Use Your Breath to Be a Better Massage Therapist, #3 of 5

*this is a series of connected blog posts about how to cultivate an awareness of your own breath, and your client’s breath, in order to give a more effective massage. 

this is the third post in the series.*


Initiating the Breath 

Once you start to notice how your clients are breathing, how do you adjust the session itself so that your clients become aware of what they are and are not doing? You should do the wonderful work that you already do; massaging with the breath is applicable to every massage modality that I know of, equally useful whether you are doing Swedish massage or myofascial release. However, there are three adjustments—small, but crucial—that will help to grow your own awareness further, and the client’s:

  1. Low. Experiment with lowering your table one or two notches. When your shoulders keep creeping up towards your ears as you work, and when you muscle your way into the client, you won’t be able to feel the subtle shifts in the client’s breath, and the client won’t feel relaxed enough to alter that breath. However, lowering your table enables you to pouryour body weight into the client, rather than push, and thus encourages your own breath to be slower, fuller, and easier. 

  2. Sink. Experiment with using less oil. (Or if you are doing detailed work in a particular area, try using no oil at all.) You’ll be better able to maintain an awareness of the client’s breath if you aren’t slipping and sliding along the client’s skin.

  3. Slow. As you move from that initial compression into the rest of your session, maintaining awareness will be easier if you slow down. See what happens if you alternate between the longer, faster, gliding strokes that most of us rely on and moments of pause, where you stop and let your point of contact sink into the tissue. These moments, where you are merely pouring your body weight into the client, not trying to go anywhere or make anything happen, allow you to feel what’s happening within the client’s body, and how the client’s breath is shifting. At the same time, these pauses can prompt a somatic “Aha!”—those moments of revelation in which the client understands their body in a new way. This awareness will be different for each client, and in each session—some clients notice that they’ve been slightly contracting certain muscles, even while they’ve been “relaxing” on your table; some clients notice that the area of tension which has felt unyielding for as long as they can remember actually does shift and change if they pay attention to it; some clients just feel more at home in their bodies. But none of this is possible if you don’t give your client the time to feel her own body. 

Each of these adjustments will help you, and your client, become more aware of her breathing. It can be intimidating to implement such basic adjustments in our own work. (Just like our clients, we tend to be very attached to our own habits!) But just as the effort-full breath becomes a cycle that reinforces itself, the same is true—in a good way—of these adjustments. As you work slowly, and lower your table, and sink, your clients will become more engaged with the session; your work will start to feel easier, and your clients will be happier.  

But to harness the true effectiveness of massaging with the breath, there is one more step: talk to your client. 

I don’t mean small talk (I abhor discussions of the weather). Indeed, I think that when we chat during a session, we are doing our clients a disservice. Too often we talk to them because we are bored and want to pass the hour faster; or they talk to us because they want to have gotten a massage, but don’t actually want to feel what is happening in their bodies.

Instead, at various points during the session, I offer simple suggestions or visualizations to help the client notice what is happening with his breath, and help him deepen the experience of being in his own body.[i]I talk in a calm, slow voice, and I say the minimum amount necessary. With a new client, what that means is that during my initial compression to the back, I’ll say something like the following:

“Throughout the session I am going to use your breath as the guide to our work. I want you to feel at all times that your breath can be easy and full, both in and out. If anything feels too deep, or you notice yourself holding your breath, just say ‘oww’ and we’ll adjust the pressure. At any point if you need more pressure, just tell me that, too.”

From the outset I am establishing an understanding: I am aware of your breath, and you can be, too. But that’s all I say—I don’t give any explanation. I don’t want to do anything that gets the client into her rational brain; I just want her to be a sensate creature, a sensing creature, one who is feeling and responding on some basic, even non-verbal, level. I find that a lack of rationale is especially helpful for my always-striving, always-thinking (and always stressed!) clients. Too much thinking often leads to too much effort, exactly the habit we are trying to undo. That’s the paradox here: we are trying to become more conscious of our breathing. But the best way to do that, at least at the start, is just to get out of the way of our stress-laden habits, and let the unconscious body—the part of us that doesn’t keep a “to do” list, that isn’t always anticipating the next problem on the horizon—breathe as it wants to. 

We are encouraging our clients to cultivate a new habit, but that habit is best grown with the least possible effort! For that reason, the language I use is passive rather than active. I never tell my clients to “take a deep breath.” I never talk about takingan inhale, ormaking an inhale. Instead, I encourage a full breath by showing the client the power that comes in not doing, because oftentimes the reason why she are on my table (even though she don’t often phrase the problem as such) is because she is already doing too much in her life. We don’t want make breathing into something that is another activity, another effort, another thing on that “to do” list. Hence, we start by introducing the possibility of an effortless exhale. Leslie Kaminoff, yoga teacher and anatomy expert, says that in essence, the exhale is “an action of removing waste from the system.” Therefore, “if we take care of the exhalation, the inhalation takes care of itself. If we get rid of the unwanted, we make room for what is needed.”[ii]

I hope thinking about your own breath, and your client’s breath, is as fruitful for you as it has been for me. In the next post we’ll talk about how to use this growing awareness of the breath to deepen the therapeutic possibilities for your clients. 



[This post is adapted from “Breath—Your Most Powerful Tool,” Massage & Bodywork, May/June 2016. With my thanks to the ever-marvelous Leslie Young, editor of Massage & Bodywork, for her enduring support.]



[i]The suggestions and visualizations here are ones that I find particularly helpful. But most important is for you to experiment and find words and images that you feel comfortable with. As you grow more comfortable talking to clients in this unusual way, you’ll also be able to adjust and fine-tune what you say based on the particular needs and personality of each client. 

[ii]Kaminoff & Matthews, Yoga Anatomy, 3.