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Complementary Therapies as a Spa Career Choice

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Many forms of what is now labeled as complementary therapies originated in ancient civilizations, well before the advent of modern medicine. Today as the wave of people setting realizable goals to obtain total wellness is cresting, so has the demand for complementary therapists.  This booming consumer devotion to wellness has also meant that more and more day and destination spas are incorporating popular and emergent complementary therapies into their customary menu of mainstream modalities.

This movement has greatly widened the scope of opportunities for people with the right aptitude and a willingness to open their minds to new ways to connect on deeper levels with people seeking physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment and tangible therapeutic benefits.

Let’s first be clear about the terminology;

The Difference between Complementary and Alternative Therapies  

This can be quite confusing as the terms are often understood to be the same, and are also frequently combined into one acronym – CAM – Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  However, there are actual straight-forward distinctions .

Quite simply Complementary Therapies are used in conjunction with conventional medical treatments as prescribed by a doctor where as Alternative Therapies are used exclusively without it

The divergence between orthodox Western medical treatments and complementary therapies is slowly blurring. Many complementary therapies are based solidly on the scientific facts of anatomy and physiology. The scope of modern medicine has widened to willingly incorporate more holistic healthcare approaches.  Many more health professionals are embracing treatments rooted in complementary therapy techniques to shorten recovery periods, and ease physical and emotional suffering.

Why the Rise in Use of Complementary Therapies

People today are more informed, thanks in great part to widespread use of the internet.  They feel they are now capable of taking greater charge of their own health in order to achieve and maintain optimum wellness.

The foundation of complementary medicine is that it treats the whole person versus only the symptoms.  The underlying philosophy is that illness occurs if the body is out of balance, and that it can heal itself and maintain a healthy state given the right conditions. These are appealing concepts for those dissatisfied with prevailing doctor – patient care practices.

Also, dependence on conventional medical practices with its reliance on synthetic prescription drugs, frequently with strong side effects, has stimulated stronger interest in other personal health strategies.  Enthusiasts believe that prevention is a key to success, but realize that when issues arise that healing and balance take patience.  They are willing to work in tandem with what their primary medical doctor and complementary practitioner recommends.

Increasingly spas understand the value of providing complementary therapies in addition to their traditional offerings as customers are expecting them, sometimes for personal pleasure but increasingly to relieve symptoms of serious diseases such as cancer and chronic ailments such as asthma and diabetes.

Popular Complementary Therapies

There are so many emerging modalities that it is difficult to catalogue them all.  At Bali BISA we constantly observe the introduction of new treatment methods as Bali’s spiritual capital in Ubud attracts many proclaimed (and sometimes acclaimed) holistic healers and international visitors seeking physical, mental and spiritual advice in a supportive community.

The brief summaries below are representative of the more common techniques offered by private practitioners and those being adopted by spas, medi-spas and wellness centres.  There are many esoteric methods that appeal to niche markets.


balibisa-complementary-therapyOnce just considered a relaxing “feel good” escape from day-to-day stresses, it is now often used as an accompaniment to conventional treatments prescribed by medical doctors as it can help reduce stress and the side effects caused by medicine or even harsher treatments such as chemotherapy. There are many types of therapeutic bodywork to help resolve temporary to chronic conditions affecting a person’s physical and mental wellbeing.

The diversity of massage types now widely available is quickly growing in specialist Centre’s, neighborhood day spas and resort / hotel spas.  Today, it is easy to find qualified practitioners in once obscure methods such as Balinese, Lomi Lomi, Shaitsu, A-Shiatsu, Lymphatic Drainage, Reflexology, Stone therapy.


ayurvedic herbal medicine and treatments

Also known as Ayurveda, it is one of the world’s oldest holistic (whole-body) healing systems.  Developed in India, the philosophy is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body and spirit. The primary focus of Ayurvedic medicine is to promote good health, rather than fight disease.

Despite on its focus on prevention through moderation, plant based medicines and treatments can help resolve chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune conditions and skin problems.

Popular Ayurvedic treatments found in spas include Abhyanga body massage, Shirodara and Indian Head Massage, but for those wishing to delve much deeper into the lifestyle there are ayurvedic centres in major cities around the world.


foot-reflexology-cibtacReflexology means applying pressure and massage to areas on the feet and hands with the feet being the most common treatment area. According to reflexologists, there are reflex areas in the feet that match every part of the body. These therapists claim that there is a map of the body’s left side on the left foot, and the body’s right side on the right foot. For example, a left big toe represents the left side of the head, and a point around the ball of the right foot represents the right lung.

The concept of reflexology zones may be rooted in history, but it is now a commonplace practice for relief for tired feet or to treat a specific ailment.


OSTEOPHATHYOsteopaths use touch, massage, stretching and physical manipulation to increase joint mobility, ease muscle tension, enhance blood and nerve supply to the tissues and help the body’s own healing mechanisms.


naturopathic nutritionA naturopathic practitioner examines all aspects of diet and lifestyle that may adversely affect health by using a number of diagnostic techniques. In this way, the treatment is directed towards the cause and not just the symptoms of the complaint.


Developed in China over 2,000 years ago, it incorporates various forms of herbal medicine, acupuncture, Tui Na massage, qigong exercise and dietary therapy.  TCM holds that the body’s vital energy (chi or qi) circulates through channels, called meridians, that have branches connected to bodily organs and functions.


This has long been an option for people suffering from stiff or painful muscles and joints and chronic back or neck pain. The main chiropractic treatment technique involves manual therapy, especially manipulation of the spine, joints and soft tissues.


yoga and massageThis is a booming practice in all corners of the globe used to improve general fitness, reduce stress and increase flexibility.  Some specialists use therapeutic yoga stretches and poses to treat injuries.

Its fundamental use of meditation is also helpful across a broad spectrum of people for mental, emotional and spiritual stability.

More spas are offering private yoga instruction or regular yoga classes on the premises due to its rising popularity.  Also, yoga teachers are learning complementary therapies to offer full service to their students, and conversely more complementary therapists are enrolling in yoga teacher trainings.


Aromatherapy is quickly becoming one of the most widely used methods to enhance wellness. It uses essential oils that are concentrated essences derived from the flowers, fruit, seeds, leaves, root or bark of certain plants and there are more than 400 of them. Holistic aromatherapy uses oils that are believed to have beneficial properties to boost wellbeing, relieve stress and help to refresh the body.

The application of the most appropriate oils during an aromatherapy massage is a gentle and natural way to resolve client complaints or simply just provide a soothing experience.


acupuncturThis East Asian treatment involves putting fine needles in particular points of the body’s skin or tissues to alleviate certain types of pain and sickness, plus emotional and mental conditions.  Originating in ancient China, it is now widely available worldwide and can be used with other forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  In the West it is used to combat weight-gain, assist in smoking cessation and combat migraines amongst many other applications.


Reiki was developed in Japan, and has been used for many years as a form of healing to promote relaxation and encourage the body into a balanced state of well-being. It is said to help release physical, emotional and mental blockages by using “life energy”.

It involves the therapist putting their hands in different positions either on or above the body over the seven “chakra” points. Healing energy is then said to flow from the therapist to the patient, giving the patient what he or she needs.


By using gentle manipulations to the skull, and sometimes to the spine and pelvis, the natural rhythm of the central nervous system is harmonized in order to relieve pain and tension.  The premise is that the palpation of the cranium can be used to detect the rhythmic movement of the cranial bones and selective pressure manipulates them for therapeutic results.


The theory amongst complementary and alternative advocates is based on the belief that ‘like treats like’, meaning a substance that causes certain symptoms can be diluted and used to relieve those same symptoms. It is sometimes used by people suffering from asthma, hay fever, depression and multiple sclerosis.


Herbal medicine uses plants or mixtures of plant extracts to treat illness and promote health. It aims to restore the body’s ability to protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole body approach, so looks at physical, mental and emotional well being.  There are generally two variations, Western and Chinese.


Art therapy helps people become more aware of and let go of difficult feelings. Similarly music therapy can help people to express their feelings and may help to relieve symptoms of pain.


complementary-therapistThere are many training options, but it is critical to choose a reputable training centre that can provide recognized certification.   For students preferring to specialize in one modality, courses at trustworthy establishments can be as short as five days for less technical topics such as Indian Head Massage and certain body massages.

Other complementary therapies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chiropractic and Homeopathy can take years of study.  These are often highly regulated by governing authorities to provide a valid license in order to legally practice.

For students who desire multi-disciplinary training, it is important to first check the curriculum.  Look for the following vital components.

  • As a core foundation, courses should start with instruction on the principles of complementary therapies,
  • It is absolutely essential that they incorporate basic anatomy, physiology and pathology as without this knowledge there is a risk of actually injuring a client.
  • Especially if planning to work independently, it is important to understand the fundamentals of the business.

The specific complementary therapies should make sense as a working combination.  Specialist examination and certification organizations such as VTCT,CIBTAC, ITEC offer intensive courses in body massage, reflexology and aromatherapy. Although these are each unique, there is synergy between them and a good start or end point for many therapists.  Once confident and well-practiced in each discipline, there is a myriad of ways to expand your offering in ways that customers would appreciate coming from a trusted practitioner.


The field of complementary therapies is open to so many possibilities.  The decision really depends on what you feel most comfortable with, the desired time frame for study and the ultimate lifestyle objectives.

As a starting point, review what courses Bali BISA offers.

VTCT Level 3 Diploma in Complementary Therapies (QCF)

Bali BISA or CIBTAC Endorsed Ayurvedic Program, or choose one or two BISA courses in Indian Head Massage, Shirodara or Abhyanga Body Massage

CIBTAC Award in Indian Head Massage

CIBTAC Award in Body Massage (Swedish)

CIBTAC Award in Spa Therapy and Anatomy & Physiology

Bali BISA Foot and / or Hand Reflexology

VTCT Certificate in Aromatherapy with Pre-blended Oils

Bali BISA Aromatherapy Massage

This blog was prepared by Penny Ellis, Founder of the Bali International Spa Academy (Bali BISA) located in Sanur, Bali.  She has 40+ years of spa education experience and loves to share her knowledge with her trainers and students.

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