The Ashland Institute of Massage has seen a growing number of young people hoping to be part of a profession gaining recognition in the mainstream and predicted to grow 30 percent by 2016 by the Oregon Department of Employment.

During high school, Brody Cramer, 18, found his calling helping his classmates relax.

"I would listen a little bit, but mostly I would just massage people in my classes," he said. "This sounded like a natural way to go."

Cramer took a few night classes and packed his fall schedule so he could graduate in December, then he moved from Eugene to Ashland to start an intensive six-month program at the Ashland Institute of Massage.

"It's been a whirlwind," he said. But it's been worth it: When his high school friends graduate, he will be finishing up training to become a licensed massage therapist. Then he might look for a job in Eugene, sign on to a cruise line to give massages to vacationers or maybe even go to college to become a doctor.

"I've already got all my muscles and most of my bones memorized," he said.

Cramer is part of a growing number of the younger generation pursuing a career in massage therapy as awareness of the profession has spread into the mainstream, said Genna Southworth, who purchased the school six years ago with her husband, David Frederickson.

Doctors are increasingly referring patients to massage therapists, and the Oregon Department of Employment predicts demand for massage therapists will increase 30 percent by 2016, she said. The school continues to attract a wide range of students hoping to be part of that trend.

To prepare students for the growing and evolving field of massage, the school offers two full-time sessions per year as well as a 10-month evening and weekend program. An average of 40 to 45 students graduate every year.

Students dedicate nearly 200 hours to learning the science underlying massage techniques, focusing on anatomy and physiology, kinesiology and pathology, Southworth said.

By the end of the program, students cover Swedish massage and a sampling of other popular massage techniques over 500 classroom hours, along with ethics to help students identify their own values, set boundaries and examine how their backgrounds might affect their practice, she said. They also spend more than 50 hours honing their techniques on each other, family and friends, and eventually, community members who come to the student clinic.

Frederickson and a host of other professional therapists teach the science and technique classes, while Southworth, who serves as the school's administrator, teaches several of the ethics classes. She works to support the school's philosophy, "educating the hands, heart and head for a holistic integration of Self and skills."

Since purchasing the school, the couple has altered the curriculum significantly, adding 75 more hours of course work and developing the holistic guiding philosophy.

Those added requirements are what set them apart from other schools around the state, Southworth said.

"Academically we're very rigorous," she said. "We really do expect people to know and understand the human body, not just how it works, but frankly the mystery and the magic of it."

As a private vocational school, Southworth is required to submit the curriculum to the state for approval every year. Because each state sets its own licensing requirements for massage therapists, most students come from Oregon, about half of them from the Rogue Valley.

The profession as a whole took a hit when stocks started tumbling last October, Southworth said, but the recession has boosted enrollment numbers slightly at the school, and the industry is already picking up some of its lost business, she said.

The training costs a total of $8,500, and graduates are prepared for a career that generates between $15 and $35 an hour and an enviable part-time job.

"It's a great opportunity for people who want flexibility, they want connection with people, they want decent money and basically control over their lives," she said.

For Rob Sanders, 30, the idea of going back to school to become a massage therapist promised an escape from a desk job that was making him "fat, tired and dead."

"The lifestyle of a massage therapist is a lot more balanced, but I like really honing a talent that is undeniable," he said. "It's pretty hard for someone to not appreciate a quality massage."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.