Channels like HGTV, Oxygen, and E!, and shows like Kitchen Nightmares, Project Runway, and Real Housewives are partially so successful because of an instinct we have to wonder about the “behind the scenes” of other people’s lives.
If you’re anything like me, this curiosity may extend into your own interests and experiences, as well. It may be challenging for you, too, not to pry when watching someone perform their craft—be it cutting hair, cooking, laying tile, or driving a school bus.
In an effort to satiate anyone who may be having those endless “how” and “what” questions revolving around becoming a licensed massage therapist, here goes!
First, I should say that the experience other massage therapists have had on their way to licensure may vary from mine due to differences in personal style and their school’s curriculum plan, but the gist is roughly the same across the board.
Let me tell you right off the bat – I had zero clue what I was in for when I signed up for school. I was incredibly naïve about what was going to take place, and in fact, I almost have to laugh at myself in retrospect because… what was I thinking?!
Truthfully, I imagined that massage therapy school was going to consist of some wholesome, spiritually connected people handing down secret techniques and then wisely watching us across a montage of days spent practicing until we had it perfect.
I imagined that I’d gain a deeper understanding of personal peace as a result, and the whole thing would be calm and lovely.
In a way, this did happen, minus the Karate Kid vibes and plus a shitload of science and fried nerves.
One day per week was dedicated wholly to book learning. Anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology were described from the ground up as we sat at long tables taking notes and trying not to get squeamish during the cadaver video segments.
For anatomy specifically, we first had to learn and memorize every bone in the body (barring a few tiny ones that we don’t directly influence)—and this included learning all the different quirks of the bones, too.
For example, we didn’t just learn what the humerus is, we needed to know that the humerus is composed of the bicipital and radial grooves, greater and lesser tubercles, lateral and medial supracondylar ridges, the head, the anatomical vs. the surgical neck, the olecranon fossa, and so on.
It sounds tedious to memorize the names and locations of 15-25 “bony landmarks” PER bone, and believe me it was, but it was also necessary so that we could later understand how and where these landmarks interact with the musculature that attaches to and surrounds them.
Accompanying this journey from bones to muscles, we simultaneously learned about the body’s major systems (circulatory, nervous, digestive, endocrine, etc.), and how they all function in concert to allow us to do all the amazing things we can do.
It is all absolutely wild and so very complex, and it taught me far more than I could have predicted.
Three other days per week, we were working with three core instructors on bodywork. Each core teacher had their own day with the class, which enabled us to learn their individual styles without conflict.
Every single teacher we had (including our science teacher!) was a practicing massage therapist at the time of my education, which made for phenomenal resources and insights.
Much unlike my pre-education assumptions, the overarching practice of massage is very fluid and mutable, rather than a collection of defined moves. Massage is described over and over again as a dance – something that sways you intuitively this way and that as you sense and respond to the body.
That being said, the first modality we learned is actually based around a handful of defined, common techniques that helped us learn to use our touch. Swedish massage, with it’s more particular strokes and rules, was the foundation of our practical knowledge. We learned each limb individually and then learned how to combine them all for a full massage.
Within just a few weeks, public clinical hours began every Saturday morning. My classmates and I would each massage four clients in a row to hone our skills, with each student also having a turn working the front desk for the day.
In case you’re wondering about the particulars of bodywork classes, we walked step by step through performing a massage from day one. We learned about everything from hygiene and draping (how to fold the sheets around the client properly), to where and how to stand depending on what limb we’re working on.
We had to massage each other literally blindfolded, and we practiced body reading to preemptively get an idea of any muscular issues clients may be having based on sight alone, from the minute they walk in the door.
A number of weeks into our education, we transitioned from relaxing Swedish massage techniques to deep tissue, neuromuscular therapy, and trigger point therapy. We were graded on major styles by applying them to one of our bodywork instructors as a graded test.
When I tell you I was riding high anxiety every day, I kid not in the slightest.
Over the course of the program, some of our weekdays at school were split in half so that other teachers could come in and supplement our science and bodywork days with other necessary skills and knowledge.
We crafted a full business plan, learned about doing taxes, became CPR certified, studied for our state licensure exam, tried out sports massage, and even learned Yang Style Tai Chi to help with our body mechanics and prepare us to move gracefully around the massage table.
We were exposed to additional modalities of massage therapy, such as reflexology, Lomi Lomi, hot stone, shiatsu, and Esalen—all of which require either continuing education or a specific certification to put into practice.
As a cherry-on-top notable, we also had to do a significant amount of homework massages, which are exactly what they sound like. While this task was a huge time commitment on top of studying and clinic days, it also forced me to detach from my very soul and offer free massages to absolute strangers who lived in my apartment building or whom I met at the dog park.
Twenty-something random people came to my studio apartment and hopped on my table, and that is an experience I will never ever, ever forget.
I earned a really fantastic donut with sprinkles, a full-on dinner and dessert at Hattie B’s, an awesome keychain from India, a couple of friends, and some major moxie.
Not to be dramatic, but for a number of reasons, I came out of school a very different person than I went in as, and I’ve never been prouder of a set of decisions or accomplishments than those I made throughout the process.
Massage therapy school is cool. It’s a huge experience that adds a huge lot of knowledge to you – emotionally, physically, intellectually, interpersonally.
It’s also really tough and requires determination, self-discipline, and the need to step outside of your comfort zone. It’s time consuming but rewarding. Ultimately, it’s nothing like what people expect it to be, and I’m thankful to have a place I can put this all down on paper to be enjoyed by anyone whose feeling curious.
About the author: Muscle Memory Massage
I'm so excited to be here in Cahaba Heights, supporting our community with relaxation, stress relief, and pain mitigation. I lived in Cahaba Heights when I initially moved to Birmingham 4 years ago, and I felt at home for the first time in a long time. Everything from the pretty neighborhoods and beautiful flowers to Doodles and the friendly faces I came to know stuck with me. After learning a LOT in school and being sincerely surprised by the immense benefits provided by massage therapy, I knew there was no where else I'd rather bring my newfound knowledge and skills to than where my Birmingham adventures began. I love it here, and I hope you'll love me being here, as well!
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