James Waslaski, LMT, CPT, teaches orthopedic and sports massage to practitioners including massage therapists, chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths and athletic trainers.
His integrated manual therapy program was developed to bridge the gap between all health care professionals who specialize in eliminating chronic pain and sports injuries and to help optimize performance potential. James has created numerous training materials, including lessons on DVD and in written form. He teaches about 40 seminars around the world every year and authored the book Clinical Massage Therapy: A Structural Approach to Pain Management.
James is also a MASSAGE Magazine All-Star, one of a group of body-therapy masters who have dedicated their lives to empowering and informing massage professionals. These innovative therapists and teachers are educating the magazine’s community of massage therapists in our print magazine, on our social media channels and on massagemag.com.
Karen Menehan: James, let’s start out with you telling our readers what first interested you in massage therapy as a career.
James Waslaski: I was a paramedic for 20 years. I ran marathons all the time. The injuries I sustained led me to a massage therapist in North Dakota named Kim Burkey. He did this amazing work just keeping me healthy, keeping me running, and keeping me training. [So] I took [massage] as a hobby. And I saw a presenter named Benny Vaughn, and that totally changed my life. It actually changed my whole career plan.
KM: I hear that from so many therapists, that it’s the pain and injury they suffer themselves that leads them to massage therapy, so it’s interesting to hear that you’re another one of those people who found your calling in that way.
You had been a paramedic for more than 20
years before you became a massage therapist, and I’m just wondering how that
career played a role in how you developed your education in orthopedic
massage and integrated manual therapy.
JW: It was instrumental, because right out of high school I went to college, got my associate’s degree in science, premed, and at the age of 17 I became a paramedic. By the age of 19 I was teaching college — university-level paramedic programs, firefighting, [using the] jaws of life. And the blessing about that whole experience is I worked in a trauma center for almost 20 years. We did rounds with the nurses, we did rounds with the orthopedic surgeons, so I got to see firsthand the devastations of trauma injuries, rehabilitations, setups, tractioning devices.
The experience of 20 years in a hospital setting opened incredible windows of opportunity. Plus, it gave me such a groundwork in anatomy, physiology, neurology and pathology. It was instrumental into where I wanted to be in the field of massage therapy.
KM: This sounds crucial to what you’ve developed now.
You know, you mentioned Benny Vaughn as one of
the people who inspired you in the field of massage, and I’m wondering what
other educators have had the biggest effect on you and your massage training
over the last 29 years.
JW: As a student in 1990, I was still working full-time as a paramedic and was just dabbling in massage. My guest instructors at the time at the school were Paul St. John, Michael McGillicuddy, Aaron Mattes. Those were people that did lectures when I was a student — so imagine, the legends of our profession. And then about a year into massage, I was going to quit doing massage and just keep doing the paramedic [work] and [take] my whole retirement in that.
But I took a class from Benny Vaughn at the [Florida State Massage Therapy Association] conference in Florida, and I remember … I went up to him and I said, “You know, someday I want to be like you.” I said, “I was so inspired with how you treat these musculoskeletal injuries, you know, each performance you do, these methods.”
But then what’s launched it even more is Erik Dalton taught me osteopathic-type of work in the field of Myoskeletal Alignment. I assist him, and I’m assisting him in Oklahoma, coming up. I assist him in Costa Rica. And then my daughter has a leg-length discrepancy, which was anatomical, not functional, so we learned a lot from Randy Clark and Paul St. John.
I think another great mentor is Kerry D’Ambrogio from [the D’Ambrogio Institute]. He taught me total lymphatic drainage, total body balancing, total body lesions. And I find that these mentors just keep showing up at the right time. When you want to launch to the next level, these high-level, high-profile leaders of our profession show up.
A lot of people think because I travel 45 weekends a year, I don’t take workshops. But just last year alone, I took close to 100 hours in advanced training, including some cranial-structural-osteopathic work with Don McCann.
You know, I think probably the most instrumental in my life, and I can’t leave him out of the list because he was first and foremost, was Whitney Lowe. In 1993, when Whitney Lowe taught me, he was on the National AMTA Sports Council with me for national certification in sports massage.
And when I read his book on orthopedic assessment, it transformed my whole career. I mention him in every seminar, because without his assessment, clinical reasoning, pathology, understanding of diagnostic criteria, I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at today.
So, so many — almost too many mentors to list, but those were the instrumental people in my life.
KM: We know how fantastic orthopedic massage is and the results that it has for people, but is orthopedic massage as a specialty really understood by professionals in the medical profession? And how can that understanding be moved forward?
JW: I still think that orthopedic massage needs more clarification. I was so impressed … by Whitney Lowe to follow that path of orthopedic medicine. What changed my path from sports massage, to clinical sports massage, to orthopedic massage was that every major Olympic and professional athlete that I worked on — which was my whole career, working on athletes — every athlete that I worked on when they got a major musculoskeletal injury, they would go to the orthopedic surgeon.
Orthopedic massage is a buzzword. It deals with the musculoskeletal system, the performance level of, you know, the spinal engine of the ilium moving. I kind of went from sports massage to clinical sports massage, especially treating injuries, to orthopedics because that’s where all the athletes went.
And now with the words “integrated manual therapy,” I think that helps me open doors with chiropractors and osteopaths, physical therapists and athletic trainers. Because I learned, over 30 years of studying, that specializing in just one modality was so limiting to my outcomes with my [clients], to my performance levels of my athletes.
This multidisciplinary, multi-manual therapy approach to having a large rapport of techniques that are based on assessments and outcomes was a lifetime accumulation of the words. In other words, I still call what I teach, everything we’re branding now, integrated manual therapy and orthopedic massage, because I want to touch that orthopedic physician-patient model, and I want to align with Whitney Lowe’s importance of assessments, pathology, neurology and clinical reasoning.
One of the best things that I ever learned from Whitney was we must match the technique to the underlying pathology of the clinical condition based on assessment. And then [Kerry D’Ambrogio of the D’Ambrogio Institute] said every technique should start and finish with assessment.
It’s all feeding off my pre-med while feeding off my hospital background. And it’s all coming together in a way that I think [we help give us] the potential to change the future of the face of manual medicine.
KM: Regarding your training in integrated manual therapy, if a massage therapist studied with you and learned the therapy, what might he or she be able to do in terms of expanding their practice? Or are there employment opportunities that align with this type of training?
JW: Well, you know, earlier in my career, my whole thing was working with university settings. I worked with the University of South Florida. My whole practice was built around working with the New York Yankees in spring training, with the Buccaneers, with pro teams. And, you know, my goal in massage, when I first started massage, was I wanted to go to the Olympics in 1996. That was my whole focus, but now I think there is a bigger global picture of what I think’s happening.
I’ve had a lot of people get certified. And what we based our work on was we start with understanding anatomy, physiology and neurology. We can’t diagnose. So instead of diagnosing, we do assessments on all patients [using] palpation skills, clinical reasoning, special tests, and then we match the treatment plan to what we evaluate.
And then as a personal trainer myself for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, I specialize in corrective exercises. If you look at all the pain studies and the research, it says that the brain controls everything. If we don’t reinforce these new structurally based patterns, these performance-level patterns, with some corrective exercises, I don’t think there’s a total package.
I don’t think there’s a better time in this profession to be in the field of massage therapy, to have doors of opportunity open in hospitals, universities, sports teams — and then they’re seeing the high level of massage.
Now, Benny Vaughn, he’s 40 years into massage, he’s still traveling with the USA Track & Field Team. Well, he’s been doing that since the ’70s, [and he still] probably works 30 to 40 hours a week. He works a lot of hours. Benny always taught me, “Sell results, not time. Sell results.”
You can have a lucrative practice. Find mentors, find leaders, find role models and never stop learning. I think that’s the key to this being the future of manual medicine and … to say, “I want to be a great massage therapist.”
KM: One of the keynote presentations that you present all over the world is about the future of manual medicine. Can you explain that for us?
JW: What I try to do is bridge the future of manual medicine. Back when I trained therapists at the Olympic Training Centre in Australia just prior to the 2000 Olympic Games, I saw there were the athletic trainers, the chiropractors, the osteopaths, the physios, the massage therapists, [and they all] were team players. And when I came back to the states, there were these little turf wars.
You know, the chiropractor does one thing. The physical therapist might do something totally different based on their exercise plan. And I was determined to get into all of those markets — and how do we integrate our strengths?
In other words, I have strengths as a massage
therapist that some chiropractors may not have. I sometimes may challenge the
model of physical therapy saying, “Are the joints healthy? Are the nerves
healthy? Are the scar tissues healthy? Are the nerves decompressed? Is the body
healthy enough to do exercises?”
Then bridging the gap of the future of manual medicine is basically how do we — and I want to emphasize this word, because after 18 years of marriage, my wife taught me the importance of humility — how do we humbly address, and in a very interactive way, how this world could integrate the future of medicine so that nobody’s putting down other professions? Everybody’s on the same page. We’re sharing our strengths.
I taught, recently, 200 chiropractors in Detroit neurology, and we were talking about nerve entrapments, nerve compression, and all of [my] nerve DVDs were shown that day. Some of the quotes said, “This was the best chiropractic educational model we’ve had in 20 years,” and it’s the Detroit chiropractic conference.
And because I teach it with
Dr. Steve Lund, who’s a chiropractor for 42 years,
many of them didn’t know I was not a chiropractor, and they said, “Doc,
how many degrees do you have?” And I said, “It’s not about the
degrees. It’s about learning from the masters, the true masters of the world in
I’ve been blessed to learn from osteopaths, chiropractors, physical therapists, athletic trainers. And I think what my advice to up-and-coming therapists would be is stay humble.
Like when I first started with the New York Yankees, the head trainer for 25 years said, “We don’t really like massage therapists because they think they know it all.” That was my first introduction to the athletic trainer for the New York Yankees.
That was in in 1996. And I said, “You know what? I will get you coffee. I will serve you, whatever. All I want to do is follow you around like a little puppy dog. I want to learn what you spent 25 years to develop. I will do anything you ask me. I’ll make sure that I ask permission to work on these multimillion-dollar players.”
But I guess other therapists, they walk in like they know it all. And then if you put down the PT, or the chiropractor, or the osteopath — and there are so many brilliant ones in that industry and some that are not so good in all of our industries.
I think that integration was my passion and drive. I want to learn from the best, I want to share with the best, and I want to make the model of medicine different in the future.
My biggest thing on my keynotes is getting people out of opiates — and [having grown up in] the Midwest where it’s the biggest suicide rate from opiate addictions … I talk about that in all my classes.
I think … we could save $25 billion in health care in one year if we could replace the opiate addictions with massage therapy.
KM: Who are you presenting to when you’re discussing massage and integrated health care as a way to address the opioid epidemic?
JW: I just talked at Northwestern University. I just did a keynote there. It’s a chiropractic college, but my audience was massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, physicians. My audience in Detroit where I talked about the epidemic of opiates, that was 200 chiropractors.
[We’re] trying to subtly integrate the manual therapy care to get [people] out of pain and emotional distress to replace the crisis of opiates that we see taking over, especially our younger generation.
KM: And do you see that taking place on the larger medical or hospital system level or mostly within private practice?
JW: I’m finally seeing the doors [opening] that we prayed would open someday in the field of manual medicine in hospitals and institutions, research and universities, I’m seeing those doors starting to open, more so in the last year or so than ever before.
KM: That’s fantastic. That’s so good to hear.
JW: Thank you.
KM: You know, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you and seeing you train therapists at various conventions over the years, and I’m always struck by how vibrant and healthy you seem. And I’m just wondering if there’s any sort of words of wisdom you can share regarding self-care and staying healthy, especially when someone’s over age 45 or 50.
JW: When I work with Olympic athletes, immediately, I’ve always been told if you tell people to do things and you don’t do them yourself, that makes you a hypocrite, so that plays in the back of my mind all the time. At the age of 63, I still do three- and four-hour bike rides. I go to the gym six days a week. And it’s not just for physical reasons
I have also been a part of a men’s bible studies group. So spiritually, I am thinking positive thoughts.
You know, when I went through my cancer at MD Anderson a few years ago, during those four months of proton therapy, I learned the power of meditation, visualization, positive thinking. I think staying healthy, it has to not just be physically — I feel better mentally.
If I’m not feeling healthy mentally,
spiritually, emotionally, energetically, then I don’t feel healthy no matter
how physical [I work out].
I think I’m trying to lead by example a model of calmness. Right now, I live at my home on a 30-acre nature center in our backyard that the city takes care of. Because I’m in airports and everything, I have to come back here, and take my dog out, and be with nature, and be around the water.
I just teach massage therapists good body mechanics. I teach massage therapists to stay hydrated. I teach massage therapists, you know, be careful about your posture. I teach them to stretch tight, short muscles that pull us into flexion over the years. I teach them to strengthen weak muscles.
I’d like to give my daughter credit for the way I teach. Her brain learns and processes differently. She just wrote an article that is one of the main reasons I was successful [at teaching]. Alex said, “Ask your instructor to teach the way you learn.” When I teach — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a presentation, Karen, but I have a teacher and screens. On one screen, there is anatomy, physiology, neurology, pathology. You could look inside of the human body and look at what’s happening at the cellular level with each technique. On the other screen is what I’m doing with my hands.
And so, I’m catering to the verbal [and] kinesthetic style. Everybody learns different. Some are auditory. Some are kinesthetic. Some are verbal. They have to see it, feel it, do it, hear it. I barely passed high school. The teachers that taught the way I learned gave me good grades and the teachers that didn’t teach the way my brain learns, which is more kinesthetic and visual, I didn’t do well [in their classes] — which is why I excelled at [massage] professionally.
I think the majority of the people I cater to have different ways of learning. I don’t call them disorders. They’re just different ways of brain processing. And what I love to do is [hear] when that student in the back goes, “Oh, he made me so smart,” and then, “Oh, I could see it on the big screen so I understood what the technique was doing. Oh, thank you for catering to my style of learning.” And I think that’s a big part of my success.
KM: You know, it sounds like it’s yet another area in your professional life where you’ve adopted integration in a very successful way.
Speaking of success, we’re just wondering also
if you could highlight some of the biggest successes of your career. What would
you say, you know, looking back, have been just really wonderful things that
you’ve done or learned?
JW: Well, early in my career, I really wanted to go to the Olympics. I had the opportunity, thanks to Benny Vaughn, I had the opportunity to work at the 1996 Olympics. I had the opportunity to teach at the Olympic Training Center in 1998, prior to the 2000 Olympics. I had the blessing and opportunity to work three years with the New York Yankees during three World Series championships, and I had the opportunity to consult here in Dallas with professional sports teams.
One of my career successes was probably meeting my wife, Fran, because she taught me the importance of spirituality and humility, [and she] keeps me organized. Those are the successful pieces that are instrumental. Surrounding myself with staff that are on the ball, that cover up my weaknesses. So those are highlights of my career.
[Many] years ago, I was living in a little rundown apartment, and my motivational guy, [also a client] I was working on, was Tony Robbins. And he said the goals that I wrote were impotent, to write bigger, unrealistic goals. I wrote, “Someday, I’ll be the keynote speaker in Australia,” and I had never even been to Australia. [I wrote] “I’ll be the keynote speaker at their national massage conference in Australia.” And it was kind of interesting, then, 20 years later, that manifested. I would have to rate that as a very high, successful goal.
I would tell people, first of all, find what’s passionate in your heart. You know, like my daughter wants to work with babies, so she’s studying with Tina Allen. And she wants to work with animals, dogs. Find what’s in your heart then be great at it, and then then those successes will supersede your prior expectations.
KM: I love that. Find what’s in your heart and be great at it. That’s beautiful.
JW: Thank you.
KM: We’re coming to the end of our All-Star interview, and I’m just wondering if there’s anything else at all you’d like to tell our audience of massage therapists.
JW: You know, Karen, I think what I would say is get involved with the organizations, and you guys, you’ve done a lot with MASSAGE Magazine to expose me to the public, and things like this are an honor and a privilege. I have watched you evolve over the years.
[To massage therapists, I’d say], Get involved at the national level … I was the chair of the Sports Massage Council for five years. That’s all volunteer work, getting involved.
And I think the bottom line is what my pastor, Paul Cole, who ministers the men around the world [says]: Be prepared to serve. If you help enough people get through difficult times, money will manifest. And I think that what drives me isn’t the money. What drives me is that little 5-year-old girl that can walk normally and empty her bladder. Be driven by the difference you can make in people’s lives and the money will manifest.
I tell my daughter all the time, “Don’t let people tell you you’re not smart enough, because something was put in your heart and soul by God that you are destined to do greater than anybody out there.”
And then my other piece of advice is the one my wife gives me on a regular basis: Stay humble, you know. Her dad managed the Phillies, Cubs, Rangers, but she’s so humble, and she really instills that in people as they become more successful. Just humility is an admirable trait.
KM: I agree. Thank you. Thank you for that reminder.
This has been the MASSAGE Magazine interview with James Waslaski. You can learn more at orthomassage-net.myshopify.com. Thank you, James.
JW: Thanks, Karen. It was an honor. I appreciate it.
About the Author:
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s Editor in Chief