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A Healing Art


Posted on October 12


It may seem an indulgence to some. But for an ever-increasing number of Americans, massage is a way of life—as routine as getting a haircut.

“It’s not just a luxury or something you pamper yourself with once a year,” notes Larissa Miller, a certified massage therapist at Salon Cuvée in East Sacramento. “It’s preventive maintenance, and it has its best effects cumulatively.” Many Americans apparently agree: More than one in five adults (21 percent) have had a massage within the past year, according to a 2004 survey commissioned by the American Massage Therapy Association, representing a 13-point jump since 1997.

Although it’s been revered as a healing force in Eastern and other cultures since ancient times, the mainstreaming of massage has been a slow and often painful process, as longtime practitioners will tell you. “When I worked in Berkeley,” recounts Jan Fiore of Davis, a CMT for 25 years, “we would get a lot of weird calls. I would have to explain, ‘this is not a massage parlor.’”

Cindy D. Ajay, CMT and owner of the popular Blue Sky Day Spa in East Sacramento, also walked through the trenches. “When I first started doing massage in the early ’90s, a lot of therapists were underground, because the city ordinance back then regarded us as ‘adult entertainers,’” she explains. “We were legitimate businesses but weren’t recognized as such.” When the city of Sacramento passed the somatic practitioner ordinance in 1998, “an abundant number of therapists came out of the woodwork,” says Ajay. “I would never have been able to open my day spa without the ordinance.”

Rid of its unsavory image, massage has now stepped into the spotlight as not only a soothing way to shed stress, but as a legitimate therapeutic tool with tangible health-enhancing properties. Massage is used in intensive care units and for every conceivable population and problem, from cancer patients to babies, injured athletes to AIDS victims—even pets. “I have a cat who loves to get her little tummy rubbed,” notes Miller.

What’s Hot? Trends in Massage

Ironically, one of the hottest massage trends is hot stone massage. “Hot stones are hot,” laughs Ajay, and she’s not the only one who says so: Virtually every expert interviewed for this article agrees.
It’s a particular favorite of Fiore, who combines massage with other stress-management techniques and “energy work” at Journey Holistic Health in Davis.

“When it’s cold and foggy, hot stones get right down to the bones,” says Fiore. “It’s the most relaxing treatment I’ve ever had.” The treatment involves strategically placing heated basalt river stones along the spine and other points on the body, relieving pain and tension through deep-heat penetration. “Pictures don’t convey how good it feels,” notes Fiore. “You see rocks sitting on a person, which doesn’t really look all that appealing . . . you need to experience it.” Because it’s a deep-heat treatment, it’s not advised for pregnant women or individuals with high-blood pressure, Fiore cautions.

Hot stone also is the “signature massage” at the Serenity Spa in Roseville.”Not everybody does it the same,” notes spa co-owner Tammie Fairchild, “but for us, there’s a big ritual in the way the stones are gathered and treated.” Stones are hand-selected from rivers and beaches, boiled, oiled, and soaked in a milky calcium/magnesium mix before being set out in the sunlight and moonlight, which is believed to clear the stones of their energy field. Finally, the stones are tested to see if they hold the heat to the desired temperature; not all stones make the cut. “Once you’ve had a hot stone massage, you’ll never want another kind,” raves Fairchild. “It’s deeply therapeutic and incredibly relaxing.” Hot stone massage is typically longer (an hour and a half) and more expensive than the standard hour-long Swedish massage; at Serenity, it’s $90.

Thai (or Thai yoga) massage also is beginning to gain ground, “though a lot of people still don’t know what it is,” says CMT Joslyn McDonald of the Spa Simply Skin (on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Loehmann’s Plaza).“It’s part of a trend toward a more holistic approach, with more eastern modalities coming through.” Thai massage is performed on a floor mat with the client clad in comfortable clothes; the therapist stretches the client’s muscles, increasing flexibility and mobility of joints. “I use a variety of different poses and active stretching to lengthen the muscles and get the energy moving around,” explains McDonald, whose frequent Thai massage clients include dancers.

 Offering a somewhat simpler explanation, Miller puts it like this: “If you could do yoga and take a nap at the same time, you’ve experienced Thai massage.”

Back to the Basics

If you’d rather just stick to the basics, however, you’re not alone: Swedish massage still is the No. 1 most frequently requested, according to local therapists. And that’s no surprise, since Swedish—which uses long, firm strokes, kneading and circular motion— is the best-known variety. “If you don’t know what else to get,” suggests Ajay, “you can always start with a Swedish.” It’s great for overall relaxing and stress reduction, working out knots and improving circulation. The cost? Anywhere from $60–$75 an hour, according to a random survey of local spas.

Swedish also is the basis for most of the other types of massage, notes James Mally, N.D., founder of the Healing Arts Institute in Citrus Heights and a veteran massage therapist with 30 years of experience.

 “Typically,” he says, “a therapist will start with a good general Swedish massage, and then apply deep-tissue or other techniques to address problem areas.” By starting with Swedish massage, he says, the therapist relaxes muscles around the troubled area, making them more receptive to the deeper work that follows.

Therein lies the difference between a “spa” massage and a “clinical” massage: Spa massage typically is used for stress release and relaxation, while clinical massage (such as sports massage and deep tissue) targets specific problems such as headaches, low back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome. Still, as Mally points out, such categorization is arbitrary, especially when there’s so much overlap.

So, how do you get the right massage? Simple: Talk to your therapist. “Some people will say, ‘I like it really deep,’ or ‘I’m an athlete, so I need help with active isolated stretching,’” says Kay Beeman, an independent CMT in El Dorado Hills. “I just try and give people what they want, and I take into consideration medical issues. Even if you’re a caffeine drinker, for example, it will affect the pain level in your body.”

It’s your massage, so take control, adds McDonald. “You have to be comfortable and in control of your own body,” she says. “Ask questions, be candid, and tell your therapist if something doesn’t feel right.” If you don’t like your toes touched, she says, “Just tell me.”

Glossary of Massage Styles

Swedish or shiatsu? Deep tissue or Thai?  Choosing from a massage menu is like having to pick just one ice cream from Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors: Too many!

Although it’s just the tip of the iceberg, here’s a look at some of the most popular massage and bodywork therapies.

Acupressure: With fingertips instead of needles, acupressure involves the same theories, assessment tools, and points as acupuncture. Used to balance “chi,” the body’s life force energy.

Aromatherapy massage: Essential oils with purported healing properties are chosen to suit individual needs, then massaged into the skin, penetrating deeply into the body’s tissues.

Chair massage: While fully clothed, the upper body is massaged, providing tension relief. Often used in a workplace setting or for a quick lunchtime fix.

Deep tissue: Firm massage using deep muscle compression and friction. Often used therapeutically to heal muscle damage from an injury, such as whiplash or back strain.

Hot stone: Deep-heat treatment in which smooth, heated stones are placed along the spine and other body points to penetrate muscle, relieving pain and tension. Herbs and essential oils also are used.

Medical massage: Generally defined as medically necessary massage that has been prescribed by a physician for a patient.

Prenatal massage: While the client lies on her side, propped up by pillows, the therapist massages the back, feet and other body parts, relieving tension, reducing fatigue and providing all-around pampering. 

Reflexology: Based on the ancient theory that each part of the body has a reflex point on the feet, hands and ears, acupressure-type techniques are applied, stimulating natural healing in the corresponding organ.

Shiatsu: Shiatsu, which literally means “finger pressure,” is the Japanese art of acupressure. Rhythmic pressure is used on specific points along the body’s meridians, stimulating energy flow.

Sports massage: Synthesizing techniques from other types of massage, sports massage is designed to help prevent athletic injury, keep the body flexible and assist the healing process should injury occur.

Swedish massage: Traditional massage incorporating long, firm strokes, kneading and circular motion. Used as the basis for many other massage therapies.

Thai (Thai yoga) massage: Combining yoga stretches and acupressure, muscles are stretched and joints are manipulated while the client relaxes on a yoga mat.

A New Concept in Massage

With its Freudian name and Starbucks-like strategy, the fast-blooming franchise Massage Envy hopes to become massage’s first national brand.

“When you think of office supplies, you think of Staples, but when you think of massage, you don’t think of a national brand,” says Mary Ekiss, who, with husband Brian, opened the area’s first Massage Envy location in the Fairway Oaks section of Roseville in mid-May. “Massage Envy aims to be that national brand.”

Before entering the massage business, Mary was a schoolteacher and, more recently, a principal at Greenhills School in Granite Bay; Brian was a 16-year veteran of Intel Corp., where he worked in product marketing. After an exhaustive search to find a business of their own, they decided Massage Envy “was a great concept whose time has come,” says Mary. “Massage is in high demand, without a national brand. And Massage Envy helps to make massage affordable, convenient and professional.”

Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., Massage Envy was founded three years ago and is rapidly expanding; more than 40 locations were operating in 22 states at the time of this writing. The Ekisses, regional developers for the franchise, own the territory from the East Bay to Redding to Reno, according to Mary, and anticipate opening 15 locations in the greater Sacramento area in the next three years. The second Roseville location (at Eureka and Rocky Ridge) is slated to open in late July or early August, with several more in the works, including two in Folsom and one in Natomas. “We’re definitely going into the heart of Sacramento, too,” adds Brian. “We’re working on that right now.”

A membership program is key to the Massage Envy business model. Monthly dues of $59 includes one massage; additional massages are $39 each (unlimited) for the entire month. With 12 massage rooms and 13 tables (one is a couples’ room) and a large staff—most locations employ 15–20 therapists, according to Mary—it’s generally easier to get an appointment at Massage Envy than at other spas. A variety of massage types are offered, from the basic Swedish to prenatal, deep-tissue, reflexology and more.

Jumping into a brand-new business “is a whirlwind, but it’s exciting,” says Brian. On the second Saturday of their grand opening in Roseville, they had more than 50 appointments, and business has been steady ever since.

“Most businesses rev you up,” notes Brian, “but ours helps you relax. It feels good to know we’re helping people with what we do.”

Massage Envy is located at 10441 Fairway Drive in Roseville. Phone: (916) 784-3800.

Self-Imposed Relaxation Hour

When you’re hunched over a computer all day and strap on a guitar at night, the body eventually rebels.
“I was becoming a solid block,” recalls Jim Cobb, a computer analyst programmer and veteran bass player who frequently gigs on weekends.

While living in his native England, Cobb, now 50 and an El Dorado Hills resident, never even considered seeking relief through massage. But after he moved to the States, divine intervention appeared in the form of onsite chair massage at his place of business, Synergex (in Gold River).

“A couple of people on my team were doing it, so I decided to give it a try,” says Cobb, who moved here in 1995. After he left the company and began working out of his home as an independent consultant, Cobb sought massage on his own.

“I’ve probably been to four or five different massage therapists over the past five years,” he says, “and they all say the same thing: that I’m incredibly tight in my back and shoulders. I guess I’m not the kind of person who relaxes or chills out very much. My usual chill-out time is 10 o’ clock with a beer, and even then I’m not that relaxed.”

Getting a massage, he says, is “like self-imposed relaxation hour. You force yourself to do it, and you pay someone to help.” The results, he says, are well worth it. “I really do feel a difference, particularly in my shoulders and neck.”

Stress reduction is another benefit, adds Cobb. “To a degree,” he says, “massage is like short-term therapy. It takes you to a place of wellness you wouldn’t normally go.”

Although massages used to be a monthly ritual for Cobb, he’s been slacking a bit lately. “I still get massages, but it would really be a good practice for me to get at least one a month and to make sure I get them after a weekend of gigging,” he says. “When I gig two weekends in a row, it takes a toll, and by Sunday I’m a wreck.”

May I See Your License, Please?

Licensing of massage therapists in California currently is governed by cities and counties. But if SB 412 is signed into law, state licensing could soon become a reality.

The bill passed the state Senate in May and was headed for the Assembly at the time of this writing. Oct. 9 is the last day for the governor to sign.

Under current law, licensing requirements vary greatly within the state. In Sacramento County, the requirement is 130 hours of training; in the city of Sacramento, 250 hours of training plus 12 hours of continuing education per year are required. The standard requirement for licensure in most states is 500 hours of education.

SB 412 attempts to bring California’s training standards in line with that of other states, with a 250-hour “practitioner” tier and a 500-hour “therapist” tier. While raising standards may seem a step in the right direction, some argue that the heightened requirements would prove damaging to many longtime members of the profession. “As written, SB 412 does not account for the hundreds of therapists who have been working in the profession for years, doing no harm, but have minimal formal education,” notes Teresa Nead, president of California Alliance of Massage and Bodywork Schools and owner of the Body Institute Inc., a massage therapy school in Granite Bay. Nead says she is “fighting hard” to convince legislators to include a grandfather clause that would allow these therapists to continue practicing while upgrading their education to fulfill the new requirements.

James Mally, N.D., founder of the Healing Arts Institute in Citrus Heights, voices similar concerns. “At our school, we offer a basic 126-hour certification program that fulfills the100 hours of training required to work in most Northern California municipalities, and I think that number of hours is more than enough to prepare someone to get started in the field,” he says. “It allows new graduates to start working immediately and then continue their education while they’re working in the field, which I think is the way most people learn best.” SB 412, if passed, could make that option less viable by requiring 500 hours of education up front.

More than 70 percent of massage therapists in California have 250 or fewer hours of education, notes Bob Benson, president of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. “If you put through a law that says, ‘500 hours or more, or don’t even talk to me,’ you would potentially lose those 70 percent of the practitioners who are now serving the public, and serving them safely and well,” he says.

Proponents of the measure such as Cindy D. Ajay argue that “the more education one has, the better the therapist.” State licensing also would streamline the business of massage therapy, adds Ajay, who owns the Blue Sky Day Spa in East Sacramento. “With state licensing, standards and regulations would be the same from county to county, making it easier to have a business without the barriers of county and city regulations.”

Whether you agree or disagree with SB 412, massage professionals need to make their voices heard, says Nead. “Things can only change if the therapist takes a proactive stance and communicates with those making the laws.”

Finding a Massage Therapist

Finding a massage therapist isn’t always as easy as asking a friend or walking your fingers through the Yellow Pages. Here are a few tips that may help.

 Make sure the therapist is licensed. Although licensing laws in California may soon change (see page 124 for more information), current licensing requirements vary from city to city and county to county. In Northern California, most municipalities require a minimum of 100 hours of training; the city of Sacramento requires 250 hours of training plus 12 hours of continuing education per year. (Note: The organizations listed below can help you verify a therapist’s licensure.)

 Look for membership in a professional organization. Membership in a professional organization such as the American Massage Therapy Association or the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals ensures that the therapist is a graduate of an approved training program and has met all state certification/licensing requirements. Both offer “massage finder” services online and via phone:

AMTA: amtamassage.com; (888) 843-2682
ABMP: abmp.com; (800) 458-2267

 Interview the therapist. “I love it when people call up and ask questions and interview me,” says CMT Larissa Miller of Salon Cuvée. “I would recommend people do that when they’re looking for a therapist.” Some things you may want to ask about: training and experience (a strong background in anatomy is key, says Miller), preferred types of massage, cost and convenience.

 Look for a therapist who asks about your health history. Usually part of the “intake” process, the request for your health history should be made by the therapist during your first visit—just like going to the doctor.
 Scope it out. A good therapist knows when to refer a patient to another health practitioner, notes James Mally, N.D., founder of the Healing Arts Institute. “If an injury or physical problem is severe, it’s important for the therapist to know when it’s out of their scope and when to refer out,” he says. If you’ve been seeing a therapist repeatedly without success, it’s time to look elsewhere.