I stumbled upon massage therapy by accident when I was in my 30s. I had been teaching aerobics after burning out on freelancing as a commercial illustrator. I didn’t know it at the time but I was really burnt out on not knowing anything about marketing or running a business.
Since I had a dance background and I had taken a lot of anatomy for artists I had a natural inclination toward understanding the body and was quick to learn the techniques.
Massage therapy can provide a great part-time income with many modalities to choose from and flexibility to work seasonally at a resort or run your own office on your own terms.
Related podcast on massage gigs
Community College Massage Therapy Programs vs. Private Massage Schools
Have you always wanted to learn more about massage therapy, or have you been thinking about starting a new career in the healing arts?
Massage therapy is one field where people of all ages and backgrounds are welcome. It can be a great side gig, second act for retirees as well as younger people who want to get out of the corporate rat race.
There are a lot of people who go into massage as a second part-time career while keeping their first career also.
An Eclectic Student Population in Massage Therapy
Massage school was the one place I didn’t feel uncomfortable being back in school after the age of 40. There were many people starting massage careers or getting further hours who were in their 40s and 50s and beyond.
One massage student was on sabbatical from her career as a math teacher at De Anza College and had always wanted to learn massage therapy. Other men and women had retired from corporate jobs and were looking for something entirely new to do.
After an 8-year hiatus from working as a massage therapist, I decided it was time to get the rest of my hours and get the California state certification. I had quit my last job as a massage therapist because I could not afford to go back to school at the time for another 300 hours of training to get the certification when the laws changed for California. All massage centers had begun to require all massage therapists to have a new state certification.
I had gotten my first 300 hours of training through Body Therapy Center in Palo Alto, CA. They have since stopped offering massage training and splintered off to start a new school called McKinnon body therapy in Oakland where the rent is a lot less expensive.
Luckily the new location still had my records. They were able to tell me how many hours I would need to get up to the required number of hours to work in California as a state-certified therapist. I signed up for the clinical-deep-tissue massage program there, starting with the advanced anatomy and physiology module.
McKinnon and other small private massage schools are nice because they have flexible programs. A 500-hour program is about 8000 dollars, but you can put 200 down and spend a few hundred per month. Or you can pay in full and get a discount.
You can often start a massage career within one year
It does not take long to get your career started as a massage therapist. Usually, people work as a therapist while they continue their education. You can get started in 6 months to a year depending on the number of hours your state requires and the amount of time and money you can spend on classes. If you can go to school full time and get all your hours in at once you can get started pretty quickly.
In 1998 when I had my massage business, there was no requirement for state certification. To work in Palo Alto with a city license only required 150 hours. I had been able to start working after only three months of massage school while I continued to take more advanced massage courses.
The massage school hired me right after completing my first 3-month certification. Body Therapy Center offered massage services as well as training at the time. I also got a job at Watercourse Way in Palo Alto, a beautiful spa and therapy center.
So between the two jobs, I was doing 20 to 30 massages per week. Within a year, I had opened my own office. I rented space in a building with two other massage therapists and had a full-time practice near downtown Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley. I advertised in the newspaper back then and joined the chamber of commerce. The rest was word of mouth referrals from clients. It seemed to take no time at all to build a practice.
Use Caution When Increasing Work Hours
I was working full time doing Swedish massage right out of school, which is done with mostly hands in long smooth strokes. I would wake up with numb hands every morning from the swelling from overuse. Even with stretching and icing my hands every day, I had trouble with injuries.
Once I went back to school and learned some sports massage techniques, this subsided. But all the great methods in the world can’t help you avoid overuse injuries if you begin with too many hours too quickly. It is better to ease into massage and make sure you learn proper body mechanics. Vary your technique throughout the hour to two-hour massage during your 4 to 8 hours of work per day.
Vary Massage Modalities to Avoid Injury
If you can educate your clients on the benefits of the lighter modalities, you can save yourself some grief. Many people think that only a very deep or hard massage will help them. Often this just bruises the muscles and causes further scaring and damage to the client.
Many times, lymphatic massage and lighter techniques are more beneficial. They may not “feel” as if anything is happening, but lighter myofascial work can be more useful than going in with everything you have. Getting clients to understand why deep work isn’t always the best is a matter of cultivating and educating. But choosing and blending modalities is a topic for another article.
Massage Certification for California Bodyworkers
Different states require different numbers of hours. Usually, it is somewhere between 300 and 1000 hours to get started. But if you think you might want to relocate it is better to get 1000 hours and take the national board certification through the NCBTMB. Many cruise ship jobs require national certification. Here is a list of all the different state requirements.
Raising the Bar for Massage Professionals
It was a little too easy to get started in massage and bodywork professions in California in 1998. But things have changed a lot since then. In 1998 there were a lot of massage parlors acting as fronts for prostitution. Legitimate massage professionals got tired of being lumped in with sex workers.
A group of professional bodyworkers and citizens got together and set up the California Massage Therapy Council and helped to pass laws to raise the standards for massage professionals. At the time of this writing, the state requirement for California is 500 hours, and the US national certification is 1000 hours. Some massage therapists never took the state boards when they began to be required and were grandfathered in under special provisions.
How Many Hours of Training Do You Need to Become a Massage Therapist?
Most employers in California now require the California state certification. Individual cities usually require the 500-hour certification to get a business license. In some counties, you can still work without certification if you work under the direct supervision of a medical professional.
In most states, you do need to be certified. There are still a few states that do not require any certification, but they are becoming fewer by the year. You can be fined and even arrested for practicing without a city license or state or national certification for massage in some jurisdictions.
Looking back now after years of training to work in both massage and Pilates, 150 hours does not seem like enough training to get started. The more rigorous standards have improved the profession and weeded out the people who were just using a massage license as a front for businesses that had little to do with massage therapy.
Searching for the Best Massage Therapy Program
Depending on where you live, you may have a community college that has an inexpensive program. If you are not close to a great college program, you may have to go the private school route and pay the additional money.
National Holistic Institute
When I decided I wanted to return to massage, I looked at the National Holistic Institute in Berkeley first. But it was a full-time 8-month program costing over 14000 dollars with no a-la-carte options for paying as you go. Since I had already been to massage school, I wanted something more flexible where I could fill in the missing hours without having to start from scratch. I also checked community colleges to see what was on offer. But most of them only had a few classes and did not offer enough hours to become certified.
De Anza College Massage Therapy Program
I was pleased to find out about the De Anza massage therapy program. They do not offer evening or weekend classes, so that is a drawback if you work full time. But they have an occupational therapy center located in the same building as the massage therapy program, so it is a great place to practice and get externship hours. Since it is so affordable at only about 100 per course, I was okay with starting with a beginning course for review. The professors at De Anza are required to have a master’s degree in the field they teach in, so this is a nice additional perk.
McKinnon Body Therapy Center has Flexible Hours
The nice thing about McKinnon and other private massage schools is that they do offer evening classes and weekend modules, so it is easy to schedule around work. I had already started the weekend program at McKinnon Body Therapy Center in Oakland. I continued my first module there while I checked out the De Anza College massage program simultaneously. This gave me the perfect opportunity to compare the two schools.
McKinnon Massage has Small Intimate Classes
McKinnon is a small school in an old house, so the rooms are, well, minuscule, the size of living rooms and bedrooms in a house. The atmosphere is cozy and informal with cushions on the floor and massage tables folded away and stored at the sides of rooms or in small closet areas with anatomy charts and skeletons mingled among them. Each class can only accommodate about ten students. This is nice in a way, but it can feel cramped.
The classes tuition at private schools like McKinnon run into the thousands for each program or module. We had four different teachers covering different classes in our anatomy and physiology class. They varied greatly in competence and knowledge. The classes were informal with a lot of humor thrown in to get through the tough advanced material.
Some Teachers at private massage schools Never Took the State certification
One of the teachers we had the most often had never even taken the MBLEX, the test that is now required to apply for certification with the California Massage Board. This teacher had been grandfathered in when the changes took place. He did not care what was covered in the state test. He just wanted us to be “dope ass” massage therapists when we got out of McKinnon.
The problem with that attitude is that you can’t get your state massage certification and start working if you don’t pass that 100-question test. For 3000 dollars, I was not going to hang out on a cushion every weekend in a feel-good hippy-dippy-Indian-bedspread-hung bedroom passing-for-a-classroom and hope I was learning enough to pass the CA Massage Board requirements for state certification.
The education level of the teachers at McKinnon and a lot of private schools varies. All of them are respected massage therapists, but many of them do not have graduate degrees in related fields.
Once I completed the first module at McKinnon, I canceled any further modules in the advanced program and continued at De Anza Community College.
Books for Massage Therapy Classes
De Anza uses some of the same textbooks as the private massage school did. Both schools use the anatomy book Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel, but the Anatomy and Physiology books are different.
The Anatomy and Physiology book McKinnon uses is the Anatomy and Physiology the Massage Connection by Kalyani Premkumar. I have not taken physiology and anatomy at De Anza yet, so I am not sure what they use. But they require college-level science courses for the associate’s degree although you do not have to take straight science courses for the 500-hour state certification. All of the textbooks are of course at least 50 dollars each. Some are available used or for rent.
De Anza uses the Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage by Mark Beck for an overview of everything massage related. This is the book I studied to pass the MBLEX.
The full associate’s degree program at De Anza requires taking two anatomy and physiology classes as well as doing an internship, a business course, and a lot of other massage modules. They offer clinical-deep-tissue, as well as a sports massage program and chair massage. But you have the choice to start with the 500-hour program and start working while you continue through the 1000-hour program at De Anza for an Associate’s degree. But you don’t have to get an associate’s degree to work as a massage therapist.
The downside of De Anza is that unlike the small private schools, they do not offer much in the way of Asian massage modalities. They provide only one acupressure module, while McKinnon offers many different Asian modalities. McKinnon offers pregnancy massage, lymphatic drainage, hot stone massage, and other training.
Unless you want to specialize in Asian modalities, you are better off getting a good foundation in a western-style massage. Later you can take courses from other private schools. Most spas hire people who can give a Swedish massage and know clinical deep tissue work. But if you know other modalities, they are happy to have those.
Asian Modalities Alone can Limit Your Job Prospects
If you only know Asian modalities, like shiatsu, Thai massage, or tui na, it is harder to work for a chiropractor or spa. You are often limited to getting your own clients when you only have Asian massage skills.
Ultimately you will make more money working for yourself no matter what type of massage you do. But starting out it is nice to have more options for making money. Working in a spa or Chiropractic office or doing corporate massage jobs are good ways to break into the field and get experience and find out what you enjoy most.
Limited Schedule at community colleges
At De Anza College they offer Tuesday and Thursday morning from 8 to 10:20 for the intro to massage class. The next quarter you continue to the next level at the same time of day.
They also offer an accelerated program. So that you can take more classes per quarter and be through the entire program faster if you have the time to go four days per week morning and afternoon.
The De Anza massage therapy department is in the spacious Phys Ed. Quad which also houses, occupational therapy, dance, weight training, and swimming facilities. The building is old, and a bit run down but has a large room dedicated to the massage program with an office downstairs with space for students to practice.
Intro to Massage at De Anza College with Dr. Nhon Lam
The first semester I took intro to massage with Dr. Nhon Lam, who has a chiropractic business as well as teaching massage fundamentals and intermediate massage at De Anza. The intro to massage class had about 28 students, more than twice the number as I had in the McKinnon classes. Many of the students were not there to prepare for a career in massage but just needed a Phys Ed requirement and signed up for massage thinking it will be an easy A.
We sat at desks for the lecture portion of the class with anatomy and physiology and moved the desks out to the porch and moved in tables from a storage closet for each 2.5-hour class which met twice a week. We had written tests and practical exams showing that we knew the technique and could find anatomical landmarks on the body. The people seeking an easy A were a little disappointed with all the studying they had to do.
Feeling Safe at De Anza Massage Program
The tone of the class was professional and serious. I felt very secure in the knowledge that I was going to pass the MBLEX with the training I was getting. Strict draping procedures were in place, and everyone was required to wear shorts and for women a bathing suit top.
Since it is a state-funded community college, everyone was required to get fingerprinted for a background check by the third week of class. This had been implemented after some trouble in the past with sex offenders trying to take the course. It is a reasonable precaution with such large classes and the whole student body being welcome to take the intro class.
In contrast, McKinnon had a very loose policy about draping and nudity, which I found a bit annoying and unprofessional. Since it is a private school they do not require a background check for students, so you can end up with some shady characters to practice with.
At De Anza, I was immediately impressed with Dr. Lam’s teaching abilities and knowledge of massage therapy. For a fraction of the price of classes at my old school, I was studying with a world-class teacher and getting college credit toward an associate’s degree.
A lot of the anatomy and technique lectures were a review for me as well as the massage demos and practice, but it was good to get Dr. Lam’s perspective. As a chiropractor who is also a massage practitioner, he has a unique perspective and uses soft tissue work as much or more than chiropractic in his practice.
Learning Good Habits Helps You Avoid Injuries
I especially appreciated the focus on proper body mechanics. Instead of showing us choreographed routines. He showed us the elements of each type of stroke and made sure that we tailored them to our own body. We would not be overreaching or doing anything that could cause injuries down the road.
I appreciated his constant reminders to make it work for our bodies. In my earlier massage career, I had been injured a lot of the time. I had started working full time at Body Therapy Center and Watercourse Way in Palo Alto doing Swedish massage and relying heavily on hand and finger movements. This caused me to wake up with numb hands in the morning.
Once I had learned sports massage and some deep tissue techniques, I started to use my forearms more. I was able to rely less on my hands but developed chronic neck and shoulder problems due to improper technique and too many hours of massage at the outset of my career.
A quick tip to help you if you decide to do outcall massage and have to drag your table from car to people’s homes. Get a massage table bag with wheels!
Intermediate Massage at De Anza College
The second semester, intermediate massage, was even better than the first. The class was smaller. The students were all there because they wanted to get a massage certification or an associate’s degree and work as massage therapists.
There were a lot more students this quarter who were already working as therapists but wanted to get further training. The people who were not serious had fallen by the wayside or found some other PE class to get their credits.
Dr. Lam emphasized myofascial techniques, treating injuries and muscle testing as well as postural analysis. We continued to use the techniques we had learned in Massage Level 1, adding deeper pressure, passive and active stretches, and learned about identifying and working with injuries.
The lectures were a continuation of the last quarter with more detailed anatomy and physiology principles and some kinesiology theory as well using The Trail Guide to Movement by Andrew Biel. It was an interesting and intense book. I am looking forward to taking Kinesiology down the road.
We learned to document massage treatments with “soap notes.” Soap notes are a type of ongoing progress notes and did a case study with ten sessions using our own practice partner at home.
I am looking forward to going back to take the advanced massage module, sports massage module, and the internship and completing the rest of the program.
Update: De Anza College no longer has a massage program but check out Skyline College in San Bruno if you are in the Silicon Valley California area.
I Survived the MBLEX
I was able to qualify to take the state MBLEX massage board test by combining my hours from the two different schools. I was relieved to have passed the MBLEX. I used the textbook from De Anza Community College and the free MBLEX study guide as well as paying for one month of the massage exam course.
I wish I had known about the De Anza program sooner because I would have gone back to school a lot earlier.
Resources for your massage career
The cost of textbooks adds up quickly, so see if you can find them used.
Some programs have a massage table and accessories bundle discount, but they never seem to have a table holder with wheels for those outcall massage jobs.
Finding a table that is lightweight for travel, but durable can be difficult. The Sierra has excellent reviews and comes with many different bolsters and accessories.