San Diego massage: if you play it smart, you earn about $75 an hour

Police don't move forward without a complaint

Techno music thumps and throbs and spills from the room. The "Earth Room." It's early, about 9:30 a.m. An instructor leads 30 men and women, ranging in age from 18 to maybe 60, in movement exercises for a body essentials class.

Down the hall, behind a closed door, "The Ocean Room" contains ten pairs of students watching an instructor manipulate a "demo-body." He's showing them a technique for "bone-cleaning" around the scapula. "Focus on the uncoiling," he says. "Get in position, sink, and melt." Upstairs, in "the Moon Room," a dozen people sit on the floor, listening to a lecturer on the Far East. "They say that herbs are the heart and soul of Chinese medicine," he intones, "but that's like saying that drugs are the heart and soul of Western medicine. I'm not sure I believe that. It's more the whole package. Massage, herbs, diet, philosophy, movement, lifestyle." Just your normal morning at massage school -- specifically, at the International Professional School of Bodywork (IPSB) in Pacific Beach. In a few minutes, I'll become a demo-body myself, lying on my back in sensory repatterning class, as an instructor takes my left hand and leads my arm in a slow series of gentle loops. Relaxing music will play in the background as his soothing voice repeats, "We're allowing the limb...to feel...the space...it naturally inhabits...by its length."

IPSB is one of at least ten massage colleges in the San Diego area. And every year, 150 new massage trainees will graduate from IPSB and go out looking for jobs relieving the symptoms of our city's common stress.

One of the founders of IPSB, and, in some senses, the father of massage in San Diego, is Dr. Barry Green.

"I've opened five massage schools," Dr. Green, 61, tells me. "I was one of the first teachers of massage in San Diego."

Dr. Green remembers the change in San Diego's massage landscape.

"I came here in 1976," he says, "which is when they started having massage laws. In the summer of '76, there were over 300 massage parlors, which were unquestionably fronts for prostitution. You'd see in the windows of these businesses. They had those signs with the lights going around them, moving and blinking. The places had names like the Pink Pussycat. There was no hiding what they were. They didn't have to be discreet about it. And the city decided that if they were to create a licensing process for massage, that would essentially help eliminate those parlors. Within six months, there were fewer than 30 left. So that did what it was intended to do. And, of course, it helped create legitimacy [for massage]."

I point out that Green might have seen the opportunities and seized them, as an entrepreneur. But this wasn't the case.

Instead, he says, "I entered the field of massage for what is called 'personal growth work.' In the '70s, when a lot of us baby boomers were doing all of these new things that were coming around for self-development, I was one of those people who left his job and left his marriage to go find himself, so to speak. And I was in an organization that did a smorgasbord or buffet of a lot of different self-development practices from different traditions. And one of the things that we did was a very, very deep kind of healing and cleansing and clearing massage. It was initially like you would do self-massage to help clear your own body of tension and trauma.

"I had been a competitive gymnast in college, and I specialized in the still rings. I had these incredible arms. I weighed 127 pounds, but my arms were huge. If I flexed my muscle, then my whole hand couldn't cover it. That's what you developed into when you did those things. So when I started receiving these massages, my body was just so blessed and ecstatic from the experience, I just wanted more and more and more. I fell in love with it. So, eventually, what happened is, as I practiced and practiced, people started to identify me as the person who did massage."

Dr. Green says again that he had "absolutely no entrepreneurial thrust." He answered an ad for "Massage Teacher Wanted," and just like that, he was involved in a school. "And then my friend came out here from New Orleans," he says, "and she was jealous because I was running this massage school. But she was also a massage practitioner, and she got a job at another massage school that had just opened. And then we got together one night at Denny's, with another one of our friends, and we said, 'We can do this. We can make a school. We've been teaching.' So we decided to open a school up."

The International Professional School of Bodywork was born.

"We borrowed someone's living room for a year for small classes," Dr. Green says, "and after that, we got a little-bitty space on Adams Avenue, and classes got much bigger. From there, it became a very successful organization: IPSB. That was the start. It's possibly the biggest massage school in the city right now."

Dr. Green sold IPSB in 1981. He'd been the last of the original owners, and he sold it because "I didn't want to run a school. I just wanted to teach. But first I opened branches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii. There's IPSBs all over now. It just kept expanding, and people liked it. So I ended up opening five schools over the course of my career, none of which I still own. Because I just don't like all that bureaucratic stuff. But I had a more expansive program as the years went on, and I offered that program to IPSB, but they didn't want to go in that direction. And that's why I started the last school that I did, which is Body Mind College. I had that from '88 to 2002, about 14 years. And I sold that, because it was just a pain in the butt to teach and run it. And now, basically, I'm the primary teacher of Body Mind College, and I do private practice."

I've read that Dr. Green once set a Guinness World Record for giving the longest massage. I tell him that I'm skeptical. All he had to do was touch someone lightly for hours, and, technically, that was a massage -- right?

"That would still be a massage," he says. "But to set that record, it had to be 50 hours of deep-tissue massage. I got 5 minutes of rest per hour, which I could accumulate. So I could take three hours and have 15 minutes [of rest], or four hours and take 20 minutes. The Guinness Book of Records made the rules. I didn't really sleep. I worked on 185 people for 15 minutes each. In hour 36, the man who owns Bodywork Emporium -- his name's Shane Watson -- well, he came and I worked on him, and he said it was one of the best deep-tissue massages he'd ever had in his life."

How did Dr. Green do it?

"I trained," he says. "It was April of 1995, at the Convention Center downtown. It was done as a fundraiser for scholarships to massage school at Body Mind College."

Does the record still stand?

"I don't know," he says. "That was the second record I set. First I did it for 25 hours, and then I did it for 50. Maybe somebody's done it for longer since then, but I don't know."

I ask Dr. Green to tell me his massage philosophy in a paragraph or so.

"Three words," he says. "Healer, heal thyself."

Can he explain?

"You can't give what you haven't got. The program that I developed, which has always been different, is based not so much around the idea of teaching, but the idea of obtaining. You can teach someone something, but it makes no guarantee that they will obtain it. You can stand up there and do a song and dance and lie on the board and demonstrate, but that doesn't mean that your students obtain anything. It just means that you've presented information. So I've always had my students go through processes, repetitive processes, that create an obtainment. It's like practicing the piano; you have to go through various forms of practice to really obtain something."

I ask Dr. Green questions about the massage industry in general. Since he's already kind of brought it up, what about holistic healing's underbelly?

"When yoga became popular," Dr. Green began, "so did everything else in the spa and massage business. The industry skyrocketed, almost overnight. And that's why now, in this city, where there were only a few massage schools, now there might be 10 or 12, maybe more. That all happened within the last five or six years. It's a new trend, but it's happening everywhere -- yoga, spa, and health. The legitimacy of massage is less of an issue. There's so many people getting massages. The 'happy ending' isn't on the agenda for the vast majority. Now, we do tell our students -- we've always trained them -- how to deal with sexuality in massage. And we're extremely clear. No! No, it is not acceptable in any way, shape, or form. If there's any indication of it, stop the massage. That is not okay. If you want that, you need to leave. There's no negotiating, no compromising, it's just a clear and strong boundary and limit. No. Because there's no negotiating with someone who wants that. They just try to manipulate the situation."

Indeed, a quick assessment of the local massage industry reveals how difficult it is to sort out the legitimate, "therapeutic" side of the trade from the illicit, "sensual" one. When I Googled "massage San Diego" recently, the top hit on the list proclaimed, "Hot young blond San Diego Masseuse or San Diego Massage Therapist for therapeutic and sensual nude rubdowns."

In the yellow pages of the San Diego phone book, "massage" is broken into three categories. There's "massage," which is mostly, and obviously, sexual in nature: Private Moments, Forbidden Pleasures, Alluring Beauties, Tiffany Knows. Then "massage schools," with ten listings. Then "therapeutic massage." In all, the subject takes up seven pages, with over 30 ads and almost 150 individual entries.

Ads in the back of the San Diego Reader for massage services contain either nonsexual clues -- "professional," "certified," "legitimate," etc. -- or subtle sexual hints -- "both pleasurable and therapeutic," "instant gratification," "my own special touches," and so on.

And on craigslist.com, no punches are pulled. It's either "My clients love my sessions because I combine full-body sensual massage and therapeutic massage" or "Strictly non-sensual and non-erotic!"

One local therapist, who advertises "integrated massage" and confirms that she does provide "happy endings" upon request, agreed to talk to me for this article. To protect her identity, we'll call her Gigi.

Gigi is a certified massage therapist who completed her training at Mueller College of Holistic Studies in University Heights in the early '90s. She keeps her certification current and actively pursues continuing education in massage.

"I've been practicing massage on and off for about ten years," Gigi says. "It's always been my second job. I've had several main jobs, in the legal field, health care, the art world. Now, I give about ten massages a week, out of my apartment."

Gigi charges $100 for a 90-minute massage, $70 for an hour, and $50 for a half hour. She says she advertises solely on craigslist.com. She also gets clients by word of mouth.

"I like doing Swedish massage and shiatsu," Gigi says. "I like the more soothing techniques, rather than the more therapeutic, like deep tissue." But "most of my clients don't come in wanting sensual massage. Ninety percent of the time it just sort of happens. You know, there are clients where it never happens, and there are clients where, once they turn over...it sort of, you know...they request it. And what do you do? Do you say 'no'?"

They teach you to say no. The law says to say no.

"Well, yeah," Gigi says. "But, you know, you kind of get to know your clients, and you feel safe, and one of the first things they teach you in massage therapy school is to feel comfortable with the human body. So, to me, it's very mechanical. There's nothing sexual about it. It's just an area of heightened pleasure. Very similar to if you're massaging the feet, for example. There's a tremendous amount of pleasure, for most people, when you massage feet. So, you know, to me, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference."

Does Gigi only massage men?

"Once in a while I massage women. Not very often. But I've never given a sensual massage to a woman. It just makes me uncomfortable. It's more invasive. It's like giving a prostate massage. Which I don't do either. I mean, I have. But not in the context of a professional massage. Only in a more personal context."

When was the first time Gigi crossed the therapeutic/erotic line?

"I think it was in 2002," she says. "I had stopped doing massage for a while. Then I started getting into it again, out of necessity. I needed a part-time source of income. And it must have been the changing times -- because I'd never encountered, in all the years I'd been doing massage, that guys would want that. It seems, these days, guys need it more. Or maybe it's the area. I don't know. I'd been practicing up in San Francisco before. I just don't know why it's become more common, these happy endings. It's a recent phenomenon."

So, what about that first time? How did Gigi suddenly find herself giving a total stranger a sensual massage? Did some guy just bring it up?

"Literally, brought it up," she laughs. "And I think he was very attractive, which gave me no qualms about it. I mean, I think I'm pretty picky about who I do that to. I don't do it to everyone."

Does Gigi talk up front with her clients about sensual massage?

"No," she says. "Not over the phone, I mean. In person, I'll discuss it with a client."

And does she use a drape when she gives massage?

"I give the clients a choice," she says. "Really a big indication that a client wants perhaps something more than a regular massage is when they take all their clothes off, with no inhibitions. They just jump onto the table completely naked. There are guys that keep their boxers on, and then you figure they want a regular therapeutic massage. So I take the cue from the client."

Gigi works solely within her apartment, on a fold-up massage table in her living room. "I do love what I do. It really is as therapeutic for me as it is for my clients. It's a very meditative experience. It's more than just someone rubbing somebody else. You know? There's nothing more fundamental to human connection than touch. And I think I take it to a different level when I do my massage, because I allow my clients to feel very comfortable and to experience not only rest for their bodies but for their minds as well. Because I integrate it all, you know, the light touch, and the soothing strokes, and it all lends itself to an experience, not just a session of rubbing aches and pains away. It's more of an exchange of energy. You know, some people talk about tantric stuff. And I'm not into that. But I think what I do kind of falls in the same realm, because there's a spiritual aspect to it."

But what about the people, including the law, who differentiate between the genitals and the rest of the body?

"I think people are conditioned to think that way. But, essentially, we're all sexual beings. And there's absolutely no reason for people to feel awkward or weird about it. Most people like sex. Most people like pleasure. And I think it's a worthwhile pursuit to seek it. Or provide it."

Will Gigi do anything to seek and provide pleasure?

"I never do more than the happy ending," she says. "And I keep my clothes on. It's when you start doing more that it becomes dangerous and nonhygienic. Then I think you're starting to contribute to something else. Something that's not healing and not massage."

And what does the local law enforcement have to say about what is healing and what's not massage?

San Diego Police Lieutenant of Vice Operations Carolyn Kendrick has 28 years of experience at the police department, and her own mother is a retired holistic health practitioner. Her vice-operations unit has seven administrative officers on staff and regulates over 50 industries.

"In the city of San Diego," Kendrick says, "a holistic health-care practitioner [HHP] requires 1000 hours in education. And under the auspices of that title, an HHP can touch you anywhere on your body, as long as that person that they're working on is consensual, and they're not offended in a sexual manner. If they say they are, then that practitioner needs to cease right there. If not, then we could move forward if that person wants to issue a crime case on that. So an HHP can touch you anywhere on your body. That's the nature of their art or their remedy. And that requires the 1000 hours. Then you step down to the 500-hour requirement for a massage therapist. Now, a massage therapist is not free to touch you everywhere on your body. They have to go by certain guidelines, and they also usually work under an employer's guidelines, whereas an HHP can work outside of someone's guidelines or direction."

Besides the hourly requirements, there's also a national certification exam, a criminal background check, and the requirement of 12 new hours every year of continuing education relating to a holistic health field. If a practitioner is found to be in noncompliance with any of the requirements, then his or her license will be revoked. If he or she then continues to practice massage, criminal proceedings could follow.

"Unless we receive a complaint, then we usually don't move forward," Kendrick says. "We conduct investigations in vice operations with our investigators, our detectives, primarily with the priority being a citizen's complaint of a questionable business or a questionable individual. We do respond and open investigations, and we do prosecute people who go beyond what is legal. We have several different methods of investigation. Yes, some of them are covert, undercover work. But I can't give you any details, because I don't want to compromise any open investigations or future investigations that are designed to weed out illegitimate services that are being provided."

Police code compliance officer Deanna Dotta works closely with Kendrick and spends a lot of her workday out in the field, making certain that massage parlors are in compliance with police code. "I see if the therapists are wearing their name tags, if they're wearing appropriate dress, if the rooms are clean, and so on. I do my inspections, and then if the business is not in compliance, we give them an appropriate time to get up to code."

Tiffany Rivera, owner of Holistic Hands day spa in Hillcrest, has her own take on the police-required certifications for massage. "They're both a ridiculous thing and a wonderful thing," Rivera says. "The ridiculousness is that you're considered to be an adult entertainer. You have to go as a new therapist and have blood work -- STD testing -- and that is ridiculous. But then the professional side -- to open my business, I had to be a holistic health practitioner, which is like a mecca of the industry, and I had to be nationally certified and show a good credentialing for hard study -- and that part is wonderful. I applaud the city for requiring all of that. But if they could lift the entertainment part and see us as a truly therapeutic, even medical, modality, then that would be better."

By many accounts, massage is one of the oldest forms of medicine and has been practiced worldwide since ancient times. More than 75 different forms of massage have been catalogued and identified. In general, massage therapists believe in the healing power of touch and the ability of touch to enhance relaxation, provide comfort, relieve pain, and improve athletic performance.

At Holistic Hands, Rivera has five therapists working for her, and her company has been providing legitimate massage therapies since 1998. She tells me that an on-the-level, code-following massage business in San Diego can be a lucrative endeavor for everyone involved.

"If you play it smart," Rivera says, "and if you hold on to your mission, which should be for the community, you can keep a very fair market rate of about $75 an hour, and, if you're doing extra events and keeping your business out there in the community, an established company can bring in between $75,000 and $100,000 a year pretty easily."

Rivera says individual therapists can do pretty well also. "When I was just doing therapy work, I started out as an outcall. I think I peaked at about $40,000, before I ventured into opening my own business."

Candace Graff's business in Mission Valley -- Healing Hands -- is almost solely dedicated to massage. "We have an average of about ten massage therapists and two office managers," Graff says. "This was my own personal practice, and then, about three years ago, I met up with the [future] owners and we turned it into a larger business."

Graff tells me Healing Hands brings in close to $250,000 a year, before marketing and payroll and other overhead. "In the end, I make only slightly more than I did when I was solely a therapist," Graff says. "About $50,000, $60,000."

Healing Hands charges $80 for an hour-long massage, but the therapist who gives the massage only keeps "about $25 to $30 of that, plus gratuities," says Graff. "Because we provide the space, the tables, the linens, and we do all the marketing and scheduling. All they have to do is come in, bring their oils, and give massage."

Graff appreciates what the city has done to certify massage therapists, but she wishes there were a statewide certification program, instead of the current program, which differs from city to city. "We have therapists who come in from La Mesa or Del Mar, and they have their licensing from those cities," Graff says. "But then they have to go and get different licensing to work in San Diego. Every city has slightly different credentials, and some even require different hours. So a therapist might have enough hours to practice in one place, but then they have to go back to school to get more hours before they could work for us."

Licensing hours are logged on an official transcript from a massage school. "Those hours have to be school hours," Graff says. "They can't be working hours. So, you can't work toward certification while you're getting paid."

New therapist Kalista Mountjoy is 26 years old and has recently received her 200-hour "massage trainee" certification, which is nonrenewable and will expire. This means that she is able to work professionally for an employer, but it's expected that she will complete 300 more hours of training to become a fully certified massage therapist.

"I'm taking a little break from classes right now," Mountjoy says, "but I'm definitely going to go for the 500, because the 200 is only good for two years."

Mountjoy works full-time during the week as a chiropractor's assistant and does massage on the weekends in the same chiropractor's office in Hillcrest. She estimates that she'll do three hour-long massages on the weekends, for $60 each. One-third of her massage wage goes to her employer.

"What I'm envisioning," Mountjoy says, "and what I'm growing towards, is doing between seven and nine massages on the weekends and cutting down on my hours somewhat in the office during the week. Because something I really value is my free time. Which is one of the reasons why I love massage. You get paid more per hour than a lot of other professions. So, being able to work fewer hours is really enticing."

Kelly Pool, 25, makes her living doing massage, and she only works about 20 hours per week. Pool does massage at Body Mind Massage Clinic and at Cameron Family Chiropractic, and she also does some work on her own.

Pool tells me that she has the 200-hour trainee certification and that she's only one class away from the 500-hour full certification.

"I started school in September 2005," Pool says to me. "So, I guess it'll end up taking me somewhere between a year and a half and two years to get the 500 hours, which is a pretty good time frame, I think, pretty normal. It took me something like eight months to get the 200 hours, so I've been working professionally since May of 2006."

Pool's taken all of her massage classes at Body Mind College in Mira Mesa. Some of her classes were taught by the venerable Dr. Barry Green.

I decide I should make an appointment to see Dr. Green again and learn some things about massage firsthand. After all, when I'd first interviewed him, he'd said, "You can't write about what you don't experience." And "It would be better if I showed this to you instead of telling you about it."

I meet Dr. Green in one of the classrooms of Body Mind College. He eyes me with a concentration I find discomforting yet reassuring, as though he's taking me apart with his eyes and then putting me back together again, all healed. He shakes my hand with a firm, but not too firm, grip.

Green stands a compact 5'4". He looks younger than 61, maybe late 40s. He resembles Yoda from Star Wars, with his pointed ears and mostly bald head and intense blue eyes that convey the wisdom and passion of ages. Eventually, I notice that Green's teeth are incredibly white, as though he's never drunk a cup of coffee or glass of red wine. And his hands -- his bread and butter -- are quite possibly the most symmetrical and powerful hands I've ever seen.

Dr. Green has me lie down on the massage table, fully clothed. "I'll just show you a few things," he says, "and you keep whatever you can use."

First, he demonstrates how to use minimal energy for maximal effect.

"When I keep my arms straight and I use my body weight," he says, demonstrating on my neck, "I completely disengage my hands from activity. So, which is more sensitive? The hand that's passive? Or the hand that's doing all this extra work?"

His hands go from being still to busily agitating. Then he says, "You ever have a conversation with somebody who doesn't stop talking? They never stop to listen. In bodywork, it's more important what's happening to the person than what you're doing to them. I mean, your body doesn't want me to do what I think it needs; your body wants me to do what your body needs. The trouble with a lot of massage therapy nowadays is that therapists are trained to do recipes. Like, if a person comes in with this, then you do that. But now, you'll never see two people with the exact same body. And every body's needs are different. So what I'm talking about is valuing connectivity over technique, or method. Instead of learning a method and executing it, you learn principles, and then you respond to the person's body."

Next, Dr. Green demonstrates some of the basic techniques of the different massage modalities.

In relaxation massage, the hand motions are more gliding, holding, and lightly vibratory. In the therapeutic modality, he uses direct pressure, kneading, and friction. "You find the point at which a person's body begins to resist," he says, "and then you gradually push past that." Next, Dr. Green moves into postural techniques involving passive stretching, resistive stretching, and rocking. He shows me how energy work and subtle massage will involve light touch or even, at times, holding the hands slightly above the body.

Finally, Dr. Green explains the concept of "becoming a lightning rod." In our previous interview, Dr. Green explained his belief that the human body holds various trauma patterns -- physical or emotional or a combination of the two -- and that manipulating these patterns is like sticking your finger in an outlet. "You have to learn how to be a lightning rod."

"It's like in tai chi," he says now, gently kneading my shoulder. "You absorb. You absorb, you don't resist. You make yourself a lightning rod. You go at an area of trauma, and you draw that energy out, through yourself. And the way you do that isn't to use your fingers and hands; the hands should remain soft, and the pressure is achieved by leaning through them, arms straight, and using the weight of your body. And you don't use your back either, leaning over, again and again. You rock back and forth on your legs. The goal is stability. That way you save your back. In the end, the only real problem with giving a massage for 50 hours is staying awake."

I'm having trouble relaxing and enjoying what Dr. Green is doing to me -- his hands gliding down my spine -- because I'm paying attention to what he's saying. Also, Dr. Green isn't trying to make me feel better, he's trying to teach me. That said, I do sense that I might enjoy a "real" massage from this man.

I mention a knot between my shoulder blades and ask Dr. Green what's going on in the muscle that makes it so tight.

Dr. Green begins to knead and rub my spot of tension. "There's some quality in there that we call trauma," he says. "Okay? If you had an instrument that could measure little micro amounts of electricity, and you took a measurement, then you'd see how a knot of muscles is really full of electromagnetic energy. That's the science of it. So, the trauma is all this staticky kind of electromagnetism built up, because it's all knotted and lumped. It's like a big traffic jam. And in a traffic jam, is everybody all peaceful? No. They're all worked up, all frustrated. And that's sort of like an analogy for the trauma. So, in the different bodywork modalities, the goal is to figure out what kind of approach will most resonate for that person."

Dr. Green suggests that some good, firm deep-tissue pressure would help me with my tension locally, but he's quick to remind me to think about the big picture.

"The point with all the techniques and modalities," he says, "is to remember that there's a whole body there that you're dealing with. And beyond that, a whole person. You really have to remember to think holistically and not to just attack a problem in one area. Something going on in your leg might be related to something else in an entirely different part of your body, or it might relate to something emotional in your life. It often takes time and a lot of work and a lot of training to get in tune with those connections."

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