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The Strange Case Of Massage ‘Ownership’

who owns the rights to massage?

Who actually ‘owns the rights’ to massage?

What a strange question! But, let’s try to come up with an answer. As you will see, there are all kinds of entities who could stake their claims to massage. Here is a list of 14 of them.

  1. Can professional massage therapists claim it through their licenses?
  2. Or is it the regulatory agencies that pass laws that affect those therapists?
  3. What about the red-light districts all over the world that advertise massage in most major cities on the planet – can they stake a claim to it?
  4. How about all the billions of mothers who stroke and massage their babies and children lovingly? Can they claim it as theirs?
  5. Or maybe the countless native healers, shamans, and medicine people who have used massage in some form or another for thousands of years?
  6. Maybe all the village therapists here in Thailand who learned the craft from their mother, aunt, or grandma, and who have never seen a massage school from the inside.
  7. Or could it be that all the couples of the world who stroke and massage their partners lovingly as part of their relationship can stake a claim here?
  8. Then again, maybe all the official massage schools are the stakeholders. They set the curriculum and design the teaching and the mechanics of the craft.
  9. Or could it be the scientists who validate all the claims of massage benefits as either scientifically correct or condemn them as quackery?
  10. Maybe the professional associations have a claim here. They can decide who is a bonafide therapist (like in the case of national certification in the US), who can give out continuing education credits, and fix someone’s official massage status depending on their membership level.
  11. Possibly the copyrights and patent registration agencies have a claim on massage as well. They have their say on what name you can use for your massage therapy or massage book and which ones are illegal to use.
  12. In some countries, like in the UK, it’s the insurance agencies who decide if your training and your qualifications measure up to their standards before they insure you so that you can practice. Clearly, they are asserting their ‘right’ to decide what massage is.
  13. As of the year 2020, mayors, governors, and other government agencies get to decide if you can practice massage, and where and how, and if massage is something essential or not. So they claim some rights or ‘ownership’ stake, it seems.
  14. UNESCO recognized Thai Massage as a unique cultural heritage of Thailand. Does this make Thailand the owner of it?

Hmm, who really does ‘own’ massage now? You might have thought that this should be a simple issue, but massage therapy seems to be part of life in lots of ways all over the world.

‘Ownership’ can be a strange thing

Every now and then people get together and draw a line in the sand somewhere on the planet. Then they build fences and walls, station men with guns there, call it a ‘border’, and don’t let anyone come in unless they follow their rules and can show the right papers.

Then sometimes they all start disagreeing about those borders, and then lines get redrawn somehow and everybody needs new papers to cross the new lines in the sand.

Nomadic people always had a hard time with this concept. While the lines are where they are, people often get really uptight about them.

Sometimes massage therapy can be a confusing as well

  • Who decides if a particular modality is done correctly?
  • Who is the real and legitimate founder (that’s a subject of discussion with Thai Massage)?
  • Who is a copycat or an impostor?
  • Who is a professional therapist and who is not – is it just a matter of a piece of paper?
  • Who is following the tradition properly and who breaks the rules?
  • Who has the right to make rules?
  • Who is the latest massage guru?
  • Which modality is best (how many modalities are there anyway?)
  • Under whose jurisdiction does a particular kind of therapy fall?
  • Are unlicensed therapists in other countries professionals or not?

So who ‘owns the rights’ to massage?

Well, it seems like there are more questions than answers. Sometimes life is like that. You try to pin something down to a simple answer, and you end up with more questions than you had bargained for, and a one-and-only answer is more elusive than ever.

On the bright side, this might be instrumental for keeping our minds open, honing our acceptance and tolerance skills, and opening our eyes to the many ways how massage is practiced all over the world.

It might be beneficial to learn about and acknowledge cultural differences, and appreciate the role that massage plays in so many areas of life. Maybe that’s where our answer lies instead of coming up with a new ‘ownership’ rule.

Interestingly, Thai Massage therapy brings up many of these issues since it comes from Asia and is practiced in ways that often do not conform to our western mode of thinking. This makes it a fascinating case study for the questions mentioned in this article.

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Shama Kern

The author, Shama Kern, is the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy. He has been practicing and teaching Thai Massage therapy for 2 decades and he is the creator of 20 Thai Massage online training courses.

18 thoughts on “The Strange Case Of Massage ‘Ownership’”

  1. You bring up a lot of good points…one issue: there is NO SUCH THING as “national licensing” in the US. There is such a thing as the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, and many states accept their examinations as a path to licensure, but they are not a regulatory board and there is no such thing as a national license. Each regulated state has their own requirements; some accept that exam and some don’t.

    It’s a confusing melting pot, that’s for sure.

    • Thanks Laura for pointing that out. I changed the wording from “national licensing” to “national certification”. I am glad to see an expert in such matters such as you on my site.

  2. Massage for me, is like air. We can feel it, use it, benefit from it, but no one truly owns it. A couple of the best massages I have ever received are from people who never went to school or even carry a license…my husband’s massages first thing in the morning when I am achy are the best. On the topic of ownership, it is a funny concept. In some cultures, it is quite foreign to “own” anything.

  3. Hi, Shama,
    thanks for the issue raised. I think it is all about whether one needs to have a certificate or not in order to get a job or to be trusted with massage sessions. In our country it is better to have a certificate if you want to get a job in a fitness centre or spa, where massage sessions are usually conducted.
    I don’t think that massage is a matter of ownership. It is a skill.To say that you owe massage is the same as saying you are an owner a dance or a sing. One can be good at it or bad at it depending on different things, like talent, education, experience etc.

    • Lydia, I agree with you, of course ultimately nobody owns massage, although some organizations and legislators are trying their best to make it look like they do own and control it. That’s what I have been trying to point out in a humorous way in my article:)

  4. Hello,everybody!
    It’s interesting subject, especially for people who claim this title:))
    Actually I do not care who claim this title. According to me, the client and therapist alike have it, after a good therapy. In any case, however, the therapist should well know what does. Simply because the paper does not make you a therapist.

  5. No one ‘owns’ massage, it is a natural healing and nurturing act. It is compassion in action, and whatever rules, regulations, commercial interests and just plain interference may come along we should remember that and keep on offering massage and teaching it to others in the way that feels right for us!

  6. Shama, I love to read your articles, Because I’m related to your point of view. I felt always this kind of arguments to my mind, But I never had capability to express. I’m glad there someone like you stand given knowledge, and share your honest opinions with other people to see through, and dig deep. This world is design to control, but when we see it’s not right, we have to stand up, and have to be true to ourself. You doing great work, you always raising important issues. keep it up. Best part of this article the way, you put together, very humorous, while reading I was laughing

  7. What a great observation. I’ve been a licensed Therapist for 17 years and a healer for almost my entire adult hood. I decide to get a license so I could make a living at what I do best. If I was to move to another country I would have to abide by the laws of the land or just call myself a healer. I also taught massage therapy At a school in America where I taught Swedish Massage and intro to several different modalities that I have been trained in and I taught my students to massage using a combination of techniques to make it their own massage. I love this about being a body worker but the laws of the land govern and regulate the income and taxes associated with the cost of performance. What a great question? I told my students that there is nothing new under the sun and somewhere and sometime people have done the same thing and produced the same results. Therapists give modalities new name to capitalize on the free market of massage. Cutting edge words to describe what they do gets the attention of others and drives us to be more creative so we too can gain recognition and profit from others who have gone before us.
    May we all be blessed and have intention who are healers and practice massage.

  8. Here in England there’s a lot of different therapy bodies that run courses for (instant therapist’s) No need for any previous qualifications OR even any training ? as it’s all done in a DAY’s course, for the appropriate fee, As someone who has over the past 40 odd year’s taken countless therapy courses in various different therapies one feels sad that anyone can claim to be a therapist with only a few weeks of training, taking monies off client’s and trading without even any valid insurance if anything goes wrong or gets a malpractice suit if the client is injured ,

    WHO actually owns Massage ???

    PS love to read all of your observations and comments about all the different styles of therapies .

  9. And it gets even stranger. Before the pandemic, I was working for a health center that decided that they would have to do special vetting (a painfully slow process) before I could be allowed to do Thai massage. So according to my patient notes I have never done Thai massage there. However, I have done quite a bit of clothed massage using compressions, rocking, stretches, etc. Some of my patients and colleagues knew exactly what was going on; management still hasn’t figured it out.

  10. Hi Sharma, thanks for your as usual interesting observations. I would like to pay respect on this subject to a lady called Diane Jacobs. She developed DermoNeuroModulation – NDM, basically gentle stretches of the skin that help release tension and pain given we have 97 kms of nerves just under the skin. She wants DNM to reach a wide public and she registered the name in WikiCommons so that no one could appropriate it anywhere! And I would like to rant against French physiotherapists, who appropriated the Bowen Technique after having tried and failed to appropriate massages. The Bowen Technique is in over 160 countries where it works beautifully. But in France ONLY physiotherapists can do it, and shame on them. However, I would not be against introducing a universal general anatomy and physiology test which would include broad counterindications in massage, for all massage therapists whatever their modality. I’m thinking out loud here… what do you think? Namaste

    • Well, that’s a tricky issue, considering that there are modalities that are not based on an anatomical model, but on an energy model like Thai Massage and Shiatsu, for example. So the anatomy and physiology test requirement would fit in with the western model of massage, but not with the eastern energy model.
      So to be fair, would you also propose a test for energy lines and energy pressure points? I doubt that one test would suffice for qualifying therapists across all modalities.

  11. Hi Sharma, yes it’s tricky. For me the energy body with its different layers (meridians, bone marrow, nervous system and spine) is part of our physiology, and the western massage therapist should have basic knowledge of it. All the best.


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