One day, not too long ago, I was chatting with a relative. While we were talking, she confessed to me that she had made the decision to sign up for a year-long membership at her neighborhood corporate massage franchise – and was regretting it!

She had experienced my therapies before, so she was coming to me knowing that I would appreciate this industry feedback. She went on to say her experiences so far had been incredibly disappointing — so much so, that she hadn’t returned in a few months, despite paying for it.

She told me, she swore, no joke, that her last therapist played with her hair for most of her last treatment. Now, she was stuck in a contract and realized she would have been better off driving across town to come to see me, where she knew she’d be taken care of. I can sympathize with her disappointment. It’s always a gamble when going to a spa, not knowing who or how skilled of a therapist you will get.

It could be:

  •  the best massage you ever had
  •  mediocre – neither terrible nor beneficial
  • downright disappointing, deliver no results,
  • they made your pain worse 

When you are in real need…when you are in pain, who wants to gamble? You are on ‘Mission Feel Better.’

I gave her some tips so that she could get the most from her halfway-finished membership. I told her to try a couple of their therapists out, find one she likes and make sure to reschedule with them for the next few. I suggested she offer the manager feedback about her experience because they would probably be more than willing to help her find a better fit.

In retrospect, I realized that if she had been more informed about what her choices were and what to look for, she might have avoided this scenario. It prompted me to want to discuss the differences between going to a spa vs. going to a private practice, along with other considerations to help folks choose a massage place. There is more to getting a massage than you might think at first.

The convenience of going to a spa is that:

  • They often accept walk-ins so that you can sometimes go at a moment’s notice.
  • Some have locations all over (a perk for people who travel often).
  • They have additional services like body scrubs, wraps, skin care, or salon services. Services you might not find in private practices.

If you are on vacation, you want luxury, products, and spa services, or you are with a group celebrating a special occasion, such as a bridal shower, then I can see the amenities a spa offers being key factors. Or if you’re in a pinch.

However, when it comes to “therapy,” this is a whole different affair. In general, I think that seeing a private practicing therapist has some significant advantages.

I will admit that I have a bit of bias toward private practicing therapists because I am one. Also, I prefer to go with them for my therapy (the exception is when perhaps I am vacationing). What I look for in massage is often found in a professional office setting. My experiences going to private practices haven’t all been perfect, but overall, they have been more therapeutic.

I have also found that there are many massage therapists who view massage as just a job for them. It’s not a career or a passion project. They are just going through the motions. These therapists often don’t want to invest all the energy and resources it takes to be in business for themselves. 

Of course, I cannot speak for all independent massage offices either. However, I can speak for myself and others I have had the privilege of receiving bodywork from.

Generally speaking, what I like about Private Practices is this…

  • The level of care tends to be of higher quality and more customized
  • They don’t prescribe to one size-fits all routines. You aren’t in a factory, where the therapist has a routine, a customer is just a number, and you are a client of the spa, not of the therapist (in some establishments, the therapist isn’t even allowed to tell you their last name)
  • In a therapeutic setting, they are more attentive. They ask more questions and take more time to listen to the client’s goals. They are invested in the partnership with their clients and the results produced.
  • Private practicing therapists are small business owners and are personally invested in their: craftsmanship, operation, environment, and reputation.
  • They get to know you and your body quite intimately (and I do not mean that in a sexual way). I think most people don’t realize, in the beginning, just how well their therapists will get to know them and their bodies. This relationship rarely unfolds to this degree in a spa setting, especially when you have a different therapist every time, or only go once.

Independent therapists tend to tailor their treatment plans based on the client, not what the corporate procedure manual dictates. It isn’t just about rushing through a full body treatment –selling as many upgrades and products as they can (because many spas expect their employees to upsell as part of their performance reviews).

Many spas demand unsustainable workloads. I have heard that some spas make their therapist perform 6-8 treatments per shift. That is a recipe for disaster! It is physically and emotionally impossible to maintain these levels for very long. 3-5 massage sessions per day (especially if they are longer sessions) is full-time for a therapist. Plus, there is far more to a massage than the actual treatment itself.

Too many therapists have short-lived careers in this field because their entry into the field has worn them down, and they never recover — especially if the therapist didn’t receive enough massages themselves. Typically, what I have seen is private practicing therapists do better self-care and are better at avoiding/preventing burnout.

Most employers in the spa industry do not pay a fair wage for the work performed and or understand the know first-hand how much knowledge needed to deliver it to a high degree. This behavior stifles growth and leads to dissatisfaction on every level. Consider the implications of how this affects the level of quality of bodywork you receive.

You want to receive bodywork from someone who loves what they do. Believe me. It’s a world of difference. You can feel the difference it makes when you have a well-balanced therapist. Besides that, don’t you prefer your therapist to be familiar with your body? Be familiar with your trouble spots, surgeries, past injuries, and how they affect you today. Whether you have made progress? What areas still need work?

So, unless you are vacationing, want luxury and pampering over therapy, or are looking for a quick fix, you may want to consider the bigger picture when looking into finding your massage spot.

If you are curious, try out a spa experience. After that, go to experience massage with a private practicing therapist. Note the differences. Which do you prefer, and why?

If you appreciate this conversation, then stay tuned for more like it.

Cheers to embodied living!

About Shalene Zarate, LMT, NMT, CST

Beyond being a massage therapist, Shalene’s calling is to help deepen the relationship her clients have with their own nature, by helping them re-establish a close relationship with their bodies, and with the foods and lifestyles that nourish them.