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A Brief History of Chair Massage

by David Palmer(more info)

listed in massage, originally published in issue 32 - September 1998

Chair Massage is fast becoming the most popular form of skilled touch on the contemporary bodywork landscape. In airports, shopping malls, convention centres, corporate board rooms, supermarkets, street corners, dentist's surgeries, and hospitals you can now find practitioners bringing professional massage for the first time to the great untouched masses.

Seated chair massage at an exhibition

Seated chair massage at an exhibition

How has this form of bodywork, virtually unheard of before 1986, managed to capture the imagination of a growing segment of the US population and, more recently, begun to impact Europe and the UK? In this article I will attempt to describe some of the significant landmarks that have marked the evolution of Chair Massage. This account is, by its nature, subjective and personal and not intended to be either authoritative or exhaustive. It reflects my unique observer/participant role in the midst of a rather remarkable movement whose full history and ultimate impact will be recorded and judged by more objective chroniclers.

Ancient Roots and 20th Century Pioneers

Massaging clients who are seated is hardly an exclusively contemporary phenomenon.

Centuries-old Japanese block prints illustrate people, having just emerged from a nearby bath, receiving massage while seated on a low stool. Indeed, many styles of Japanese table or floor massage, including the one in which I was trained, traditionally perform a portion of each session (often at the beginning or end) with the client sitting up, rather than lying down. We can safely presume that, for as long as people have been rubbing each other's aches and pains away, some of the massaging has been done while the receiver was in an upright position.

Likewise, in this century, working on seated clients has always been an option and has been found in a number of different contexts. For example, seated work is specifically integrated into a variety of bodywork modalities, such as Rolfing and Feldenkrais. And, with the current high visibility of Chair Massage, we are beginning to hear from some of the elders of our profession about how they utilised seated massage in their regular massage practices.

A good example, which came to my attention recently, is the story of 76-year-old Ginger Robinson from Fort Worth, Texas. Ginger has been a professional bodyworker since the late 1960s but says she has been doing massage since she was six years old. She remembers giving "shoulder/neck" rubs to workers at General Dynamics, where she worked for 30 years. Later, as a massage professional, she recalls demonstrating her seated massage techniques for participants at the Texas State convention of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) in 1978 and later at an AMTA national convention.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were already a few practitioners who were beginning to sense that massaging clients in a seated position might be something more than just an occasional tool in a table practitioner's toolbox.

Kathryn Hansom-Spice, originally a bodyworker who later became Director of the Potomac Massage Training Institute (PMTI) in Washington, D.C., developed a community outreach programme in 1981 for specialised populations that specifically incorporated seated massage. Her programme eventually became an integrated part of the PMTI curriculum for training massage professionals and has been replicated in dozens of other schools across the US.

Then there is Michael Neal, who began doing seated massage in early 1982, and probably has the oldest continuous Chair Massage practice in the world. Every week he still takes his stool to provide Chair Massage services to such clients as Disney Corporation in Southern California.

In the realm of non-professional Chair Massage, Jeanne St. John, an educator with the Santa Cruz County (California) Office of Education initiated an innovative programme in 1980 that provided acupressure seated massage to severely handicapped children. For the next 13 years her organisation trained over 50,000 educators, parents, and others in therapeutic acupressure techniques performed primarily on seated recipients.

All of these bodyworkers, and many more, deserve much credit for laying the foundation for the creation of the Chair Massage portion of the skilled touch profession.

Birth of Contemporary Chair Massage

While I have been credited as being the "father" of contemporary Chair Massage, as we have seen, massaging seated clients has been around for a very long time. I was one of the first to realise that Chair Massage could become a major component of the bodywork professions, but I have always felt my greatest contribution was to intentionally shine the spotlight on Chair Massage in a way that highlighted its unique features. My work has been about educating bodyworkers, massage schools, the media, legislators, and the general public about the significance of Chair Massage.

My interest in Chair Massage began in 1982 when I became the Director of The Amma Institute of Traditional Japanese Massage. My teacher had decided to return permanently to Japan and had designated me his successor. In my new role as a trainer of professional massage practitioners I was immediately struck by how few bodyworkers were actually making a living doing work that was so desperately needed in our culture.

I was mystified. Hadn't massage changed my life? Hadn't it had a significant impact on the life of every bodyworker that I new? Why was the interest in professional massage growing so slowly that practitioners seemed to be fighting over the same 5% of the population who appreciated the benefits of skilled touch? What was the point in training skilled touch professionals if there were no clients for them to massage?

Often it seemed that the bodywork community somehow felt that the problem was not with professional massage, but rather with the lack of sophistication on the part of the public. Most people, the notion went, were too "uptight" or "unconscious" to appreciate what our service had to offer. I realised, however, that we wouldn't be able to solve this problem if we simply chose to blame the potential clients. Another perspective was called for and it occurred to me that the problem might be more in the packaging, not the product. That is to say, when looked at from a marketing perspective, the general public clearly did not perceive massage to be safe, convenient, or affordable.

I have often noted that, if you wanted to make certain that professional massage would never become widely accepted in Western culture, here is how you would design it. Force clients to go into a private room behind closed doors, take off all of their clothing, lay down on a table, allow a stranger to rub oil all over the body, and then charge them $40-$60 for the privilege. With that approach I guarantee you that massage would never make it into the mainstream. Think about it. There is only one other time in their lives when people get prone and naked behind closed doors with another person. The subconscious, and sometimes conscious, connection between table massage and sexuality in the public's mind has been unavoidable.

What we needed to create was a simple touch service package that avoided the adult entertainment association, was low cost, and was accessible to potential clients.

Defined from this perspective the solution was obvious. First, allow people to keep their clothes on, which meant that you couldn't use oil and didn't require a private space. Second, put the client in a portable chair so the massage could be done anywhere. And third, shorten the length of the massage so that you could charge less and make it affordable.

I began training my graduates in this new delivery system for massage services in late 1982 and shortly after, in 1983, started a business to place our first Chair Massage practitioners. Our primary market for Chair Massage was the workplace with a secondary emphasis on conventions and trade shows.

In the first year we had limited success convincing companies of the value of Chair Massage but our fortunes shifted in 1984 when Apple Computer became our client.

Apple, in those days, was a high flying, high-tech legend that was not only inventing a new industry but was also redefining the relationship between a company and its employees. Apple Computer was more egalitarian and less formal than traditional employers; our Chair Massage practitioners were often better dressed than the employees they worked on at Apple. At the peak of our work with Apple seven practitioners were offering up to 350 Chair Massages a week with the company paying the entire cost of the massage. We had visions of megabucks dancing through our heads. Unfortunately, the tsunami of Chair Massage that I believed was about to sweep across corporate America turned out to be little more than a minor splash in a rather small puddle.

The honeymoon at Apple ended in 1985 when the first downturn hit the personal computer industry and Apple was forced to lay off 800 employees. We retired our Chair Massage service at Apple for two months, until the dust settled. When we returned, the company was no longer paying for Chair Massage, but rather the employees were footing the bill, dropping our client base to about 60 a week. Clearly it was going to take a longer-range plan to impact cultural attitudes toward massage. So, in 1986, I sold my portion of the Chair Massage business to my partner, Stephen Pizzella (who still does Chair Massage at Apple Computer to this day), and started in a new direction.

The most significant result of the Apple experience was the exposure and attention we got from the media for this emerging concept of Chair Massage. While we were at Apple, we leveraged our presence into dozens of national and local stories in the press, television, and radio. It was the beginning of the media's long-term love affair with Chair Massage. Almost invariably our work was pitched as the ideal "Cinderella" story: Out of the ashes of disrepute and into the corporate boardroom comes Chair Massage.

The Pivotal Year

In 1986 three major events marked my post-Apple strategy for introducing Chair Massage services into the mainstream.

The first came about as a result of the realisation that, if we were going to truly create a new service industry, we would have to train thousands of new service providers. Consequently my focus shifted from educating the general public about Chair Massage to educating the bodywork professions first. To that end I began a programme offering a continuing education seminar in Chair Massage to bodyworkers who had graduated from other massage schools. In August 1986, I introduced the concept of Chair Massage to 34 school directors at a meeting of the American Massage Therapy Association. The response was immediate and overwhelming. During a 12-month period beginning in October of that year, I taught 24 Chair Massage seminars at 24 different locations, including seminars in Sweden and Norway.

Chair Massage was truly an idea whose time had come. Within four years, by 1990, virtually every massage school in the US was teaching their students something about Chair Massage, and many had developed specific courses in Chair Massage technique. Since 1986, my own organisation, TouchPro Institute, has taught continuing education classes in Chair Massage to over 8,600 bodyworkers in ten countries.

The second event was the introduction of the first specialised chair for seated massage by Living Earth Crafts, a massage table manufacturer in Santa Rosa, California. In 1984, I began working with a French cabinetmaker, Serge Bouyssou, to design a portable chair that would comfortably support the client's whole body and allow easy access by a massage practitioner. After three prototypes, we began working on production models with Living Earth Crafts and, in May 1986, the first production versions of the chair were sold. Currently there are some 20 manufacturers around the world who have produced in excess of 100,000 massage chairs, all based on the original design.

As strange as the massage chair looked back in 1986, it has proved to be the key element in putting a "face" to Chair Massage. Practitioners walking down the street today are easily identifiable as massage specialists because of the chair strapped under their arm or across their back. The quizzical glances of the past have now been replaced by longing gazes whenever people encounter the chair.

The final element introduced in 1986 was the term "On-Site Massage" to describe the process of massaging seated clients. I coined the term because, at that time, the vast majority of Chair Massage was literally taken to the client "on-site," mainly in the workplace, rather than the client coming to the chair. While the term made sense then, I have since erased it from my vocabulary. At least half of the Chair Massage business in the US today involves the clients going to the chair in fixed locations such as malls, supermarkets, airports, salons, and the like, making the term "on-site" somewhat meaningless. Thus, I have come to refer to this work as simply "Chair Massage" to juxtapose it nicely to "Table Massage" and, for variety, I sometimes use the alternative term "Seated Massage."

Twelve Years Later

Since 1986 the growth of Chair Massage has been steady and impressive. In the near future I believe that more people will be giving and receiving Chair Massage than any other style of bodywork.

Not because Chair Massage is any "better" than any other style of bodywork, but simply because Chair Massage is infinitely more accessible than any other delivery system of skilled touch. On price and convenience alone Chair Massage wins, hands down.

But beyond the accessible features of Chair Massage is its accessible intention. I have positioned the intention of my Chair Massage work as being a simple relaxation service rather than as a "treatment" or "therapy". While there are practitioners and teachers who do define Chair Massage as "massage therapy," in general, I think that is a mistake.

During the past two decades there have been two major rationales for massage promoted by bodywork schools and professional associations. The first has been to define bodywork as a "personal growth" service and the second to offer massage as a "health care service". While professional bodywork, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, performs both of these functions extraordinarily well, they are, I believe, self-limiting. The vast majority of the US population still views the concept of personal growth with suspicion and, likewise, relatively few people view themselves as having a health care problem for which bodywork is the obvious answer.

The beauty of Chair Massage is its simple message that massage can make you feel better, whatever that means to you, anytime you want.

You don't have to be sick or enlightened or wealthy to appreciate its benefits. It is truly massage for the masses.

Chair Massage also acts as the entry-point for clients into more sophisticated kinds of bodywork. I would venture to say that more people in the past five years in the US have had their first massage in a chair than on a table. And, since the first professional massage tends to be the most intimidating, Chair Massage clients become the foundation for future table clients. I know many examples of practitioners who marketed Chair Massage solely as a way of building a full-time table practice.

The accessible nature of Chair Massage has brought it to the office and factories, to movie sets and editing studios, to street fairs and caravan parks, to whitewater rafting trips and theme parks, to back stage, back lots, and back supply stores, to flea markets and food markets, and in state departments and department stores. As I was writing this, I got called to watch a news clip on television about Chair Massage being offered to spectators at the stadium of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Chair Massage is being marketed successfully in hundreds of locations and its future is limited only by the imagination of the practitioners.

I currently head a non-profit professional association, TouchPro™ Institute, which offers training, certification, and support to Chair Massage practitioners. TPI operates a web-site, publishes a newsletter, and sponsors annual conventions for TouchPro Practitioners. TouchPro also now has two international branches, in Rotterdam and London.

A significant portion of the history of Chair Massage in the UK can be traced to two workshops that TouchPro Institute (at that time called On-Site Enterprises) offered in August 1991. Two participants in those seminars subsequently went on to create separate UK Chair Massage training programs and each of those programmes, in turn, gave birth to a third generation of Chair Massage training including TouchPro UK operated by Alisdair Burcher in London. Alisdair's latest coup has been the placement of Chair Massage practitioners on the EuroStar trains operating between London and Paris twenty times a week.

Whether in the UK or the US we see the primary task of all Chair Massage practitioners to be education. The more practitioners working visibly in Chair Massage the more skilled touch becomes an accepted part of the fabric of everyday life, whether in the workplace, the shopping district, the recreation venue, or the home. My ultimate vision is to have all children in primary school learn basic shoulder rubs for their family and friends. When we reach that point I will know that we have arrived at our goal of a world where touch is recognised as essential to the development and maintenance of healthy human beings.

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About David Palmer

Massage Magazine calls Palmer the “father” of contemporary Chair Massage for the significant role that he has played in the growth of this segment of the bodywork services industry. Palmer is currently the Founder and Executive Director of TouchPro Institute, a non-profit professional association dedicated to the training, certification, and support of Chair Massage Practitioners. TouchPro Institute is located in San Francisco and has branch offices in London and Rotterdam. He can be contacted at 0181-450 3366.

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