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Letter to a Newly Qualified Practitioner from a Massage Elder

by Su Fox(more info)

listed in massage, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

Dear Shahima, Nadia, Don or Michael,

There you are, proudly clutching your massage qualification, business plan ready to go, full of energy and enthusiasm to pursue your new profession. At the risk of sounding like a financial advisor trying to sell a pension to someone who can't believe that he'll ever retire, let me give you some advice, from the elders of the massage community. Things I wish I'd been told when, like many of my contemporaries, I taught myself from the wonderful George Downing's Massage Book. There was no older generation then.
First and foremost, if you still want to be massaging when you get to sixty, you must look after your body. It's the tool on which your livelihood depends.   "Massage is one of the easiest professions in which to strain your body and wear yourself out" says Darien Pritchard in Dynamic Bodyuse, reviewed in PH Issue no 147 –  

He suggests you treat your body as if you were a world-class athlete, with respect and dedication to its well being and efficiency. Train to use it properly, never omitting warm up and cool down exercises and doing all you can to prevent injuries. You may have to jettison some common massage beliefs. You do not have to stand still or maintain contact with the client at all times. You do not have to stick to a set routine, or use deep pressure or techniques that are uncomfortable, and most importantly, you do not have to use your hands and thumbs to be effective. Massage can be done with the forearms, elbows, knees or feet. Learn to adapt your technique and monitor your responses. Twinges in your upper body joints, numbness or tingling, are warning signs. Buy Darien's book and take a course in hands-free massage before it's too late.

Next, stop trying! Here's David LeMay: "Ask yourself:  where is my massage coming from, from my hands or from my body? The year after qualifying ....I realized that I needed to get my body moving (I had thought that massage was done with the hands) and so went to 5Rhythms dance to do that. So let body momentum and body weight do it, allowing the hands to retire. Massage is a dance. Allow rhythm and seamless fluidity into the work, but without trying to.  No effort."

You won't always have the physical energy needed for deep tissue massage, but there are compensations. Listen to Carolan Evans, "I think that (ageing does) affect our ability to massage in the way we might have done previously, but we also acquire extra skills the longer we practise. For instance, our ability to 'read' the client and our ability to focus our intent so that the quality of touch is more prescriptive. We can achieve as much or more with less physical input and effort."

Here's another point to consider. Know your limits. You don't have to work with every sort of body. If you are short and slight, massaging a team of rugby players could put you at risk of injury. Obviously, if you are employed by a spa or health salon, you may not be able to chose who you work with, but be careful, maintain good bodyuse habits and get massaged yourself to avoid burnout. If you work in private practice, have a list of bigger or stronger colleagues to refer clients on to. Here's Jan Elson, a Thai yoga massage therapist, talking about change: "My pace of working and variety of workplaces has changed a lot in the last 10 years, by my choice. I no longer travel to distant venues for a couple of hour's work which I used to do a lot; I don't work at all at weekends or in the evenings. I am fortunate that I can work part time so the maximum treatments I do in one day is usually 4, and some of those only around half an hour long, and all my work is now fairly local to where I live."

I know this may be hard to believe, but however well you care for your body, your responses will slow down and your strength will diminish. The ageing process is inevitable. If you want to remain in the profession, here are a couple of suggestions. There are many energy based healing or bodywork techniques such as Reiki, zero balancing, craniosacral therapy that are less physically demanding than soft tissue massage, and can be incorporated into a treatment, or offered as an alternative. You could also consider specializing in client groups that need more gentle massage, like babies, the elderly or people in hospice care. And, another suggestion from Darien – sit down as often as you can during a massage.

Will you get bored doing massage for years? Possibly, but that may mean you're not doing enough swaps or taking your CPD seriously. Any job becomes stale without fresh input. Carolan Evans again: ".....I don't think boredom is simply about age, just a sign that we've exhausted the possibilities for ourselves and need to move on. This could be true at any age."
May your passion for the work remain undimmed and may you grow old in the profession with grace and your health intact,


George Downing. The Massage Book. Random House. New York. 1972.
Darien Pritchard. Dynamic Bodyuse for Effective Strain-free Massage. Lotus Publishing, Chichester England. North Atlantic Books, California. 2007.
Darien Pritchard, Jan Elson, Carolan Evans and David LeMay. Private communications, July 2008. Quoted with permission.


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About Su Fox

Su Fox BSc PGCE UKCP Reg MTI Reg CSTA Reg has worked as a complementary therapist and psychotherapist since 1988. For over twenty years she taught massage and related skills in day care centres for the elderly, people with learning difficulties, and mental health issues as well as professional massage qualifications at Hackney Community College. She was director and chair of The Massage Training Institute between  1991 – 2000 and during that time co-authored, with Darien Pritchard, Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology for Massage and authored The Massage Therapist's Pocketbook of Pathology, which has just been revised and reissued as The Massage Therapist’s Pocketbook of Pathology  published by Lotus Publishing.

During this time she was also running a successful private practice in psychotherapy at The Burma Road Practice in North London, focusing particularly on trauma work. She is a trained EMDR practitioner. Su has always believed that the talking therapies need to address the body, and that alternative therapies often failed to consider mental and emotional health, and this led her to write Relating to Clients. The Therapeutic Relationship for Complementary Therapists, published in 2009. In 1993 she added craniosacral therapy to her qualifications and has been a regular contributor to Fulcrum, the journal for the Craniosacral Therapy Association, including a series entitled ‘In The Supervisor’s Chair’. She currently serves on the supervision committee for the Association.

Her current interests are spirituality and its contribution to well being, and the psychology of the ageing process and end of life issues. Su can be contacted via

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