Going to Massage School

I get asked several times a month, about how one becomes a licensed massage therapist.  My students come from all over the place, especially my online students, who I love as dearly as the ones who show up in person.  So it's not really possible for me to address all of your possible licensure situations.  But for those of you wishing to practice massage in Oregon, until I reach my someday goal of turning The Naga Center into a licensure school (currently it's a continuing education school, although anyone can take classes here) here is some information.

In the United States massage laws vary by state (and sometimes even by county).  In Oregon, in order to practice any form of bodywork professionally, you must have 625 hours of training at an accredited Department of Education approved school.  In some states people will circumvent state massage training requirements by calling Thai massage "yoga massage", or "Thai yoga therapy", or "energy work", or any number of other misnomers.  Know that in the state of Oregon changing what you call it will not exempt you from state laws.  The Oregon Board of Massage Therapists is quite clear that if you are touching the body, your work will most likely fall under massage laws regardless of what you call it. 
From the Oregon Board of Massage Therapist's website:

“massage” or “massage therapy” means the use of pressure, friction, stroking, tapping or kneading on the human body, or the use of vibration or stretching on the human body by manual or mechanical means or gymnastics, with or without appliances such as vibrators, infrared heat, sun lamps and external baths and with or without lubricants such as salts, powders, liquids or creams for the purpose of but not limited to, maintaining good health and establishing and maintaining good physical condition.

So, if you live in Oregon and you have fallen in love with Thai massage and you want to practice it professionally (professionally, in the eyes of the state, means in exchange for anything, including money, cookies, and trades), by law you must hold a massage license unless you are licensed in another medical field that allows you to touch people.  These are generally professions that require more training than massage such as physical therapy, chiropractics, registered nurse, medical doctor etc.  For the record, the last time I checked, being a minister with The Universal Life Church or any other religious institution does not give you license to touch in Oregon.

So, where to go to school.  We have many options in Oregon, but I will just discuss the schools that I primarily find myself recommending.  Each of these schools is recommended for different reasons, so I suggest reading through to see what best fits your needs and disposition.

Massage schools for Oregon residents

Western States Chiropractic College massage program. 
The reason I recommend Western States is because it is my understanding that they have the most advanced and comprehensive science classes.  Wherever you go to school you must study anatomy, physiology and pathology.  Most massage therapists never study these subjects again once they have graduated from massage school, so I think it is worthwhile to get the best training you can while you are in massage school.  Unlike other massage schools, the science classes that you will take at Western States are college level courses that can be applied should you decide to go into higher level medical training at a later date.  What I mean by this is that if you decide to say, become a nurse or a chiropractor some day, the time that you spent studying anatomy at Western States will count - whereas you could spend the same amount of time studying anatomy at another massage school and have it not apply toward further training. 
Edit: I'm sad to say that as of fall 2017, Western States is discontinuing its massage program.  I'm leaving the recommendation here as a I believe that it speaks to a need to look at the sciences offered in any school you attend.

Oregon School of Massage
For those who want a more warm and fuzzy massage school experience, I recommend Oregon School of Massage.  Last time I checked, they still had the delightful tradition of a school field trip to Brietenbush hot springs each year.  It's a solid local school with fair prices and kind teachers that seems to have a lot of heart.

Ashland Institute of Massage
I have heard nothing but lovely things about the Ashland Institute of Massage down in the southern edge of our state.  The main reason I recommend them is because they are unique in that they offer an accelerated training that allows you to complete massage school in just six months.  To do this you have to be able to live in Ashland and engage in school full time.  Along with the Oregon School of Massage above, this is also one of the least expensive options outside of community college courses.

Soma Institute
The Soma Institute is actually located in Washington, but is an important one for me to mention.  Classes are held in weekend intensive modules in which students lives on site in a bunkhouse.  So Portland students can make the 3 hour drive, stay for the intensive, and return home.  The Soma Institute is on a rural piece of property that serves as the owner's home and farm.  I'm told that it is a beautiful place to study, but the reason I recommend it is because of the quality of the work I see coming out of there.  Students are learning a form of structural integration, which, a deeply physically intensive body restructuring method.  This is not your average massage school.  It's the most expensive school I have on here, but for those who can afford it and want a unique learning experience, it's worth looking into.

Some thoughts about massage school

• Massage school is not where we become experts, specialists, or masters of our craft.  Massage school, no matter how fancy the brochures, is a place to get foundational training, jump through state mandated hoops, and learn your sciences.  I have rarely encountered anyone fresh out of massage school who I would call an excellent therapist, and those I have encountered inevitably had healing arts training prior to going to massage school.  Do not think of massage school as an end goal, think of it as a jumping off point.  It is after massage school, when you seek out individual teachers who are highly skilled, for continuing education; this is where you will truly advance your training and bloom as a therapist.  And it is through years of practice that you become an expert.  

• Beware the temptation to learn every modality.  Many massage modalities require years of training and practice to become highly skilled.  Some, like Thai massage, can be studied for a lifetime.  Find a modality to love, and go deep with it rather than taking multiple superficial courses in multiple modalities.  For the latter will make of you a jack of all trades and a master of none.  When I see someone's website or business card that has a laundry list of modalities I think "yes, but what are they really good at?".  I would rather get a massage from someone who has studied one modality for many years, even if it's not my favorite modality, than someone who once took a course in my favorite modality and tacked it onto a list.

• I call most massage schools "schools of how not to touch", because they have a habit of making massage seem very dangerous.  They fill our heads with contraindications and areas of endangerment to the point where massage practitioners can walk away thinking that they are in a profession filled with accidental murders.  In truth most massage modalities are extraordinarily safe.  It's mostly a money game.  The more dangerous massage schools can make massage seem, the higher the number of training hours states will require, which means more money for the schools.  But if you look at money from another angle you can see that massage is a relatively safe profession.  For about $150 you can get over 2 million dollars of liability massage insurance coverage.  Insurance is a statistically driven business, which means that if people were reporting injuries from massage therapists left and right, our insurance coverage would be significantly more expensive.  To give a little perspective, physical therapists can expect insurance to begin at $5000 a year and go up from there, and according to The Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, your average midwife must spend over $11,000 a year for liability coverage.  Where I'm going with all of this is, don't be afraid to touch people.  Learn the contraindications and areas of endangerment so that you can do well on your exams, but don't start thinking that you are going to kill someone with effluerage.  Be wise and knowledgeable, but be not afraid.  And keep in mind that Thai massage is probably the most dangerous massage modality there is, so if this is your passion, get really good training and be careful.  Ironically, in most states as long as you got your Swedish massage based state mandated training, you can practice Thai massage legally without ever having taken a class in it.

• You might notice that I'm not mentioning every school in Oregon.  You might notice that some schools with the most prominent marketing and the most students are not on here.  That's because this is my recommendation list, not a comprehensive accounting of all the schools in Oregon.  It's based on the quality of knowledge that I see students emerging from school with, and also the satisfaction they report to me about their training experience. 

Do I really have to go to massage school?

Well, in Oregon, if you want to practice massage professionally and be legal, then yes, yes you do.  But I know some of you are thinking "yeah, but can't I just stay under the radar and practice without a license?".  Well, yes, you could do that.  And honestly I have a lot of ranting I can do about massage schools (did a bit up there talking about the danger and money thing) and how wanting I think most of the training is, and how sad it is when people have to go to school to learn Swedish massage when all they really want to study is Thai or Hawaiian massage.  But when it comes right down to it, I recommend going to school.  Even with all of the flaws, the truth is that I think that it's best to know anatomy and physiology if you are going to work on bodies.  These courses are like instruction manuals for our bodies! And I know that it takes time and money, but really, how many professions out there can one get licensed in in less than a year and under $20,000?  The requirements to become a licensed massage therapist may seem hard, but in comparison to other careers, it's very little.  And most likely, you are going to enjoy massage school.  You'll get tons of massage while you are there, make new friends, you will love some of your teachers, and you will learn a lot about these amazing bodies we live in.