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The process of becoming a massage therapist is relatively simple, but developing a career in massage therapy is somewhat more complicated, especially in urban areas, where the market for massage is often heavily saturated. While anyone has the potential to be a good massage therapist, it helps to be strongly self-motivated and driven, and to have excellent people skills, as a large part of the job involves being able to work with very diverse people.
Before pursuing a career in massage and bodywork, it can help to think about the type of massage therapist one wishes to be, as massage therapy is an incredibly diverse field. Some massage therapists offer basic relaxing massages based on the Swedish and Esalen styles, for example, while others like to work on more therapeutic massage techniques like deep tissue, sports massage, Rolfing, and trigger point. It is also possible to blend energy work into massage, in the case of craniosacral massage, Reiki, and acupressure, and massage therapists can choose to pursue traditional massage techniques like Shiatsu, Thai massage, Lomi Lomi, Amma massage, and Tui Na.
It is also important to consider where one wants to work, and what kind of clients one wishes to work with. Massage therapists can be found in spas, hospitals, hotels, and private massage studios, and they work with a wide range of people, from infants to the elderly. For someone who wants to become a massage therapist with the goal of working with sick patients, it can be a good idea to receive some medical training to ensure a wide breadth of knowledge. For spa and hotel work, hospitality experience is a big plus, while freelance massage therapists benefit from small business classes, which can help them organize and run successful businesses.
The first step required to become a massage therapist is to go to massage school. Prospective massage therapists should choose massage schools carefully, as most schools have a focus on a specific style of massage. If you have a specific style of massage in mind, it can be a good idea to talk to professionals working in the field about where they trained and which schools they recommend. If you don't, plan to visit several schools and to receive massages from massage therapists who have gone to those schools, to get an idea of the kind of massage style the school teaches.
Learning to become a massage therapist can get expensive. When pricing massage schools, it is important to account for the cost of materials like books, oils, and sheets, and to think about the cost of accommodations or lodging, if you are traveling away from home to study massage. Some schools offer scholarship programs, work/trade, or assistance in the form of loans for students who cannot afford the base fees for massage schooling. Others allow students to take classes in discounted blocks, requiring a large up-front commitment, but reducing the overall cost of massage education considerably.
Most massage schools offer a basic certification package for students who want to become a massage therapist in the most efficient way possible. These packages typically meet the training requirements for the state or city the school is based in, and it behooves students to check carefully on requirements in the region where they plan to practice. Training requirements are generally based on the number of hours of training a massage therapist has received, and they vary from 150 to over 1,000 hours. In urban areas especially, the hour requirement is often very high, to discourage sex workers from attempting to masquerade as massage therapists. The local Department of Health in the area where you plan to work should have information about licensing requirements for massage therapists.
In a basic certification class, students learn about human anatomy and physiology, basic business ethics, and health concerns specific to the massage industry. Students will also learn about handling clients, ensuring that they are prepared for a wide range of situations. The class should also offer lots of hands-on work, as students learn how to perform various massage moves and how to work with different body types and levels of sensitivity. As a general rule, students work on each other, so they should wear loose, comfortable clothing which will allow them to change easily and experience a full range of motion while they work on other students. Most schools have a final exam, where students massage their instructors and receive feedback, and many schools also use a written test to make sure that graduates have a sound knowledge of anatomy, business practices, and the relationship between massage and various medical issues.
In addition to basic training, most massage schools offer advanced classes which cover various massage topics and unique skills, ranging from deep tissue massage to Reiki. Although these classes are not usually required, it is a good idea to pick up extra massage skills because it will make you a more marketable massage therapist. Extra classes also increase the number of hours on your certification, making it easier to practice in areas with high hours requirements. They will also deepen your knowledge of massage as a whole, allowing you to integrate a variety of techniques into your personal massage style.
Some massage therapists choose to specialize in a specific aspect of massage as they train to become a massage therapist, learning skills like prenatal massage, sports massage, oncology massage, and so forth. Massage therapists who take the time to train extensively in these specialties can often receive better wages, and they may be able to establish relationships with doctors and other medical professionals to establish a large client base, which can be very useful.
It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year to train to become a massage therapist, depending on the type of training program you choose. Most massage therapists also try to take regular workshops to keep their skills current and to learn new techniques, and some may even choose to travel to other parts of the world to learn ethnic massage techniques, like traditional Asian massages, after they have received basic training.
Once a massage therapist is trained, he or she needs to decide where to work. Massage therapists who want to work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities should talk to the staff at these facilities, or use industry publications to search for job openings. Likewise for massage therapists who want to work for hotels, doing in-room massage or using a massage suite at a hotel to receive clients.
Many massage therapists start out in spas, honing their skills and building up a client base before striking out on their own. The advantage of working for a spa is that spas handle advertising, booking, and the facility, allowing their employees to focus on offering massage without having to deal with the business aspect. Spa pay is not always that great, so it helps to supplement spa work with freelance work on the side or with another job until the work becomes steady.
For massage therapists who decide to strike out on their own immediately, teaming up with other massage therapists to rent a workspace is highly recommended, as is an ability to be flexible about offering outcall massage and special rates for repeat clients. Freelance therapists can advertise their services in a variety of ways, ranging from using word of mouth to online advertising services. Be aware, however, that sexual services are sometimes disguised as massage services, so make sure that your advertising copy is very clear.
In some regions, practitioners may be required to file for a business license and demonstrate proof of liability insurance before they can work as massage therapists. Another advantage to working in a spa is that all of the therapists at the spa will be covered by the spa's insurance, whereas freelance practitioners will need to purchase such insurance themselves. Several professional organizations offer insurance to massage therapists at a reasonable cost as part of their membership benefits, and joining these organizations can also be a good career move, as it will establish a network to rely upon.
Finally, building up a client base is a crucial part of being a good massage therapist. Regular clients can be used to ensure a steady source of income, ensuring that base expenses are covered, and a loyal base of regular clients will also provide a steady stream of recommendations. The only way to build up a solid client base is to offer good massages and strong customer service, with an emphasis on satisfying the unique and individual needs of each client. This can take time, but is well worth the effort.
Once one becomes established as a massage therapist, it is important to keep self-care in mind. Many massage therapists injure themselves on the job, as they are prone to repetitive stress injuries and strain. Warming up before a massage is always recommended, as is keeping a massage table adjusted to the right height and using properly adjusted stools and props for massage sessions. Many bodyworkers also get regular bodywork themselves, to keep their bodies and minds in good condition to work with their clients.