Does Energy Work Have a Place in the Modern Massage Therapist’s Practice?

The massage industry is changing, and mostly for the better.  The field is moving towards a more empirical, science based approach and, in my opinion, this can help solidify massage therapy as a necessary part of health care in this country.  Patchouli wearing, sage burning, layer-on-of-hands, massage therapists of yesteryear are becoming the exception instead of the rule.  As with any trend, there is always a backlash, and energy workers are getting hit a little hard.  If you read some of the discussion and comments online, you might think that the Salem Witch Trials were back on, and crystal-toting hippies were the enemy.

I currently do not perform any energy work tradition on clients; but I am not ignorant on the subject.  In my pre-massage therapist days (around age 19), I was very big into energy work.  I got all of “my attunements” which consisted of me setting a time with a person on the internet, and I just kind of sat there and received the energy.  Unless, they were some sort of charlatan, and then I guess it was all placebo effect.  The More You Know? Right?  I took a correspondence course, learned the symbols, bought the books, carried the crystals, burned the sage, layed on the hands.  I even spent the money to take this “Lunar Reiki” course that was a type of energy work that, if I remember correctly, had something to do with the power of the Moon Goddess…all gentle and feminine like, that was channeled by some woman who thought, “I must bring this to the masses….of!”  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish my attunements because “legitimate” Reiki masters didn’t like that any old person could make their own version of Reiki.  They sent cease and desist letters, and this lady disappeared never to be heard of again.  I do find it odd that practitioners of one intangible energy work could criticize another as being fraudulent.  Its as if, “Oh, that life force she is talking about isn’t real, but my life force IS.”  Little 19 year old me, walked away from this whole experience pretty disillusioned.  Both, Lunar Reiki and traditional Reiki camps, claiming to be attuned to the life force, ended up looking like a couple of snake oil salesmen.

As a massage therapist, I originally rejected anything that looked like Reiki.  I wasn’t a quack, and I didn’t want to appear to be in the same camp as those eBay attunement givers.  I gave a straight up, clinical, anatomy-based massage.  Did it help the client?  Most likely.  I recently had taken a Tui Na class, which uses Taoist and martial arts principles to bring the body into balance.  In Tui Na, you move chi.  What is chi?  Life force, also known as, energy work.  Tui Na is physical massage.  You pick up the tissue. The tissue is moved; unlike some Reiki that can be done just by hovering your hands over the body.  The basis of Tui Na is that chi is moved throughout the body to create balance and wellness, and I found many of the moves intuitive.  When we go to comfort a person, we usually place our palm on their back and pat them or move the hand in a circular motion.  These same movements are done in Tui Na.  If you know anything about chakras, (another metaphysical concept involving energy or life force in the body), the Heart chakra, is in this same location.  If I want to comfort someone, I touch their back with my palm.  Reiki says, “That is transferring life force energy or ki.”  Tui Na says, “That is moving chi.”  Another new age tradition might say, “You are clearing the heart chakra.”  An athiest or agnostic might say, “They are sad, and this feels good to them.”  At the end of the day, all of these people are doing the same thing, and they are just calling it different things.

In my practice today, I consult science.  There is empirical evidence of an emotional component to pain.  So, if you come to me in pain, I can rub your shoulders; I can assess your posture; I can recommend stretches or exercises to improve mobility, but that emotional component remains.  When you are stressed, your shoulders might tense up and cause neck pain.  You are depressed and you slump, which leads to upper back pain.  The physical issue can be removed, but if the emotional component remains, you are stuck in a repeated cycle of pain.  I mention all of these points because we cannot approach massage as if every client is a hunk of meat and tendons.  However, your body is more than your “subtle body” and neglecting the issues of the flesh is neglecting the issue entirely.  My massage teacher always says something along the lines of, “Thanks for addressing my ethereal light body, but since I paid you for a massage, pick up my flesh and move it.”

Energy workers aren’t the devil, guys.  In fact, I now think they were on to something that we may have lost sight of.  If you are in pain, you have to assess your “spirit damage” or you might just stay in the same cycle of relief, pain, relief, pain.  If we want to become a respected, utilized, health care treatment, we do have to stop treating ONLY the subtle body, become approachable, stop imposing wild, false claims about what energy work can do.  When I give massage am I moving life force, chi, clearing chakras, or lowering stress hormone levels?  I don’t know.  I do know that my job is to do no harm, and if I can make a person feel better while maintaining a ethical code, my job is accomplished.

10 thoughts on “Does Energy Work Have a Place in the Modern Massage Therapist’s Practice?

  1. Thank you for taking your stand. We all have our mission and I honor and respect yours. There is so much for ‘all’ us to learn. I don’t discount the gifts handed down to us and I trust my intuition to recognize red flags. My clients, my students have embraced the healing arts with honor and respect. I honor all my mentors from structural to energetic. We are blessed to have it all!

  2. As a nationally certified licensed massage therapist and energywork practitioner, I feel that legitimate enerywork and integrative therapies can work together with massage therapy and allopathic medicine.

    I am sorry that you had a bad experience with learning energywork, but like you said, you were 19 and didn’t know any better. Legitimate practitioners, who have taken years to study energy work as well as any other holistic modality should not be shunned because of a bad experience.

    I always tell my clients this: if you’ve had a less than desirable experience with energywork, leave those beliefs at the door. No two energy work practitioners work the same way, just like massage therapists.

    I have been a massage therapy instructor and have taught my students that the more they learn, the more marketable they will be. Many people are using integrative medicine today in conjunction with traditional therapies. I don’t begrudge your insight into energywork, but to be fair, getting ‘attuned’ by staring at a computer screen or waiting for someone to sell you something to clear your energy is being unfair to the entire legitimate practice of energy work practitioners.

    1. Donna, I agree that you can’t let one bad experience shade your entire view. Most people have gone to a bad dentist, but we don’t usually give up on dentistry as a whole field because of it. The reason we don’t, is we know for a fact that dentistry is a legitimate profession based in science. I have come across many people who have benefited from energy work (myself included), but we can’t say really why. It’s easier for someone to give up on energy work as a whole because we can’t yet say how or why it works. Yes, we can have a notion or a theory, but it is immeasurable. It sounds like you are one of the good ones, and I am glad because energy work needs people like you. There are a lot of people who prey on the weakness of others, and there are even a lot of well-intentioned people who do a lot of harm. Massage therapy was born from energy work, and I don’t think we should throw it out entirely. I feel in many ways it is the “heart” of what we do. I can move muscles with my hands all day, but if I can’t bring my heart to the table with my hands, my work just isn’t as effective.

  3. Let me state firstly I don’t do energy work in my practice, but I have learned polarity.
    That and maybe a few other personal beliefs may get me burned at the stake by the witch hunters.
    I’m really curious …. Do the totally science group want massage therapists to sign a ‘pledge’ or a binding contract to say they won’t ever perform any energy work in their massage practice at all.
    I mean… Maybe even if the energy workers put up a disclaimer ‘this is not FDA approved …yadda yadda ‘ …
    You get the drift.
    Would that be enough, or do they totally want to ‘outlaw’ Reiki for example, by massage therapists, even if it is totally listed as a different service. ?
    Do they want to take the choice away from the practitioner and the client?
    I’m not confused by your blog though .
    Thanks:) great reading!

    1. I think many massage therapists want to distinguish themselves from energy workers because they want to feel legitimate, and empirical massage is something that can be studied and proven. Energy work is problematic just because you have to find people willing to fund research on something that is considered by people in the scientific community to be “faith healing.” I don’t think energy work should be outlawed, but I think people who ignore medical advice or claim to “heal” people should. I do think it is unfair how those who practice an intuitive healing practice like polarity therapy or reiki are kind of like the babies being thrown out with the bath water. I had a bad experience as a young person with a fraudulent person which shaded my view on other energy workers, but I have found in my practice that there are many things about energy work that are redeeming.

      The question is, where do we go from here? Do we regulate energy work? Do we start an energy worker licensing program? Do we create energy work regulatory boards? That would mean we would have to come up with curriculum and educational standards for energy work. It’s a daunting task, and I’m not sure how to go about protecting energy work without ruining it with regulation. If someone figures it out, let me know. 😉

      1. I agree with your comment wholeheartedly. Of course, regulation of energy work would be nearly impossible because of its very nature. However, I have found myself to be also concerned about protecting the legitimacy of energy work. Anymore, there seems to be a Reiki Master on every corner!

        I also question the speed in which people move through the Reiki degrees, some of them finishing within a few months, instead of using Reiki and developing a relationship with it. Yet, I ask myself, should we not be making energy work as available as possible, instead of being limited to the very few? Mrs Takata who brought Reiki to the United States charged people $10K to be trained as teachers/masters because she believed a person who truly wanted to do this should be willing to make such an investment. Do we say that she was a clever entrepreneur or that she was merely protecting the tradition? After all, she only trained 22 Reiki Masters during her lifetime.

        Similar to other comments that I have made regarding this post, I believe that energy work is protected by the responsibility of people who want to learn or receive it to find out what it’s all about … to vet teachers and information. After all, a person would do this, hopefully, with any specialty anywhere in the medical — traditional or complementary — community. There will always be charlatans and people who misrepresent themselves.

        In my state, Asian bodywork, reflexology, and energy work are specifically exempted from MT licensing requirements. In my opinion, that’s wise. There are some things that just cannot be regulated … or even should be. In the final analysis, it falls to us, the practitioners, to self-protect our modalities through education and awareness.

  4. As a therapeutic massage therapist, reflexologist & Reiki practitioner, I found myself insulted by this post. First of all, I happen to wear patchouli. This is not a joke. While I don’t burn sage, I wouldn’t be opposed to it for clearing space, similar to how I *clean* my equipment and tx room. And, as a Reiki practitioner, I do lay my hands on people. That being said, I’ve worked with chiropractors, with most of my clients in my private practice coming to me for pain relief for which I use advanced techniques, including myofascial work. There are no chakras, subtle energy work, sage, or patchouli involved. There is a time and place for everything.

    I am sorry for blogger’s strange experiences when she was a teenager. It seems that she made some unfortunate choices in selecting and vetting her energywork teachers, instead of, perhaps, looking first for advice and referral recommendations to legitimate ones. I’ll chalk it up to naivete, but any serious aspiring practitioner should deduce that one doesn’t receive openings and attunements via keypad strikes sent through cyberspace.

    Let me be clear that the Dr Mikao Usui system of Reiki is recognized as traditional Reiki; Other systems … like the “Lunar Reiki” are spinoffs of Dr Usui’s system. I highly doubt that anybody sent a cease & desist order to the “Lunar” lady. No one owns the Usui method of Reiki. Dr Usui himself never claimed ownership, but instead passed the stewardship of his system to others.

    To be dismissive of the techniques mentioned by the blogger is to be dismissive of Asian bodywork in general, Chinese medicine in particular. I understand that the blogger does acknowledge the movement of qi, but given the skepticism towards Asian modalities, I wonder if the basis of Shiatsu and acupuncture — the energetic meridian lines that run through the body — should also be questioned. Call the anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of energy systems a placebo affect, but let’s also acknowledge that placebo affect is an integral part of body-mind connection which is widely accepted in the medical community itself.

    I see no evidence that the massage therapy profession is moving beyond energy work. What I do see is that *more* massage therapists are interested in it. The number of Reiki practitioners has jumped by leaps and bounds within our profession. I teach at a leading edge, highly respected massage therapy school. There are very few of our students who do not express interest in learning more about energy work. Many massage therapy programs also include Asian bodywork, which necessarily must include energy work, in their curricula.

    Energy work remains alive and well in our profession. It stands on its own with some practitioners. Others integrate it into their sessions. Still others, like me, offer it within my array of services. Instead of debating what’s “real” bodywork and what is not, we are better to acknowledge that all modalities have a place within our profession. What matters the most is CLIENT EDUCATION and clarity in what each modality can achieve and the theory behind it. Let our clients make their own conclusions based on informed consent.

  5. I am coming from an Asian perspective since this is where I am living and practicing (Thailand). For me it is not an issue if I should use energy work in massage or not. Here in Asia the very definition of massage is moving energy, not just body parts. I would never say that I practice energy work along side my massage therapy. But I would say that any good massage therapist works with energy.

    We develop a sense for what is going on under our hands, we become more intuitive, more perceptive to our client’s needs and reactions. Without those skills, massage would be a lifeless and mechanical moving around of body parts which would not be fulfilling for us therapists and not very enjoyable for our clients.

    We don’t have to take a course for this and we don’t have to label it Reiki or something else. In my book a really good massage therapist who has “the touch” has it because of working with energy in one way or another as a natural outgrowth of wanting to be good at what we do.

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