When you first start thinking about being a massage therapist the question of what style of massage or bodywork to learn might not be at the top of your list. That list of modalities may even be longer than you’d realize just starting out. Glancing through just those starting with the letter “A” I found 8 that I’ve heard of people practicing, and another half dozen or so that I’ve never even heard of.
Where you start your journey to becoming a massage therapist or bodyworker will likely have a significant impact on where you end up. There are a few points to consider:
1) Where will you learn the style you are interested in?
2) Will you be able to work for anyone else doing the work you love?
3) Will you find a market for the work you do?
Where to learn…
While the more general and common styles of massage are taught at most massage schools (Swedish, Deep Tissue, Shiatsu and Thai come to mind), some styles will be a bit more difficult to receive training in. Rolfing is only taught in Boulder Colorado in the U.S. and certain types of Thai massage can only be learned by going and learning from the masters in Thailand. if you find that Active Release Therapy is of interest to you, be prepared to shell out at least a couple thousand dollars per weekend course and there appear to be at least 5 or 6 of those just to cover the basics.
Another important distinction for consideration is whether or not the program and teaching you’re interested in pursuing provides you with enough education to be certified in your state or municipality. The state of California currently requires 500 hours of accredited schooling with certain subject requirements (ethics, safety, etc.), so while a very informative and interesting weekend seminar on how to use advanced Thai massage techniques on pregnant women may draw your attention, it may not advance your plan to get to work in the industry (more on continuing education in a moment).
I would guess for most folks starting out looking at becoming a massage therapist, you’ll look at schools near where you are. Most schools will teach a wide selection of the basic work (Swedish is a very common base for almost all the schools in my area). Also, given the certification requirements for wherever the school is located, they will usually tailor their basic programs to insure that classes meet the requirements of anatomy, safety, ethics and the like.
How flexible and employable are you?
Ultimately, what style of massage you decide to learn is going to impact two things, who you can work for – if anyone, and how familiar your clients are going to be with the work you do.
If you plan on being able to work for spas and chiropractors, you’ll likely need to have Swedish massage under your belt. I’ve worked in two spas and a handful of massage centers (usually folks working for themselves out of a managed space with several massage therapists renting rooms by the shift or day) and from personal experience the spas always required folks to be able to do basic Swedish massage. The individuals massage therapists at the massage centers who had very specialized and less common styles of massage seemed to grow their practice a good bit slower than the folks who did more common styles of massage. That said, if you’re doing the work you love you’ll probably enjoy what you do a great deal more than selling out for a quick dollar, and I’d hazard you’d be less likely to burn out as quickly or at all!
Who are your clients?
If you go off and learn a relatively unknown or uncommon style of massage, your clients are most likely going to be people searching for exactly that style. I have prospective clients reach out to me regularly and ask me “Do you do Trigger Point?, Do you do MyoFascial Release, Do you do Active Release Technique?” These are clients that aren’t looking a massage therapist exactly, but are looking for an exact style of massage therapy. This is a much smaller pool of clients than the pool of folks that are simply looking for a great general massage. If you do decide to specialize in a less common modality, a website and general web presence that clearly identifies what you do and leads people to you if they are looking for what you do will be helpful.
That’s all interesting stuff on the front end of your career, but what happens later? Turns out, you should (and if you’re a professional member of either of the massage organizations – you must) be continuing your education in massage every year. This is a wonderful prod to encourage us massage therapists to go and learn new techniques or modalities, to expand our practice and tool set. The lovely thing about this is you can bring these tools and techniques back to your existing clientele and introduce them as appropriate to an audience that is already attached to you and your work.
In my occasionally humble opinion, starting your massage career with a wide set of skills covering the most common and well know modalities and then over time specializing into the work that interests you and works for you is the most sensible path and one likely to secure a long lasting future in the field.