Use Your Breath to Be a Better Massage Therapist, #4 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 fourth post in the series.*


Expanding the Breath

Once you have awoken the client’s awareness, you and she can play with that exhalation. Try this exercise with a client who you like working with and who seems ready for something new. It doesn’t matter what kind of massage you are doing, just allow your palms to come to rest between the spine and each scapula. Then experiment with a visualization. Here’s one I like: 

“As you notice your breathing, I want you to not try to change anything, not try to force anything, not try to fix anything. I want you just, each time you exhale, to imagine that your ribcage is deflating into the table.” 

As she exhales, gradually lean your body weight into your palms. Your own effortless compression will enhance her own awareness, and reinforce that perception of her own pliability; thus, the client can start to feel how her own effortless exhale has the capacity (with a little help from you) to be a tool of relaxation. 

Let the client notice her breath for a cycle or two, and then continue: 

“As you follow your exhalation, I want you to notice where that exhalation ends. Notice how your body switches to the inhalation, and begins the next breath in. Again, no need to force anything or fix anything. Just notice. Now, on your next exhalation, see if you can lengthen that breath ever so slightly. Imagine the spine sinking a little further into the table, the body melting all the way down to empty.”

This suggestion will make some clients terribly nervous. Your client might begin to allow that lengthening, and then all of a sudden you’ll feel her upper back stiffening as she reverses course and pulls the next inhalation into her lungs. That is because our habits—no matter how counterproductive—are reassuring. Even if the client knows how stressed she is and wants to breathe more fully, she—like all of us—is used to her habits. The rational mind knows that change is good, but our habituated body favors the familiar. Just as a muscle can spasm when we ask it to do something unusual, in the opposite way the breath sometimes seems to spasm when we ask it not to do anything at all! 

Thus, it is essential that we convey no judgment as we engage our client’s breath. In the course of my visualizations I always say, “You let your inhalation do whatever it wants to do, whenever its wants to do it.” That way, they have a safety net: they know they can always revert back to their habits when they need to feel the reassurance of the familiar. In order to grow, they must feel secure; you must make it clear that they are not doing anything wrong if they can’t follow your suggestions right away. After all, no matter how difficult this work is, the client always has another chance: every exhalation is a new beginning, a new chance to try not to try. 

Now, as the client absorbs your suggestions, what you’ll usually find is that quite quickly, his body feels like it is deflating ever so slightly; literally, it seems like she is flattening or sinking into the table. The body, of course, is not changing at all, but the pliability of that body is, because they are letting their breath empty further than they are used to, oftentimes further than they even realized was possible. 

If you can encourage the client to exhale fully, she is doing half of your work for you. Because as she begins to lengthen her exhalation, that’s when the client becomes aware of the tension she is holding—tension that is as unnecessary as it is unconscious. That feeling of deflating on the exhale is the most palpable, most corporeal manifestation I know of the often unhelpful mantra that we should just “Let it go.” We all know that letting go is what we are supposedto do—that letting go will make us spiritually satisfied, self-actualized beings. But it is often not clear how we are supposed to do this. By making the client aware of the transformative depths of her exhalation, you are giving her a very concrete tool that she can employ at any and every second of her life. 

Ultimately, what I want the client to feel is that she can find a breath that fulfills all of her needs and is still effortless. We want to discourage the recruitment of those unnecessary muscles, but not by replacing one unnecessary effort with another; instead, we do so by revealing the power of being passive. You want your client to feel that the only thing she needs to do to birth a satisfying inhalation is to let her body sink all the way down to the bottom of the exhalation. That’s it. Our diaphragm (or, technically, the pressure differential between the inside of the bottom and the outside of the body) takes care of the rest.[i]  

But realizing the power of passivity is not easy. The final prompt we are going to discuss here helps with that realization; a few minutes after I offer the previous prompts, as I am still working on her back, I say:

“Just as before, follow your body all the way down to empty as you exhale. Now, what I want you to do is to notice what the very bottom of the breath feels like. Notice there is a moment of emptiness, a pause between the very bottom of the exhalation and the beginning of the next inhalation. Now, once you find that very bottom of the breath, I want you to do nothing. No need to try and inhale. Just let yourself linger in that moment of emptiness.” 

If the client trusts me, and he really does allow himself to pause and do nothing, then something wonderful happens: he is still for a second, or for two, or for eight, and then—only when it is needed—an effortless inhalation begins. The ribcage and shoulders stay passive, and the inhalation spreads like a great beautiful bloom through the abdomen and lower back. Though the client likely can’t articulate this, the instruction to pause quiets the secondary muscles of respiration, and allows the client to rely on her diaphragm. Here again, we are bypassing our rational brains, short-circuiting our instinct for action. (By contrast, in this same moment if you were to tell the client to inhale into their abdomen, or to “take a belly breath,” that breath would still be an effort-full one; the client would just replace the typical concentric contraction of the chest and shoulders and neck with an eccentric contraction of the abdominal muscles, as she—eager to do the right thing—forces the belly to expand.) But each time she notices the pause at the bottom of the breath, and waits for the inhalation to begin itself, your client is creating a different pattern, reinforcing the fact that she can create everything she needs by not tryingto create anything at all.[ii]

An awareness of the breath is an endlessly flexible tool; the prompts I’ve discussed here are just a starting point (see “Other Places to Breathe” in the next post for a few additional possibilities). As with all techniques, massaging with the breath will be more effective with some clients than others. Our breath is so foundational to our lives that an increased awareness of it is, I believe, always a good thing; however, some of your clients might not yet be ready for your verbal suggestions, whether because they have experienced trauma and attending to the breath is too emotionally intense, or because they are just plain stubborn. However, you can still utilize the “low” and “sink” and “slow” principles, and then introduce the verbal suggestions as they become more receptive to your work. But unlike most techniques, where expertise comes by repeating them on your clients, the best way to become more adept at massaging with the breath is to become more aware of these aspects of your own breath! 



[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]Another reason I de-emphasize the role of our muscles in breathing, and why I talk about breath as a passive—rather than an active—activity, is because technically speaking, breathing happens to us: “in spite of how it fees when you inhale, you do not actually pull air into the body. On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by the atmospheric pressure…that always surrounds you. This means that the actual force that gets air into the lungs is outside of the body…. In other words, you create the space, and the universe fills it.” Kaminoff & Matthews, Yoga Anatomy, 6.

[ii]“[E]stablishing an upright relationship to gravity, in the deepest sense, is less about exerting the correct muscular effort than it is about discovering and releasing the habitual muscular effort that is obstructing the natural tendency of the body to be supported all on its own.” Kaminoff & Matthews, Yoga Anatomy, 20.