For more than four decades, Benny Vaughn has set the standard in the U.S. for massage therapy and sports.
Benny Vaughn, LMT, BCTMB, ATC, LAT, CSCS, MTI, has participated in four Olympic Games with the USA Track & Field team, including in 1996 when he served as manager for Athletic Medical Services and the Medical Liaison at Olympic Stadium. In 2014, he opened the Benny Vaughn Athletic Therapy Center in Fort Worth, Texas, where he sees professional and other high-level athletes.
His experience and dedication to learning have made him a leader in orthopedic sports massage therapy. Benny is also a MASSAGE Magazine All-Star, one of a group of body therapy masters and teachers who are educating the magazine’s community of massage therapists in print, social media channels, and on massagemag.com.
Karen Menehan: Welcome, Benny Let’s start this interview out with you telling our readers what first got you interested in massage therapy as a career.
Benny Vaughn: What got me interested in massage therapy as a career is I attended the University of Florida in 1969 on an athletic scholarship to run track. I was one of only five African American athletes attending the University of Florida, at that time, in 1969. During the course of my athletic career, running, I was a half-miler, 800 meters. I read an article in Track & Field News about how our counterparts in Europe, our competition, received massage therapy on a weekly basis, and that it helped with recovery. And I thought to myself, “We don’t get that here in the United States”—at least not in 1969.
And I thought, “This seems to be really helpful.” So I began to search out, how do you learn how to do massage? And in 1974, I completed massage therapy school in Gainesville, Florida, and went on to bring massage therapy to my colleagues in track and field. And that’s how I got started.
KM: And was it something that just called to you or that you just felt you had a natural affinity for?
BV: I felt like it called to me because you think to yourself, how out of the blue, you’re running track at a university and you decide that massaging would be a really good skill to have. I was attracted to it. I was always attracted to the concept of laying on of hands, of putting your hands on people to help them feel better. My mother would do it whenever things were not feeling well for us kids in the family. I saw other people do it when people were hurt. And I was just fascinated with the idea that you could put your hands on someone and rub a little bit and they actually felt better. So I think it was a calling.
KM: So, you’ve been in the field for 45 years. I’m wondering if you could kind of give a little snapshot comparison of massage in the 1970s and ’80s compared to now.
BV: I began my massage practice at an executive health club. The concept of a coed club did not exist, and a concept of massage being done on people of different genders did not exist. So, I only massaged men. That was just how it was in the ’70s. And then as we got into the ’80s, we began to see this real explosion of the acceptance of massage, bodywork, hands-on care across the board, and with this explosion, came an acceptance of massage as a wellness, health care practice, and was no longer limited to just clubs, you know, health clubs and fitness centers, and cruise liners and that sort of thing. So, it went from just strictly being sort of a luxury to being a practice of wellness.
KM: And do you think that the incorporation of massage therapy into professional sports teams raised the profile and helped propagate that wellness acceptance of massage therapy?
BV: Absolutely. Sports massage became a great vehicle to the public, who might not have understood all of the wonderful benefits of massage, but they understood the benefits in sport. So, sports became a great vehicle for public exposure and public dissemination of information about massage therapy. Because in the sports environment, massage therapy was a safe practice—meaning that people saw you doing this with their favorite athletes, female or male. And they saw that those athletes really benefited from it, and they weren’t afraid of it. They didn’t think it was strange or odd.
KM: Even today, you work with high-level athletes. And I’m wondering how working with high-level athletes can really enhance massage therapy strategies for all types of clients.
BV: When I work with high-level athletes—and what I mean by that is that they’re either competing or they’re competing and being paid to do so. What I find is that I have a perfect testing laboratory to determine what works and what doesn’t work. the athlete may see me three times in a week, so I have an opportunity to see firsthand the results of the previous session. So I can actually see this worked, this did not work.
What techniques did I use? What was the strategy that I employed? So I then take that information, and now I use it with my active adult clients who I may only see once every two weeks, or every three weeks. And then I will use the massage therapy strategies and techniques that I have been able to determine in my high-level-athlete laboratory that actually work.
KM: Would you be willing to share the types of bodywork techniques that you employ in your practice?
BV: Let me begin first by giving you my definition of technique. Technique is really a way for us to describe the philosophy of massage therapy care that you subscribe to. The reason I have that definition for technique is because if I take my thumb, for example, and I apply digital pressure to a part of my body, that technique appearance could have five different names. I could apply pressure, I could call it trigger point. I could call it neuromuscular therapy. I could call it myofascial release. I could call it many things, names that we have embraced in our profession.
But in the end, the name of that technique reflects the therapeutic philosophy that you subscribe to. The therapeutic philosophy that I subscribe to has components that address reduction of pain and discomfort, enhance movement and mobility, and allows the person to become connected with that movement so that when they ask that muscle and fascia to do something for them, it will be connected, and it will respond.
When we as massage therapists place our hands on someone’s skin, we create a connection for that person through our touch. So, in the end, the techniques that I subscribe to can be summed up in this phrase that I heard once from Dr. Karl Gildersleeve, PhD, of neurobiology, a licensed massage therapist, who taught for many, many years at the University of Florida medical school and the Florida School of Massage.
He once said, “The nervous system is your client.” So, all the massage therapy techniques that we utilize are all designed to generate and stimulate a response from the nervous system and its relationship with structure, whether it’s joint structure, muscle structure or fascial structure. In the end, touch stimulates our nervous system. It can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, so it can create relaxation, recovery. It can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, and get an athlete ready, and much more focused and stimulated before an event. So techniques, for me, are techniques that will elicit a response from the nervous system.
I could use a technique like deep tissue massage, which essentially describes a slower higher angle pressure movement on skin. And what will that do? That may activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Or I could describe a technique of neuromuscular therapy, that can either turn up the sympathetic nervous system or activate the parasympathetic nervous system, by how long I hold that digital pressure there.
Touching the skin is touching the skin, is touching the skin. And the factors that we can manipulate are, where we touch, what region of the body we touch, how much pressure we apply when we touch, the angle of that pressure, and trigger point, it might be a straight 90-degree angle. Whereas, in effleurage, it may be at a 45- or 50-degree angle.
The last factor we control is the speed of the movement of that pressure, angle of pressure, and the region of the body. So, the speed that our hands move across the surface of the skin will elicit different neurological responses, whether it’s a soothing, relaxing, activating that part of the nervous system that’s responsible for that, or if it’s something that’s stimulating that part of our nervous system. It’s all about those factors there.
So, region of the body that we touch, the area that we touch, the amount of pressure that we apply, the angle that that pressure is being applied, and then the speed of movement across that surface of the skin. That’s how I break it down. And when you break it down that way, it includes all forms of named techniques. It’s an inclusive way to do what we do, helping people. So, no technique is more elite than another technique, because it’s the same nervous system.
KM: It sounds like Dr. Gildersleeve was ahead of his time, as pain science and research today shows that it is that effect on the central nervous system that has such an effect on pain reduction and flexibility. So, it’s an interesting time, as we’re sort of evolving past some of the named techniques into a more simplistic understanding of the effect that massage has on the body.
BV: Yes. Simplistic and inclusive.
KM: You have participated in four Olympic Games, and I’m wondering if there’s any one of them that you could point to as being the most memorable for you and why that might be?
BV: In 1996, the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, celebrated 100 years of the Olympic Games. and that also happened to be the Olympic Games where I engineered, through my position as manager for Athlete Medical Services, the full official credentialing of massage therapists to participate. This was the first Olympic Games in modern history where massage therapists had the same credential as physical therapists, medical doctors, and athletic trainers.
KM: That was a huge milestone in the field of massage therapy. I want to say thank you so much for the work you did on that.
BV: Yeah, thank you. And so that 100 year anniversary, so that was significant. Then we go to the next Olympic Games that I participated in, it was 2004, Athens, Greece. So, a return to the original site of the Olympics. And so to be part of that, after being part of the Centennial Games, that was a great. And then we go to 2008, Beijing, China, the first time ever, in the history of the Olympic Games are being hosted in China. So, those were all significant. But out of that, the one where I had one of my most memorable events was China. And here’s why.
I was on the staff of USA Track & Field. So, I was the senior massage therapist, traveling with the U.S. team. We arrived two weeks prior to moving into the Olympic Village, and we have a training camp in Dalian, China, which is right on Korea Bay. So, you can look at the map you’ll see Dalian, big shipyard there, the Chinese military, the Navy they have built, their big aircraft carriers are in Dalian.
So, there were two moments, one, the security for the U.S. team was massive. And this is no exaggeration, they assigned over 600 Chinese security agents to be there for the U.S. team at our training facility. We haven’t even gotten to Beijing yet, we’re in Dalian. And they would actually line the route that our two buses would take. We had two practices a day at the track & field complex which was one of their Olympic Training Centers for their junior athletes. So, we were using one of their Olympic Training Centers.
They would line the roads as our buses, our motorcade would go through the town and all the citizens will be hanging out the windows and looking. It was just…and these agents would line on the roadway at places like bridges and all, like playing clubs. And it was just like massive, I actually took a video back the old fashion, video camera back then, of this…
KM: Were they hoping that no one got off the bus, or just the presence …
BV: No, they were just hoping no one got in the way of us going to practice.
So here’s the event, one day at practice, a Chinese interpreter comes to me and says, one of the town’s officials, and I don’t know if this was the mayor of the city of Dalian, the governor, I don’t know who it was, but clearly, an important Chinese official. And they said, “Would you do some Gua Sha on him because his shoulder is bothering him.” They had seen me doing Gua Sha on U.S. athletes. And so the interpreter comes, says you know, like, “Would you do, you know, his back, his shoulder is hurting?” And I said, “Sure.”
So, here’s what the scene looked like. I’ve got massage table, which is in U.S. colors because we had these custom-made tables, has USA on it, red, white, and blue. And I’m sitting at the side of the practice track, inside their indoor facility. Here comes the entourage, with this gentleman, the interpreter, some assistants.
He takes his shirt off, and the interpreter is saying, “This shoulder, that shoulder.” So now? I am doing Gua Sha on a Chinese official, all right? And what was so funny to me, is, I’m thinking, “OK, you all like invented this—and are you telling me that there’s no one in this town that can do this on this important official?” And then I’m thinking, “I am an African American, in China, doing Gua Sha on a high ranking Chinese official.” It was just like, “Wow, okay.”
KM: Did it just make it feel like a small world to you?
BV: It made me realize they had watched me work, and someone had decided, “Okay, this therapist knows what he’s doing. Let’s bring the mayor over here.” And so that’s what happened. They had been watching me work with my hands, and they thought, “Oh, he knows what he’s doing.” And they kept referring to me as doctor. I just gave up like, “OK, I’m in China, if that’s what … ” But that was their show of respect to my massage skills.
KM: Absolutely. Yeah.
BV: It was just a funny moment, I just thought, “My goodness, here’s an African American man in China doing Gua Sha on a high ranking Chinese official.” I just thought that was funny.
KM: What a great memory to come home with. That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that.
BV: Yes, you are welcome.
KM: So, you’ve been working, as we said, for more than 45 years. And I know our audience would love to know how you’ve maintained your interest in bodywork and also your physical and mental wellness as well.
BV: Yes, Karen. So, that’s an important part of us massage therapists being effective. We can only be as effective as we are well, healthy, and strong. We can only be as effective as we are well, healthy, and strong. So, I am 69 years old, at the moment, so I’m on my 70th trip around the sun. And I do strength training, two times a week, I have a strength coach, personal trainer. And then three days a week I do more cardiovascular walking, riding a stationary bicycle. I stretch daily and I eat well.
And all of those things have given me the longevity, but what drives that longevity and my success in massage therapy, is that each day I wake up and I am thrilled to go to work to do massage, because I am still curious. I am so curious about, “Why does this elbow cause pain? Why does this person’s knee hurt? Why is their back sore? Why are their ankles swelling?” I’m still curious because I believe that using your hands, using massage strategies of touch can create a wide range of responses that help people to reduce and eliminate pain, discomfort, and apprehension.
And in the end, I realize that what we do as massage therapists is that we are delivering compassion, respect, and hope to people through touch. So what drives all that for me, besides taking care of myself, is I am still curious.
I love it. I am so thrilled when I get a call from someone and they say, “I have had this medical procedure. I’ve seen this type of therapist. I’ve seen that type of therapist. I’ve seen this type of doctor. I’ve had this done, that done, dah, dah, dah, dah, and it still hurts, and it’s still the same.” That is the perfect client for Benny Vaughn’s massage therapy, because I am curious, and I am thrilled at the privilege and the opportunity to serve that person.
And that’s how I go into it. I go into like, “Hey, this is a privilege to serve you.” And then I always say to them, “I can help you.” I always say, “I can help you.” So, I create this particular vibratory frequency that I can help you.
KM: So the client then has an expectation of improvement?
BV: Yes, it’s so important for us in massage therapy, to help our clients connect with that, because it’s real, it exists. And those of us trained in massage therapy, trained to use our hands, trained to touch people in a compassionate, respectful way, this is powerful medicine. And I say to massage therapists, colleagues, it’s OK for us to embrace that and recognize that no one has exclusive ownership of health and wellness, no one.
KM: So, do you have a message for the massage therapy profession and individual massage therapists that could give them some advice for success?
BV: Sure. Here’s the advice for success for massage therapists, especially massage therapists just beginning their long careers ahead of them.
First, always understand that touch, massage, will help a person. You may not know how it will help them, but it will help them. You must always go into the massage session believing that this massage session will help this person and you don’t have to know how it’s going to help them. Just know that it will. That creates a level of experience that you will deliver to that person that will always be beneficial.
Secondly, for massage therapists, always know that with your massage work, you will uncover a solution for whatever matters to that person. Because whatever ails them, whatever matters to them, whatever the problem is, a solution exists for it, just having the patience and the belief that you can help them connect to that solution through massage is critical. And you may not know how it will happen or how it will get there, but just know that touch will. A problem cannot exist without a solution. Yin cannot be without yang. Left cannot be without right. Up cannot be without down. Black cannot be without white. A problem cannot exist without a solution existing.
So, massage therapists probably more time with an individual than any other wellness provider out there, outside of a surgeon, but then you’re under anesthesia during that time. But we spend more time with other human beings, using touch as a vehicle of communication to that person and that person’s body that believe that you will help them. And that will drive your success.
And be thrilled to serve, be thrilled to serve, and see that your work with other human beings is a privilege. And let them know that you’re happy and grateful for that privilege because that’s how you will earn a living. People will not come back to you if they don’t feel like you’re happy or grateful or appreciate them as a client. They just will not come back. You can have all the techniques you want, but unless those techniques are being driven by those tenets, but that’s how you get successful.
People come to me for a massage, not because of my techniques, they come to me for a massage because of the strategy of how I employ those techniques, how I employ the knowledge that I have gained. That’s what they come for. And they come for that experience. Massage therapy should be an experience event.
People should feel good when they see you because you’re smiling. You offer them comfort through touch. You offer them hope through touch. You offer them a solution through touch. Even if you don’t know what the solution is just believe that it’s there. And that allows them to connect with whatever that vibratory energy or frequency in the universe does for us. And physics has explained that. If you do those things, you will be successful.
People come to see me because, I mean, I personally think they just want to be around me. Because none of them say, “What technique are you using? What technique is that?” They don’t even say what strategy. They come because this is a good human interaction for them. And massage therapists provide that consistently to their clients. That’s why we can stay busy as we want. I’m as busy as I ever want to be.
KM: Do you think you’ll ever retire or stop doing massage?
BV: All right, so here’s the big public announcement, here’s the deal. So, I will go to the Olympics next year, as everyone knows, it got postponed a year. So, I’ll be in Tokyo for probably six weeks. And when I return from the Olympics, I will turn 70. And I decided that when I turn 70, I would turn down my clinical practice and start moving my clients to my young massage therapists who work with me at my facility. And I will start teaching more, teaching and guiding and coaching and mentoring other massage therapists.
But what I want to do is I want the massage therapists at my facility or anywhere else, send me the toughest cases you have. And I have orthopedists that will continue to do that. So, my practice at that stage, at age 70, will be limited to difficult, challenging cases. That’s what I want. Because I want to continue to show the world and show my colleagues in massage therapy of how powerful and how important massage therapy and touch can be to help people feel better.
So, the answer is no, I will not stop massaging. It will be a limited practice to the most challenging cases. And then the rest of my time will be leaving a legacy for the profession with the wisdom and knowledge that I have gained from my experiences.
KM: Absolutely. No doubt about that. And Benny, what is your forecast, if you have one for the future of the massage profession? Any predictions or ideas that you have for where the field is going or where the field should be going?
BV: Yes, Karen, here’s my prediction for the future of massage therapy worldwide. Those of us who practice this incredible art and science of touch that we call massage therapy will be in high, high demand. That high demand is being driven by populations of the world experiencing pandemics, is being driven by the influx and the use of artificial intelligence in our daily lives, is being driven by computerization, social media, ways that we communicate, where we don’t have to be there in person. But in order for us to enjoy all of these technology advances in our lives, we must remain connected with our humanness, and the way we connect with our humanness is through touch.
So, those professionals who are trained in massage therapy will become the recharging station, for human beings living in a high tech society that has moved our society so rapidly, they will stay in touch with their humanness by a weekly visit to their massage therapist. And we will still enjoy the incredible advances of technology, but we will not lose our humanness because we will all have a massage therapist. And it will be a weekly event of touch, the art and science of it, and that human need for touch. That’s my prediction. And that means that every massage therapist can be as employed as they ever want to be because technology is going to continue to fly.
KM: Well, that’s an optimistic future. I like it. Thank you.
BV: You are welcome.
KM: We’re winding down a bit here toward the end of this interview, but I just like to open it up to anything else at all you’d like to say to our audience of massage therapists and bodyworkers.
BV: What I’d like to say, Karen, thank you, to massage therapists and bodyworkers is that our professional self-esteem is intact. We as a profession, are not required to be subservient or to defer to any other health care, medical, or wellness profession. We are equal. We make a difference for people. Our professional self-esteem is driven by our success of connecting people with themselves. Massage therapists, as a professional group, tend to be happy, positive, and caring. And in a world where it becomes increasingly difficult to have that type of human experience, massage therapists are delivering it. And because of that, our professional self-esteem continues to be high as it should be.
So, measure yourselves on the service that you provide to humankind and not measure yourself on how many initials you may have at the end of your name, or how much you have studied. All those things are important but they do not make the total difference in that human interaction. What comes from your heart, through your hands, is what makes the difference. And massage therapists are uniquely qualified to do that. So, maintain high professional self-esteem, because we as massage therapists have earned it.
KM: High professional self-esteem. Thank you. This has been the “MASSAGE Magazine” interview with Benny Vaughn. You can learn more about Benny and his work and his therapies at bennyvaughntherapy.com.
About the Author:
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s Editor in Chief. Her recent articles include “A Timeline of Massage Events that Shaped the Field, 1985-2020” and “MTs Ask: How Can a Contact Tracing Job Provide Supplemental Income?”