Interviewed: Rajam Roose, massage therapist and founder of the San Diego Pain Summit

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

Rajam business

Rajam Roose is an adventurer, author, massage therapist, business consultant, and the founder of the San Diego Pain Summit. With the 2016 edition of the San Diego Pain Summit about to happen in just a couple months (you are going, right?) I thought this would a perfect opportunity for us to learn a bit more about her.


Christopher Moyer:  How did you first get connected with massage therapy?

Rajam Roose:  That’s a long story. As a kid, I would maybe see massage represented on television or in a movie as something wealthy people indulged in while on vacation. It wasn’t something I considered as a career choice while I was growing up in North Alabama in the 1970s and 80s. Later, in 1993, I gave away my belongings and ‘hit the road’ for several years. In the winter, if I was in the U.S., I would camp out in Key West, Florida, where it was warm. While there I met a massage therapist from Virginia Beach who was vacationing with his wife. He gave me a full-body massage and told me how he had gone to massage school and such. I was surprised that there was actually a school one could attend to learn how to massage! At the time I didn’t think much of it except how interesting it was that someone could make a living doing massage and that there were actual educational requirements.

Several years later, I was hitchhiking around Venezuela with my dog and looking for a travel companion with whom I could explore the rest of South America and the world. I had almost no money, and what little I made came from selling crochet hats and bags that I made by hand. That was very difficult in Venezuela, as everyone assumed that I must be wealthy because I was white. People admired my handiwork, but thought I was standing out there on the sidewalk as a joke. Getting a job was nearly impossible. I walked into several hotels to ask for a job cleaning rooms and was laughed at. They couldn’t believe that a white woman wanted a job doing manual labor, which was really frustrating. Finally, I moved in with a woman who fed me and allowed me to sleep on her porch; in return, I did cleaning and helped take care of her kids. I had been considering trying to get a sailboat and it was then that I realized I wasn’t going to get a sailboat unless I had some sort of ‘real job.’ I didn’t find a travel companion, so when my visa expired, I returned to the U.S.

I returned to the States and my mom was adamant that I get some sort of training for a job. After living outside of society for almost five years, I found I wasn’t interested in working unless it was something I could put my heart into and be of some use to society. Also, I still wanted a sailboat to help me continue and extend my travels. I remembered the fellow from Virginia Beach and thought that massage would be my best choice. Not only did I have decades of experience working with my hands, from designing and building cabins as a teenager to creating fiber and stone arts in my early twenties, but I also had years of experience learning about using plants as medicine. So the idea of healing arts combined with manual labor seemed like it would be a great fit for me.

My mom wasn’t happy about my choice, but she conceded. A nurse from the local hospital recommended a massage school in Nashville and I remember I had to submit a paper describing why I was interested in massage. Upon acceptance, I had to have an in-person interview with the owner of the school. I passed that bit as well and then moved to Nashville where I worked full-time as wait staff in various restaurants and cleaning hotel rooms while also going to school full time for the two-year program. The school had a good base-level education. I was required to pass Kinesiology, Anatomy & Physiology, Pathology, and Pharmacology before being allowed to begin any hands-on work. Most of my classmates were nurses and there was even a heart surgeon enrolled in the program.

CM:  And you went into practice after that?

RR:  After I graduated in 1999, I moved back to Alabama to work. I had looked around in Nashville at some promising massage jobs but was tired of living there and felt like there would probably be less competition in a smaller city. In Alabama, I worked part time as a massage therapist and also part time as a grocery stock clerk. After about five months, I found another part time job in massage, so I quit the grocery store job and began working two part time massage jobs. Within a year, I was booked in both places and felt confident that I could support myself with this work.

However, something interesting happened. I began to lose my interest in purchasing a sailboat and instead became increasingly interested in the massage work itself. I realized that if I wanted to make a difference, I would have to be a part of society. I couldn’t make any kind of change living from the outside. I also realized that massage was helping me develop compassion for other people. Until then I generally felt that people were idiots, but I began to  realize that if I was going to have a job I ought to have one that would help me work on the worst parts of my own character.

I didn’t plan on starting my own business; that happened by accident when both places where I was working shut down at almost the same time. I was unable to find work and was griping about this to my new boyfriend (now my husband), and he offered to help me get a loan to open my own office. That was really touching because my own mother wouldn’t cosign a loan for me, but here was this guy I’d been dating for two months who offered to do it on his own. We went to my credit union and took out a $2000 loan. From there my business grew and did well until I had to close it to move to San Diego where I started another massage therapy business.

CM:  Interesting.  How did you like it, and how long did you pursue that as your main occupation?

RR:  I really enjoyed it. It combined several of my passions, which included creating things with my hands and learning about plant medicine. I also enjoyed massage because I felt that it helped me learn how to be less judgmental of people. In my youth I could be quick to judge people harshly, but as I got a little older I realized that was maybe not so healthy. If I was going to work at something for a while, I felt it should be something that contributed to my own self-improvement, and massage did that.

Later, as my career developed, I enjoyed massage because of the changes I saw in my regular clients. I was observing how people initially came in looking ‘pinched’ and stressed-out, and then over time their faces would become so much more open. Seeing that made me hope that the regular massage they were receiving was also having a positive influence on the people with whom they interacted as well. In the last half of my career was when my skill level had really increased, and being able to help people have less pain and to lead better lives was incredible. Seeing people who couldn’t do the things they enjoyed due to pain, and then watching them be able to return to those activities, was very rewarding.

I continued working full-time as a massage therapist until September 30th of this year, which is when I closed my business.

CM:  Why did you close it, and what are you working on now?

RR:  It took me a while to finally admit it, but I got burned out. Even though I took regular breaks and vacations, pursued continuing education, and had non-massage hobbies, I still burned out. I suppose it’s the right time; I didn’t plan on doing massage for the rest of my life. My hopes were to have something related to fall back on. Last year I organized the first annual San Diego Pain Summit with Professor Lorimer Moseley as the keynote speaker. I organized the entire event myself with no outside help. The event went really well, the 2016 event is filling up, and I’m lining up presenters for the third one to take place in 2017.

I’m also working on sharing the knowledge I acquired running my own business with other massage therapists and small business owners. I’d like to teach folks who are already in business, so I’ve started a consulting service. That project is moving at a slower pace because I spend more time working on the Summit. But I’m working on creating webinars and tutorials to help other small business owners. I’ve always loved marketing, and with advancing technology there are many things that business owners neglect because they can’t see or understand the relevance.

CM:  Should massage therapists consider attending the Pain Summit?  What do they stand to gain from it?

RR: Yes, definitely. Especially for those who are working on clients who are recovering from or dealing with chronic pain. Last year about a third of the attendees were massage therapists. If we want to be a part of a healthcare team, then it is important that we learn how to communicate within that team. One of the main goals I hope to accomplish is to help bring manual therapy forward when it comes to managing pain. Everything covered at the Summit is also within the scope of the massage practitioner.

Currently there is a lot of discussion and debate around psychological-based topics relevant to massage therapy and pain science, such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), ACT (acceptance, awareness, and values in chronic pain), and similar approaches. However, these cover mostly ways to communicate with our clients and patients. It is not applying psychology per se. Three of the presenters at the 2016 Pain Summit will be covering these topics, which potentially clarify the importance and applicability of these important topics. In this way the Summit provides a place for education, interaction, and networking for massage therapists who want to advance their training and understanding.


The 2015 San Diego Pain Summit was a landmark event in massage and manual therapy education, and was very well received.


CM: How did the idea to create the Pain Summit come to you?  What motivated you to make it happen?

RR: In January 2013, I organized a continuing education course for manual therapists that included three days of dermoneuromodulation with Diane Jacobs followed by a two-day Simple Contact class with Barrett Dorko. Barrett asked the students what their physical therapy programs taught them about pain and whether they were familiar with the works of Patrick Wall, Louis Gifford, or David Butler. One of them said, “yeah, we learned about that pain science stuff but I don’t know how to apply that to my clinical work.” That’s when the light bulb came on – I had the idea and I was sure it could work. Very soon I drafted a list of potential speakers and discussed the idea with some trusted colleagues who encouraged me to go forward with it.

I knew I would need a well-known presenter to serve as a draw, which would help ensure the event’s success.  I contacted Professor Moseley, and he thought it was a great idea and agreed to give two presentations. Once he was in, I knew the event was actually going to happen, and after that I was able to get commitments numerous other respected presenters representing a range of related occupations and perspectives.

CM:  From your perspective as a massage therapist, conference organizer, and consultant, what are the biggest challenges that the U.S. massage therapy profession currently faces?

RR:  It is funny how that question seems so simple, yet it really is hugely multi-dimensional. It seems to me the massage profession is heavily fractured. There are those who want more critical thinking and clinical reasoning so that massage may be better utilized as part of valid healthcare. Others are anti-science and tend to apply magical thinking to their work. Then we have those who hate regulation, and others who find it important. And then there are those who just want to keep their heads down and be left alone to work, while others are a combination of some of the aforementioned types. Basically, our profession is heavily splintered such that, sometimes, nothing really seems to get done as a whole.

Overall, though, the biggest issue within the profession that I see is that we tend to be prone to huge egos and that can make it difficult for communicating with each other. I’ve experienced this at massage conferences and at the half dozen continuing education classes I’ve attended over the years. I’ve seen a lot of puffed-out chests and folks not wanting to share how they work, or during a class showing everyone the best way to do this or that with the client. I think this stems from the fact that our work really does help people feel better, and so here we are all day long in our offices hearing nothing but praise from our clients and seeing some really great results. No one is angry to see their massage therapist! This is what we typically deal with, and I think over time it affects our personalities and can give us an over-inflated sense of importance that makes it difficult to approach our profession, and our work, with a critical eye.

I think it’s an exciting time and I am interested to see where the massage profession ends up – it may be different than any of us can imagine. Really, the entire healthcare system needs an overhaul. A few years ago, I sat down and read the entire Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and unless it has been changed, there is an amendment that is going to require all insurance companies to accept massage starting in 2016, so that will be interesting.

CM: Thank you, Rajam.

Following on from the successful 2015 San Diego Pain Summit, the 2016 edition is poised to be a great event and one that I expect will be viewed as a milestone in the advancement of massage therapy. Rajam Roose has assembled a most impressive line up of presenters headlined by Dr. Robert Sapolsky. You should not miss this, and I hope to see you there.