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Dream job: Non-traditional career paths for massage therapists

Shortly after graduating from massage school (when I finally found the time for recreational reading) I discovered Anthony Guglielmo’s The Walrus on My Table (co-authored by Cara Lynn)

October 17, 2018  By Jules Torti

Where are you going to find your dream job?

Shortly after graduating from massage school (when I finally found the time for recreational reading) I discovered Anthony Guglielmo’s The Walrus on My Table (co-authored by Cara Lynn) I was immediately seduced by his chronicles of shifting from a massage practice with humans to clientele that included a kyphotic penguin, elderly dolphins, racehorses and a walrus who had lost her ability to swim due to hypertonic muscles.

What I realized from reading his book was that it is possible to completely curate your career. You can marry your passions and take seemingly unrelated interests and find connections. You can implement your skills as a massage therapist in a niche field, industry or climate that is more cohesive to your lifestyle. You can massage penguins, travel with a competitive rugby team, massage Olympians or fly off to a hot spot, and really maximize that work/life balance teeter-totter.

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Horsing around
I had nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for the Introduction to Equine Massage course I took at Wit’s End Farms in Abbotsford, B.C., in 2007, but I didn’t have any riding chops or connections in the field. The course wasn’t going to advance my career in any logical way, and any long-term pursuit in the industry seemed unrealistic. However, learning about the physiology and rehabilitation of rejected thoroughbred horses was stimulating. Comparing human anatomy, gait, neuromuscular transmitters and proprioception with that of a horse fascinated me – and having the opportunity to effleurage and traction the lumbar region of a horse gave me a necessary career recharge. 

Horses are very responsive clients, though they generally respond with slobbery nudges, burps and farts. 

Learning for the sake of being inspired and exposed to unfamiliar territory was beneficial. In turn, it boosted my appreciation of the massage therapy field and its applications to the animal world.

The Darcy Lane Institute in London, Ont., offers a comprehensive 2,200 equine massage program – the only registered program in North America. Students study in tandem with veterinarians, certified coaches, competitive riders and horse owners. Information sessions are held three times a year for those who are curious about shifting from two-legged to four-legged clientele.

From working as an animal massage therapist to running away with the circus, some massage therapists are finding interesting ways to practise their skills while having fun along the way.


Surf, sand and tapotement
In 1999, Michelle Bourdeau, a Sutherland Chan grad, took her hands and office space to Cabarete in the Dominican Republic. She initially opened the doors to her beach biz at the Vela Windsurf Centre. In 2004, she expanded her practice to Agualina Kite Resort in conjunction with Dare2Fly Windsurfing School. In 2011, her team at Cabarete Massage Therapy moved to the Millennium Resort under a new handle: Andari Spa.

See? Massage + windsurfing + palatable temperatures. It can all be arranged with ambition and persistent dreaming.

Go for the Olympic gold
For Sutherland Chan grad Carolyn Caesar, it was a no-brainer to find employment in the niche field that she competed in. She rowed in high school and earned a coveted spot on the University of Western Ontario team and Canada’s development team in 1992. She has coached rowing for 15 years – solid groundwork that led her to her recent title as Head Rowing Coach at the prestigious Havergal College in Toronto.

 In 1999 she was invited to work with the team and cover their European tour. In 2000, Caesar went to her first Olympics and has since been to three Olympic games, seven world championships and 15 European tours. 

Of course, the burning question is – was it a paid gig? Caesar initially volunteered, and with a three-week volunteer commitment her flight, room and board were paid for. Now, she is paid a daily travel stipend plus expenses as part of the team. But, it isn’t about the money. “You don’t work in sport to make money, you do it because you love sport and for me I wanted to give back to a sport that gave me a lot,” she said.

As an independent contractor in the sports arena, the team approach is critical. Often, when working with a sports doctor, physiotherapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist and sports psychologist, the goal is united.

“It’s great to be able to sit down as a team and throw down what each can offer, all in the best interest of getting the athlete back on the water as soon as possible,” Caesar says.

If you are a magnet for innovation and new techniques, immersing yourself in sport should be a consideration.

Caesar describes some of the best aspects of working with a team.

“In sport we get to play with the new stuff like the Kinesio Tape that is big now in private practice – but we have been using it in sport for over eight years. You are exposed to new stuff on nutrition, hydration, soft tissue release and medicine in sport before it hits general practice. At the end of the day it’s all about performance. What will make them go fast now? Today? There are a lot of shortcuts and quick fixes to get athletes through the day. It’s a challenge and always keeps you on your feet. You also get the luxury of being able to treat athletes daily or twice a day so you can get results faster than treating once a week. The biggest perk is that I get to help athletes stay healthy so they can reach their goals.”

Caesar admits the commitment to a team is 24/7 and the time away from her family and two young children is difficult. There is also the obvious loss of income from not being fully available to her private practice and regular clientele.

She still works with Rowing Canada as an RMT in addition to her full-time employment at Physiotherapy on Bay (a Lifemark Health Clinic) in Toronto. To keep stimulated, she has expanded her involvement into lymph drainage and cancer rehabilitation, and teaches a “Home and Away” sports massage course with another therapist.

Caesar strongly suggests, “staying current with lots of coursework.”

“Continuing education is really important, as is working in a physio or rehab clinic so you can be exposed to different injuries. Volunteer as much as possible, stay fit so you can manage the workload and stay positive. It’s a tough field to break into so be sure to follow a sport you love and want to give back to. Know your sport and try the sport so you know what the athletes are going through. In 2007, I covered the European Tour for Bobsleigh Canada. I went down the Turin bobsleigh course to experience what the competitors went through. At 130 kilometres/hour, it sure is faster in a sleigh on ice than it looks from the sofa watching it on TV. Athletes are different in each sport, so it’s critical to know the athletes and the unique demands put on them.”

Your name, your brand
My correspondence with Jason White mirrored Carolyn Caesar’s responses. He began his career as an athletic therapist in 2008, graduating from Sheridan College with a bachelor of applied health science in athletic therapy. In 2010, he added registered massage therapy to his arsenal, which includes a contemporary medical acupuncturist certificate from McMaster University. He is currently studying to become a registered sports massage therapist, and will be completing his Upledger Craniosacral certification this December.

As a competitive swimmer for almost 20 years (ranking in the top three provincially, with several national and international accolades to his credit), White was a patient of several health-care practitioners when he competed. It was his drive to succeed in the sport and his need to understand his injuries and rehabilitation process that propelled him into the field of athletic therapy.

White is currently an RMT and athletic therapist for the Canadian Women’s Senior Rugby team. He has been a member of the Ontario Senior Women’s Rugby program since 2006 and has assisted with the Ontario Rugby Union during the National Youth Rugby Championship in 2009.

His stellar resumé comes with several passport stamps: Dubai, Rome, Las Vegas and Barbados with the senior rugby team; Nottingham, U.K., with Rugby Canada’s U20 women’s team; and Sherbrooke, Que., during the 2013 Canadian Summer Games as host medical staff.

Always seeking employment and networking opportunities, White has made himself available to all sports, regardless of interest or experience. He has worked at several national and provincial events for cheerleading, volleyball, field hockey, soccer and ultimate Frisbee.

After completing his initial RMT training, White “applied to every position, regardless of my education and qualifications. Do not be afraid of the word ‘No’ and don’t take it personally. I started off as an hourly employee and took what was available; this allowed me to gain experience in the field and build a client base. It took a few years to gain stability.”

He quickly learned that being an hourly employee and direct employment in the health profession were not ideal for him.

“I started to contract myself out. It was a challenge at first but certainly worth it in the long run. I began to brand myself as a name and image, not as an AT/RMT, but for my skills and what I can do. I created my own business cards, e-mail and website, to allow for more access, education and stability for patients. To date, this has been the most important aspect of my career and I still continue to build clients through it. Patients call the clinic to book with the brand (Jason White) not an AT/RMT or health professional.”

While White admits to the ever-present threat of burnout associated with the emotional and physical demands of the profession, he has learned the importance of dealing with the threat, early.

“Enjoy what you do. If you find it starting to become stale, change your format, learn new skills,” he says. He also recommends taking CEU credits not exclusively out of interest, but also for practicality.

Like Caesar, White also thrives on the fact he “can help, educate, accelerate an athlete’s healing and return to daily and active life.”

For those intrigued by working with athletes, White advises choosing volunteer work, clinic hours or internships that maximize your learning curve.

“Choose the clinical setting where you obtain the most in terms of patients, relevance of injuries, hands-on work and the benefit of the practitioner education and personalized teaching during time at the clinic.”

A day at the spa
I’ve worked at several spas in my 14 years of practice, from the tony Wild Orange Spa in Abbotsford, B.C., to the Relais & Chateaux property in sleepy Blair, Ont., Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa – with fifty-two guest rooms and suites, storybook gardens and 12 kilometres of walking trails through Carolinian forest. The estate is also recognized for its five-diamond dining status, affable Bernese Mountain dog greeters (Mrs. Wilks and Walter), an extensive spa menu and impeccable service.

Working in a hotel spa environment provides unequalled experience for guests and employees alike. Of course, the setting is always ambient, with concentrated effort on the finer details like thread counts, plush robes, product quality, carefully appointed amenities, custom herbal teas and fancy bonbons. As a massage therapist, you frequently become an integral part of a milestone celebration.

When we first moved to Galt, Ont., from Toronto earlier this year, I knew I wanted to work in the hotel environment. After several years at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel and The King Edward, I appreciated this environment over a typical clinic with fluorescent lights, starchy sheets and a static-laced Top 40 station in the background.

At Langdon Hall, many couples are commemorating honeymoons, anniversaries and birthdays with a spa visit. Ensuring that their experience is memorable and elevated beyond expectation is the foundation of employment at Canada’s number one hotel (as recently awarded for the third consecutive year by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards).

Hotel employment differs from work in a traditional clinic or street front business in that you are often treating one-time clientele. Though Langdon Hall has a dedicated roster of repeat clients, the majority of the spa business derives from travellers and hotel guests. Massage therapists are hired as employees and are entitled to paid holidays, stat pay, hotel and service discounts and extended health-care insurance.

Like any business dependent on the public, tourism and weather, busyness fluctuates with a peak in the summer months as the hotel caters to several weddings and a popular Friday night barbecue series that brings the hotel to capacity. Winter months and the in-room wood-burning fireplace feature entice romantic types who dedicate entire days to the spa while the rest of the world shivers and shovels snow.

Working with water
I worked at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto for one brief summer, mostly because they had advertised a poolside RMT position. What could be better? In the summer months my work ethic always took a nosedive as I wistfully looked out frigidly air-conditioned treatment room windows, longing to be outdoors.

It was a trial seasonal position – and though bookings were random, I appreciated the opportunity to be outside with a novel in hand, at the ready, regardless.

I found a more reliable and consistent income at Body Blitz Spa. The women-only space is housed in two converted warehouses in downtown Toronto. Sisters and entrepreneurs Laura and Rena Polley had swooned over the “waters” concept during their travels to Europe. Here, locals took to the waters, sometimes daily, to network, decompress and nourish the soul.

Working in a clothing-optional, women-only spa was pure fun. The atmosphere was original and quickly gained notoriety as an urban sanctuary following its inception seven years ago. The clients, whether they were new to the experience, or regulars, were already completely fatigued and pliable by the time they lay down on our massage tables. Often they had had a salt glow scrub or wrap prior to a massage treatment, making deeper tissues more accessible and responsive.

Following the waters circuit, Body Blitz clients move from a heated saltwater pool to a cold water plunge, sauna, eucalyptus steam to the hot Epsom whirlpool. There are cabana chairs and a juice bar that serves up vitamin D shakes thick with banana, honey, soy milk, nutmeg and cocoa.

The all-female staff banter and hydrotherapy concept make for a dynamic employment opportunity. And, better yet? Employees are encouraged to take advantage of the restorative elements of the waters.

Elevate your experience
Dream job and heli-skiing are probably synonymous for some. Despite having a sister who lives in Banff, Alta., and frequents the Black Diamonds, I’m more into the helicopter ride than the kamikaze ski part.

However, for those of you who are so inclined – The Mike Weigele Helicopter Skiing Lodge in Blue River, B.C., might be the bespoke job for you.

In addition to staff accommodation plans, 25 per cent off retail, health benefits, free heli-skiing opportunities, referral bonuses, use of the fitness centre, complimentary snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, friends and family discounts, and a tantalizing list of other perks, “adventure is guaranteed.”

Full-time seasonal positions for RMTs begin in December/January and end in April. In addition to daily massage bookings, employees are required to run (paid) morning stretch classes.

Join the circus
If you’ve considered running away with the circus, you should read Trevor Aung Than’s informative blog – MACOW, Life as a Bonesetter for the Circus in China – chronicling his two-and-a-half-year tenure with Cirque de Soleil in Macau, China.

While he acknowledges the necessity of having confident hands-on manual skills, hands-off skills are also highly coveted in the circus industry. Adding another dimension and qualification to your resumé like advanced emergency medical/first aid, Pilates, kettle bell training or Active Release can give you desirable leverage over other applicants. Most shows demand a minimum of five years’ experience.

Some Cirque shows are permanent, resident shows while others are touring shows with troupes. Two to three therapists can be hired per show, depending on the troupe size. At the International headquarters in Montreal, a team also tends to the needs of repatriated artists and those involved in the creation of new shows.

Whether they involve the lure of travel, the love of a sport, rehabilitating animals, self-indulgence, fresh B.C. powder or boutique hotel perks, our dream jobs (and not-so-dream jobs) all focus on a united goal: creating beneficial and restorative treatment for our clients, two-legged and four-legged alike.

Where are you going to find your dream job? It might just surprise you. If you know of one that wasn’t mentioned here, share it with Massage Therapy Canada readers.

Jules Torti has been an RMT since 1999 and a freelance writer since age six. In between massage engagements, she travels to Africa to be with chimpanzees and writes about her zany travels for Matador Network.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue. [Online 14.01.02]

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