I appreciate their concerns and welcome the dialogue. I would hope however, that the conversation stops being a personal attack and becomes a professional one that focuses on the big issues. I’m writing this somewhat lengthy post to give the people in that discussion some of the facts around my professional life and my motivations, so they do not have to speculate.
I think massage therapists play a vital role in the health and wellbeing of people in our communities. In my 23 year career I have supported this profession and have worked hard to increase standards and the success of therapists’ practices in the hopes of exposing a wider segment of the population to the benefits of massage. That’s why we are all really in this profession. It’s not for the money; there are easier ways to get rich. It’s really about improving the lives of the people around us. They are the reason we were called to this profession.
I want to make a difference in peoples’ lives and I have undertaken some significant initiatives to make sure that happens. You can read a summary of the many ways I have served the profession in over two decades of service here.
It was about 18 years ago that I first met David Palmer, the “Father of Chair Massage” at a marketing workshop in Toronto. That meeting had a profound impact on the way I looked at my role as a massage therapist and in a broader way on my life’s path. There were a couple of ideas in particular that he communicated that changed my thinking about massage and caused me to make a 180 degree turn in my professional life:
1. An important distinction: The difference between massage being acceptable vs. massage being accessible.
In the early 90′s I was fully engaged in the trend to “medicalize” massage in an effort to gain some acceptance by the mainstream. At that time I had likely taught over a 1,000 therapists in 2,200 hour massage training programs and was writing a research-based textbook for a large American publisher. I was on a mission to see massage become more accepted by other health professionals, but making that distinction stopped me in my tracks.
As service professionals, we’re not here to serve health professionals or even insurance providers for that matter. We’re here to serve the people in our communities. And the simple fact was (and still is) that massage as it is widely practiced today will never achieve widespread utilization by the public. Looking at utilization surveys suggests that only 3% to 4.2% of the American public receives regular massage. This roughly corresponds to utilization rates of massage in Canada. Massage Therapists have a hard time believing the number and get upset by it, but he’s right. Having taken considerable time over the years to analyze the numbers from major association and College surveys, I think he’s probably even a little generous with his estimations.
Bottom line: People need the touch that massage provides. We need to focus less on being accepted by the medical community and insurance providers and focused on making our services more accessible to the mainstream public – creating a grassroots revolution of sort- to dramatically increase the numbers of people who benefit from massage.
2. Touch as a positive social value
One of the reasons that massage has never achieved a high level of popularity is because of the negative associations with touch. Besides the obvious associations with sex in our culture, it is also associated in a more negative way with abuse, coercion, power and danger, thus creating a touch-phobic culture. As a result, we have a situation where co-workers can’t touch each other for fear of sexual harassment, counselors cannot console us with a warm touch, teachers are fearful of comforting young students in any kind of physical way and any form of touching between students is increasing being banned in schools.
It’s proven beyond a doubt that we need touch as much as we need food and sleep. So we need to transform perceptions around touch and make touch a positive social value.
These two goals, making touch a positive social value and making massage more accessible, have been a driving force in my career, sometimes to the dismay of my colleagues.
- I have popularized chair massage in Canada and have been responsible for tens of thousands of people who would not normally have massage trying it for the first time
- I support organizations like Peaceful Touch and Massage in Schools that help establish positive attitudes towards touch at an early age
- I support the valuable research done by the Touch Research Institute even though they do not always use massage therapists in their protocols
- I get actively involved in events like Free Hug Day and Campaign for Free Hugs
Massage therapists we are uniquely positioned to be ambassadors for positive touch. We have the ability to go far beyond helping a strained hamstring and have the power to change people’s lives in very profound ways through touch.
However, the industry as a whole has continued to pursue a strategy to position itself clearly as a paramedical profession. Partly for acceptance by a culture that is uncomfortable with touch and partly in the pursuit of the holy grail of third party payment for services. Take a look at this overview of some of this history from an outsider’s perspective for a broader view.
The development of chair massage in Canada
I remember distinctly sitting in David Palmer’s marketing class and hear his characterization of the massage industry. I’m roughly paraphrasing. Maybe I’m not paraphrasing, but this is what I remember hearing from the lens of my evangelical passion for massage therapy:
“The average person thinks that getting a massage means going into a small room behind closed doors, taking off all your clothes and lying prone on a table while a stranger rubs greasy oil all over your body. To top it off you have to pay a great deal of money to undergo this.”
To say that statement was shocking for me would be an understatement. But after giving it a great deal of consideration and with a fair amount of internal wrangling, I had to admit that this was largely true.
I loved massage therapy and to think that this could possibly be a reality for the public tore me up. But after much soul searching I was determined to make massage more accessible to the public – to get as many people as possible to experience firsthand the benefits of massage. Chair massage seemed to be a reasonable approach to take.
It was convenient for people, it came to them, no oils were used, the shorter timeframes were inexpensive, it was done out in the open, people felt comfortable leaving their clothes on, because people could see it, the fear of the unknown was removed, and whereas not everyone felt they needed “therapy” everyone could enjoy a relaxing backrub.
I was essentially one of the first doing this in Canada and I tackled the corporate market with a great deal of fervor, enthusiasm on steroids. I worked in almost every major corporation in Canada, all the major banks and financial institutions, most major law firms, hospitals, tech companies like IBM, Dell, Nortel and manufacturers like Levi and Kelloggs. Even though companies had never heard of it before, they embraced it. It was also a financial success. I did hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales through my on-site massage business.
I had a problem though. I was getting all these jobs, but I couldn’t get any therapists to work for me. No massage therapist wanted to do a “backrub”. It was if it was beneath them. I understood because months earlier I would have had the same attitude. So I had no choice, but to train people to do this kind of work. The whole massage process was researched and systemized so that it would be safe and provide the best customer experience possible.
In 1998 a director from one of the massage therapy schools in Toronto left her position to work with me. We started a training program and opened it up to the public. The market for on-site massage was huge and I could not make a dent in it myself. My thinking was that I could amplify my efforts and get massage to greater numbers of people if I trained chair massage practitioners to do chair massage in a safe, effective way and to create their own businesses around the service. They would be competing with my own on-site business, but that was fine. There was enough to go around and I would give them my full support.
I passed off my on-site massage business to one of the graduates in about 2001 because I felt she could devote herself full time to developing it fully and expand the chair massage business to reach even more people. Over a couple of years I transferred complete ownership and allowed the on-site massage business to use the name “Relax to the Max” I wasn’t so concerned about making money from the on-site work as I was in providing a vehicle to get more people using massage. Over the past ten years I have had no stakes in that company and receive no remuneration from its activities.
A quick side note on regulation
To give some context to my American friends, massage therapy in Canada is regulated differently than in the States. In the States massage is a “protected act”. For the most part, you cannot do massage in any form without being a licensed massage therapist. Here in Canada, we use “protected titles”, that is anyone can do massage as a career, but if you want to use the title “massage therapist” you must meet certain requirements and be registered with the province.
Without passing judgment, the system of title protection is a sound one. If a member of the public wants to receive massage therapy, they can rest assured that the person treating them has had a considerable level of training in the sciences, assessment and treatment, etc.(similar in many ways to the training of a physiotherapist.)
However, the regulations also give the consumer the freedom to choose the type of healthcare and wellness services they receive. If they would prefer to see an Asian bodyworker or get Reiki or a simple relaxation spa massage or chair massage, they can do that too. What can broadly be defined as “holistic therapies” is regulated by a free market, that is, consumers vote with their wallets to determine which services are valuable and in-demand. The poor ones simply drop off the map.
The American system tends to limits consumer choice to a certain extent by providing a more homogeneous service. From the regulatory boards perspective it doesn’t matter what modalities you practice, it is lumped under the label of massage therapy. (Not my characterization, but the regulatory boards.) This has also lead to some inter-disciplinary fighting as different groups determine who gets to do the regulated act of massage.
So chair massage training and the provision of chair massage as a modality is totally legal. In over 18 years this has never come up as an issue with the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario.
When word got out that I, as a respected member and educator in the massage therapy profession, was teaching laypeople to do chair massage I got kickback from therapists who knew me. In their minds I was taking massage back to the dark ages. They were trying to position themselves and the industry as a paramedical profession and I was promoting “backrubs”.
It created quite a stink and I became surrounded in this crazy mythology. One teacher at a local College slandered me, telling his students during class that I was engaged in illegal activity and that the College was putting all their resource behind stopping me, but because I had the hired the toughest lawyers money could buy, I was impervious to their efforts. The stories that seemed to come out of the ether in those early days were ludicrous, really.
I feel for massage therapists. They are having a hard time and suffering financially. The average Ontario therapist makes just over $20,000 net according to a CMTO therapist survey. Donald Dillon keeps up on these issues and you could probably get more accurate information from him.
I’ve been very successful in my career as a massage therapists, owning a couple clinics in Toronto, and I share my expertise with massage therapists through BodyworkBiz.com in the hopes that therapists will become better a growing their practices. Their success means that they are touching the lives of an increasing number of consumers and that’s exactly my life’s mission.
But despite my efforts to help massage therapists, a handful still feel that I’m intruding on their turf and unjustly helping bodyworkers take market share. The reality is that tens of thousands of people have been introduced to massage through my efforts and they will become the informed consumers of massage therapy tomorrow. Chair massage practitioners are no more competing with therapists than McDonald’s is competing with fine dining establishments. (Hope I don’t alienate my chair massage friends with that one.) All I’m saying is that they are completely different services and complementary services at that.
I conduct my training with the highest standards. It’s better that they study with a highly qualified educator than an unqualified one. I never mislead my students into thinking they are massage therapists. All my chair massage students are made fully aware of their role and are fully informed about the regulations. They communicate with the public in a way that clearly defines the limits of their skills and they refer customers to massage therapy were it is indicated. They care about their customers and I love them all for the work they do in making massage so accessible.
I have not taught chair massage classes for two years. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I’ve been stretched thin with my role as a dad and with some of the bigger projects I manage like the World Massage Conference and BodyworkBiz. However, chair massage contractors are on my back telling me that if I do not start training more practitioners to meet the demand that they will start their own training programs. So I plan to offer courses again in 2013 using a blended curriculum that offers the theoretical training online and the hands-on training in class.
I encourage Ontario massage therapists, and in fact all therapists, to immerse yourself in the broader issues around massage. Having a bird’s eye view because of the unique position I find myself, I see a tendency internationally for various massage groups to work in their own bubbles. We need to open up these discussions about the bigger role of massage and touch in society and share ideas across boundaries to broaden our perspectives on who we are as a profession and where the future can take us.
Feel free to criticize my ideas or the ideas of others with an eye to expanding our understanding. I’ll certainly continue to point out the weaknesses I see in our industry with an eye to improving the flaws. Play nice though. There’s enough hatred and derision in the world already. Let’s engage in dialogue that’s constructive and leave ranting to the crazy people. Share your ideas below or in the many forums that are available to you online.
Wishing you all the best,
Eric Brown, Massage Therapist
PS There are many people out there who offer some surprisingly fresh viewpoints on massage. I might suggest you start with the TouchPro blog where David Palmer shares some interesting viewpoints in a very articulate and easy to read way or Donald Dillon’s site where he explores some broader issues from a more conventional standpoint. And of course, I’ll continue to post industry observations from time to time on this blog.