I have survived as a massage therapist and bodywork practitioner in New York, New York, for 37 years.
When I studied at the Swedish Institute in 1981, we were called masseurs and masseuses. The templates with which we modern massage therapists organize ourselves professionally were not yet formed.
I was an ethereal ectomorph, and when I told friends I was planning to go to school to “do massage,” they laughed so hard they literally rolled on the floor. Their image of a masseur was a burly Eastern European guy giving rubdowns, but I had a vision of a new life as a health provider.
My goal was simply to do work that helped people and to make a living. I wanted to be appreciated—and in that I have absolutely been successful, creating a practice that includes Tony-, Oscar- and Emmy-Award winners. I have learned lessons in building a practice and how to succeed in massage.
1. Be clean and neat.
It was easy to distinguish myself in my first health club job because of the lack of professionalism common in those days.
My co-worker arrived late, wore strange clothing and had dirty nails. The manager immediately responded by arranging the work schedule to my preferences.
It seems so very obvious, but still today a lot of massage therapists fall short of impeccable grooming. Our appearance must say at first glance, “Clean, neat, efficient and healthy” to make people instantly comfortable.
And being on time is absolutely mandatory, because keeping people waiting implies your time is more valuable than their time and people are so busy that if you’re late, you’re not helping with stress, you’re causing it.
2. Develop unique skills.
I immediately studied shiatsu, in those days not a part of standard curriculum in massage schools.
Eizo Ninomiya taught me to take the Chinese pulses of every single client. I immediately started taking the pulses of clients in the health club. Just by taking the pulses, dialogue with the client is taken to a deeper level. I can immediately discern emotional states and symptoms the client thought irrelevant to massage.
The process amazes people, and it creates incredible trust. By checking the pulses during a session, I can monitor the effectiveness of my treatment more efficiently than from feedback from the client. This process has always distinguished my work.
After five years of practicing as a massage therapist, I became licensed in acupuncture. Most acupuncturists who have taken that trajectory abandon massage, but I’ve continued to keep massage as a primary modality.
Most of my acupuncture colleagues have large practices with multiple treatment rooms, receptionists, clerks generating insurance payments and extremely high New York rents. I’ve survived by humbly developing unique clinical skills and focusing on one person at a time.
3. Be a big fish in a little pond.
I stayed at the health club for five years, even after I could earn in four hours in my private practice what I earned in two days at the health club. It’s important to be in the public eye to maintain a practice.
Oftentimes, massage therapists leave settings based on short-term numbers and then fail in the long run. At the health club, I would be booked two weeks in advance and there was a sort of cachet in being booked that would lead to private referrals.
My first famous clients were referred through contacts at the health club, people I would never have met in a million years on my own.
4. Stay put.
This is a hard lesson to learn, but no matter how much your clients appreciate you, many will not follow you when you move.
When I left the health club, even though I naively thought having massaged people for five years was a long time, very few of those people followed me into my private practice.
Later, when I moved from Washington Square to Chelsea, only about a mile away, my practice was cut in half. People are attached to their routines. There are some people I’ve massaged for 30 years, but it’s in the nature of people to come and go.
It’s not their job to be loyal—it’s your job to make it easy for them to stay.
5. Get paid, no matter what.
In 1986, AIDS hit my world and I rose to the challenge. For 10 years, I had an HIV practice. Days would go by in which I saw only AIDS patients and members of their support teams, all in a state of shock.
For years, I would have anxiety returning from vacation because there would usually be a message that someone I knew had passed away.
It seemed like I was doing a good thing in accepting sliding-scale payments. But at one point, when I was three months behind with the rent, I noticed the people who were paying me $15 were failing to show up for appointments, after I had told wealthy clients I was booked.
I ended the sliding scale and chose several motivated clients for free treatments. It was much more mature to figure out realistically how much time and energy I could donate and still survive financially.
Soon the rent was paid. Later, effective medications were released, and AIDS patients were not desperate. They all stopped coming almost overnight, and my practice was decimated. I had lost almost 10 years of effective income building and had to rebuild my practice.
Even during a catastrophe, health providers must strike a balance between being healers and being business people.
6. Be yourself.
One of my first famous clients was a supermodel. In a cab on the way to her apartment with a large bag of sheets and my table, I felt ashamed of the old coat I was wearing.
It was an army coat I’d been given when I was 17 years old. I thought I would be able to take the coat off before I entered her place, but to my dismay hers was the first apartment I’d ever encountered where the elevator opened right in her foyer, and suddenly there she was.
She introduced herself, but then immediately put her hand on the sleeve of my coat and said, “What a wonderful coat! I can tell it’s your favorite. I have one of those, too!” I had been unsophisticated enough to think a supermodel would be impressed with an elegant coat.
Sophisticated people, either emotionally evolved or highly experienced, are not impressed with shallow facades. The only way to gain their trust is to be yourself, doing your job confidently and calmly.
7. Be nice.
Like all massage therapists, I was hit by the recession. I saw it coming early, however, and read that the small businesses that would survive would be those that provide a more personal touch.
I began sending handwritten thank-you notes to everyone who referred, and postcards with a $25-off coupon for the second session to each new client. Then I compiled a birthday database and started sending a birthday greeting to each of the hundreds of people in my database. I’ve survived the recession by being nice.
8. Join Facebook.
Even though my business has a Facebook page to increase my online presence, I never use Facebook to directly promote my business. I do use Facebook to comment on my clients’ posts just to add a personal touch to our relationship.
As a jaded New Yorker surrounded and overwhelmed by people, at first all of this busyness was a burden, but I began to enjoy it. As a hardened practitioner, adding the personal touches ended up being an emotional shot in the arm, allowing me glimpses of my clients as people.
If a measure of success is in the emotional richness of a life, then my 37-year practice has been absolutely rewarding. Creative geniuses have confided in me and hundreds of people have honored me by trusting me with their bodies and their stories.
It’s a profound thing to be present with people who are vulnerable—in pain and agitated, or naked, open and relaxed—and simply be healthy. I’ve learned to find joy in spending time with people.
About the Author
Jeff VanDyke has maintained a private practice in massage and acupuncture in New York City since 1981. A graduate of the Swedish Institute and Tri-state College of Acupuncture, he also worked in a social work setting as acupuncturist in an HIV residence.