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John Holman's Hydrotherm Journey - A career in massage therapy

Hydrotherm by John Holman
“Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life” - Confucius

I did that some 33 years ago, when I began my training to become a massage therapist. I was 34 years of age when I began, having already owned and built a small bakery business which I purchased in 1976 at the age of 21. During the fourteen years that I owned it, I grew the turnover from £9k a year to £1.76m The only reason that I include this piece of information is that it gives a little insight to my character, I am, by every measure, a serial entrepreneur. I love to build things. Probably a good thing, as I had left school at 16 without a qualification to my name, and certainly no chance of going to university.

When you work for yourself you learn a thing or two about business, or you go bust! I managed to get more things right than wrong, but only by trial and error, take my word for it I made plenty of errors! There are common threads in both careers, as stated above, I love to build things, also I need to do what I do, to the very highest standard possible, and perhaps the driving force behind everything, is that I love to really learn my subject matter, be that bread and confectionary or massage.

I was a regular recipient of massage whilst running my bakery business, and remember with clarity, a conversation with Neil the therapist at his home about my decision to sell my business and train to become a therapist. He smiled and asked me to look out the window, he pointed to my car which was parked in his courtyard, I owned a Ferrari at the time. He said your car, and then pointed to his own car, which was a 10 year old wreck of a Volvo. He said “John, there is no money in massage” My thought at the time was, “I bet there is, you just don’t know how to make it.” Today, as I write this, I believe my thought was arrogant and inappropriate, thank goodness I did not actually verbalize it!

I sold my bakery business early in 1990, took a little time off, and started to seek out different colleges to teach me massage. I quickly learned that even a full time course was only a commitment of a couple of days a week or so, many were over weekends, and some evening classes too. I was used to working 80 hours a week in the bakery, so this was going to be a doddle.

I decided that I could attend several college courses at the same time, having realised very early on, that the practical aspects of massage concentrated on technique, and the cerebral, on anatomy and physiology. I quickly realised that technique, was just technique, or better described as “how hard you press somebody, and with what” Anatomy and physiology varied on the different courses, but here again, I realised that I did not have to study the A&P of each college course, I simply had to study the highest level of anatomy, at one of the colleges to be able to pass at all the others. At the time that was at the London School of Sports Massage.

It was during this time that I had my first insight to the problems of becoming a massage therapist, and that is the quality of information that is taught. As explained, I was attending several colleges simultaneously and learning A&P at each of the colleges. I remember one particular test question, it appeared to be innocuous enough, “What is respiration”

My answer at the time was “Inspiration, expiration or breathing, the actions of the diaphragm ” My paper came back marked with a zero! The correct answer is “The gaseous exchange at a cellular level”

I was annoyed, but also fascinated, so much so that I read up about it, and could even draw an example of it. To my absolute joy a few weeks later, the exact same question came up at the London School of Sports Massage.

I gave the correct answer and drew my diagram. To my astonishment, my paper came back marked with a zero! When I questioned the principle of the college, he said he wanted the answer to be about breathing, inspiration, expiration and the actions of the diaphragm. I tried to explain that he had asked the wrong question, and that respiration only occurred at a cellular level and had nothing to do with breathing and the actions of the diaphragm. To say I was incensed is an understatement! I was told, I could retake the question and provide the answer that he wanted to hear, or I could take the zero mark. I opted to take zero, which may give you another little insight about my character!

Having gathered a decent collection of massage qualifications plus fitness instructor and weight lifting qualifications I set about starting my business, I did a few home visits, but never intended to continue to do so, it was simply not commercial viable as far as I could see. I managed to get a room at a Gym in Aylesbury and my therapy career began. I had a reasonable number of qualifications, I was enthusiastic and I am built for massage (6ft-2inch and the better part of 15 stone at the time, and big strong hands)

I was perhaps fortunate in that I became busy, very quickly, I had regular clients and people generally were pleased with the massage treatments that I provided. I was still very inexperienced, made loads of mistakes, but I was learning every day. Within 18 months of starting, I was doing forty hours a week of massage! It is now that I need to reflect on the words of my therapist Neil. “John there is no money in massage” That was clearly untrue, I was earning £600 for a forty hour week, (equivalent to around £1,300 per week today) now, to give you some context an hours massage cost £15 and this was more than thirty years ago!

But, Neil knew something that I did not. It is simply this, It is neither sensible or smart to do forty hours of massage each week and be able to sustain it. You will damage your wrists and back if you attempt to do so. I know, because that is what happened to me.

I went from being able to do forty hours of massage a week, to a point that I could not even put my finger tips together, I was devastated. Less than 18 months after I started my life as a therapist, my career looked doomed……

I will admit to you all that I have always felt a little ashamed or embarrassed about my lack of educational qualifications from my schooling, however with the wisdom that accompanies age, I think differently about it now. It is true to say that when I went to college to learn massage and anatomy and physiology I was presented with something that would test my ability to learn, and that in turn, taught me something else about me and my character.

I can still remember with great detail the first muscle I ever learned in the human body, it is called the Sternocleidomastoid, I remember looking at that word in my blissful ignorance of that time and thinking “Who bloody hell came up with that as a word”? Why have they made it so difficult to understand, my curiosity had been provoked! So I looked it up in a medical dictionary and discovered the “etymology” or in simpler terms ,the roots of the word. “Sterno” comes from the Latin “Sternon” which means breastbone or related to the sternum” Cleido comes from another Latin word, Clavicle or little key, it relates to the collarbone. And finally, Mastoid comes from the Greek word Mastos or Breast shaped. What I had begun to learn was that most of the science of Medicine is founded in the languages of Latin and Greek, with a bit of German and French thrown in to confuse us! But Latin and Greek can be truly descriptive. The word Sternocleidomastoid was telling me where the muscle comes from and goes to. I am a muscle that originates on the sternum and clavicle and I insert onto the mastoid process of temporal bone. Genius! I was in love. Wow, the word actually describes something really useful. Sadly, Latin and Greek was not taught at my School, but you will now probably see why most Doctors have a classical education, which includes Latin and Greek. Clearly they went to a far better School than I did at the time!

I have studied and latterly, taught anatomy for the vast majority of my time as a therapist, it has both fascinated me, and intrigued me, and the more I learned, the more I realised that I had to learn. But given enough time, which for me is thirty years and counting, you can amass quite a lot of knowledge. I have always found that the more I know, the more I can do as a therapist, equally, I learned in the bakery, that the harder I worked, the luckier I became, strange isn’t it?

Back to my problem with my wrists and back. I could see the problem, my wrists were extended, and I was applying a good deal of force through my wrists, primarily through the carpal bones. This is known as “Carpal compression”, interestingly, most compression forces things together, but in the case of the wrists, it forces the carpal bones apart! This is what some therapists experience, as the wrists effectively become loose, unstable, and very painful! The opposite of compression it expansion but to achieve this I needed to do a massage that consisted of “pulling, rather than “pushing”. To my certain knowledge, massage has applied techniques that pushed rather than pulled for at least 5,000 years, so it was not something that was generally done.

I already knew that I could use my elbows and forearms, but these lacked the intricate feedback that you can get with the hands, I had even learned how to use an Ayurvedic method of using the feet, but these required the therapist to be able to support themselves using ropes or chains suspended from the ceiling, fine in Southern India, where I learned the technique, but ropes and chains hanging from the ceiling in my clinic in rural Buckinghamshire, That’s a different proposition!

Hydrotherm by John Holman

I began my worldwide search for a solution, but could find nothing. It was whilst reading an article in an American magazine on contusion and haematomas, and how some therapists were working using plastic bags full of very cold water and alcohol to reduce swelling and inflammatory processes in muscles, that I saw a picture of a bag of water on the thigh of an enormous American footballer, that it struck me….Water, water could be the solution. If I had a large bag of water that someone could lay upon, I might be able to slide my hands beneath the client and do at least part of the massage by pulling, rather than pushing, the idea of Hydrotherm was born!

It took me less than twenty minutes to draw my basic Idea of a large plastic bag with a simple watertight filler cap in one corner. Another hour with a ridiculous book called Yellow Pages and I found a small company that specialised in making plastic bags, called them and arranged to go and see them with my idea. Within a week I had an example in my hands that I could test.

I am perhaps fortunate, in having friends and fellow therapists from the world of beauty, and one of these called Debbie, agreed to be a model for me whilst I tried to fathom out how I could work with massage by pulling rather than pushing. Debbie was amazingly tolerant and understanding, but she could see something and more importantly feel something that I could not. I remember her words with great clarity. John have you any idea what you have done? Yes I replied, I think I have managed to solve my problem! No, was her reply, you have solved an industry problem!

This story has much further to go, but I was asked if I would explain a little of the history of how and why I designed Hydrotherm, and I think I have just about managed the basics of that.

Today, The Hydrotherm business has around 3,800 therapists here in the UK. We have a reputation for high quality training that is second to none, but we are still just a small family business. You can learn more here

I have some thirty three years of massage under my belt, and somewhere between 55,000 and 60,00 hours of hands on experience. I am fortunate to have one of the most successful specialist massage therapy businesses in the UK. You can learn a little about it here

My way of thinking has opened opportunities beyond my wildest dreams and that includes my role as Director of massage training for the massage company, the fastest expanding massage therapy business in Europe, we now have eight centres and employ around 120 therapists here in the UK. You can learn more about that business here if you would like

There is so much ore that I could share with you about how to build a successful massage business, or massage for those with cancer. It might have to wait until I get enough time to write my book on the subject, but we shall see.

I hope that any readers of this will find it interesting

Best wishes



John Holman

Tel: 01296 714254

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