Learn & Grow: Yoga for Massage Therapists

Massage therapists can benefit from making yoga a part of their self care regimen.

By Donna Shryer, February 22, 2016

Outside Yoga is Amazing

Physician, heal thyself. From its biblical origin to today’s modern interpretation, the proverb’s essence still rings true—and a 2013 study conducted at Duke University reinforces its message.

The study concludes that physicians often devalue self-care while prioritizing the care of others, resulting in possible burnout. On a positive note, the study suggests that increased self-awareness and self-care can reverse this negative pattern to benefit both physician and patient.1

As health care professionals devoted to their clients, massage therapists, too, can be at risk for burnout and injury if they don’t pay attention to developing—and maintaining—a solid self-care regimen. Self care is too often eclipsed by long hours, back-to-back sessions and the demands of lugging equipment to and from private sessions—all of which can trigger fatigue, physical imbalances, aches and pains, and potential burnout.

Defining the Problem

“It’s easy to get lost in your clients’ well-being and neglect your own self-care,” cautions Sarah Landicho, a yoga teacher based in Chicago. Maybe you repeatedly lean too hard and often to one side or you continually hunch over the client, causing some muscles to work harder and others to grow weaker. Repetitive movements can also take a toll on your strength and flexibility.

“All these examples can impact your physical health as well as your effectiveness as a massage therapist,” Landicho adds. “That’s why it’s so important to take care of yourself in order to take care of your clients.”

Although yoga has become known primarily as a set of postures (asanas), traditionally it is considered a state of mind, not just an exercise for the body. The primary text on yoga is The Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali. The classic definition of yoga is derived from the second sutra, which in Sanskrit reads: yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah. In English, it is translated as “Yoga is the complete settling of the activity of the mind.”

A good place to begin is with various branches of hatha yoga, which rely on specific physical body postures, or asanas, to lengthen, stretch and relax muscles. In the West, yoga is primarily associated with physical postures, but traditionally breathing practices and simple meditation techniques that complement the postures are considered an integral part of the practice of yoga.

When done with consistent commitment, research points to yoga as an invaluable tool for self-care to help practitioners increase endurance, prevent physical stress, reduce inflammation, expand range of motion, build strength and ultimately extend career longevity.

Many massage therapists and yoga teachers alike agree that blending the two practices into one career naturally stretches their professional path and can help supplement their income.

Body of Knowledge

In addition to the literal self-caring physical benefits, like strength and endurance, KailaTatman, a yoga instructor and massage therapist in Sussex County, Delaware, credits yoga for encouraging a profound mental connection with her body. “During those 60 minutes in a yoga class, I’m focused on myself. That clears my mind to recognize, say, a tenderness in my forearm—maybe something I’vebeen ignoring or accepting as part of the job.”

As you cultivate body awareness, it becomes easier to sense where you feel physically weak, uncomfortable or in downright pain. “Once you recognize the issues, a yoga instructor can guide you to what needs to be strengthened and what needs to be stretched,” explains Jeffrey Myers, yoga instructor, massage therapist, and owner of HealthwaysWellness in the Boston area.

“Yoga is a similar but more balanced approach to strength training than lifting weights. The right level of hatha yoga, for example, conditions your body to perform daily activities, such as lifting, bending and all the repetitive moves associated with massage therapy,” Myers adds.

The complementary way that yoga and massage therapy sync up to promote physical well-being explains why it’s not uncommon for a massage therapist to also become a registered yoga teacher (RYT)—and vice versa. “Both careers engage your in-depth knowledge of the body’sanatomy and physiology,” Landicho adds.

As Myers says, “It’s a mutual dance between yoga and massage therapy. Both practices rely on being acutely aware of body mechanics, and this complementary overlap deepens what the massage therapist and yoga instructor can accomplish.”

Moving Forward

While historical evidence depicts an enduring respect for yoga’s innate benefits, recent studies put a modern scientific spin on yoga’s value. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches and part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, officially classifies yoga as a recognized form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

One meta-analysis, Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life2, details how the practice of yoga promotes strength, endurance and flexibility—whilealso facilitating characteristics of friendliness, compassion, greater self-control and a sense of well-being.

Specific to lower back pain, a common musculoskeletal injury among massage therapists, the NCCIH points to multiple recent studies:

An NCCIH-funded study of 90 people with chronic low-back pain found that participants who practiced Iyengar yoga (a form of hatha yoga) had significantly less disability, pain and depression after six months.3

In another NCCIH-funded study, researchers compared yoga with conventional stretching exercises or a self-care book in 228 adults with chronic low-back pain. Results showed that yoga and stretching were more effective than a self-care book for improving function and reducing symptoms due to chronic low-back pain.4

A review of published randomized clinical trials suggests that of 313 adults with chronic or recurring low-back pain, 12 weekly yoga classes, with a holistic combination of physical exercise, mental focus, self-awareness and relaxation, resulted in better function than receiving “usual medical care.”5

Where to Begin

Not all yoga classes are created equal, and for that reason Katherine Schaefer, a yoga instructor and massage therapist in Oakland County, Michigan, stresses that the type of yoga and the teacher you choose is essential for comprehensive and safe self-care. “Some yoga practices are more like gymnastics or a workout routine, which may be too fast or strenuous and consequently may put too much stress on the massage therapist’s body—especiallythe spine, hips, shoulders and wrists,” Schaefer says.

For example, Landicho adds, a level 2 or 3 vinyasa yoga class will focus on advanced postures, which would be too advanced for a new yoga student and could result in incorrectly positioned poses that can exacerbate shoulder, wrist and hand pain. “You want to start slowly and gently,” Landicho says. ” An introduction to yoga or a level 1 class is a great release for your wrists and back and especially for building core strength to support the spine.”

As for the right yoga teacher, look for someone who is trained in a more therapeutic approach and has a lot of experience, Schaefer says. “Many yoga teachers don’t know a great deal about anatomy and kinesiology, so the class may be more focused on achieving difficult poses or getting a workout,” she says. “Class size is also something to consider. Large classes may be fun and energetic, but if you want more individualized instruction, you are better off finding a smaller class or taking private lessons.”

Finding a class and teacher that fit you, Schaefer adds, is about getting out there, observing instructors in action and asking friends for recommendations. “Then, trust your instincts,” Schaefer stresses.

Stretching the Benefits of Yoga

It turns out that yoga is not only a good addition to a massage therapist’s self-care regimen, but can also provide a means of supplemental income. Because of overlapping knowledge and training, Myers describes the massage therapist and yoga instructor as “an almost seamless segue.”

Tatman also feels strongly that yoga and massage therapy go hand-in-hand. “When I attend a yoga training workshop, I pick up much more—because of the intense anatomy and physiology courses I took to become a massage therapist. I don’t need to start from the beginning. I have a strong base,” she explains.

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