is going to change the face of bodywork and massage therapy forever. This is nothing new. We have a new 3 letter acronym titled modality and methodology show up every month or so for the last several years. I even have my own method that I teach to my students who want to know more about my approach. Students will gravitate toward the mentor and method that resonates with them the best, and specialize in it. They will attract clients and help them or not. The method works or it does not. In the end, it’s not likely that any one method is going to save or change the entire massage therapy world.

Regardless of what I think or how I am categorizing the groups I have encountered to try to make sense of it all, and regardless of how you feel about my opinionated opinion, one thing stands absolutely clear. If you are a massage therapist or bodyworker who is making false claims, YOU are the problem, and you will be the catalyst of a great transition that passionate stakeholders will continue to demand, that Massage Therapy in the United States is a respected health care profession that everyone has access to. Why would any of us who really care about people and know the benefits of massage therapy dare to stand in the way of that?

I know that as an educator, I am rapidly revamping my program to align with this new culture so that my students will be ready to serve at a level that I never have before.

If you are operating from an agenda to heal your clients with your magical special powers it is time that you do a personal and professional inventory, redo your literature, your website, even your business name and start to be vigilant over the claims you are making, and the words coming out of your mouth that can do incredible harm to your clients and to the profession of Massage Therapy. Time to get with the program, or get out.

Jill Kristin Berkana

Jill Kristin Berkana LMT Founder/Director Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy and Bodywork Passionista