A massage therapy school puts down new roots and stresses the experience of "peace, love and joy."
SAFETY HARBOR - At the new massage school on Fourth Avenue, the focus is more on healing than kneading.
The sound of Zen meditation flows from the stereo, and the smell of burning geranium and cinnamon candles wafts through the air. The students sit barefoot on the wooden floor in a circle. The teacher stands in front speaking in a calm voice.
"Everything that occurs in our life is there to help us to consciousness," he says. "Each of you is going to see things differently. You see them not as they are; you see them as you see them."
The students come from all walks of life. There's a bus boy from Holiday Inn, a certified nursing assistant, an airline reservationist, a few stay-at-home moms. Something has brought them to Ophelia's Cottage and Studio in Safety Harbor: Bhakti Academe School of Intuitive Massage and Healing.
Dale and Julie McNitt opened Bhakti in 1996 in Clearwater. But the school relocated to Safety Harbor in July. There, about 45 students work at their own pace to complete the 500 hours of massage training required by the Florida State Board of Massage. Students must pass a state exam to become licensed massage therapists.
The McNitts decided to move their school to Safety Harbor for a couple of reasons: They were looking for a bigger place, they wanted to buy, and they live in Safety Harbor.
"I wanted to purchase something," Julie McNitt said. "I noticed this was up on the market. We wanted it right away. It's wonderful. We're getting a lot more traffic."
Dale McNitt developed Bhakti 22 years ago. The word is taken from Sanskrit and means reintegration through love. In the course catalog, he writes, "Love can be an emotion, but love as we speak of it has no attachment. It is being, consciousness."
"What we're seeing here is a reflection of what's going on in the mind," Dale McNitt said. "Our job, I think, as massage therapists is to help people become conscious, to experience peace, love and joy."
Dale McNitt, 53, is a registered nurse who holds a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in social work. In 1981, he completed a 1,000-hour massage school and became licensed as a massage therapist in Florida. His wife, Julie, 36, has a degree in business and wellness from Eckerd College. She runs the administrative side of the school.
But at Bhakti, the most important teacher is inside the students. Dale and Julie McNitt say their job is to help that teacher emerge.
The second most important teacher is fellow students. The students work on each other, mirroring each other and learning to pay attention to what's underneath their hands.
"I really like the school," said Jim Greenwood, 71, of Palm Harbor. Greenwood is retired from IBM and came to Bhakti because he wanted to become a licensed massage therapist. He will sit for the exam next month.
"I really like Dale. He doesn't insist on being right. Sometimes the perceptions you have you can't explain. He has a very open, accepting attitude."
Yvonne Barlog, 54, of Tampa is making a radical shift. She has been a stained glass artist for 25 years and started at the massage school last week. She already has done two massages with the help of more experienced students.
"This is a very different way of life," Barlog said. "And I don't know where it's going. I have no clue. But it feels it's my purpose to be here.
"It's okay not to have a goal in mind in the beginning. I'm just open right now to the experience. I know I want to do healing. How that manifests I don't know yet."
Massage can be studied scientifically, but its application is an art, Dale McNitt said.
His technique incorporates a slow, gentle massage that flows from one part of the body to the other. He calls it an "exercise of being in the here and now and allowing our consciousness presence/God/intuitive self to respond to client's needs."
Bhakti Academe is one of only a few certified massage therapy schools in north Pinellas County. It has open enrollment and accepts new students each week. The average age is 39 and most of the students have had three years of college. Tuition is $3,500 for the 500-hour program. Graduates work at spas, chiropractor offices or open their own businesses.
The curriculum includes anatomy and physiology, HIV/AIDS education, massage law, hydrotherapy and allied modalities, such as essential oils and traditional Chinese medicine. A clinic will soon open so the students can perform massages on customers.
"The thing about this school that makes it so special is Dale's philosophy," said Angela Gorman, 23, of St. Petersburg. "He teaches you how to just be at peace. I received so much peace, so much clarity."
Gorman said she has no formula for how hard she presses or where she kneads. And no massage she gives is ever the same. Most importantly though, she said she's learned how to be herself.
She looked at massage schools all over the country before deciding to attend Bhakti. Before she enrolled, she received a massage there that was so emotional, she knew that school was where she belonged.
"After looking everywhere else, I was drawn to come here," she said. "It's not about teaching massage. It's about teaching a person to be conscious to have an awareness of yourself.
"It's turned out to be something so much deeper than what I thought," she said. "It's changed my life completely. I have so much peace in my life, so much clarity."To learn more
For information on the Bhakti Academe School of Intuitive Massage and Healing, 146 Fourth Ave. N in Safety Harbor, call 724-9727 or log on to www.bhakti-academe.com