Interviewed: Jill Berkana, Founder and Director of the Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy

This is the second installment of an occasional interview series with notable people in massage therapy practice, education, research, and related fields.

Jill Berkana and I have been friends and colleagues for a few years now.  We first ‘met’ through social media, occasionally getting involved in some of the same long and discursive discussions about the massage therapy profession that can develop on Facebook and elsewhere. Eventually, Jill invited me to teach a couple of courses at the Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy, the school she founded in Denver, CO.  It was a great experience. I observed how the students are both challenged and supported in an environment that fosters collegiality, mindfulness, personal growth, and professionalism. It is a special place – I didn’t want to leave.

Her background is unique, and her approach to massage therapy and massage therapy education have been shaped by many things including, most profoundly, an injury that significantly altered – and in some ways heightened – her perceptual style and abilities. I am certain that Jill is a pioneer in massage therapy education. Let’s take the opportunity to learn more about her background, her philosophy, and her goals.

Christopher Moyer: Tell us about your background in massage therapy.

Jill Berkana: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where both complementary medicine and healthy living are part of the local culture. My dad is a physician, and he would bring home the most shocking medical stories that he would always tell with great comedic delivery. I became fascinated with medicine early on. In 1972 my mom broke her back skiing, and I remember she would have a massage therapist come over to massage her on our dining room table. As a kid I observed and copied that and started organizing shoulder massage circles among my friends at parties and at Girl Scouts.

When I was seventeen I had a job at Abo’s Pizza in downtown Boulder. I was tossing about ninety 20” pizzas a day, and eventually I threw out my back. My boss sent me to his friend Pam Thayer, who was a massage therapist, and she gave me my first professional massage. I loved it!  Thirty-three years later Pam is still a mentor to me and is on my Institute’s Advisory Board. She is still doing massage!

Later, when I was twenty-three years old and nine months pregnant, my friend Kim was enrolled in the Boulder School of Massage Therapy (which later became the Boulder College of Massage Therapy) and she invited me to participate in the prenatal class and receive massage therapy for free.  It was pure bliss. (I recently learned that Carole Osborne was teaching that class.)  About a year later, I had my baby and was cleaning houses for a living. I had a big “a-ha” moment while cleaning a toilet and realized that I could no longer tolerate this work for a career. I decided on the spot to start massage school at BSMT, which was just down the street. That was in 1990. It was a phenomenal school and I completed a comprehensive 1000-hour program. It took two years for me to complete as a single mom.

I started my practice when I started the program, which was permitted in those days because there was no regulation. By the time I graduated I had a full practice. I have performed over 18,000 massage therapy sessions, in many different environments and with a broad spectrum of diverse clients.

My most exciting gig was in 1992 when I moved to the jungle in Belize and created a spa program for a resort 40 miles deep into the rainforest. I took my 4-year old son Jade with me and he went to kindergarten with the native kids. We lived in an 8’ x 8’ hut and slept in hammocks. We would watch the fireflies in the thatched roof of palm leaves every night as we went to sleep. I was providing about six sessions a day, doing pedicures and manicures, body wraps, scrubs,  making oils, teaching yoga, putting together meal plans for guests, and taking them on bicycle tours to the Mayan ruins and on jungle river tours and snorkeling trips. I fell in love with the jungle.

I came back to Boulder in 1994 when it was time for Jade to begin grade school, and I had a very busy practice until 1996 when I was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler on the highway in Alabama. I sustained significant soft tissue injuries and a traumatic brain injury.  After 2 years of rehabilitation I came back to massage therapy part-time and also had some other jobs that, ultimately, did not suit me. But those other jobs taught me a lot and helped prepare me to found the Institute and to be a massage therapy educator.

For example, I was an office manager for a software development company where I learned to write some HTML, and I was a project manager for a pharmaceutical research company where I learned how to manage complex projects. I was also taking some classes on international business for the company I was involved with, which was useful later. I also had a three-year stint of being an obsessive martial artist, and I owned and ran a karate school where I gained so much knowledge about body mechanics and mindfulness practices. I was learning how to best use my recently injured brain, and found that with my losses I had also gained some abilities that I did not have prior to the accident.

By 2005 I was feeling stuck. I had maxed-out my practice and felt compelled to jump into education. It was time to take my career to the next level. My son was getting ready to graduate from Denver School of the Arts, and I was dreaming of reconnecting with the jungle and moving to Costa Rica. Around this same time some traumatic events happened in my family that moved me to deep contemplation about the quality of my life and how I was choosing to live. This was when my partner and I decided to jump full force into creating an international and residential massage school in Costa Rica. I developed the entire concept and program working at a desk in Denver, Colorado in my pajamas. It took about a year working 80+ hours a week.  We relocated to Costa Rica in June of 2006 to launch the school. Running the program was the most condensed and punishing education of my life.  In the time I was there I ran 13 classes and awarded over 180 diplomas to some wonderful massage therapists. I ran the program until I sold it in August of 2011, then moved to Denver to create and run the Berkana Institute of Massage Therapy, which I love. I currently have over 80 graduates from this new program and have expanded it from 600 to 675 hours.  Jade, my son, is also a phenomenal massage therapist for eight years now and runs the program with me.  I have a fantastic faculty.  It’s a dream come true.

 Jill two students

CM: How has being a massage therapist shaped who you are and how you approach life?

JB: My parents divorced when I was six and everything became pretty sketchy in my childhood and into young adulthood.  I had been operating from a really angry and victimized place. I was not present, I was involved with abusive people, did drugs, had very low self-esteem, and engaged in self-sabotaging behavior. When I went to massage school I realized that I was immersed in dysfunction and that I had a lot of self-healing work to do. The Boulder School of Massage Therapy’s lineage connected it to Esalen and the human potential movement, and so training there was sometimes like group therapy. I took that opportunity to work on healing myself, both at school and outside of school. I had been working with a meditation practice for a few years and took it all to the next level with Hakomi Therapy, Alaya Therapy, and traditional psychotherapy which was available at reduced cost since I was a student.

What I learned during my time at school propelled me into a decade of self-reflection, self-realization, and focused self-healing. In learning how to become a holistic health care facilitator, I found I had to first find healing for myself. Self-care has been the foundation of my ability to give to the extent that I do. Meditation and mindfulness practice has helped me stay present for myself, my clients, and my students.

We can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves, and I really want to take care of others. I hope to spread that approach, of being a massage therapist who is mindful and vigilant over self-healing and self-care.  I believe we all have work to do if we want to help others.

CM: As you see it, what are the most important issues in massage therapy education, and in the broader profession?

JB: I believe there are a few leadership roles that have been hijacked by some who have no business defining who we are, what we do, and how we should behave. Specifically, I feel the industry is positioning to take over the profession for fiscal gain. There are schools that will accept anyone who applies and can get a student loan, that do not enforce discipline, and that pay instructors very little and so cannot retain any real talent. These schools turn out many therapists each year without a proper education. They fail to teach the students sound holistic principles, a proper understanding of emotional and psychological phenomena, good business practices, professional ethics, or proper body mechanics. I believe there are some dangerous LMTs out there who never should have been given permission to practice because they don’t know the first thing about how to keep the public safe.

Another big issue is with continuing education. Many states do not require massage therapists to take classes beyond the entry level, and with the way MT has evolved so quickly in the last few years we all need to get on board with new developments and stop operating from outdated concepts. At the same time I say that, I want to be clear that I deeply value traditional methods and modalities, as long as they are taught in a way that does not make false claims. I believe that, due to the way many of us were taught, there are a lot of massage therapists who are out of scope, and so I would love to see required remedial training to help get things back on track. I have created a class to help bring MTs current and when I first taught it I found that the students were quite alarmed at the new findings but excited and felt fortunate to be clued in. I have some colleagues who have created similar training programs, so we are ready to go.

CM: You emphasize mindfulness in your program.  What led you to that decision, and how do you implement it within your curriculum?

JB: I have been meditating and exploring mindfulness for thirty years. As I mentioned before, I have also done a considerable amount of work with my own healing and quite a bit of that started with ‘showing up’ for myself. When I had the brain injury, I had to take two years off from practice for rehabilitation – it was like I had a new mind and body. When I came back to massage I found I had an overwhelming sense of presence, or consciousness, that was potent which I could not deny if I wanted to. This was due to the damage I had to my frontal lobe and some loss of ‘gate keeping.’ I also have much less filtering with sounds and smells – my awareness of these senses is heightened.

Now, when I performed an ordinary massage with this new awareness, I discovered that I could respond to and adapt clients’ feedback, even very subtle feedback, at a much higher level; I could better meet them where they needed me. In being more present, the work expanded and improved considerably.

When I decided to become an educator, I realized the best thing I could do for my students, after teaching them about the basic framework of ethical and professional massage therapy, was to in some way help them get out of their thinking minds while helping them stay connected with the work from moment to moment. I have developed methods to achieve this goal. I often compare this to teaching a student classical piano, and then encouraging them to write their own music.

The tools that best support this experience are constant attention to self-care, mindful breathing, proper body mechanics, expressing creative freedom in the work, honoring one’s self-expression in the process of giving while honoring the client’s experience and needs, all the while watching closely the nature of the chaos of the mind. It works.

This approach produces very happy clients, and therapists who enjoy the work more because they are putting themselves into it. The therapist makes an authentic and heartfelt professional connection with the client in the intake, listens to them, creates rapport, and conceives, in the moment, the best approach for that client in that time. We completely eliminate having an agenda to fix  the client – we know that we can’t do that anyway – and focus on allowing, while holding the professional therapeutic relationship at a very high level. This is not a modality, but a philosophical approach to massage therapy. I call this approach Mindful Expressionism because I see it as an artistic and present approach to massage.

Jill meditation

CM: Has massage therapy research influenced your curriculum?  If so, how?

JB: I am just now beginning to fully grasp how critical it is to the profession of massage therapy that we are all devoted to and participating in massage therapy research. I have just added a Research Competency class to my entry level program and hope to participate in research studies at the Institute. At the very least, I am paying attention to developments, and feel a responsibility to stay apprised of the new information so that I can always keep my alumni informed and develop my program to support the evolution and progress of our profession from the root, and for the best public interest.

CM: Ideally, how would you like to see the profession change, grow, or evolve in the next 25 years?

JB: Twenty-five years is long way away. RIGHT NOW I would love to see:

  • Massage therapists take responsibility to avoid participating in exploitation as employees or employers. For that to happen, we first need to define exploitation.
  • Massage therapists devoted to understanding and practicing ethical responsibility – to stay current as our profession learns new information that pertains to our work, and to avoid making false claims.
  • Massage therapists respected and compensated appropriately for providing real health care, and for our profession to behave in a unified, collective way to deserve that type of respect.

I’d like to see people of integrity, knowledge, and mutual respect have a very big conversation, and then create and build something beautiful that our beloved profession deserves. It would also be heartwarming to see some humility and listening on the opinion front. I am working on that myself.

CM: Thank you, Jill.

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