When our crack team of distance-learning experts went looking for the perfect platform for teaching our core sciences online, they chose Moodle, a virtual learning environment that’s open source, secure, and easy for students and instructors to use.

Moodle and similar platforms have transformed the way education is delivered and consumed all over the world, and our blended-learning program at Vicars School of Massage Therapy makes the most of what’s offered.

Our curriculum team, led by Linda McGeachy, has put thousands of hours into creating and adapting course content and visuals to make the online portion of our program the dynamic, interactive, and effective experience that it is now. We have come a long way from the three-ring binders that we used to fill with assignments and resources for students working from home!

Making the switch to Moodle transformed more than the at-home experience, though. When we began to deliver the core sciences online instead of via classroom lectures, we freed up hours of in-class time for hands-on learning.

Vicars’ Moodle is the brain vault for the school. It houses all the academic and support material students will need for their two years at Vicars. All of our curriculum material is on it: resources that supplement in-class teaching; the two courses that are delivered online only; and wrap-around supports for students to make the most of their learning experience. It has everything our students and instructors need.

While that sounds promising, what does it mean for a first-year Vicars student, let’s say someone who has never heard of Moodle before? Is there a steep learning curve?

While many of our students have experience with on-line learning from high school or other post-secondary education, some students may have worked in jobs where computers weren’t used and have less experience online. But our systems manager and Moodle expert Heather McGeachy says students quickly become familiar and comfortable with using it.

“I’m available for them before they even start school, either through a Zoom tour or quite often in person,” Heather says. “It takes less than 20 minutes and I’ve never had a student come back after a one-on-one tutorial and say they don’t know what they’re doing or can’t navigate Moodle.”

That guidance begins as soon as students register with Vicars. They receive access to Moodle right away, and most take advantage of the head start by beginning their study of the first course, Anatomy and Physiology, as soon as possible. As part of the site introduction, students follow a sequence of steps to learn the school’s policies and how the Moodle site works.

The policy review used to happen on Day One of class, but that’s a busy day, so doing it on Moodle is a good way to make sure it the content is well understood. At the end, there is a short quiz as a low-stakes introduction to the way we measure learning progress on Moodle.

Moodle also has forums for each class that include the instructors, as well as a school-wide forum for all current students at both campuses.

“Our virtual student lounge is the online space for students to connect with classmates across the entire school,” says Heather. “They can use it to set up study groups or carpools and buy and sell used textbooks and supplies.”

A deeper dive into Moodle takes a first-year student to the two online courses that they complete virtually. “Only Anatomy & Physiology and Pathology are done entirely online,” says Linda. “They’re the only two courses that are not taught in class and that students are responsible for doing outside of classroom time.” Once registered students have access to Moodle, they can complete as many of the chapters and units as they have time for.

“Quite often, before the end of second year, students will have completed one or both of the online courses and be ready to write their final exam,” says Linda. There are opportunities for writing the final in-person throughout the year.

For students, especially those with work and or family commitments, the flexibility of working in their own time and at their own speed is a definite plus. “Pulling the core sciences out of the program in class allowed for more time for students to practice hands-on,” says Linda. “And instructors have more interaction with the students learning in class.”

Moodle also houses all of the day-to-day material for the rest of the curriculum. “There are checklists, what to read, what assignments to do, what to hand in, quizzes, and each student can see their current marks at any time” says Heather. The material also prepares students for the next module of learning.

That advance preparation makes maximum use of instructors’ knowledge and expertise. “Students walk into the classroom and know what the instructors are going to talk about in that module because they’ve had to complete the online material in advance,” says Linda.

Linda and her team develop not only the curriculum content but the video resources on the Vicars Moodle that complements the in-class learning process. Because instructors may only have one chance to demonstrate a technique, the videos serve as references for students when they are practicing and perfecting techniques.

“We make our own videos so that we have the right content in Moodle. There are all kinds of things out there online, but we want to ensure students have the specific material they need to train properly,” she says.

Keeping the focus on quality and consistency, the team have developed and centralized all the curriculum content to be taught. “Instructors don’t develop the content,” says Linda. “Instead, we’ve developed all of the PowerPoints that they use as the backbone of their lesson plans.”

“The important thing for us at Vicars is that the material we have for students is of the consistent quality that we know they need to succeed,” says Linda. What this means for students is that no matter which class they are in on either campus, the same high-quality material is delivered to each person in the same way. Students benefit by getting a consistent approach to a core understanding of the massage practice.

Instructors develop their lectures from the Vicars-customized PowerPoint notes. And if a textbook goes out of date, the PowerPoints are updated. Adding a new textbook in the place of an outdated one can take months of work: it is never enough for the Vicars curriculum team to just purchase a publisher’s package.

“When we ask for feedback about the Moodle experience, students say that it’s easy to use and works well,” says Linda. “And that’s largely because we live in an online world so there’s familiarity. What they tell us they really appreciate are the many (custom) resources that we’ve developed and provide for them. They have all they need for success right there.”

Massage is a hands-on career and, of course, you need plenty of hands-on training. But learning to be an effective therapist takes more than manual skills. Much more!

An effective massage therapist knows the anatomy and physiology of the human body exceptionally well. They know about symptoms of pathology and what massage therapy can (and can’t) do to help. They understand scope of practice, contraindications, professional ethics, and how to look after the business side of their career.

These are the parts of our program that are delivered online, using our exclusive materials and videos as well as curated resources from our chosen textbook publishers. This part of the program is delivered over Moodle, the robust online learning platform we use.

At Vicars school, our highly successful and nationally accredited curriculum is a blended learning program; it’s a combination of in-class instruction and interactive online learning.

Blended learning offers flexibility and can be more affordable than a conventional college program that may require you to be on campus 9-to-5, five days a week. The work you do at home is a combination of assignments, readings, projects, and online quizzes, all accessed through Moodle. You have detailed checklists with required readings and assignments that must be completed for their next class.

All this helps, but working from home can be challenging, especially if all your previous education has been in the classroom. If you’re not familiar with Moodle or haven’t used an online learning platform before, we have an orientation guide to help you navigate the system and our staff and faculty are available for further technical support when it’s needed.

We asked our curriculum experts and instructors for their advice on how to stay motivated and make the best use of your time. Here are their tips:

1. Choose a subject you care about

Their first piece of advice was fundamental: in any adult education, do your career research first. When you choose a course or program that you’re passionate about, learning is less of a chore. You won’t have to force yourself to log in, and even the toughest assignments won’t get you down.

2. Make a schedule (and stick to it!)

Beware of procrastination. “I’ll do it tomorrow” will leave you with a pile of assignments that gets more difficult to tackle each day. The best way to avoid that is to create a study schedule and stick to it. You will want to block off times that you will dedicate to working on specific tasks. The Vicars coursework is designed to fit within 15-20 hours of study each week. Breaking your assignments down into smaller chunks will make everything more manageable and less stressful.

For example, within each subject of our online curriculum, the reading directions are listed with their corresponding questions or assignments, to make it easy to follow along every week. Moodle includes a calendar to help you keep track of your coursework and a completion tracking tool to help ensure that you haven’t missed anything.

3. Use Moodle’s opportunities to stay in touch

Just because you’re not in class, doesn’t mean you are on your own. Your fellow students are an incredible asset both academically and emotionally. You will of course collaborate in class and in clinic, but you can also stay connected with your classmates and instructors when you’re not on campus by using Moodle.

You can use Moodle to send direct messages to both classmates and instructors. There are also general, school-wide forums to discuss challenging topics, make comments, and ask questions of instructors and fellow students. Your classroom forum, open to students in your own class, can act as an extension of your on-campus discussions.  If you have a question, other students are likely wondering the same thing and will benefit from the answer. Specific questions about Anatomy & Physiology and Pathology go to the dedicated science instructor for your campus.

4. Start early if you can 

As soon as you’re accepted into the program and complete your registration, you will have full access to Moodle, and can begin the two core science courses that are required: Anatomy & Physiology, and Pathology. All your resources and assignments are available online, and you will have access to the general forums and to instructor and technical support as needed. There is no charge for this opportunity to get started early, and many advantages.

If you can start a few weeks or even a few months before your on-campus class begins, you can get used to the Moodle environment and start learning. You can work through the materials, submit homework, and challenge the quizzes. The work you put in ahead of time will take some of the pressure off as you get used to the responsibilities of first year.

Admissions staff at Vicars School of Massage Therapy are used to fielding inquiries about tuition, class sizes, or financial aid. But lately, admissions advisor Rhonda Watson has also been answering a lot of questions about another topic: CTMCA accreditation.

“More people have been asking whether we are an accredited school, and we love it,” Rhonda says. “It tells us that they have done their homework and understand that a diploma from an accredited school like Vicars is the way to make sure that they will find the job they want and be prepared for success as soon as they start work.”

Since it’s such a popular topic, we decided to put together a blog post answering some of the biggest questions that we get on the subject.

Is Vicars School of Massage Therapy accredited by the CMTCA?

Yes! So far, Vicars is the only private massage therapy school in Alberta to have full accreditation. We earned full accreditation status in 2022 and the further distinction of the CMTCA’s highest ranking—five-year accreditation—in 2023.

Not all massage therapy programs are created equal. This is especially true in a province like Alberta, where the massage therapy profession isn’t regulated by the government, and neither is the content or quality of massage therapy education.

What Is CMTCA accreditation?

Program accreditation through the Canadian Massage Therapy Council for Accreditation (CMTCA) is a way for massage therapy programs to demonstrate that they meet Canada’s national program standards.

The CMTCA is a completely independent organization whose job it is to review massage therapy programs in Canada. This assessment is based on a long list of criteria, including the quality of the curriculum, student experience, facilities, and overall organization of the school. Their process includes both an in-depth review of the school’s documentation, and a multi-day site visit at each campus.

By granting full accreditation, the CMTCA is announcing that the school:

  • Meets the curriculum standards of the regulated provinces (more about that below);
  • Awards diplomas only to massage therapists who have proven themselves skilled, knowledgeable, and effective; and
  • Delivers what it promises: qualified instructors, relevant content, and a culture of continuous improvement.

Why does accreditation matter?

Accreditation matters because the quality of your massage therapy career will depend on the quality of your education. And the best way to judge the quality of a school is by making sure that it meets Canada’s national standards.

In provinces where massage therapy is a regulated health profession, schools have to follow the national curriculum and delivery standards, accreditation is mandatory, and the professional regulatory groups (called “professional colleges”) only recognize programs that meet these standards.

Alberta is the Wild West in comparison, so it is up to people who want to become massage therapists to do their research and make sure that they’re choosing a quality school.

At Vicars, we believe that massage therapy students deserve to know what kind of education they’re signing up for, and that clients deserve to know that their RMT has the knowledge and skills to give them a safe and effective treatment.

“This kind of objective assessment from an expert organization like the CMTCA is an important stamp of approval for any Canadian massage program,” explains Maryhelen Vicars, the school’s founder and president. “But it’s even more important here in Alberta where massage therapy and massage education are not regulated by the government. Accreditation is also an essential step toward any future provincial regulation.”

Vicars is the only independent massage therapy program to be accredited in Alberta (the two others are run by publicly funded institutions).

“It’s unfortunate for the profession, and for Alberta massage students, that this kind of consistent, evidence-based education isn’t already mandatory for Alberta massage schools,” says Maryhelen. “The more schools that choose to get accredited, the higher the quality of massage education in Alberta will be overall.”

Accreditation is important for people who are dreaming of beginning a career in massage therapy and are trying to decide which of Alberta’s massage therapy programs is the right choice for them.

What it comes down to is that if a massage therapy school hasn’t passed independent approval processes like CMTCA accreditation or the MTAA school approval program list, you have no way of knowing if the education they offer is really going to prepare you for a successful career.

“People shouldn’t only have to rely on what the admissions reps from each school tell them when they’re researching a new career,” says Rhonda. “Being able to rely on unbiased sources like the CMTCA nationally and the MTAA locally means they can be confident about their choice of school.”

Will graduating from an accredited school benefit my career?

Yes.

Your success as a massage therapist will depend on your hands-on assessment and treatment skills, your knowledge of the human body, your understanding of massage theory, your business know-how, and your ability to practice massage in a safe and sustainable way. These are the skills and knowledge that you will use to build your client base and keep them coming back for more.

That’s what you’ll learn at an accredited school.

That said, clinic owners and other employers know what accreditation means, and they know what schools they prefer to hire therapists from. Vicars therapists have always been in high demand from employers and clients. Accreditation has just made our grads stand out even more.

When RMTs are able to say that they have graduated from an accredited school, it is further proof that they are worth every penny! We’ve even heard from RMTs who graduated before our accreditation was official, who have told us that CMTCA recognition has benefited their professional reputation.

The general public is also increasingly aware of that not all massage therapists are created equal. More and more clients now know that choosing therapists from accredited schools makes it easier for them to find qualified, effective therapists.

Does accreditation mean that my Vicars education will be recognized across Canada?

Accreditation is a huge step forward for Vicars graduates who want to practice in regulated provinces.

It’s not a silver bullet, though. In order to become registered in a regulated province, you will still have to go through their professional college’s application and acceptance process. That process will vary province to province.

The important thing to remember is that going to an accredited school means that your education will match what students in regulated provinces learn. So no matter what their process looks like, you will have the knowledge and skills that you need.

Vicars School instructor Janine Borger gets up close and personal with “Stan” the skeleton

When Janine Borger was hired as an instructor at Vicars back in 2002, she insisted on completing our second-year classes first.

She says the extra work was “just to solidify what I knew and to understand the Vicars approach to curriculum delivery.” At the time, she had four children at home, owned and operated a large massage clinic in Lacombe, and was very involved in local minor hockey.

That level of energy and commitment, it turns out, is a Janine trademark and it hasn’t changed. Twenty-five years later, she continues to welcome the changes in the industry that have opened doors for well-prepared graduates.

“We’ve seen the viewpoint of massage therapy change from that of a pampering treatment to a complementary health therapy,” she says. “We’ve seen it become more common for physicians and other professionals in the medical field to refer their patients for massage therapy, and we’ve seen insurance companies allowing more access to coverage under extended benefits.”

These industry changes are reflected in rising standards in the quality of massage education nationally and in Alberta. Janine is very much part of the change, both in her role at Vicars in ensuring the delivery of the highest level of education for our students, and in her work with the Massage Therapy Association of Alberta in the area of massage education.

“It’s really worthwhile to stay connected to our professional body and to keep up with the latest information and initiatives,” she says.

Janine brings her own educational experiences to her teaching: “I think a little of my forte is that I can relate to the pressures of going back to school when you’re no longer 18 and have been out of the educational system,” says Janine. “I feel I can encourage students to learn material that is within their grasp and show them how to leap forward.”

“I love my profession and so I love it when I connect with students and can help them through the hard parts,” Janine says. “For some, the two years at Vicars can be life-changing and I can shine a light along the way.”

While the mix of several different generations, often in one class, keeps her thinking young, there are challenges as well. Staying current with the changing needs of students in a challenging global environment means that there are more mental and emotional aspects of student support than ever before.

“It’s become a much more complex world, and people are affected by that,” she says. “Students don’t just sit in a classroom and absorb; they internalize their world, and it becomes part of their learning.”

For Janine, guiding students along the path to becoming professional massage therapists is grounded in connections with people. From ethics to marketing and business, she says every aspect of the curriculum is about that.

“Helping people and showing them how you can help them benefit from massage therapy comes up again and again,” she says. “And when students first start in the public clinic, when they meet their first clients, we ensure that they are in a safe place and have the tools and support to work through the challenges of interacting in an intimate way with strangers.”

For more than 20 of the almost 30 years that she’s been an RMT, Janine has been a valued instructor at Vicars in the classroom and, in recent years, the dedicated Edmonton instructor of Anatomy & Physiology and Pathology, courses Vicars students take online. More recently, Janine has taken on an administrative role as faculty liaison between campuses, working closely with Curriculum Director Linda McGeachy and Executive Director Sarah Ward. To ensure that Vicars upholds the standards that are required of accredited massage schools, everything from curriculum, policies and procedures, and responses to student issues and concerns must be consistent across the two campuses.

Janine works with instructors to keep them up to current accreditation standards, which includes new approaches to curriculum delivery, new material for the curriculum, and keeping up with research.

“One of the best things about Janine is that she holds my feet to the fire and never has an issue asking a direct question to gain clarity about the reason or direction that we’re going,” says Sarah. “She’s exceptional in her role and a huge support to me.”

Janine comes from a family of academics and medical professionals but didn’t discover her love of anatomy and physiology until she worked in a hospital brain injury unit years ago. That interest led her to pursue massage therapy training, which she completed in 1995. She joined Vicars School of Massage Therapy as an instructor in 2002, shortly after it was founded by Maryhelen Vicars. By then Janine had several years’ experience running her own clinic.

Janine continued her work at her clinic for several more years while teaching at Vicars. When her children were grown, she sold the clinic. Like all Vicars instructors, she continues to practice massage, and brings that day-to-day experience to the classroom: “Being on the front line with all kinds of clients really is important in describing experiences and potential situations to students,” she says. “It also helps prepare them for when they do their training in our school’s public clinics.”

Her years of practice are core to Janine’s teaching, but so are her relationships with other health professionals, made easier in a small town than in a larger city. She feels strongly that Vicars students who come from small towns and rural areas have an advantage over students from urban areas.

“There are many opportunities to meet with other health professionals in a smaller community whether it’s at a sports arena or a community meeting,” she says. “And those can turn into opportunities to discuss the commonalities in how you can help their patients.”

Because she knew so many other health professionals and was invited to different events and sessions that they held, she was able to bring that collaboration to her work at Vicars. “Those cross-disciplinary collaborations create advocates for the massage therapy profession,” Janine says.

Looking back over her career as a therapist and an instructor, Janine sees her time at Vicars has really been beneficial to her personal life, her career and to the people she’s met along the way.

“There is so much joy in showing people what you love about your profession,” she says. “I attribute my teaching to being able to be a massage therapist for as long as I want. It’s something I’m very grateful to Vicars for.”

For many of us, physical aches and pains are the trigger for making an appointment for massage. We know that massage therapy can speed our recovery from injury, and even help us live better with chronic pain.

But did you know that massage can also help with the pain of living with depression, anxiety, trauma, or stress?

Tessa Burns, a clinical psychologist and owner of Serenity Now Wellness in Calgary, uses an approach in her practice called integrated body psychotherapy. Simply put, it’s about how the mind and body are interconnected. That approach evolved into Serenity Now Wellness, an integrated therapeutic centre comprising counseling and physical therapies such as acupuncture, nutrition, naturopathy, and massage. The RMT on staff, Laura Dunlop, is a graduate of Vicars School of Massage Therapy.

Tessa says that in counseling, sometimes a roadblock can happen when a patient is delving into stress or trauma. The feedback between brain and body manifests itself physiologically.

“The patient will be holding their shoulders tight and stiff, for example, because the body is reacting to their brain telling them it isn’t safe,” says Tessa.

Helping patients relax helps with receptivity in counseling. She’s also found that when the body is physically manipulated, as with massage therapy, patients can get a more profound result from counseling and feel the benefits more wholistically.

“A lot of the work that we do will be very challenging and there will be a natural tension when you are doing really emotional work.”

In her practice, she encourages patients to have a massage after a counseling session, to help relieve that tension.

She cites books by physician Gabor Mate and the late neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert as excellent sources for research and experiences in mind-body connections.

As a graduate student in 1972, Dr. Pert discovered the brain’s opiate receptor – the cellular site where the body’s painkillers and “bliss-makers,” the endorphins – bond with cells to weave their magic. Her discovery led to a revolution in neuroscience, helping open the door to the “information-based” model of the brain which is now replacing the old “structuralist” model.

While there are centres specializing in physical health that will bring in counselors on occasion to help patients, Tessa approaches things from the other direction.

“Because I’m a psychologist I see everything from the mental health lens,” she says. “I focus on the benefits of touch therapy because I want to address the physical aspect of mental health.”

The mechanisms and effects of massage therapy are not yet as well researched as those of other disciplines, such as physical therapy, have been. Victoria-based writer, educator, and consultant Eric Purves is trying to address that. With years of experience as an RMT and with a master’s degree in rehabilitation medicine, Eric’s specialty is the biopsychosocial science of pain in massage therapy, where the emphasis is on facilitating and supporting a person rather than “curing” their disorder.

His focus over the past decade is contributing to and synthesizing the massage therapy research that does exist and incorporating it into massage therapy practice. He translates research evidence into practical applications through workshops, courses, and seminars intended for professionals who treat people with touch or movement techniques.

When it comes to massage therapy’s benefits, research by such leaders as Dr. Tiffany Field, who founded the Touch Research Institute, validates that massage therapy can reduce certain types of pain, decrease anxiety and depression symptoms, and even promote weight gain in premature babies. But the specific biochemical and biomechanical reasons that this occurs remain elusive.

In a 2011 literature review of research on massage therapy’s effect on the stress hormone cortisol showed that there isn’t conclusive evidence that can link the two. Author Christopher Moyer of the University of Wisconsin has written that “…other causal mechanisms, which are still to be identified, must be responsible for massage therapy’s clinical benefits.”

But those benefits are real, and there’s research to back it up. An earlier paper by Dr. Moyer, published in The International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, notes the parallels between the therapeutic alliance in massage and the private interpersonal contact between a psychotherapist and patient as an area for future research to explore. He wrote that the effects of massage therapy “on anxiety and depression, when quantified, are similar in magnitude to the effects observed in hundreds of psychotherapy studies.”

There’s evidence that the intangible aspects of getting a massage—the empathy, trust, and respect between client and therapist—have tangible benefits for the client’s mental health.

Eric Purves’ knowledge and experience confirms the importance of the therapeutic alliance, the positive relationship between client and clinician. He says it is one of two components important for the mental health benefits of massage and is the foundation of every successful massage treatment.

The second important component is person-centered care. In his former clinical practice and now in his workshops, Eric stresses the importance of listening to and validating a client’s concerns as the first step in person-centred care.

“We want to move the focus from treating a particular condition to treating the person who has the condition so that we are treating the whole person,” Eric says.

Eric has also found that that validation is often a transition point for clients. When clients feel that someone is listening to them and believing them, it helps them begin a journey towards living well.

“They are able to move from an ‘I’m trying to fix you’ to ‘I’m here to support you’ situation,” he says. “It makes a huge difference in helping them learn to manage their condition and live well with what they are experiencing.

“There is a lot of data that suggests that the person-centered care approach in massage therapy, particularly for people with chronic conditions, whether it’s mental health or a systemic disease or a pain problem, tends to work. And clients get better not because they are being fixed, but because they’re learning to live well with what they have.”

Eric joined Vicars School as a curriculum advisor in 2022. He has worked with Curriculum Director Linda McGeachy to help ensure the school continues to meet a high standards of educational excellence as required by national accreditation.

Students who train at Vicars follow an intensive two-year curriculum that incorporates knowledge and techniques addressing whole-body conditions. Part of that curriculum focuses on how to be part of an effective health team managing mental health conditions.

At the very start of the students’ first-year classes is an introduction to the different pathologies of the body, including the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, and mental health.

“The concepts in the pathology course are built on throughout the full two years of training,” Linda says. “The theory is reinforced in the clinical setting, where students will work with clients with a range of conditions and disorders, including mental health issues.”

Linda also arranges for mental health experts to speak with students in coffee chats so that students will know where and how to refer clients if necessary. Other speakers from societies representing neurodiverse populations, such as those living with ADHD or autism, also come in to share their knowledge with Vicars students.

Vicars training is based on person-centered care and the therapeutic alliance.

“We don’t look at the disorder by itself,” says Linda. “We focus on building empathy and trust so that there’s a healthy relationship with the client.”

At Vicars, effective massage treatment is always a collaboration between the client and the therapist. A well-trained massage therapist never performs a one-size-fits-all treatment. Instead, the therapist begins with a thorough interview and assessment and develops a customized treatment plan based on the client’s needs and goals.

“It’s important to understand what some of the manifestations of these conditions could be, so that the therapist can then be aware,” Linda says.

A Vicars-trained RMT will work with the client to ensure that they create a safe, calm, and welcoming treatment environment, where there’s no pressure, judgement, or stress. The RMT will explain the treatment plan before they begin and continue to check in throughout the appointment. They’ll also pay attention to non-verbal cues like muscle tension and breathing patterns to make sure that their client stays in their comfort zone. Throughout the treatments, the RMT will help their clients maintain healthy boundaries and will remain within their own scope of practice as well.

Linda McGeachy knows what it takes to be a successful massage therapist. After all, she’s been an RMT for 30 years, a massage therapy educator for more than 25, and is currently the curriculum director at Vicars School.

“You have to like people a lot and be able to listen well in order to decide what’s going to work best for that person,” she says. “You need to be empathetic, but also maintain the proper boundaries that are going to keep you effective. It’s about being open, well-rounded, and curious.”

It may come as a surprise to some people that her list didn’t include “young and well-muscled.” One of the most common misconceptions about massage therapy is that it’s a young person’s career.

But nothing could be further from the truth: it’s possible to be an effective and successful RMT no matter how old you are or when you start your career. We have more than 20 years’ worth of graduates to prove it!

In fact, studying massage therapy as a second career can actually be an advantage.

“When you go back to school later in life, you know what you want and you’re not afraid to work for it. You are focused on your goals—sometimes even more focused than you were when you were younger,” says the school’s founder Maryhelen Vicars. “You know yourself better, and that makes you a better student and a better massage therapist.”

Maryhelen speaks from experience: she went back to school at age 48 to train for a new career as an RMT. She had spent 25 years as a journalist, writer, and editor. She had extensive experience developing educational materials for adults, but she hadn’t been a student herself since her early 20s.

When she had the opportunity to create a new type of massage school a couple of years later, she had the needs of mature learners solidly in mind. Students would be treated like adults, and always with respect, she declared. The first consideration in any decision made by the school about curriculum or policy would be how it would affect the students.

Those promises are at the core of how the school operates today, she says. The result is a combination of a comprehensive, treatment-focused massage curriculum and a blended-learning schedule that allows students to balance school with their other responsibilities. Because mature students always have other responsibilities.

The guiding principles may have stayed the same for more than 20 years, but the curriculum and how it is delivered has definitely evolved. Linda works hard to make sure that Vicars is at the cutting edge of massage therapy education, from incorporating the latest research to using the best online learning tools. Don’t just take our word for it: Vicars is nationally accredited and an MTAA Approved Program.

The program has plenty of successful young students but it is popular with students in their 30s and beyond: people who are ready to leave their old career and make a new start; parents who can finally go back to school now that their children are old enough; and even retirees who want a flexible part-time vocation after decades of working 9-5.

“Mature students have experience managing family and career responsibilities,” Linda explains. “That’s very important for good time management.”

Mature students can also bring their broad life experience to bear when it comes to short- and long-term treatment planning.

“Each client has a different story and so many things can affect their wellbeing,” Linda says. “When the therapist can understand a person’s life situation because of their own experience, that puts the therapist in a better place.”

She uses the example of chronic pain management, an area of growing interest in an aging population. In pain management, the emphasis is on techniques to stimulate the nervous system’s pathways, rather than those used to manipulate muscles. Different approaches are also required to understand chronic pain clients.

“The term ‘biopsychosocial’ is used to describe hearing and treating the whole person, rather than just focusing on specific injuries or complaints in isolation,” she says. “Older therapists with their life experience and, in some cases even their own chronic pain, can understand a person’s life situation better than a younger person who might be just starting to understand that.”

Take the next step on your career journey by signing up for an online or in-person open house event!

Note: This post was published in 2022. For more information about CMTCA Accreditation and what it will mean for your massage career, check out this post from summer 2023 or this page on our website!

Vicars School of Massage Therapy is proud to announce that we have been granted full national accreditation status for both our Edmonton and Calgary campuses.

By granting full accreditation status to both, the Canadian Massage Therapy Council for Accreditation is recognizing that Vicars School of Massage Therapy meets Canada’s highest standards for massage therapy education.

The CMTCA is the independent agency that evaluates massage programs across the country to determine whether they meet rigorous curriculum and delivery standards.

Why does accreditation matter, and who benefits?

“This is a major achievement for our school,” says Maryhelen Vicars, the school’s president. “It will have significant long-term benefits for our students, our clients, and the massage therapy profession in Alberta.”

We expect that future Vicars graduates will be in even greater demand because of this announcement. Holding a diploma from an accredited program will help them stand out to employers and clients who want an RMT with a comprehensive and competency-based massage therapy education.

The announcement is also great news for people who are still dreaming of beginning a career in massage therapy, and are trying to decide which of Alberta’s massage therapy programs is the right choice for them.

“People shouldn’t only have to rely on what the admissions reps from each school tell them when they’re researching a new career,” says Vicars admissions coordinator Corrina Cornforth. “Being able to rely on unbiased sources like the CMTCA nationally and the MTAA locally means they can be confident about their choice of school.”

What is national accreditation and how did we get there?

“Becoming accredited is a landmark for our school,” says Maryhelen. “This is the result of more than two decades of commitment to providing the most up-to-date and effective massage therapy education possible.”

To determine whether they deserve to be accredited, the CMTCA evaluates a school’s performance in seven important categories: curriculum content; faculty and learning; student support; resources and infrastructure; leadership and administration; human resources; and quality improvement.

The curriculum standard is based on national standards for massage education in regulated provinces. The first version of these standards was published in 2012, just after Vicars School celebrated its 10th anniversary. We immediately took the opportunity to update our curriculum to meet these standards (though there weren’t too many changes needed, we’re proud to say). We did the same thing in 2016, when the standards were revised. Our curriculum is updated every year to make sure our students are learning the most up-to-date information and have access to the best resources.

This latest recognition from the CMTCA is a vindication of our commitment to our students, over and above what we’re required to do in Alberta.

“This kind of objective assessment—from an expert organization like the CMTCA—would be an important stamp of approval for any Canadian massage program,” explains Maryhelen. “But it’s even more important here in Alberta where massage therapy and massage education are not regulated by the government.”

In some Canadian provinces (such as BC and Newfoundland) massage therapy is a regulated health care profession, and massage therapists and massage schools are governed by a regulatory authority (called a professional college). Those regulatory groups work with accrediting agencies like the CMTCA to ensure that all schools in their province meet the national standards.

In non-regulated provinces like Alberta, however, there isn’t a professional college. Schools don’t have to meet any massage-specific curriculum or quality standards. Some of the professional associations that oversee RMTs—like the Massage Therapist Association of Alberta—have created education benchmarks, but they are not mandatory.

The absence of regulation has meant that the content and quality of massage therapy education in Alberta varies widely. This has made it very difficult for prospective massage students to know if a particular school will prepare them for a modern, successful massage therapy career.

What’s next?

Now that Vicars school has achieved accreditation, we will continue to support efforts toward the regulation of massage therapy in Alberta.

“The reason that we applied for accreditation in the first place is that having national standards is important,” says Maryhelen. “They exist to keep our clients and students safe, and to elevate our profession. We don’t think that any school should be able to opt out of meeting them—which is why they should be enforced at a provincial level.

“And in the meantime, we’re pleased to have earned this latest badge of quality from the CMTCA.”

What is sports massage and how is it different from the type of massage therapy that most people are familiar with? Can someone who isn’t a professional athlete benefit from a sports massage? How does a massage therapist become a sports massage specialist?

To answer those questions, we spoke with three registered massage therapists, all of whom teach at Vicars School of Massage Therapy, and who have made sports massage an important part of their practice.

Tonia Vipler teaches at our Calgary campus. She has always been interested in body mechanics and athletic recovery—she’s a life-long athlete and trained as a kinesiologist before becoming an RMT—so incorporating sports massage into her practice was a natural fit. She explains sports massage to her clients as “massage treatment that is specifically focused on the muscles and muscle areas that are most commonly used by athletes in their sport.”

Earlier in her massage career, Tonia worked both as a massage therapist and personal trainer, with clients overlapping between the two disciplines. That’s when her work in sports massage started. Nowadays, her practice is with “everyday athletes,” such as people who are training for a marathon, Iron Man, or cycling trip. Fun fact: Tonia helped prepare Bea Mikkola and her husband for a cross-Canada bike trip in 2017. Bea, a kinesiologist, attended Vicars soon after, and has now joined Tonia as an instructor in Calgary.

A big part of Tonia’s practice is educating clients about their bodies, and why it’s important to incorporate massage into their training schedule. Rather than coming to her for the first time when they are injured, Tonia wants to make people aware that massage is a tool that can be incorporated into their athletic schedule from the start, in the same way they would optimize their diet and sleep to maximize performance and prevent injury.

“I like to remind people who aren’t professional athletes that sports massage could be part of their journey to prevent any injuries,” she says. She also offers mobile massage and finds her clientele is shifting to include more families with younger athletes. “Right now, I work with younger kids, teaching them that massage is a really good tool for their athletic journey throughout their lives.”

Tonia describes the techniques used in sports massage as the same techniques that students learn at Vicars School of Massage Therapy. The key is how, and when, techniques are used. Sports massage often requires more dynamic movement in the massage than a relaxation massage, using more vigorous muscle stripping, stretching, and myofascial techniques.

Edmonton instructor Kerri Wagensveld agrees.

“The techniques I use are not specific to sports massage,” she says. “For example, compressions, which I use as an opening technique to help relax my client and prepare their muscles for deeper work, is a very foundational technique that we teach our first-year students.”

Kerri has always been interested in sports massage. After she graduated from Vicars, she was mentored by sports massage specialist Kip Petch at St. Albert’s Active Life Centre. She still works there, as well as at Active Physioworks Magrath in South Edmonton, where her clientele includes many types of athletes, among them ultramarathoners like herself. She is a member of the Canadian Sports Massage Therapist Association (CSMTA), a nationally recognized organization that offers courses and conferences for ongoing learning in the specialty.

Joining the CSMTA requires RMT certification, a Standard First Aid certificate with CPR, completion of the CSMTA Advanced Sport Massage Course, among other requirements. Members of CSMTA are often selected to be part of the core medical team serving athletes at major sporting events such as the Olympics.

For Kerri, a huge part of practicing sports massage is understanding that it’s not only about the needs of the physical body.

“It’s knowing how to respond to an athlete to help them prepare mentally and being part of their team in preparation for their performance,” she says.

While most Kerri’s practice is in the clinic, she loves being out in the sports field whenever she can. But that’s not for everyone: “At a sporting event, you’re constantly dealing with dirt and sweat, depending on the sport you’re working with,” she says. “It can be a messy, stinky situation so you have to be OK working with that and being prepared to do a lot of cleaning of both you, your environment, and your equipment.”

At Vicars, we try to introduce our students to as many different facets of the massage therapy profession. That includes organizing outreach opportunities at sporting events.

Instructor Marci Terpsma has been the main organizer of our Edmonton outreach program for many years.

“We take the students off campus to 10K and 5K runs and ultramarathons to expose them to different aspects of our job,” she says. “When they’re on the field they have to think critically and quickly and take what they learned in class and put that knowledge into practice in the moment.”

That quick decision-making is more important, in Marci’s experience, than the potential physical mismatch between an RMT and an athlete. “You can be the tiniest of therapists dealing with the strongest of men and it’s all about the RMT assessing what needs to be done and just doing it,” she says. Sports massage often concentrates on a target muscle group. “If it’s a softball player, I’m more focused on shoulders and arms and if it’s a hockey player, then the legs,” she says. “And if it’s a pre-event massage it’s very focused on a specific area for 10 to 15 minutes.”

Marci runs REVIVE Health & Wellness Studio in Beaumont, where 15 of the 16 RMTs are Vicars graduates. Outside of the clinic, she works with higher level athletes on sports teams, including a competitive girls’ softball team who travel to competitions around Canada. Most of her work is maintaining the athletes’ bodies, preparing them pre-event to increase flexibility and range of motion, and working with injuries and recovery. Echoing Tonia and Kerri, Marci says the same principles of massage are involved whether she’s giving a relaxation or deep tissue massage.

As the age of competitive athletes is getting younger, Marci is finding that the parents of these athletes are much more educated about the benefits of massage to their children’s athletic goals and overall health, than parents were a decade ago. As sports massage therapy carves out a place for itself alongside other components of an athlete’s program, Marci finds herself in a fortunate position.

“I am always right up there with my knowledge thanks to our curriculum at Vicars,” she says. “What I learn is exactly what I am teaching students.” She’s the go-to person at her clinic for questions about particular approaches or treatment modality for clients because of her up-to-date knowledge.

While research on sports massage and its physiological benefits lags far behind the field’s burgeoning popularity, all three RMTs passionately endorse the benefits to athletic wellbeing that they have observed and experienced. And their passion directly benefits Vicars students.

“The quality of education at Vicars is second to none, largely because the instructors are passionate about what they do,” says Marci. “That’s easy to convey to students and that leads to a level of education where we expect the best from students.”


Does helping marathon runners, volleyball teams, or rock climbers achieve their goals sound like your dream career? Contact our friendly admissions team by calling us toll-free at 1-866-491-0574, or sign up for a virtual open house! And if you’re an athlete looking to stay healthy and improve your recovery, you can book an appointment at our student clinic.

This is the third post in our series about pediatric massage. So far in the series, we’ve looked at research in the field of infant massage and talked to an RMT who teaches infant and child massage to her clients. Today, we’re reviewing the research into the effects of massage therapy on older children.

When Edmonton-based teacher Carla C. began going to a registered massage therapist (RMT) in 2021, she took her four-year-old son, Lincoln, with her. For the first few visits, Lincoln played quietly in a corner of the room or nestled himself between his mother’s legs while she was being massaged. On one visit, Lincoln announced that he too wanted a massage.

Carla supported his decision. Lincoln had been born with serious health conditions, necessitating open heart surgery when he was only a few weeks old. While Carla had given Lincoln massages since his birth, stroking his arms and legs and back, she had avoided the scar on his chest. She thought touching it would be too much of a reminder for both of them of those fraught early years.

The RMT guided Lincoln through all aspects of the massage treatment that day, which given his age and size was only about 15 minutes long. She asked him if it was OK for her to touch his legs and arms and talked to him about the sensations he was feeling. When she came to his chest, she explained how important it was to massage his scar. “Treat it like a twisty little snake,” she said, “and roll it between your fingers to smooth it out and make it softer and less sticky.”

Carla realized that by encouraging Lincoln to massage his scar, the RMT was also giving him an important message: that the scar was his, part of his body, an important part of his story, and not something to be ignored or feared.

Carla and Lincoln both started regularly massaging his scar.  Several months later, Carla says that it is noticeably more pliable and has less profile on his chest.

The benefits of pediatric massage are backed by research

Stories like Carla and Lincoln’s show the wholistic effects of massage in young people, encompassing mind and body. This is something that pioneering touch therapy researcher and psychologist Dr. Tiffany Field has spent her career investigating. Dr. Field is internationally renowned for her the quality of her research on the effects of massage on infants. (Her research has shown that massage therapy led to faster weight gain and discharge from hospital for infants born prematurely, and that for full-term babies the benefits include relieving jaundice, better sleep, reduced stress in parents, and strengthening infant-parent bonding. Read all about it in the first post in our series).

Dr. Field conducted a comprehensive review of research that has been done on the effects of massage therapy in older children (between a year of age and adolescence), and in children with psychological and mental health conditions. The results make a very strong case for pediatric massage therapy.

Children with autism spectrum or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders were reported to have greater attentiveness, fewer sleep problems, and decreased hyperactivity after a month of regular short massages.

Preschoolers to adolescents with psychological difficulties including aggression, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed improvements in their symptoms and a decrease in the levels of stress hormones in their bodies. As an example, child survivors of Hurricane Andrew who were experiencing severe PTSD showed much lower PTSD symptoms after a month of daily massage treatments. Studies on children with anorexia and bulimia experienced increases in dopamine and improved management of their eating disorders.

In children with symptoms resulting from a number of physical conditions, massage therapy—often delivered by parents—resulted in reductions of gastrointestinal problems from diarrhea or constipation; spasticity from cerebral palsy and hypotonicity (flaccidity) from Down’s Syndrome; and increased motor development in children with motor development delays. Children with painful diseases, with conditions such as burns, or who had undergone painful procedures, experienced pain relief, better sleep, and reduced anxiety after massage therapy.

Why is massage therapy so good for children and teens?

The common thread running through the majority of the assessed studies is the calming effect resulting from reduction of stress hormones and increased production of “happy” hormones such as dopamine, purported to be results of massage therapy. Dr. Field and other researchers have identified the possible bodily mechanisms that are “translating” massage into these physiological and other effects. Earlier in this series, we outlined some of the potential mechanisms activated by massage in preterm infants: the vagus nerve, responsible for controlling stress hormone release, activates the gastric system, which enables digestion.

Additional mechanisms were seen in the studies on older children. Dr. Field has proposed that the reason massage therapy has such an effective role in pain management is that it engages the body’s touch receptors. These nerves are longer and more insulated than pain receptors—but once activated, their signals reach the brain faster and can “drown out” the messages being sent by the pain receptors.

In the broader context of the nervous system, Dr. Field posits that massage potentially has an effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” functions in the body including heartbeat, vagus nerve activity, and digestion. When activated by moderate-pressure massage, the parasympathetic nervous system “overrides” the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, decreasing the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and increasing the release of immune fighter cells and anti-pain chemicals such as serotonin.

When parents are involved in massaging their children, they also benefit. Several studies by Dr. Field and others investigated the effects of parent-given infant and child massage on child-parent attachment and attunement, the receptiveness between caregiver and child. Parents reported less stress, improved wellbeing, a greater sense of competency with their parenting skills, and for those with moderate mental health issues, reduced symptoms of depression.

This effect doesn’t seem to be restricted to direct parent-child relationships : grandparents and other trusted caregivers can benefit as well. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, older adults were given massages for a month and then gave massages to infants over a month. Measurement of cortisol from saliva samples showed they were calmer and more relaxed after massaging the infants.

All of the studies were conducted over short term periods, and Dr. Field and other researchers stress the need for further high-quality, longer-term research in order to produce evidence that can be used by decision-makers on funding and policy changes. While research is vital to ensure pediatric massage is accepted as a valid clinical tool, its popularity continues to grow.

And as Carla says, “It’s important that as my son grows, he sees massage therapy as another important therapy with a trusted professional alongside the other therapies he receives.”

This is the second instalment in a series about pediatric massage: massage therapy for children ranging from infants to adolescents. Check out the first post to learn about massage therapy for infants, including its potential benefits for both parents and child and the science that assesses those benefits. Today’s post is a conversation with an experienced Vicars graduate who has incorporated infant massage into her practice.

Shannon Collum, RMT, is a Vicars graduate who lives and works in Duncan, BC. She owns Maple Bay Massage Therapy there. As part of her general therapeutic practice, Shannon also has training in infant massage education, and offers one-on-one and group sessions with parents and their babies.

Shannon Collum, RMT

I recently talked to Shannon about this part of her practice.

Robin: Can you give me a brief overview of your experience with infant massage?

Shannon:

Early in my career, I found I was working with a lot of pregnant clients. It just happened by word of mouth—I think it helped that a lot of my friends were at the right age to start having babies!

As I went on, I realized I wanted to offer even more services in this area. We had learned the fundamentals of infant massage in school, but I knew there was more to learn.

I found a continuing education course for RMTs on infant massage and at the same time I trained as a doula, learning how to give support to mothers during and after childbirth. I was fascinated by it and knew there were at least some of my clients who would be interested.

I’ve been a massage therapist for more than 18 years now. Teaching infant massage has been a bigger part of my practice at some points than others. But it’s something I enjoy and that I’m glad I can offer to my clients.

There are so many different continuing education options out there for massage therapists—so many different directions and areas of practice for people to choose from. Would you recommend taking infant massage, and pregnancy massage?

When new grads ask me for continuing ed recommendations, I always say that it depends on what resonates with you. What are you interested in? Because if you’re not really engaged with whatever it is, you’re not going to make a success of it.

For me, I’ve always had a connection with babies and children—it’s always been a part of my life. If an RMT feels the same way, furthering your education by taking ongoing training in pregnancy massage and training new parents may be a good choice for you.

And you have to be practical too, of course. Think about the focus of your practice, where you work, and your current and potential clientele. If you’re based in more a retirement community this will obviously be less of a focus in your practice!

How do you introduce the idea of infant massage to pregnant clients?

I have it listed on my website as something I have experience in, and so some of my clients bring it up to me themselves or even find me that way. But usually it will organically come up in a conversation with them about what they’re experiencing, their hopes or even what they’re nervous about.

The last time it came up was I was working on a woman who was quite far along in her pregnancy. I was performing abdominal massage, and I was explaining to her how we do the strokes in a specific direction around the abdomen to promote digestion. I explained that this is also what we do with babies, and she says, “Wait, we can do massage on babies?!?!”

Do you find that do you usually get that surprised reaction? In your experience, do parents know that this is an option?

Some do, some don’t. And some are confused—some think that I do the massage; that they bring the baby into the clinic. But I explain that it involves teaching the parents what to do and how to do it in a way that is comfortable, safe, and joyful. And for most people, I find, that’s a lot more appealing.

So how do these sessions work?

I like to set up a class, either one-on-one or in a group setting, outside the clinic. It’s usually a set of four short sessions. That way, baby isn’t overwhelmed by a new environment and the parents are able to practice with the child between sessions. My goal with these sessions is for the babies and the parents to feel relaxed and have fun together, and for the parents to leave feeling confident and excited about having learned a new way to connect with their baby.

I normally don’t teach the classes for babies younger than two months. Before that, massage can be overwhelming and too stimulating. Babies still don’t understand the world, and they are getting bombarded with new information every second, so we wait until they’re a little more settled.

Earlier, you were telling me about a recent client you had for infant massage that was a bit of an exception to this rule. Can you share that story?

Of course. That experience was exceptional in a few ways: it was only one session, it was at my clinic, her baby was a newborn, and we fit it in after I had just given the mother a full massage!

This woman was living and working in a very small community up north on Vancouver Island. Because of the remoteness and lack of medical care, her employer transferred her down here to Duncan for a month or so before her due date, and for a couple of weeks to recover postpartum. She booked a few prenatal massages for herself while she was in town. Because I saw her regularly for a few weeks, we developed a rapport and had lots of conversations about her pregnancy and upcoming baby, and we ended up talking about infant massage in a general sort of way.

Not long after she gave birth, she came in for a last massage before heading home. She then revealed that the doctor had told them their baby had significant torticollis and she wondered if I could help. They weren’t going to be in town long enough for that, and baby needed some specific help as soon as possible, so we arranged for baby and dad to arrive at the end of her next appointment. I ended up working with them for about 15 minutes in the treatment room, laying baby on the warm massage table in front of us. I demonstrated a few techniques specifically for that issue and had them try them out and walked them through a few other things. I was able to start the process of improving his positioning and they felt more confident taking him back up north without an RMT nearby. Everybody was happy.

What sticks out to me about this story is that this was a therapeutic massage, essentially. I usually think of infant massage as being about helping the baby sleep better, helping with bonding, helping with digestion…

But when you think about it, babies have just gone through a quite physically demanding experience! Especially in that case, as he was very newly born. But even after that, they’re constantly building muscles that have never been used before.

But you’re right, a lot of times people don’t realize that something like torticollis can happen to babies. Extreme versions don’t happen a lot. Usually, it’s mild and corrects itself over time. But in this case, it was extreme, and he wasn’t able to keep his head straight.

The infant massage outcome that is probably most well known is how it strengthens bonding between parents and baby, helps babies sleep, and can help with things like colic and digestive issues. What people don’t always think about is that it can help alleviate postnatal depression for both parents. It seems most effective when massage is built into their daily routine. For infants, massage sessions should be short but frequent; a little quiet time after baby’s bath is great.

But there can be more direct physical benefits, too. I remind parents that birth is hard for babies too. As newborns, they’re not moving much and they’re often end up facing in one direction for long periods in car seats, carriers, and strollers. It’s a tough life!

And, of course, as babies get bigger they turn into active children, and children’s bodies are going through a lot, too. Starting massage at a young age can really help as they age and start getting growing pains and other bumps and bruises. Because they’re starting life with more body awareness, they’re more likely to be able to communicate about what is happening in their bodies when they need help.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with infant massage! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I almost forgot to mention, although it is really important to me, is that learning how to give a massage to your baby or child can actually help them start to understand bodily autonomy, consent, and the concept of healthy touch. Those are big concepts, but understanding them starts with day-to-day routines like this.

One of the things that we teach parents is to make sure that they’re only massaging when baby consents. This is more nebulous when they’re very young and you’re just starting out, but you start to learn your baby’s body language. You can tell when they’re up for it and when they’re not. And when they’re not, you just hang out with them so they’re still getting one-on-one time and see that their refusal doesn’t equal rejection from their loved one.

It’s showing kids, from a young age, that they have a say in what happens to their body. And that’s a really huge thing, in my opinion.

Still to come in our blog series: Research on the effects of massage on conditions in older children and the benefits of massage in strengthening the parent-child relationship beyond infancy.