Ep 174 – Chair Massage with David Palmer

Massage therapist massaging seated client's forearm during chair massage.

In this episode of The ABMP Podcast, Kristin and Darren are joined by David Palmer, commonly referred to as the “father of contemporary chair massage.” David discusses what his “aha” moment was when developing seated massage, where the chair massage routine was born out of, keys to success for practitioners, and what the future of chair massage holds.

Author Bio: 

David is the founder and executive director of TouchPro International. He is the author of The Bodywork Entrepreneur and Marketing Chair Massage, and developer of the first chair for seated massage. He is often referred to as the “father of contemporary chair massage.” In 2007, David was inducted into the Massage Therapy Hall of Fame. For more information about David, visit Touchpro.com


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Anatomy Trains:  

Anatomy Trains is a global leader in online anatomy education and also provides in-classroom certification programs for structural integration in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan, and China, as well as fresh-tissue cadaver dissection labs and weekend courses. The work of Anatomy Trains originated with founder Tom Myers, who mapped the human body into 13 myofascial meridians in his original book, currently in its fourth edition and translated into 12 languages. The principles of Anatomy Trains are used by osteopaths, physical therapists, bodyworkers, massage therapists, personal trainers, yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics, and other body-minded manual therapists and movement professionals. Anatomy Trains inspires these practitioners to work with holistic anatomy in treating system-wide patterns to provide improved client outcomes in terms of structure and function.  

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Elements Massage:

Founded by a massage therapist for massage therapists, the Elements Massage® brand is a network of independently owned and operated studios dedicated to changing lives—including yours! The Elements Massage brand believes massage therapists deserve a supportive team, business and marketing resources, and the chance to learn as much as they want, so many Elements Massage studios offer and reimburse continuing education on an ongoing basis. It’s no surprise Elements Massage therapist and client satisfaction leads the industry. That’s because from day one, the brand has kept an unmatched commitment to deliver the best therapeutic massage experiences possible for both clients and massage therapists. Elements Massage studios expects the best. So should you. If this sounds like a fit, reach out. Studios are hiring! Visit ElementsMassage.com/ABMP for more information.

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Full Transcript: 

0:00:00.1 S?: The Elements Massage brand believes massage therapists deserve a supportive team, business and marketing resources, linens, lotions, and the chance to learn as much as they want. So many Elements Massage studios offer continuing education too. What's better? They're hiring. To get your foot in the door, let them know we sent you by visiting elementsmassage.com/abmp. That's elementsmassage.com/abmp.

0:00:41.4 Darren Buford: I'm Darren Buford.

0:00:42.3 Kristin Coverly: And I'm Kristin Coverly.

0:00:43.5 DB: And welcome to the ABMP Podcast, the podcast where we speak with a massage and bodywork profession. Our guest today is David Palmer. David is the founder and executive director of TouchPro International. He is the author of The Body Work Entrepreneur and Marketing chair massage and developer of the first chair proceeded massage. He is often referred to as the "Father of Contemporary chair massage". And in 2007, David was inducted into the Massage Therapy Hall of Fame. For more information about David, visit touchpro.com. Hello, David. Hello, Kristin.

0:01:15.2 David Palmer: Good Morning.

0:01:16.4 KC: Good Morning. Welcome to The ABMP Podcast. I have to start by gushing a little bit here. As a massage therapist and an educator, David, I am such a geek for chair massage, I love that modality so much, I practiced it weekly; multiple days a week for 15 years as an educator. I taught seated massage and chair massage courses. I heart chair massage, so I could not be more excited that you are with us today, so thank you so much for being here.

0:01:44.0 DP: My pleasure, for sure. It's great to hear your enthusiasm.

0:01:47.4 KC: Oh absolutely, I could talk all day long, but let's talk about you. We like to introduce our new ABMP Podcast guest to our audience, so let's start at the very beginning. Tell us about how massage came into your world and how you pursue that as a career.

0:02:01.8 DP: Well, it is an evolutionary process, of course. When something like this happens, and most things happen in your life, and it has been for many years for me. So initially, when I was in my 20s, I was a Social Service Administrator for 10 years. And early on, I had this chronic problem with torticollis, it used to be called stiff neck syndrome, and some days I couldn't get out of bed. Every day, I got out of bed with pain and one point, I thought that I'd probably better do something about it if I didn't want to be living with this for the rest of my life, and so I got myself... I'd heard about this new fangle program called Rolfing, and this is in the late '70s.

0:02:49.4 DP: And I had got myself off to the only Rolfer in the Chicagoland area and went through the 10 sessions over the course of about a year, it took because he was so busy. And it really literally changed my life. I did other things at the same time, but I really became embodied in a full way for the first time. And adding in daily stretching exercise in the morning, which I still do. And more movement: Exercise, bicycling and whatnot, which I still do. And it really stuck with me that if I ever wanna do something interesting, it would be Rolfing.

0:03:36.0 DP: Well, I, as I mentioned, spent 10 years in social services, and I always say five years getting into it and five years trying to get out of it. And during the five years, I was trying to get out of it, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. And one of the exercises that I did was look at the doors that I hadn't walked through, and one of them was this exploration of Rolfing. And so I explored it again and discovered that before you became a Rolfer, you had to go to massage school, or be a physical therapist, or be a nurse, or have some sort of professional training in the body. And so I looked around me, and by this time I was in San Francisco and discovered a spa, a Japanese spa, and went and got a massage and loved it. Came out to the front desk, asked if they knew of any place that would train me to do this, and they said, "Well, as a matter of fact, we have a school." I went to that school and studied. Ended up studying with my teacher for two years, and for two more years he helped me take over his school before he went back to Japan. So by 1981-82, I was running a massage school, a school of Japanese massage called The Omni institute. It no longer exists, but it was in San Francisco, and it was one of the first schools that was teaching traditional Japanese massage in the United States. And I never looked back.

0:05:04.8 DB: So David, tell our audience about that 'aha' moment when you developed seated massage, or the origination of that.

0:05:13.4 DP: So when I was running the school, I came across very quickly, came across this conundrum within the first couple of years, and realized that this thing that I love so much, I loved receiving so much that I thought should be accessible to everyone, but was not an easy way to make a living for graduates from my school. And so I began investigating: What was the problem, why didn't everybody love it as much as I did? And I came to realize that eventually, the notion came to me that what we had was a packaging problem for traditional massage, and the package that we put together, forced people to go into a private room behind closed doors, take off all their clothes with another person in the room, get rubbed with, slathered with oils.

0:06:06.7 DP: And spend an hour there and upwards of 60, 70 and nowadays $100 a pop for the privilege. And that package, even to this day, is not accessible to most people. Our brains are programmed for new experiences to look and understand connections with old experiences. So my idea was, let's change the package. And in Japanese massage, there's often a moment when the customer is actually sitting up rather than lying down. So the idea of working on somebody who was in a seated position was not actually a far leap for me, and I looked at what we could do with people just sitting in chairs rather than sitting on the edge of a table, and I realized that there was a lot you could do, especially because Japanese massage is designed to be done without oils and can be done through the clothing, as a matter of fact, we always did it through a sheet. So that wasn't a big leap either, and then we began experimenting with what parts of body we could do... Upper body we could do easily in a seated position in the course... Came down to the shoulders, neck, arms, back, scalp, head. And we took... Adapted the techniques from the table massage to the chair massage, and boom, there we were.

0:07:50.8 DB: So David, how did you then go about actually creating the actual chair?

0:07:56.2 DP: Well... And that really was the defining moment for contemporary chair massage. When we were beginning doing chair massage down in Silicon Valley, living in San Francisco, and we got some... We tried lots of different ways to market it, but we ended up... A guy who is running the documentation department at Apple Computer Corporation found one of our flyers and brought us in because they were trying to get the Mac computer on the market for the first time in 1984. And so we came in to work on his department, the people in his department for stress relief, and then the department next door saw us and wanted us in there, and so pretty soon we were doing upwards of 250 people a week down there, and going down there three times a week in a little Volkswagen minivan, classic. I thought we'd hit the gold mine, I thought that this was a tsunami that was gonna be sweeping across corporate America, and then about that time, the first recession hit the computer industry, there's these ups and downs, and so the recession hit the computer industry for the first time, and when we came back, instead of the company paying for it, the employees were paying for it.

0:09:30.7 DP: And so that was a pivotal wake-up call for me, and I realized that we needed to take a step back and think more long-term about what was necessary to create in essence, a new industry. So I realized that a tool was needed that would make the customer more comfortable and the practitioner, make it easier for the practitioner to work. And so those were the days when they had those knee chairs that came from Scandinavia with the tilting seat and the tilting knee rest. And so I looked at that and I went to a French cabinet maker who was recommended to me Serge Bouyssou and he and I put together a design for a way in which the customer could be leaning forward with their arms supported, with their face supported. Basically, the idea was to get their whole body off the ground so that they felt totally supported by a chair, a new chair that of course nobody had ever seen before, because it was a backwards chair. And so we came up with a design out of a wood that we took to Living Earth Crafts a manufacturer up in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco.

0:10:56.4 DP: And the owner worked with us for two years to bring it from a prototype stage into a production stage. And in 1986, the first of the chairs started rolling off the line, and that was it. And shortly after we began using them, one of the things that I realized was that having a physical representation of a new idea was very crucial, because we often ran into the issue when we're talking with people on the phone and trying to describe chair massage to them, they would wanna know, Well, do I have to have an electric outlet nearby to plug it in? So their idea of chair massage was the lounger idea, and having a physical representation, something that they could look at and see, really just spraying it wide open, and all of a sudden, A, this is not table massage, this is not what they normally think about as massage, and B, it fits into a whole new category and creates a whole new category for the industry.

0:12:19.4 DB: Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsors. Anatomy Trains is delighted to announce a brand new dissection live stream specialty class in September 18, lumbopelvic stability, a one-day layer dissection with Anatomy Trains author, Tom Myers and master dissector, Todd Garcia. The early bird price of $150 is held until September 10th. After September 10th, the price is $250. Come see the body's actual core for yourself. This course will be provided over Zoom webinar with multiple cam reviews, live chat and Q&A. Visit anatomytrains.com to sign up.

0:12:56.6 DB: Now let's get back to the podcast.

0:12:58.7 KC: Okay, David, let's talk about chair massage as a modality. And I always, always say, it is not just Swedish massage on the chair, it is its own modality with its own techniques, and you developed a Kata or a flow. Tell us about that, tell our listeners who aren't familiar with chair massage, maybe haven't ever studied it before, about that flow, its origin and the different body parts that you work and some of the techniques that you use.

0:13:25.5 DP: Well, it's all based on traditional Japanese massage the work that I do, so I hadn't studied anything else. So that was all that I knew. And as I mentioned, because it was a Japanese massage, it was based on acute pressure and didn't require oil. So doing it through the clothing was pretty straightforward. One of the advantages of Japanese massage is that there's very little strength involved, it's all leverage. So we make a big point in helping people find the body mechanics that are appropriate for the chair. And because the client is sitting on an angle, it's actually quite easy to use pressure to apply pressure.

0:14:10.1 DP: So we were creating a routine out of traditional Japanese massage. And one of my students at the time was a student of a martial art teacher, martial art master who was studying a kind of obscure form of martial art called [0:14:29.5] ____ Sid title. And he... I asked him, "Why don't you give Master Ito a massage, and let me know what he what he thinks." And so he did and my student came back and said that Ito says that it's a good Kata. And I said, "What's a Kata?" and not being familiar with the word at all, well, it turns out that what he was referring to was the Japanese concept of form of taking something and turning it into a precise, highly choreographed form of not just the physical work, but also the intention, the approach, before, afterwards, the whole package. So most people are familiar with the term because it's a martial art term. But it also can be applied to Japanese brush painting, to Ikebana, Japanese art arranging.

0:15:30.0 DP: Those are all... Those all have katas connected to them. So we're probably the only people who teach massage like you teach a martial art. And what we do is we give you the whole Kata, the whole highly choreographed sequence of acute pressure points of Japanese massage techniques of stretches, of the approach, and we call it the Onion. Okay, so here's the big Onion. You get it. When you train with us, you get the Onion, and then your job is to let the Kata teach you and start to peel away a layer by layer, each of the parts of the Onion. And I've been peeling it away since 1986. And I still haven't gotten to the center of it. Every time I do the massage, every time I teach the massage, every time I receive the massage, every time I watch a massage being given, I'm pulling away another layer of the onion. That is the Kata.

0:16:35.9 KC: I love it. It's a wonderful and rewarding Onion for those who haven't explored it. And I'm gonna echo what David said about body mechanics. I can absolutely attest that after six to eight hours of doing chair massage, I feel great, my body feels great. After six to eight hours of table massage. I don't feel as great and so for me, the body mechanics with chair massage are just perfect. I love it so much.

0:17:00.2 DP: Yeah, you don't have to lean over anything. And using your bodyweight we of course work alongside other people many times, we're doing other kinds of techniques and they get tired and particularly if you're using Swedish techniques, where you're trying to grasp the muscles with your hands. This is why I tell people why we go to massage school is when... Before we go people tell us what great hands we have when we're doing massage on our friends and families. And but what we know is how tired our hands get because our technique is so... It's based on muscle strength squeezing and we go to massage school to learn good technique, so we don't get exhausted. But the... What you have to default to when you can't use oils is oftentimes muscle strength techniques again. So it just is not is as effective or efficient as the acute pressure techniques which go literally right to the point. So it's a carefully designed sequence of acute pressure points that whose purpose is to... With the greatest efficiency, get the greatest level of relaxation and relief in the shortest amount of time.

0:18:19.1 DB: David, you wrote marketing chair massage, what are some primary keys to success for practitioners wanting to succeed in this area?

0:18:26.6 DP: So there's basically three ways that you can use chair massage, you can use it to get table clients, you can use it alongside of your table practice or you can use it as a standalone, as you practice as your total practice. There's basically three markets for chair massage if you're selling it. The three markets for chair massage are the ones that people are most familiar with are the event market where you take chair massage to a location like a convention show or trade center where a lot of people have seen it and you do on people who are see you one time and never again. The second category we call the workplace market. And a lot of people are familiar with that. As a matter of fact, that's how a lot of people decided to go to massage school was because they had their first massage in their workplace and said, "Why am I doing whatever I'm doing and not liking it when I could be doing something that would make me feel great."

0:19:32.7 DP: And so workplace has been a huge part of huge segment, those two segments, the event in the workplace massage have traditionally been the largest segments of chair massage market, the third market is what we call retail chair massage. And that's kind of a combination. It could be people you see one time, but the main difference is that the customers come to you instead of you going to the customers, as is the case with the event in the workplace massage, so that could be an airport, it could be as part of hair salon it could be a free-standing retail store, as I had in San Francisco for a while, and in downtown San Francisco, and the people would come to us and they would come to us with their aches and pains.

0:20:26.3 DP: It was difficult for people to get through the front door without saying, I slept wrong last night, or my shoulder is hurting or I strained my back or whatever, and we would have to begin to re-educate them as to the difference between massage and massage therapy. So a massage therapy, which is kind of the branding path that was chosen in the mid-1980s by massage profession, wanted to position massage as a healthcare service and has done a very good job of it, and it's been successful to a point, but it's had its limitations. What they left behind was just personal care service massage, massage is relaxation. So I can tell somebody who comes in with aches and pains, I can say, Well, you know, I'm good to hear about that, and I will definitely be careful in those parts where you're hurting and check in with you constantly to make sure that I'm not making it worse. But what I do is a systemic massage, what I do is something that's for the whole body, for the whole person, and the effectiveness of the massage will be such that I guarantee whether your problem is resolved in 15 minutes or not, you will feel better, and if you don't feel better.

0:22:06.5 DP: Then you don't have to pay us. You don't have to pay me. And the idea, the concept of feeling better of just having permission or finding a way, finding a tool that makes you feel better in 15 minutes is pretty unusual, but we've got it, the massage industry has it, and that is life-changing for many folks just to begin to know that they don't have to feel the way they're feeling at this moment in time, whether it be stiff, angry, press, frustrated, overwhelmed, in pain, whatever, whatever, you come and sit into the chair. However, that begins, your experience with a massage, I guarantee you that Oxytocin and the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system will make you feel better, and we're pretty confident in that now, and now we have the science to prove it.

0:23:12.3 KC: Absolutely, and I can attest that first time chair massage clients are shocked and surprised by how much change they can feel in their own bodies and in their own emotions after just 10 to 15 minutes. So very powerful work and check, check, check for all the three different reasons to do chair massage and also the three different settings, I've done them all, and I can tell you listeners that I love chair message as its own modality, but yet it was the best marketing I could ever have done for my table massage practice and now 21 almost years into this wonderful work, every single one of my table clients I can trace back in some way to chair massage and a chair massage client, so.

0:23:56.6 DP: You're not alone.

0:23:58.2 KC: Powerful work. Yes, it's wonderful.

0:24:00.7 DB: Alright, David, one final question. What's the future of chair massage?

0:24:05.5 DP: So a chair massage is I think, at a crucial moment in a crucial time in the evolution of the massage industry, so as we know over the past number of years, since 2008 actually, there's been a struggle in the massage industry to develop practitioners and to expand the market for a professional massage people who touched professionally. The problem in the United States with chair massage is that North America, I'll include Canada in this is an outlier, an outlier in how it treats chair massage, everywhere else in the world, you can take a chair massage program and learn it and start doing chair massage. The United States is the only and Canada are the only places where you have to study for 500 or 1000 hours of table massage before you can use chair massage. Of course, you need 500 or 1000 hours, I would say, in my opinion, 2000 hours to become a massage therapist, but you don't need 500 hours to learn to effectively rub somebody shoulders and work on their upper body. We have a program in France, that's a $200 program and teaches a full range, 5, 10, 15, 20, up to 30 minutes of chair massage and also give skills for moving into different markets and whatnot, advanced techniques and the whole ball of wax.

0:25:44.1 DP: So chair massage is actually kind of like the kindergarten for customers beginning to introduce them to the joys and the value of skilled touch, and I think that this is a moment when the massage industry could be looking at that and begin to separate the healthcare massage from the personal care massage. There is this recognition that there is this personal care aspect to massage that doesn't involve high level therapy training, and the change needs to happen at the state level. The Association of State Boards of Massage needs to begin to examine the possibility of making that split happen and making the entry level not be massage therapy, because that really is more a college level for knowledge and both from the practitioner side and the customer side, and bring it down to something that is much more accessible to the customers and the massage practitioners. For practitioners, you learn chair massage first, you go out, start to make money and then pay then you can afford to pay for your table massage training [chuckle] after that and keep moving on. So chair massage is safer, more convenient and more affordable for both the customers and the practitioners, and I think that should be the future of chair massage.

0:27:21.4 DB: I wanna thank our guest today, David Palmer, for more information, visit touchpro.com. ABMP Podcast listeners, ABP members have access to more than 50 discounts through their membership. Services include discounts on continuing education, home utilities and cell phone service, legal fees, office equipment and more. Go to ABMP.com/discounts to learn. Thanks, David. Thanks, Kristin.

0:27:42.7 DP: My pleasure. Good to meet you both.

0:27:46.0 KC: David, thank you so much for creating what became for me a life-changing modality. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and listeners get out there, go receive and give a chair massage.

0:27:56.4 DB: I was gonna throw in one final thing, David, you've literally created probably one of the most ubiquitous things in the entire massage profession. That must be really proud and really cool to see that when you go all over the world. That's just so cool. Again, I wanna reiterate what Kristin said, thank you so much.

0:28:11.5 DP: My pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.

0:28:18.3 S4: Members are loving ABMP 5-Minute Muscles and ABMP Pocket Pathology, two quick reference web apps included with ABMP membership. ABMP 5-Minute Muscles delivers muscle-specific palpation and technique videos plus origins, insertions and actions for the 83 muscles most commonly addressed by body workers. ABMP Pocket Pathology created in conjunction with Ruth Werner, puts key information for nearly 200 common pathologies at your fingertips and provides the knowledge you need to help you make informed treatment decisions. Start learning today, ABMP members log in at ABMP.com and look for the links in the featured benefits section of your member homepage. Not a member? Learn about these exciting member benefits at ABMP.com/more.


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