A friend and student of mine just posted on Facebook asking what people's advice to someone thinking about becoming a massage therapist would be. I immediately knew I had more to say than would fit in a Facebook thread. So I came over here. I'm pressed for time right now, so this might be a bit clumsy, but here goes... My advice to those just deciding to dip their toes in the study of bodywork.
1) take good body science classes. If where you live doesn't require that you learn anatomy/kinesiology/pathology then go take some community college classes. You don't have to be able to name every muscle in the body to be a good therapist, and knowing anatomy certainly isn't what makes someone a good massage practitioner unto itself as it doesn't teach touch sensitivity, but it can be a key ingredient in making someone who is good at touch into a great practitioner. Having the ability to visualize what is under the skin you are touching is game changing.
2) Then, if you don't know what modality you are interested in, dabble for a bit getting different sorts of sessions and taking workshops in different modalities at first. Remember that not every practitioner is the same, so don't judge a modality based on one treatment from one person. Spend some time finding out the potential of different modalities. If one interests you, talk to a variety of people who practice it. You are looking for something to sink your learning teeth into, so it's worth putting in the time to sass out what you want to do.
3) Eventually figure out a modality that you like and go deep with it. Find something that you can study for years (not that it has to take years before you can practice, just that there will be ever more to learn) and get really good at it. Be careful of the tendency common to massage therapists to think that they need to have a laundry list of modalities that they have studied. Too many people become a Jack Of All Trades Master of None - I'd rather see someone who is serious about a modality, even if it's not my favorite modality, than someone who has taken a class or two in a modality that I like and tacked it onto a list of 10 other modalities. When I see those websites and business cards that list 10 modalities I think "yeah, but what are you good at?"
4) Learn to do deep work - gentle light touch relaxation massages are a dime a dozen. For people who like deep work finding a skillful deep tissue practitioner (and I use the term deep tissue to apply to a variety of modalities - for instance, I do deep tissue Thai massage) is like finding treasure. Being skillful at deep work, you can still do the light gentle work as needed of course, but you bring more to the table for those who need and want more.
5) If you go to one of those massage schools - the ones that are hundreds (or in some places thousands) of hours of training, remember that even though you are learning a lot, you are not graduating suddenly a masterful massage therapist or a doctor. Those schools usually take about a year to complete. Doctors go to school for significantly longer and becoming a highly skillful massage therapist requires having a practice beyond your school time - experience touching many many bodies. I see a lot of people fresh out of massage school who seem to think that because they know what the greater trochanter is they are now a medic. 26 years ago my first massage teacher said to me "on Friday I'm going to give you all a certificate. Remember that when you complete any course of study, whether it's a course like this, or law school, or medical school, the piece of paper that you get in the end doesn't mean you are now qualified. It means that you now have what it takes to go out and learn your skill". All the schooling is is a launch pad - it gives you the foundation that will allow you to then truly learn. Yes, you can immediately start your massage practice; and you should, for that is a huge part of how you learn your skill, but you aren't done studying. After massage school, seek out individual teachers to guide you into your specialization. Never stop taking classes. And practice practice practice. I've been a massage therapist for 26 years and I still take classes. There is always more to learn.
6) Know going in, that in addition to becoming a massage therapist, you are becoming a business. Most people who are attracted to learning massage are kind and compassionate people who want to spend their days nurturing others. This is wonderful, but you need to realize that unless you plan on working for others (like in a spa or chiropractic office), then you also have to become a business person. You have to deal with marketing, maintaining a website, social media outreach, all of the nuts and bolts of getting clients. They rarely just show up. Your social community of friends and family is rarely enough to create a viable massage practice. The number one thing that I see cause people who became massage therapists to leave it behind is that they didn't realize going in that they would have to wear a business hat in addition to wearing a loving caregiver hat. It's very hard to build a private massage practice that has enough clients to pay the rent. Being a great therapist isn't enough - you have to also decide whether or not it makes sense to use Google Adwords, and if print advertising is dead or not, and should you give away sessions? Should you try to give lectures at local events? And what is SEO and does it matter?
If you want to have a private practice, something about this side of things needs to be appealing. I don't like it all, but for the most part I actually find the business part to be interesting and fun. I like the creativity of business, I like working on my website, and I like learning so much that I can even enjoy a well written business book. When I started The Naga Center I went to the library and I got a stack of books on how to write a business plan, and I wrote one. I went to the local SCORE office where you can get free business mentorship and I paid attention. I suck at a lot of the business stuff (hello pile of receipts tossed in a drawer to be looked at with horror come tax time), but I don't hate it. Those who do usually move on to other professions.
7) Massage can be a very solitary profession. Most of the time it's just you and your clients. Most of the time you aren't around others who are doing the same thing as you. I've heard a lot of massage therapists talk about feeling isolated. Seek out other massage therapists. Join massage Facebook groups. You'll want to talk to others who understand what you do sometimes.
I think there is a lot more to say, but I have to fly to Thailand day after tomorrow and much to do. I will probably come back and edit this - add more to it and smooth out the edges.