The Union of Yoga & Massage

By Cindy Williams

At Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), we talk a lot about yoga. We recommend yoga poses to keep your body moving and pain-free as part of self-care, we partner with national yoga studio franchises to bring you yoga class discounts, and we recognize that many massage therapists practice yoga, and even teach it. So do your clients.
The 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance illuminates the rise of yoga awareness nationwide, and practitioners’ understanding of the profound effects yoga practices have on the body, mind, and spirit.1
Results from this study raise important questions. Should there be a stronger union between the worlds of yoga and massage therapy? Would developing purposeful partnerships support the well-being of our clients in a more holistic fashion and deepen the healing effects of our work? Would these partnerships aid the success of massage practices, as well as increase yoga class sizes and individualized yoga sessions? Aren’t we, after all, supporting the same people?
Let’s ponder these questions by starting with the facts.

Who Is Practicing Yoga and Why?
The 2016 Yoga in America Study aimed to understand who is practicing yoga, why they practice yoga, and how people view yoga in general. Survey participants were yoga practitioners, nonpractitioners, instructors, and studio owners, and findings were compared to the previous survey conducted in 2012.
The study found that individuals who practice yoga regularly (once or more per week) increased from approximately 20 million in 2012 to nearly 37 million in 2016. That’s an increase of almost 50 percent in just four years! Within this growth are practitioners over the age of 50, now making up about 38 percent of all yogis and yoginis nationwide.
Why has yoga become so popular? Reasons cited for committing to a regular yoga practice include stress relief, flexibility, injury recovery, pain management, and overall fitness/wellness. Cyclists, runners, weight lifters, climbers, and other athletes rave about how yoga complements their chosen sport and improves overall performance, not only because of its physical benefits, but because regular practice increases mental clarity. Last, but not least, yoga simply feels good.
Do any of these benefits sound familiar?

Who Is Receiving Massage and Why?
In 2017, ABMP conducted its biennial survey on consumer use and views of massage therapy in the United States. The study concluded that approximately 55 million Americans received at least one massage in 2016.  
When asked about the primary reasons for seeking out massage therapy, respondents put relaxation, stress relief, relief of sore and stiff muscles, injury recovery, and pain relief at the top of the list. Survey conclusions also support that, similar to yoga, clients return because it feels good and supports their overall sense of well-being.
It seems clear that yoga instructors and massage therapists have target markets in common and the means to meet the needs of a large and growing population of people who care about their health. I see a symbiotic relationship that benefits clients, yoga practitioners, yoga instructors, and massage therapists. So where do we go from here?

Inside Out, Outside In
One of the beautiful aspects of the relationship between yoga and massage therapy is that, while the goals are often the same, the approaches are quite different. Partnering and referring to each other could definitely offer depth to our common clients’ healing journeys.
Generally speaking, the application of massage involves a trained massage therapist sensing, palpating, and manipulating soft tissues that are restricted, ischemic, and posturally compromised due to physical, mental, and emotional demands placed on the client. While there can certainly be active aspects to the massage session and within different modalities, the most common approaches involve a client passively receiving the work. We attempt, within scope, to offer clients exercises to utilize between sessions to help our work stick and to involve them in reaching their health goals.
Yoga, in contrast, primarily involves a trained yoga instructor verbally guiding students on how to move their own bodies in an effort to sense, feel, and manipulate their soft tissues that are restricted, ischemic, and posturally compromised due to physical, mental, and emotional demands placed on them. Being a yoga instructor, I can attest to the number of practitioners who come up after class wanting advice on how to best address specific pains and tight, sore muscles. Since yoga instructors can recommend yoga postures and practices that are specific to a student’s needs, they are an excellent resource for us to offer to our clients and, in turn, we are an excellent resource for yoga instructors to refer for hands-on assessment and treatment of those specific pains and tight, sore muscles.2
This opens up a whole new world of marketing and a spirit of cooperation with yoga instructors. They are your people.
Need Fresh Marketing Ideas? Think Yoga
There are myriad ways to work together with yoga studios and instructors to reach more potential clients. Networking is the key.

Take Classes and Get Educated
Just as there are many modalities to choose from in the world of massage and bodywork, there are diverse approaches to yoga. Each approach has unique benefits, and some focus on special needs and populations. Take a variety of classes at different studios. Stay after class to talk with the instructors about the styles they teach, and share with them the work you do. If there is a class that would benefit your client, such as a prenatal yoga class or a class for seniors, the instructor will likely be open to you auditing the class so you have a better understanding of the purpose and approach. Offer to trade a massage for a one-on-one yoga session so they can experience your work.

Get Acquainted with Studio Owners
Schedule informational interviews with studio owners to learn more about the styles of yoga they offer. Often, yoga studios will have community nights where they provide a free class to thank their regular students and market to new prospects. In many cases, they invite vendors, such as health-food providers, jewelry artists, musicians, and massage therapists. I’ve seen schools market their massage and bodywork programs at studio events like these. Building relationships with local yoga studios is a simple and effective way to create community and build your network.

Add Massage Space in Yoga Studios
I have yet to practice in a yoga studio that offers massage, but it would make a lot of sense. I practice yoga at home before every massage I receive so that my body is warm and ready for the work, and the therapist can more easily feel restrictions and patterns. How wonderful would it be to go straight from yoga class, to shower, to massage table? This would require a studio with showers and a space that is dedicated to massage, but I have seen studios where it would be possible. It’s an idea worth investigating.

Get Involved in Community Events
The world of yoga is rich in community. It’s one of the many things this industry does well. Spring and summer bring a regular schedule of outdoor yoga classes in nearly all parts of the country. Music festivals geared toward a new-age-minded population incorporate vendors similarly mentioned above. Local kirtans do the same any time of year. Community events are a great way to connect with yoga practitioners and instructors, and give them a firsthand experience of your work (pun intended!).
Looking back at the 2016 Yoga in America Study, we see that over half of yoga practitioners who were surveyed reported donating time to community service activities. Consider partnering with a yoga studio to sponsor and donate time to a community service activity that you organize. Partnerships built on service run deep.
A contemporary approach to marketing, called lifestyle marketing, suggests that consumers prefer to align with businesses that align with their values, activities, opinions, and aspirations. Attending events that draw health-conscious individuals and involving yourself in community service activities where you can meet prospective clients with similar interests are invaluable.

Start the Conversation
It’s important when you start the conversation that you have a foundation to build on. Following is a small list of common yoga styles taught in mainstream yoga classes in America and their specialized benefits. I recommend trying them all! Talk to each instructor, meet practitioners in the classes, and experience the benefits for yourself.

Hatha Yoga
Although hatha yoga is a very broad term that encompasses many styles, it is defined as the active, physical practice of asana, or postures, designed to awaken and strengthen the body in connection with the breath. Historically, it is designed to prepare the practitioner for the meditative aspect of yoga. Today’s hatha yoga classes are gentle, slower-paced classes that are great for beginners and helpful for correcting common postural habits.  

Vinyasa Yoga
Vinyasa is a vigorous practice designed to increase heart rate, muscle tone, and range of motion. It is supportive for clients who can’t perform high-impact exercise, but want to build heat, detoxify through sweat, strengthen weak areas, and stretch shortened areas. It’s a perfect complement to other forms of exercise, in addition to offering a total-body workout on its own.

Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga
Both yin and restorative yoga styles are very slow-paced and include postures that are held for long periods of time. There are, however, differences between them.
Yin focuses on taking the student to the edge of their range of motion in a gentle, supported fashion, and then allowing the connective tissue to unwind and release. People with chronic tension in the hips, psoas, neck, and lower, middle, and upper back benefit significantly from this approach.
Restorative yoga poses are completely surrendering and restful. Participants are supported with bolsters and guided through body-centered meditations to calm the nervous system and consciously unlock tension patterns, such as releasing a clenched jaw, opening pectoral muscles that hold shoulders forward, and dropping those shoulders that unconsciously creep up when stress creeps in.
Both are great options for clients who suffer from high stress and anxiety or chronic pain, or are recovering from an injury that limits them from an active yoga practice.

Prenatal Yoga
Prenatal yoga is essentially hatha yoga with modifications. It is gentle and aims to assist with the physical changes that occur with pregnancy. Research has shown that prenatal yoga improves sleep and reduces anxiety, as well as increases strength, flexibility, and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth.
Senior Yoga
Senior yoga is also a modified form of hatha yoga. Modifications include holding poses for short periods of time, making very slow transitions, and using props like blocks, straps, or chairs for support. Poses that place body weight on weaker joints, such as wrists, are avoided. The idea behind senior yoga is to keep individuals active when they might otherwise be sedentary. Studies have shown that senior yoga reduces the effects of diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and chronic pain. It also elevates mood and improves sleep.
Coming Full Circle
Should there be a stronger union between the worlds of yoga and massage therapy? Would developing purposeful partnerships support the well-being of our clients in a more holistic fashion and deepen the healing effects of our work? Would these partnerships aid the success of massage practices, as well as increase yoga class sizes and individualized yoga sessions? Aren’t we, after all, supporting the same people?
I say yes.

My Experience Using Yoga and Massage to Heal
When I experienced a traumatic injury in 2008, I was only a month shy of completing my training to become a restorative yoga instructor. For five months postinjury, I couldn’t bear weight on either of my feet and was unable to move my spine for six weeks while in a back brace. I was able to receive weekly, modified massages during the time I was mostly immobile, which provided a sense of circulation and mobility. Massages were soothing and spirit-lifting! When my surgeon approved the removal of the brace, restorative yoga offered me an option to move my body without bearing weight on my feet and gently introduced healthy movement back to my immobilized spine. Being an active woman, I had experienced grief after the injury. The inspiring messages interwoven with the gentle, restorative movement helped to heal my body, mind, and spirit, and I remain grateful to this day that massage and gentle yoga combined assisted me through a very difficult experience.

1. Yoga Alliance, “2016 Yoga in America Study,” January 13, 2016, accessed September 2017,
2. This is a broad characterization of massage and yoga in general. There are certainly active aspects to some styles of massage therapy, and passive aspects to some styles of yoga. We have focused on the broader definitions of these terms for the purposes of this article.

Since 2000, Cindy Williams, LMT, has been actively involved in the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor. She maintains a private practice as a massage and yoga instructor. Contact her at