Creative License: When is a Massage Not a Massage?

By Shelley Shelton, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Nov. 25–They work the mall corridors like carnival barkers, beckoning shoppers with visions of relaxation — a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Employees of Oriental Chi’s three Tucson-area mall locations seem to speak limited English, but they know enough to ask, “How long?” when a prospect approaches.

As in, how long do you want your body worked on?

The company is careful not to use the word “massage” anywhere in its literature, saying instead they practice only Asian forms of “energy work” that don’t constitute massage. As varieties of “bodywork” have proliferated, practices such as Oriental Chi say they are fitting into loopholes in a recent state law that requires licenses of massage therapists and governs their practices.

“We are not doing exactly massage,” said Steven Chen, owner of Oriental Chi.

Rather, his employees engage in shiatsu and qigong energy relaxation work, he said. And that doesn’t require a license.

It’s a loophole Chen has tried to operate in for the five years or so that he’s had businesses here. He also has locations in California and Colorado — two states that have no licensing requirements.

Some massage therapists and regulators say even businesses such as Oriental Chi are covered by the law, and that they should be licensed to protect customers as well as the profession.

“They should be shut down immediately,” said Tucson massage therapist Denise Caywood. “They’re just skirting the law, and they could be hurting people.”

State board formed 4 years ago

Four years ago, the five-member Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy formed to begin regulating the massage therapists in the state. The board’s main function is to issue and renew licenses and to monitor the activity of the state’s 8,700 licensees, said Robert Wilson, deputy director of the board.

Licensing ensures that practitioners have passed a background check and that they know to ask about physical limitations — such as pregnancy, a heart condition or recent cancer treatment — that might affect how a person should be touched, Wilson said.

Licensed therapists in Arizona are required to have 500 hours — in January it goes up to 700 hours — of training and 25 hours of continuing education every two years.

“The more training you have, the safer you are, and the more you can do for somebody,” he said.

The initial license costs $189, and renewals are $75 every two years. Continuing education is a separate cost.

No wonder, then, that some licensed massage therapists bristle at the appearance of unlicensed competition. When Caywood saw Oriental Chi employees herding people onto massage chairs and tables at Park Place mall, with no questions asked, she approached and asked to see the employees’ Arizona massage licenses.

Arizona state law requires massage therapists to display their licenses in a place that is accessible to public view at each location where that therapist practices massage.

“He said, ‘We don’t need a license,’ ” Caywood said. “I said, ‘Oh, yes you do. You’re putting your hands on people.’ “

Arizona massage licensing law makes an exception for working on fully clothed customers who are only receiving energy work. But while clients remain fully clothed throughout the experience at Oriental Chi, the employees undeniably compress and stretch the body, which falls under the state definition of massage.

Practices have multiplied

As body-work practices have diversified, they’ve also multiplied, raising the issue of how to enforce the state’s massage laws.

As of August, there were 14,615 spas in the United States, according to the International Spa Association. That’s up from 13,757 the previous August, at which time about 23 percent were in the Southwest — Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. There has been 48 percent growth in spa locations since 2003, most of them offering varieties of bodywork.

In addition to traditional massage therapies, an entire category of “energy” therapies has cropped up, blurring the distinctions about what constitutes a massage. Shiatsu and Reiki are probably the best known of these, and there’s also “healing touch” — which requires no touching at all.

Such growth has created potential loopholes for practitioners who could end up rubbing people the wrong way.

The Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy deals with 20 to 30 “major cases” each year — situations where the board has to make a decision about someone’s license status, board deputy director Wilson said.

Practicing massage without a license is a misdemeanor, but the board doesn’t have anyone who is certified to make arrests. And it can’t revoke the licenses of unlicensed people.

The board relies heavily on assistance from local jurisdictions, Wilson said. But they’ve found the definitions bewildering, too.

“There seems to be confusion on the part of the police as to what is massage and what is energy work,” he said.

Where to draw line is tough call

Even the local massage community disagrees on where to draw the line between massage and energy work, partly because most types of massage affect a person’s energy as well.

Kathy Rinn, owner of The Right Touch, has had her own massage clinic for 24 years and practices Asian forms of bodywork, employing licensed massage therapists. But after hearing a description of Oriental Chi’s practices, she had no problem with them.

“What he’s doing is legitimate, and there are no state requirements that says he has to have a license. As long as he doesn’t use the terms ‘massage therapy’ or ‘massage’ anywhere in his advertising, he’s not breaking the rules. He’s done his homework.”

But the massage therapy board says otherwise.

“If they’re rubbing you, they’re doing massage therapy. It may be energy work as well, but it is massage therapy and requires a license,” Wilson said.

Chen said that before he hires his employees, he requires them to have 500 hours of training at a school for Oriental bodywork. He also requires them to have continuing education.

“I have a certain educational background. I believe education is the key. They have to get good training all the time,” he said.

Because all his workers are Chinese, he said, there is a substantial language barrier to getting them certified here, which would ultimately lay to rest all doubts about their qualifications.

That doesn’t wash with Caywood, who has spent much of the past year exchanging e-mails with the massage board, the governor’s office, the Tucson mayor’s office and the Tucson Police Department.

“Why even make all these rules if they’re not going to make everybody follow them?” she said.

Find more consumer news and the latest local business news at

State statutes govern licensure

What state law says about massage-therapist licensure

Arizona Revised Statutes 32-4201, section five:

“Massage therapy” means the following that are undertaken to increase wellness, relaxation, stress reduction, pain relief and postural improvement or provide general or specific therapeutic benefits:

(a) The manual application of compression, stretch, vibration or mobilization of the organs and tissues beneath the dermis, including the components of the musculoskeletal system, peripheral vessels of the circulatory system and fascia, when applied primarily to parts of the body other than the hands, feet and head.

(b) The manual application of compression, stretch, vibration or mobilization using the forearms, elbows, knees or feet or handheld mechanical or electrical devices.

(c) Any combination of range of motion, directed, assisted or passive movements of the joints.

(d) Hydrotherapy, including the therapeutic applications of water, heat, cold, wraps, essential oils, skin brushing, salt glows and similar applications of products to the skin.

Arizona Revised Statutes 32-4221 lists several exemptions to whom needs a massage license, including sections five and six which both mention exemptions having to do with whether someone is fully clothed. These sections are vague enough that some are able to cite them as reasons not to get a massage license:

5. When the customer is fully clothed, the practice of movement educators, such as dance therapists or teachers, yoga teachers, personal trainers, martial arts instructors and movement repatterning practitioners.

6. When the customer is fully clothed, the practice of techniques that are specifically intended to affect the human energy field.

Arizona Revised Statutes 32-4255 says anyone practicing massage without a license is committing a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Oriental Chi’s Southern Arizona locations

Foothills Mall, 7401 N. La Cholla Blvd.

Park Place, 5870 E. Broadway

Tucson Mall, 4500 N. Oracle Road

The Mall at Sierra Vista, 2200 El Mercado Loop, Sierra Vista

many professions require state licensing

Dozens of professions require licensing in Arizona. Find a complete list online at Here is a sampling:





–Funeral director and embalmer

–Homeopathic medical examiner

–Massage therapist

–Naturopathic physician

–Hearing aid dispenser

–Private investigator

–Contact reporter Shelley Shelton at 434-4086 or [email protected]


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