DeepFeet: A new way to think about massage

FAIRMONT – There are more than 150,000 massage therapists in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the field is projected to grow about 20 percent in the next 10 years.

What those numbers don’t take into account is the burnout rate.

For 9 years, Erin Howk has been working as a massage therapist – a relatively long time by industry standards.

“People don’t realize that you’re working other people’s muscles for them, and you’re on your feet all day,” she said.

Since graduating from Chicago School of Massage Therapy in 2004, Howk has taken continuing education courses in order to keep up with her national certification requirements. Her latest class took her to Chicago, where she learned about a Western adaptation of Ashiatsu, a barefoot massage technique dating back hundreds of years in the Far East.

DeepFeet Bar Therapy, also known as Ashiatsu Oriental Bar Therapy, was developed in the 1990s by Ruthie Piper Hardee. It was inspired by her world travels, where she observed various barefoot massage techniques.

“She wanted to Westernize it – to put the client on a table and make it more comfortable for them,” explained Howk, who was impressed by the years of research Hardee put into her work, and her emphasis on client and therapist safety.

“I was ready for something new, something exciting, and I knew my clientele well enough to introduce this to them,” Howk said, since DeepFeet Bar Therapy is not typically available outside metro areas.

“I also wanted to make sure I’m prolonging my career, by keeping it exciting for me intellectually, and by doing something that’s not quite so physically demanding,” she said.

Coming back to Fairmont, she recruited her father and uncle to assist her with the necessary modifications to her studio – parallel bars running the length of the space that assist Howk with balance, control and leverage while she works on clients.

“It’s a new way of thinking about massage of the body and those troubled spots and how to work on them,” she said.

The first step for Howk, when performing DeepFeet Bar Therapy, is to sanitize her feet. She then uses her hands to move the client into the correct position. About 80 percent of the massage is performed with her feet, except for the positioning and any massage work done on the face or head.

Unlike stereotypical Ashiatsu, Howk does not walk on the patients. The massage table she uses for DeepFeet Bar Therapy is wider than the table she uses for regular massages, so she is able to stand to the side of the client, using the overhead bars for balance.

For the client, the setting is similar, but the experience itself is different.

Alycia Johnson has gone to Howk for massages for the past six years. She has been thrilled with the DeepFeet technique, which she described as a great stress reliever.

“It’s profoundly more relaxing than a traditional massage,” Howk said, particularly for people who suffer from chronic muscle tightness, for whom traditional therapeutic massage can sometimes be uncomfortable.

“It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system faster, and that’s what makes you relax,” she said.

The massage is similarly executed to a traditional massage, but due to the size of a foot in comparison to a hand, the “tool” is more efficient in covering a larger area.

“It’s like twice the massage in a single session,” Howk said.

The size of the feet also helps with applying deeper pressure, due to gravity and the strength and power of our legs. That’s why learning how to safely execute any type of Ashiatsu massage is so important.

With a simple turn of the heel, Howk can double the pressure. In order to apply the same force with her upper body, it would require tremendous exertion.

“Because I do a lot of therapeutic work for muscle injury, I still do a lot of work with my hands, but with the mix of the two types of massage, I’ve found I am significantly less worn out at the end of the day,” she said.

DeepFeet therapy is not appropriate for pregnant women, people who have recently undergone surgery, or anyone who suffers from osteoporosis. For more information on the technique, visit Howk also provides information on DeepFeet therapy and other massage techniques in which she is trained online at

Clients can make appointments or ask questions through her website, or by calling Clancey Chiropractic at (507) 235-9595.