For recent graduates of a massage-therapy program, choosing a specialty can be as overwhelming as choosing a treatment from a five-star hotel's spa menu. They may all sound wonderful, but how does one choose?
While there are hundreds of massage modalities in existence, most of them can be grouped into three main categories or specialties: treatment work, relaxation or spa massage, and Eastern styles of massage and bodywork.
Treatment work, generally referred to as deep-tissue massage, focuses on realigning deeper layers of muscles and connective tissue. The benefits include alleviation of pain, increased flexibility, better posture and the restoration of normal movement. Techniques may include myofascial release, trigger-point therapy and cross-fiber friction. Therapists who specialize in this work have a keen interest in human anatomy and typically have a strong background in kinesiology. They work with a wide range of clients who may suffer from chronic pain or injuries, or who want to improve their overall physical well-being.
Relaxation or spa massage
Swedish therapeutic massage is the massage modality most commonly associated with relaxation or spa massage. Swedish massage involves deep pressure and a variety of vigorous massage techniques, such as kneading, tapping and stroking. People of all ages and physical conditions seek out the benefits of Swedish massage to support good health and manage a variety of health conditions. Therapists can increase both the therapeutic and alluring aspects of this style of bodywork by incorporating hydrating wraps, warm stones and aromatherapy oils. If employed by a spa, massage therapists may also have to complete training in prenatal and postpartum massage to serve the largely female clientele.
Eastern massage and bodywork
Eastern massage and bodywork modalities, which include shiatsu, Thai massage, polarity therapy, reflexology and reiki, have their roots in Asian cultures. These modalities incorporate various techniques, such as acupressure, stretching and gently placing the hands above or on the client's body. The focus of this style of bodywork is to balance the flow of energy, facilitating the body's natural healing abilities. Clients enjoy many of the same benefits as Western-style massage, such as deep relaxation and pain relief. Additional benefits may include calming of the mind, improved immune system function, balancing of the nervous system and increased range of motion. Therapists who specialize in this area are drawn to energy work, have trained in multiple modalities and are familiar with concepts of Chinese medicine. They enjoy a wide range of clients who are seeking emotional and physical balance, and who may also prefer to remain clothed during bodywork sessions.
Amy Cramer, an instructor at Boulder College of Massage Therapy (BCMT), recommends therapists draw from their own personal experiences when choosing a specialty. "I have a history of back pain, and tuning into what works for me has helped me figure out what works for my clients," she said. Cramer specializes in treatment work, and her private practice is focused on clients with chronic pain.
The good news is, you don't have to wait until you graduate from a massage-therapy program to decide on a specialty. Aspen Sullivan, a BCMT service-learning supervisor, describes service learning as an opportunity for students to explore their interests.
"By working with a wide range of clients in diverse settings, such as hospitals, college athletic departments, spas and chiropractic clinics, students increase their confidence and their ability to work with just about anyone," said Sullivan. "By the time they complete this program requirement, most students have identified the career path they'd like to follow upon graduation."
Also keep in mind massage is a career that has infinite possibilities; it's not unusual for therapists to change their focus of practice over time. Rebecca Little, a BCMT graduate, explains, "When I graduated three years ago, I planned on working mostly with new moms, but somehow mostly athletic males showed up in my practice. Just back from a Jamu massage course in Bali, I have a renewed passion for working with moms and using massage as a tool for rejuvenation and beauty for both men and women."