Helping Others Heal Begins with Healing Yourself: A Massage Therapy Career

Johanna Vargas, LMT

About the Author: Johanna Vargas, LMT, BCTMB taught movement and self-care techniques at Concordia University Chicago and at Master S.H. Yu Martial Arts from 2003 through 2008. She has been teaching for the past 6 years at Pacific College of Oriental Medicines. She has been teaching movement/self-care in some form for about 13+ years. Johanna continues her studies in Thai medical theory to develop the most effective treatments for her clients. She also advocates for the recognition of bodywork professionals as an effective component in health care. Johanna operates a private massage practice located in Chicago. She is also currently working to complete her personal training certification with a specialization in corrective exercises. Johanna still finds time to create commissioned, original works of art, train in aerial rope as well as juggling.

Leap and the Net Will Appear

While I was deeply impacted by my first therapeutic bodywork treatment at nineteen, if you had told 33-year old me that I would one day be a massage therapist, I would have laughed out loud. In your face. But, exactly a decade ago that is just what I decided to become.

This work brought into play everything I loved about movement and communication.

At the time, I was a commissioned artist, freelance art teacher and early childhood teacher in a toddler classroom at a well-known lab school. On a whim, I had located a partnered acrobatics and yoga workshop and remembering how much I had wanted to study partnered acrobatics, I eagerly emailed the address at the website and within hours was enrolled. I vividly remember my son telling me, “Have fun at your ‘hippy yoga circle’”, as he waved his arms overhead and twirled around in front of me as I headed out the door.

I had been studying martial arts for six years at that point and thoroughly enjoyed discovering the movement possibilities of this body I inhabited. A bike-ride and long bus-ride later, I made it to the workshop and was engaged- thrilled even- with the partnered yoga and acro portions of the workshop, but I panicked when the instructor said “After the break, we will begin the massage portion of the workshop”. My little monkey mind screeched, “I don’t know how to give massage! I’m never that person offering to give back rubs! Wait- I want out of this here workshop!” But immediately as the thoughts arose, I told myself, “Just watch. And follow. Be receptive; see what happens next.” My martial arts training was kicking in and my mind soon quieted. What happened next altered the course of this past decade and I couldn’t be more grateful.

I do wish I would have discovered my love for bodywork sooner.

I watched and listened intently to the teacher’s instruction. I regarded the woman I worked with as just another fellow being, like me, who wished to be free of suffering, feel safe, feel accepted, etc. I felt my workshop partner’s hip release with a light “thunk” as I held her feet at the heels and was struck by the thought of, “I want to do this forever.” This practice encompassed everything I loved about infants and toddlers as they require that you rely on communication other than dialogue. This work brought into play everything I loved about movement and communication, as well as everything I loved about creating commissioned artworks, where you interview, “read” the client, and then create something unique for and beneficial to them, only that bodywork is created in the moment and required no art materials.

The Massage School Experience

I was fortunate to have been taught by many of the founding faculty: people who truly love, honor and value all that therapeutic bodywork offers.

Soon after, I left both teaching positions and my beloved martial arts practice, as I had finally allowed myself to listen to my heart and enroll in massage school. On my last day at the toddler room, I was given a card by my colleagues that said, “Leap, and the net will appear”. That was, and still is, a fitting invitation for me. When I had first moved back to Chicago in ‘96, whenever I passed the Chicago School of Massage Therapy on Lincoln avenue, I longed to enter, as I remembered how profoundly moved I was by my bodywork treatments as a young adult. But I would immediately reprimand myself to stop being so easily distracted and “make art” as that is what I “went to school for”. This makes me laugh but breaks my heart a little, as we push our young people to choose professions when they barely know anything about themselves. Choosing my massage school was easy: once I gave myself permission (over ten years later from my jaunts past CSMT) I looked up that school, found that it had been bought by Cortiva and since that place was what initially caught my gut, that is where I enrolled. I was fortunate to have been taught by many of the founding faculty: people who truly love, honor and value all that therapeutic bodywork offers.

Once I was finally in massage school, I remember orientation as we went around the room sharing what brought us to massage in the first place and all my classmates said in some version or other that they wanted to “help people”. And here I was, I just wanted to learn more about myself through this work because I liked it! I just liked being in this receptive state, sharing these breaths, creating these moments together where maybe you learn about your own body and find some relief from whatever was hurting. But guess what: we are actually both learning about being in these respective bodies. We’re all just “walking each other home” as Ram Dass would put it.

It is nice to like massage therapy, but what drew me to this work was exploring and learning about what is me. I loved my massage school experience. Of course, there were challenges: leaving a salaried position at a university for four part-time jobs (plus the occasional commissioned mural or faux-finish), while homeschooling two children as a single parent, completing homework assignments and carving out the time for my homework practice massages was a juggling act I still haven’t topped.

I absolutely loved my anatomy and physiology courses because the pure science/art, ingenuity and design of the body is awe-inspiring. As someone who has earned full merit-based scholarships without ever studying, I experienced a much-needed dose of humility in my first anatomy and physiology class. I finally, at age 35, had to learn how to study. I somewhat successfully regurgitated the correct origins, insertions, and actions of muscles for my weekly tests, but I really “learned” my anatomy by making clay models of each area of the body’s musculature for myself, on my own time, once I had put my kids to bed; it didn’t happen through filling in worksheets or my workbook and I certainly didn’t get it via a Power Point presentation in class. And true “understanding” didn’t occur until about two- to- three years of full-time (6-8 hours of giving massage/day, at least 4 days/week) bodywork practice later (and it is still evolving).

What drew me to this work was exploring and learning about what is me.

It was this drive to seek understanding that spurred me on to and through bodywork/massage school. Once I had decided that this was my path, there was no stopping me, so completing my assignments, structuring my life around family, school and work just had to work where I put it. My love of art, science and movement found its calling in therapeutic massage. My tenacity and desire to be self-employed is what kept me going when things got hard. I utilized these strengths to successfully complete my studies, requirements for licensure and board certification.

I advise anyone who is juggling family, work, and massage school to write out why they want to do therapeutic massage for a living, and post it everywhere, as a reminder, as something that uplifts your spirit when you get weary, because you will. Write out and remind yourself of the strengths you bring to this work, because the doubts will come. And these affirmations will bolster your drive and ability to continue the journey when it gets hard.

Continuous Practice and Self-Study

I recommend working in a medical setting, for some time, to all my students.

I am entering my tenth year of study (because I am always studying and learning) and private practice. I have been teaching future massage therapists for the past six years. I worked at a chiropractic practice for about two years, and left as soon as I could bring in the same or more income via private massage clients.

I recommend working in a medical setting, for some time, to all my students who seriously wish for a career in therapeutic massage and bodywork. You will get a crash course in practicing and discovering the single most effective treatment you can facilitate with this being (the patient) in a billable insurance hour. You will get a first-hand baptism-by-fire in fluency in clinical terminology and appreciate how the push toward integrative medicine requires this fluidity between eastern and biomedical languages when talking about the body in health and pathology.

I encourage students [and all practitioners] to become research literate and to write /submit case-studies because we, practicing LMTs, are the ones in the trenches, so to speak, gathering first-hand data and experience. We should be the ones consulted on setting up, conducting and evaluating the research, but currently, we are not. Nobody that spends more hours at a desk writing on a computer than they spend inhabiting and moving within their own physical mind-body has any place teaching others how to build the skills for the kinesthetic mind-body practice that is therapeutic bodywork.

Practicing LMTs, are the ones in the trenches.

I do wish longer, more thorough medical education existed for massage therapists. I do wish there was a doctorate of therapeutic bodywork. I’d enroll; once I’m a little old lady that can no longer bear the manual labor that is bodywork. But knowing us, that is, our western mindset of curricul-izing and credential-izing everything, in making sure we have all the jargon, rubrics, and measurements in place we would leave out all of those “unquantifiables” that make bodywork actually work. Massage therapists [can] do highly-beneficial work that yields positive results but (because of many factors that I will not get into here) our work is sometimes not seen as “medically necessary”.

The biggest issue I see facing massage therapists today is the need for research accurately documenting the benefit of our work and the thorough and accurate collection of data to support/inform that research. I do not see this being taught in massage schools and besides, how, where, would we fit that into what is typically a three-term certificate program?

To further the difficulties, there was a brief time where massage therapy was marketed to people as a last resort: don’t know what you want to do with your life? Become an LMT!” And these students- the ones who enrolled because their grandmother just wants them to get a degree in something- are not in a great position to succeed. You must be curious and willing to go into and explore your own stuff, your scary places and be willing to work with those places to change them, for the better. That’s how you truly “help” people: by working on and changing yourself. Now you tell me, how do you write curriculum for and grade that?!

Giving Really is Receiving

I do wish I would have discovered my love for bodywork sooner. Because then, I would have pursued an undergrad degree in something like kinesiology and ultimately sports medicine. I would not have wasted time with art school (and I am only talking about myself here, I am not saying that anyone else’s choice to go to art school is a waste of time): art, writing and movement, I would have always done- whether I went to school for it or not. That is just who I am. I study martial arts and now circus arts, still, at 42, and write and perform my written stories locally.

If I could do it all over again, I would have gone to and graduated medical school “JUST” to be a massage therapist, or “massage doctor”, which is what you are, in other countries where you apprentice under your teacher for five to seven years and are baby-birded your first few patients as your teacher sees you are ready. But in this country, we have the business of federal loan based education. And we have diluted massage therapy to a three-term certificate program. Some places offer an associate degree in applied science (and currently only one offers a bachelor’s in applied science in massage therapy but it is only on-line) but with federal financial aid limiting funding to that which produces an “employable outcome” those programs are disappearing. So, massage therapy is left out in the cold from the other “health care” professions. This is wrong.

The number of people seeking and receiving benefit from massage for “medical reasons” has soared in recent years. Just ask the AMTA and other folks you know why they pay for therapeutic massage. But insurance will not cover massage unless it is through an in-network provider. This is just wrong and unbeneficial. This can prevent people from receiving the benefit of work from therapeutic massage practitioners who have years of experience and are committed to this work.

One must care for oneself to avoid burnout.

Oftentimes, the therapists working at chiropractic offices are massage school students or recent massage school graduates; not experienced bodyworkers, as those have long since left to build their own practice, because this work cannot and should not be done at that breakneck, billable insurance unit pace. This is how and why massage therapists “burn out” after an average of five years.

This is athletic work. This can be an isolating career if you are in private practice. We need peer supervision groups. We need downtime to replenish and self-nurture. We need practices to develop and control awareness of where our awareness is, practices that keep us agile, flexible, and strong. We need to receive bodywork regularly and practice self-massage and joy, daily. One must care for oneself. That is how one remains an innovative, receptive, sensitive, and thus effective massage therapist. And because we are all in this [here life] together, when we work on ourselves, we help populate our communities with healthier, more peaceful inhabitants, and guess what: our cells are hardwired to entrain to other cells that are vibrating at optimal frequencies. Or to put it another way, we inspire each other and lead by example. Some of my most rewarding, humbling experiences with clients have occurred because they were inspired to take better care of this “meat car” (as I’ve affectionately called it since I was 17) due to the awareness they experienced during their bodywork treatments.

I have had clients send me before and after pics spanning our treatment time together and personally witnessed some amazing turnarounds. This is why I think “giving” is really “receiving” when it comes to bodywork, because if we all do our best to nurture, improve and discipline ourselves, then that touches all with whom we come into contact, and we all end up supporting each other in discovering our highest good. We all end up “walking each other home”.